Faith and Feminism in Quebec, Canada

Palbinder Kaur Shergill, Canadian litigator, once stood in court and heard opposing counsel argue that lawyers and judge...

Palbinder Kaur Shergill, Canadian litigator, once stood in court and heard opposing counsel argue that lawyers and judges with religious “symbols” such as turbans should not be permitted.  In 2012, Palbinder was appointed Queen’s Counsel, still donning her classic black turban.

Palbinder is a Sikh, a feminist, and general legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization. She was called to the British Columbia Bar in 1991. Palbinder recently spoke with Harpreet Kaur Neelam and Mallika Kaur, board members of the Sikh Feminist Research Institute (SAFAR), about the importance of people-to-people contact in making change, whether around gender norms or responding to the recent reports around religious freedom curtailments in the province of Quebec.

SAFAR: Turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes, and Quebec are in the news again and many people are wondering about what the Quebec government is proposing, whether Quebec would really go this far?

Palbinder:  The Quebec premier, Pauline Marois, has confirmed a bill is coming, but has not commented on reports that they plan to ban the wearing of religious symbols or clothing by public-service workers.  A few years ago, a report was released by the Bouchard-Taylor commission after holding public hearings on the “reasonable accommodation” of minorities.  The report rejected an outright banning of religious symbols by government employees but suggested that this might be necessary for some positions such as judges, crown prosecutors and police officers. Recent media reports suggest that the Quebec government is considering a broad ban through a bill that it will table this fall.

Honestly, I think if the government tries this, there will be a lot of backlash in Quebec. I don’t believe the majority of people in Quebec support this idea. As always happens, there is a small vocal minority. Unfortunately they seem to be disproportionately represented in the Quebec government.

SAFAR: To step back, can you first elaborate a little on Quebec’s policies around religious freedom in general?

PKS: Accommodation of religious minorities has been an issue in Quebec for a very long time. With respect to the Sikh community, it first came into focus around 2004 or so, when 12-year-old Gurbaj Singh Multani’s kirpan [article of faith, small sheathed sword] fell out in the school playground. This caused a lot of uproar from the parents of some students, and some teachers. The school suspended Gurbaj and told him that he could not come with his kirpan. Gurbaj sued the school board, but was unsuccessful up to the Quebec Court of Appeal.  The Supreme Court of Canada overturned the Quebec Court of Appeal, and Gurbaj’s right to religious freedom was upheld. That decision, and another decision by the SCC relating to the orthodox Jewish community, have both not sat well with some people in Quebec. From their perspective, the Charter of Rights is being pushed down their throats. The validity of the Charter and its applicability to Quebec is an unresolved issue for them. Thus, there is a tension that has been created by some Quebec politicians between freedom of religion and what they call secularism...

...SAFAR: Why is this an important issue for you to address as a Sikh woman and feminist?

PKS: First of all, a Sikh is a feminist and a humanist, all enshrined in one. It’s never just about Sikh women. A Sikh stands up for the rights of everyone and against the oppression of anyone based on religion, race, gender or sexual orientation. There is an obligation for all of us to speak up and advocate for those that cannot advocate for themselves. The Sikh community has been very fortunate to have had opportunities to advocate for itself, but there are many communities that cannot. There is a basic fundamental right to religious freedom.As a Sikh woman and a Canadian I think it’s crucial to stand up for what’s right.

SAFAR:What can we do to help? As individuals and organizations?

PKS: It’s important to create spaces for people to discuss these issues. If people have contacts in Quebec, Sikh or non-Sikh, reach out to them. I am a big believer in education that comes from one-on-one contact. Change always happens on the individual, human level. Go meet with people, in coffee houses, in community spaces, so that we can get to know each other better. Issues like this are usually embedded in fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the other.  Neighbors talking to each other, children talking to each other, community leaders talking to each other: the more we do it, come out of our silos, get to know other people, the more effective we become as a society.

Fundamentally, we are still a democratic  society and our governments must reflect the will of the people. A government might float many outrageous ideas for various political reasons, but these ideas cannot have any traction if the people whom the governments represent, speak out against them. The chances of that occurring are much greater if we get to know each other better, and understand that the only thing to fear is fear itself.

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