Q&A: Nav Bains on the kirpan controversy

Sikh MP has shown dagger to Bloc, worn it to U.S. Congress

Liberal MP Navdeep Bains is one of the most promient Sikh politicians in Canada, instantly recognizable for his red turban. But it’s a less visible symbol of his faith—the dagger-like kirpan he wears under his shirt on his left side—that is once again the subject of controversy this week.

Four kirpan-carrying Sikh men were denied entry to the Quebec National Assembly two days ago, and in Ottawa the Bloc Québécois quickly pounced on the resulting publicity to call for the federal House of Commons to consider adopting the same prohibition, ostensibly out of concern for security.

Bains is angry at what he calls fear-mongering by the Bloc. He has always worn his kirpan in the House. Any notion of banning them, he argues, should have been put to rest by a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada decision. That ruling, in the case of 12-year-old Montreal Sikh boy who wanted to wear his kirpan in school, found that the kirpan is a religious symbol, not a weapon, and must be permitted, although schools can impose reasonable limits on their size and how they are worn.

In an interview with me this morning, Bains said that during the debate over that Supreme Court case, he was asked about his kirpan by Bloc MPs. In frank conversations in the lobby of the House and over dinner at a Gatineau, Que. hotel where some MPs from all parties stay where they are in the capital, Bains says he found his Bloc colleagues open-minded.

As well, Bains said that on a visit to the the U.S. House of Representatives for a meeting with members of Congress in 2008, he had no trouble putting Capitol Hill security at ease about his kirpan. “I recall the security being very tight,” he recalled. “But they were very good to me. The minute I explained who I was and what it was about they were very open-minded.”

More from of our conversation:

Q. Obviously you don’t think it’s reasonable to ban the kirpan in institutional settings like schools and legislatures. But is a discussion around details like the allowable size of the kirpan acceptable to you?

A. Well, I think these concerns have been raised and the issues have been clearly dealt with by the Supreme Court. It deemed the kirpan not to be a weapon. If there’s any particular concern that a legislature has, of course, one is willing to sit down in a fair manner and figure it out.

Q. Have you ever set off a metal detector with your kirpan?

A. Oh yes.

Q. What do you do when that happens?

A. I explain. For example, when I went to the U.S. Congress, I explained, this is an article of faith, this is why I wear it, and here it is. I showed it to them. They saw it, so there’s no mystery about it. Then there was no issue.

Q. Where do you wear yours?

A. On my left side. There’s a strap that goes around my upper body and the kirpan goes in at my waist area. It’s very personal how one wears it. It’s different for every person.

Q. Is it reasonable to limit the size of the kirpan?

A. We need to have that discussion without the fear-mongering. The idea of an outright ban politicized it, polarized it, and those comments are deemed to be very offensive. The onus is really on the institutions that have concern to articulate it. If their concern is that it’s a weapon, clearly the Supreme Court determined that it was not. Why would you want to ban something that’s not a weapon? That’s where the Quebec legislature and the Bloc are misleading Canadians.

Q. You must know some Bloc MPs pretty well from your years sharing the opposition benches with them. Have they ever asked you about your kirpan?

A. Many of the Bloc members have asked me about this and I’ve shown them the kirpan. They understand.

Q. That’s fascinating. When did those conversations happen?

A. Over the past few years. Different occasions. We have candid discussions on many issues. They ask why I wear the turban, and I explain that it’s an outward expression of my faith. When the [Supreme Court] case happened in 2006, some of them asked my about it. When you actually have that conversation, it’s surprising how quickly it dispels any stereotypes. That’s why I’m surprised elected officials at the federal level, particularly the Bloc, would go to such lengths. They were open-minded, receptive, curious.

Q. What does your kirpan look like?

A. They’re pretty much all the same design, like the images that are shown in the media.

Q. How long is yours?

A. It’s a good question. Size matters. I don’t know, maybe six inches.

Q. That’s the handle and the blade?

A. I suppose so.

Q. There was a stabbing in Brampton, Ont., last spring, apparently with a kirpan. Did that incident change this debate?

A. That’s an isolated case. If you look at the 100 years of Sikhs in Canada, a very isolated case.

Q. What should the Quebec National Assembly do now?

A. Sit down and have a reasonable conversation. Stop the fear-mongering. Use respectful language. I really think the term accommodation is a guise for some level of ignorance. I wouldn’t want anyone to accommodate or tolerate me. I want us to respect one another and even celebrate our differences.

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