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Conflict over carrying a ceremonial knife

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About 10% of the estimated quarter million Sikhs in Canada are orthodox and follow "the five Ks" -- clothing practices which include the wearing of a ceremonial knife, called a kirpan. Gurbaj Singh, 12, was one. 3 A school in Montreal, Quebec, Canada prohibited him from wearing his kirpan on school property, fearing the possibility of violence. Others schools in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia allow the wearing of a kirpan, which orthodox Sikhs believe is compulsory for all baptized members of the faith.

The Supreme Court of Canada delivered a unanimous ruling in this memorable case on 2006-MAR-02. Like so many past decisions, the court attempted to strike a balance between two conflicting concerns. In this case, it is religious freedom vs. public safety. The Court overturned the ban. Justice Louise Charron wrote that religious tolerance is"

"...a very important value of Canadian society....If some students consider it unfair that Gurbaj Singh may wear his kirpan to school while they are not allowed to have knives in their possession, it is incumbent on the schools to discharge their obligation to instill in their students this value that the very foundation of our democracy." 9

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The event:

Gurbaj Singh Multani, was a pre-teen, aged 12, who attended an elementary public school operated by the Commission Scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys (Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board or CSMB)) in Montreal, Quebec. In 2001-NOV-19, he accidentally dropped his kirpan when playing at recess. This triggered a dispute with the board over his right to wear the knife. Initially, lower level officials at the CSMB allowed him to wear his kirpan as long as it was placed in a scabbard with a flap sewn securely shut so that the knife could not be removed. However, more senior levels of the CSMB overturned that decision and prohibited Multani from wearing a kirpan under any circumstances. They would have allowed a symbolic kirpan -- perhaps a non-functional piece of jewelry -- but not a real knife. Multani's famly sued.

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The trial and appeal:

On 2002-MAY-27, the trial judge overturned  the SCMB's decision and allowed him to wear a kirpan, but only if he followed six restrictions established by the court.

On 2004-MAR-04, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the Superior Court's ruling, thus once again preventing Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan.

His parents had withdrawn him from the public school, and enrolled him in a private school where he was permitted to wear his kirpan. A five-year legal battle resulted, ending at the Supreme Court of Canada.

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The appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada:

The factum written by the Canadian Human Rights Commission -- an intervener in the case before the Supreme Court -- stated:

"This appeal therefore involves conflict between two fundamental rights: 1. the right of every person to attend public school and express his or her religion without discrimination; and 2. the CSMB’s right and duty to establish safety policies to protect the persons for whom it is responsible." 4

They concluded that:

"The CSMB has the right and a duty to ensure safety in its schools. However, to maintain its policy prohibiting the kirpan, it had to show that it carefully analysed the magnitude of the risk caused by the presence of a kirpan at school and that that risk is incompatible with the standard of safety necessary in schools. It had a duty to show, if applicable, that it considered and reasonably rejected any accommodations that would reduce the risk by making the kirpan reasonably inoffensive.....For all these reasons, we respectfully submit that the Court of Appeal erred in not compelling the CSMB to consider all possible accommodations before upholding its ban on the kirpan." 4

The legal fight culminated in an 8 to 0 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that any school board's blanket ban on the wearing of a kirpan is unconstitutional in Canada.  The ruling allows schools to place reasonable restrictions on the wearing of a ceremonial knife. For example, the Peel public school board in Ontario requires the student to:

bullet Make a formal request of the school principal.
bullet Be a Khalsa Sikh (baptized member of the Sikh faith).
bullet Wear a kirpan no greater than 17.8 cm (7 inches) in length.
bullet Secure the kirpan in a sheath.
bullet Wear the kirpan under clothing so that it is not visible.

Justice Louise Charron wrote on behalf of the unanimous court:

"...not a single violent incident related to the presence of kirpans in schools has been reported....Although it is not necessary to wait for harm to be done before acting, the existence of concerns relating to safety must be unequivocally established for the infringement of a constitutional right to be justified. A total prohibition against wearing a kirpan to school undermines the value of this religious symbol and sends students the message that some religious practices do not merit the same protection as others."

The court ruled that the board's actions had "deprived him of his right to attend a public school." They stated that accommodating the kirpan "demonstrates the importance that our society attaches to protecting freedom of religion and to showing respect for its minorities."

The court's decision will probably not impact on the prohibition of kirpans on airplanes, in some court rooms, etc. Justice Charron wrote: "Each environment is a special case." 3

During the court case, the school board had argued that "the kirpan is a weapon designed to kill, intimidate or threaten." This argument did not impress the court. Justice Charron wrote that this was factually wrong and "disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion." She noted that students have access to other items that can be used in violent acts "...and that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and baseball bats."

Sikhism prohibits the use of a kirpan as a weapon. Its use bears some similarity to an athame, a doubled sided knife used by Wiccans in their rituals. Athames are not used to actually cut anything.

