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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 03:36 GMT 04:36 UK
Sikh wins right to wear dagger
Devout Sikhs must wear the dagger at all times
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By Mike Fox
BBC correspondent in Montreal

A Quebec court has ruled that a 12-year old Sikh boy should be allowed to wear his ceremonial dagger - known as a kirpan - while he is at school.

The decision overturns one made by his school and school-board which banned him from carrying the small blunt metal dagger because they regarded it as an offensive weapon.

Gurbal Singh
Gurbal Singh: At centre of dagger fight
The issue has created stark divisions between many other parents at the school and the Sikh community, which feels that the majority community in Quebec has failed to understand the importance of the kirpan to their beliefs.

The controversy started last November when Gurbaj Singh fell over in the playground and the kirpan dropped out of its wrappings under his clothes.

The authorities at Ste Catherine Laboure school in LaSalle near Montreal decided it was dangerous and banned him from wearing it.

The boy refused to go to school; he and his father, a devout Sikh, ruled out any compromise such as wearing a plastic kirpan or a miniature one on a necklace or bracelet.

Last month a temporary court injunction last month allowed Gurbaj Singh to return to school wearing his original kirpan - he went with a police escort and several youths shouted abuse as he went past.

Quebec's education policy has failed to keep up with the new reality of cultures arriving in the province

Manjit Singh
Canadian Sikh Council
Dozens of parents kept their children at home for the day in protest at him being allowed back.

For them the issue was one of safety - they saw the kirpan as a weapon which posed a real threat to their children.

Sylvie Blais of the school's board of governors said: "For me the kirpan represents violence because it's a knife. Since September 11th and the World Trade Centre we realise that we aren't beyond the reach of such acts."


Canada has a well-established tradition of tolerance towards minorities of all descriptions, and towards the practising of religions without persecution.

Precedents have been set elsewhere in the country.

The right to wear a kirpan at school was upheld in 1991 after an Ontario school board challenged the province's Human Rights Commission decision that reasonably sized kirpans could be worn to school.

Kirpan is not weapon, lawyers argue
An Appeal Court said the school board had not provided any evidence of a safety risk. There are no known incidents in Canada of the kirpan being used as an offensive weapon.

The Sikh community is upset by what they see as ignorance and even racism by the majority French-speaking community in Montreal.

Manjit Singh, the director of the Canadian Sikh Council, has strongly criticised the school board and the political establishment for allowing the conflict to continue for so long. He compared the conflict to the civil rights conflicts in the United States in the 1960s.

Before the decision was announced he said "the good name of Quebec has been sullied" by the racist taunts levelled at Gurbal Singh as he returned to school for the first time last month.

"Quebec's education policy has failed to keep up with the new reality of cultures arriving in the province," said Manjit Singh.

Ethnic tensions

Although Quebec has fought hard to uphold the rights of what is an isolated French-speaking community in a largely English north America, there have been other instances where Francophones have made racial attacks.

Shortly after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on separating from the rest of Canada, the province's then-premier Jacques Parizeau blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for the defeat.

Would you accept someone to go out with a gun even if it's sealed or in a wooden case and go to school, would you?

Real Nadeau
And in December 2000 those remarks were echoed by a senior member of the governing Parti Quebecois, who tried to compare the problems French Quebeckers suffered in the past to those of Jews - the controversy over those remarks almost certainly played a major role in the resignation of premier Lucien Bouchard a month later.

The two days of court hearings over the kirpan may have produced a compromise, but it may take longer for all the parents at the school to accept the decision.

"Would you accept someone to go out with a gun even if it's sealed or in a wooden case and go to school, would you? I wouldn't accept that - I won't let people have a chance to harm my kids," said Real Nadeau who has been attending the hearings.

With Gurbal Singh now hoping to resume a normal life, many in the community are also hoping that the dispute will help both communities learn more about their beliefs.

The BBC's Mike Fox
"Lawyers for the school argued that the safety and security of children at schools was paramount"
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