Sikh doctors in Quebec warn: You’ll lose us with headwear ban

Published: August 21, 2013
Quebec doctor

Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja, an emergency room physician at the McGill University Health Centre. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

ANDY BLATCHFORD
THE CANADIAN PRESS

MONTREAL – A physician from Quebec’s Sikh community says health-care workers like himself would probably leave the province if the government bans public employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.

A media report this week published leaked details of the controversial Parti Quebecois proposal — saying it would prohibit people like doctors, teachers and public-daycare workers from donning turbans, kippas and hijabs and visible crucifixes.

Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja wears a turban as part of his faith and he said Wednesday that the PQ’s controversial “Charter of Quebec Values” would drive people from the Sikh, Jewish and Muslim communities away.

“The sad thing is I don’t know if I’d be able to stay here in Quebec,” said Saluja, an emergency-room doctor with the McGill University Health Centre.

“Even though I love my practice here in Quebec, my faith is something that’s important to me and I don’t feel comfortable giving up that part of my persona and I don’t think a lot of people would be willing to, either.”

Saluja, who was born and raised in Montreal, said this type of legislation could have a significant impact on hospital wait times in Montreal because many resident physicians in the city come from Middle Eastern countries and wear hijabs.

Several Montreal hospitals, he added, rely heavily on residents in many day-to-day functions.

“One of the reasons why we are able to sort of diminish these wait times is because we have these residents who come in and take on patient loads,” said Saluja, who believes young doctors would choose other provinces over Quebec if they didn’t feel welcome here.

“This is not only one group that’s being isolated here. This is an entire section of the Quebec population (so) it’s not going just to be the matter of one doctor, it’s going to be a matter of doctors many doctors leaving.”

Quebec has been bleeding residents to other provinces for decades, with net losses in migration that have diminished the province’s economic and political clout.

Its political weight consisted of 27 per cent of the House of Commons seats in the late 1970s, is 24 per cent today, and will drop to 23 per cent in the next federal election.

The PQ minority government, lagging behind in popularity, hopes to win votes by championing a “secularism” plan that polls have suggested has considerable support in the province.

The government says it expects to present the charter this fall — although it’s not clear yet that the plan will get support from opposition parties, which hold a majority of seats in the legislature.

It’s also unclear yet whether the plan, even if it proves popular, would sway voters in the next election campaign. Polls have suggested that while the idea has strong support it’s far less of a priority for Quebec voters than other issues, like the economy.

Saluja said he doesn’t believe such a policy would ever pass in Quebec because he has never known it to be a closed-minded place.

“I’ve never had a Quebecer come up to me and tell that I don’t belong here,” he said.

“Personally, I’m hurt. I’m very hurt.”

According to the leaked details in a tabloid newspaper, the proposal would let culturally specific hospitals — like Montreal’s Jewish General — seek an exemption.

The same newspaper has interviewed headscarf-wearing day-care workers who say they would quit their jobs if forced to choose between their religious beliefs and their work.

“I left my country and my family behind for a better life here. Now, I get the impression I’m being told to drop everything and go back home,” Zakia Maali told the Journal de Montreal.

“There’s nothing that will make me remove this. If I lose my job, it’ll be unemployment for me, and then welfare. Too bad.”

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