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Reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling:

bullet One of Multani's lawyers, Jean-Philippe Desmarais, said: "The Supreme Court has recognized that this fear (over security) should not be used to violate fundamental freedoms like the freedom of religion."
bullet The lawyer who represented the World Sikh Organization, Palbinder Shergill, said "There is a clear distinction between a religious requirement or a belief of a religious requirement to wear something versus something that someone wears for casual attire....This decision does assist, I believe, in an interpretation that would permit the hijab in schools as well." A hijab is a type of head scarf worn by many observant Muslim women who view it as a religious duty. Female students are not allowed to wear hijab in public schools in France. Some private schools in Quebec also prohibit Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in spite of an opinion from the Quebec Human Rights Commission which upheld their right to wear the hijab.
bullet David Wright, vice-chairperson of the Ontario Bar Association's constitutional, civil liberties and human rights section, said: "It's a case-specific application of some fairly well-established principles." 1
bullet The plaintiff, Gurbaj Singh Multani said that he is not bitter over the legal battle. He said: "People are getting more interested in our religion. Ignorance is going away because of this case." He described the kirpan as " article of faith...we don't use it, we keep it as it is." 1 He admitted that the five-year battle was stressful: He said: "I was a little scared but the community supported me a lot, they stood by me shoulder by shoulder. I'm thankful to them." 3
bullet The school board stated that it would change its regulations to allow kirpans, "but not without some disappointment."

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Reaction among some Canadian religious groups concerning the court decision:

Reaction was highly diverse:

bullet The Supreme Court's ruling was carried by all of the secular news outlets in Canada and by many in Australia, China, India, UK, U.S., and other countries. It was discussed on many non-Christian religious news outlets in Canada, including Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, and Wiccan web sites. For example:
bullet A spokesperson for the Canadian branch of the World Sikh Organization -- an intervener in the case -- said that the ruling "...paves the way to ensure that fundamental rights, religious freedoms are protected in this country." 1
bullet The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) welcomed the decision. Riad Saloojee, the Executive Director, said: "Today's Supreme Court decision is a strong statement protecting religious freedom in educational settings. This decision gives hope to many Muslims who have also faced restrictions on their religious practices in schools." CAIR-CAN's human rights coordinator, Halima Mautbur, said: "We hope that this decision - a strong commitment to upholding religious freedom - will resonate throughout Canada and cause educational and other institutions, both public and private, to respect the religious practices of minorities." 2
bullet The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) also welcomed the decision. Their National President Ed Morgan said:

"The Supreme Court reaffirmed that freedom of religion is a fundamental value. It is important that the Court has recognized that individuals are entitled to have their religious practices accommodated unless there is a compelling reason not to do so, so long as there is a sincere belief that the practice is a requirement of the faith....This decision is another example of the Supreme Court playing its invaluable constitutional role of carefully balancing legitimate, competing rights; in this specific case these are freedom of religion and safety. A multicultural democracy like Canada requires an ongoing healthy tension between the particular claims of minorities and overall societal interests. Out of necessity, this kind of debate can only be resolved by the courts on a case-by-case basis." 10

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A wall of silence among Christian information sources:

Although this court decision is considered by many commentators as the most important ruling on religious freedom and tolerance in Canada for many years, Christian denominations and para-church organizations remain strangely silent on this development. On 2006-MAR-07, five days after the court decision, a search of:

bullet The Focus on the Family Canada web site ( turned up no entry for "kirpan."
bullet The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's web site turned up two archival items. One was an article more than a year old in the Fellowship's magazine "Faith Today." The other was over five years old, and referred to an old statement by Stockwell Day that he believes in "Jesus Christ as Lord and master of the Universe" and that Sikhs in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) should not be allowed to wear turbans. Ironically, Day was sworn in on 2006-FEB-06 as the new federal Minister of Public Safety -- a position which makes him responsible for the RCMP.
bullet The Religious Freedom Project of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada whose web site is at revealed a brief discussions of a court case involving a kirpan in 1991 and a reference to a lower court's decision in the Gurbaj Sing's case.
bullet LifeSiteNews is a Canadian pro-life web site that carries an amazing quantity of religious news on a very wide range of topics. But they also ignored the Supreme Court decision.
bullet The entire Internet using Google and the search string sikh kirpan "supreme court" found 2,240 hits. A scan of the top 100 hits revealed that none were from a Christian information source.

We are at a complete loss to understand why Christian groups in Canada have ignored this court decision. It is, in our opinion, the most important ruling on religious freedom in years. It has the potential of impacting other religious controversies, such as the refusal of some Quebec schools to allow Muslim female students to wear hijab (a scarf to cover women's hair). Non-Christian religions have reacted with strong support, as indicated above. However, the Christian press remained silent. We have written to a number of church organizations and para-church groups including the Anglican Church of Canada, Focus on the Family, Life Site, the United Church of Canada, etc. asking why they have ignored this decision.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Sean Gordon, "Ban overturned: Top court okays kirpan in schools. Religious freedom at stake, justices say," The Toronto Star, 2006-MAR-03, Page A6.
  2. "CAIR-CAN welcomes court ruling on religious freedom. Ruling gives hope to Muslims for accommodation of religious practices," American Muslim News Briefs, 2005-MAR-02.
  3. Jim Brown, "Top court quashes Sikh dagger ban," CNews, 2006-MAR-02, at:
  4. The text of the Canadian Human Rights Commission factum is at:
  5. The text of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association factum is at:
  6. "Court of Appeal" decision, 2004-MAR-04, at:
  7. "Supreme Court of Canada -- Appeal heard," 2005-APR-12, at:
  8. "The Kirpan Website,", at:
  9. "Canada Sikhs kirpan win," The Telegraph, Calcutta, India, 2006-MAR-02, at:
  10. "CJC welcomes Supreme Court of Canada judgement in kirpan case," Canadian Jewish Congress, 2006-MAR-02, at:

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2006-MAR-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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