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Opinion From One Minority To Another


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

The Sikh community has some friendly advice for politicians in Quebec’s National Assembly: you can’t preserve your culture at the expense of someone else’s.

When the World Sikh Organization of Canada was invited to speak in Quebec about Muslim women’s right to wear the niqab last week, we didn’t expect to spark another national discussion on the sovereignist view of the province as a distinct society. That kirpans, the articles of faith worn by all initiated Sikhs, had become a flashpoint for Quebec nationalism surprised no one more than us.

As a human-rights group that often intervenes in cases involving freedom of religion, it’s common for the WSO to speak on issues like Bill 94, which seeks to deny government services to anyone wearing a veil. Ironically, the Sikh religion expressly forbids women from wearing the veil, though not due to issues of gender. Since its inception in the 15th century, our faith has embraced what is now called gender equality. We believe that living in a just society means protecting everyone’s right to live a good life as he or she sees fit. That’s why, last year, we lobbied on behalf of an Alberta teenager of Scottish ancestry whose school tried to prevent him from wearing a kilt to grad – although it’s rare to find a Sikh in a kilt.

Although our faith originated in India, you’ll find Sikhs all over the globe. It’s no accident that the largest Sikh communities outside of India are found in the U.K. and Canada – two nations with a long commitment to democracy, which, by definition, means protecting minority rights. Sikhs have been drawn to Canada for more than a century, largely because Sikh spiritual teachings echo democratic political philosophies like freedom of speech, religion, and association, all of which Canada strives to achieve.

Our religion teaches us to value equality for all, and as Canadians we’re proud of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But there is also a practical aspect to this approach – a glance at global politics reveals that persecuting minorities leads to political unrest, social and economic instability, and, in the worst cases, blood in the streets. Moral issues aside, oppressing minorities is an impractical, shortsighted way to govern. And it almost always leads to a nation’s implosion.

Nevertheless, Sikhs find themselves to be part of a minority no matter where they live – even in India – so we understand Quebec’s concern for its survival.

Parti Québécois member Louise Beaudoin suggested that “religious freedom exists, but there are other values. For instance, multiculturalism is not a Quebec value. It may be a Canadian one but it is not a Quebec one.” For expressing such views, Beaudoin was accused of racism.

It may have sounded like bigotry to some, but we heard fear in that comment – fear of religion, due to Quebec’s own dark history with the Catholic Church, and fear that if they don’t force the assimilation of minorities then somehow they will erode Quebec’s essential Frenchness.

But minority to minority, we want to give the politicians in Quebec’s National Assembly a little friendly advice: you can’t preserve your culture at the expense of someone else’s. That just sows the seeds of discontent. Canadians know this, and the Québécois should too. Ironically, Quebec’s distinct culture endures because Canada valued and protected its French minority. And most of us recognize that Canada is richer for having accommodated Quebec. Though the Québécois may not like to hear it, without multiculturalism they would have suffered the fate of the U.S.’s French pioneers, the Cajuns.

When it comes to minority rights, Canada took its inspiration from the U.K. Considering that England is one of the oldest, most stable nations in the world, it’s easy to see that the democratic approach works. Multiculturalism comes packaged with many other fundamental liberal democratic values. When people are pressed to abandon parts of their identities, freedom of expression and freedom of religion are placed in jeopardy However, by encouraging citizens to maintain their cultural identities, countries allow such freedoms to reign.

By contrast, Quebec has chosen to embrace France’s model of laicite – an aggressive form of secularism that is actively anti-religious. In the past, this method has led to significant social problems and the marginalization of minorities. The tensions it causes have often erupted into violence. Such was the case, for instance, when laicite spurred France’s civil unrest and riots in 2005.

As a religious community, Sikhs work hard to preserve our culture, and we support our fellow citizens in doing the same – including the Québécois. But as Canadians, we also know that you can’t build a nation by destroying some of the people within it, which is ultimately what petty, discriminatory laws aim to do.




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