Canada to allow Sikh kirpans in its embassies and missions abroad

Published: April 18, 2014

Kirpans, stylized swords worn by initiated Sikh men and women as dictated by their religious beliefs, are now allowed in embassies. Jason Payne/ PNG

JEFF LACROIX-WILSON
OTTAWA CITIZEN

Eight years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that kirpans – the ceremonial daggers worn by those of the Sikh faith – could be safely brought into schools under certain conditions, they will now be allowed into all Canadian embassies and missions abroad.

But not without some restrictions, documents released to the Citizen show. The documents also discuss potential security concerns.

In announcing that the kirpan can now be worn in Canada’s diplomatic missions, the department of foreign affairs and international trade said the policy “allows Canada to demonstrate its commitment to religious freedom without unduly increasing security risks to mission staff and visitors.”

“Canada’s diversity is one of our greatest strengths, and freedom of religion is a fundamental Canadian value,” said Minister of State Tim Uppal in a TV appearance. “Our government’s new kirpan policy will serve as an example and promote Canadian values around the world.”

The Sikh dagger is already allowed into Canadian missions in Delhi and Chandigarh, India, but only if the kirpan has dull edges and the blade is less than three inches in length. “To date no visitors have complained about this practice,” the department says in background notes obtained by the Citizen.

Kirpans are also allowed in the Indian parliament, to a maximum length of 9 cm “inclusive of 6 cm of blade,” documents say.

Missions of other western countries, such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, do not permit the wearing of kirpans unless they are very small, symbolic ones.

Canada’s newly announced policy allows Sikhs to wear the kirpan inside all 270 diplomatic missions across 180 countries, but only if the kirpan is “secured within a sheath, attached to a fabric belt, worn across the torso and under clothing prior to entering the mission premises.”

In addition, the person wearing it must “be in possession of the four other Sikh articles of faith”: a wooden comb (worn under the turban); an iron or steel bracelet; cotton undergarments; and unshorn hair covered at all times with a turban.

In drawing up the policy, the background notes say, Foreign Affairs “aims to strike a balance between allowing for religious freedom and upholding its mandated duty of care in terms of the security of mission staff and visitors.”

“Although incidents involving kirpans are rare, they can and do happen – such as the one that took place in Brampton, Ontario, in April 2010. This particular incident resulted in a kirpan-inflicted wound of 12 cm and a charge of attempted murder for the assailant.”

(In this instance, two men unsheathed their kirpans in a large crowd that had gathered outside a Sikh temple and one stabbed the temple’s 53-year-old president in the stomach.)

Further, the background notes say, “Given the diverse and complex nature of security in the international context, allowing for longer and sharper kirpan blades than those currently allowed in India by the Indian parliament could pose undue risk to the security of mission personnel and visitors – not due to the probability that they will be used as offensive weapons but due to the severity of injuries that could be inflicted if they were used … “

The department did not respond to questions from the Citizen about security concerns.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada, however, celebrated the policy as a step forward.

“The accommodation of the kirpan at Canadian diplomatic missions around the world is a deeply significant move that shows that the Government of Canada understands and respects the significance of the kirpan to Sikhs,” said Amritpal Singh Shergill, the organization’s president.

For Sikhs, the small curved dagger signifies one’s duty to stand against injustice. A video on the World Sikh Organization’s website compares forced removal of one’s kirpan to the removal of an arm.

In Canada, the Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision in 2006 ruling the kirpan is “not a symbol of violence … To assume it (is) is disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion.”

“There are many objects in schools that could be used to commit violent acts and that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and baseball bats,” the judges concluded.

There are approximately 22 million Sikhs worldwide. About 500,000 live in Canada.

Related stories:

- With files from Lee Berthiaume (Ottawa Citizen)

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