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: It’s a very curious re-definition of secularism that is being attempted. Shouldn’t secularism mean the state’s guarantee of the freedom for all and preference to none?
PKS: Yes. The Canadian people have overwhelmingly shown an understanding that secularism is not about stripping people of religious identity, but ensuring that no one faith is given preference over another. As I pointed out to the Court of Appeal in Grant v. Canada, religious symbols abound in public institutions. Our Coat of Arms, our Constitution, all make reference to God. The Queen, who is our head of state, is also the head of the Church of England. We are thus not really a secular society at all. But for some people who have grown up surrounded by Christian signs and symbols, they may equate that with secularism, and are offended by other people’s outward displays of their faith. In my view, there is no struggle at all between secularism as it is expressed in Canada, and freedom of religion.
SAFAR: Can you tell us a little more about the Grant case?
PKS: Sure. This topic of ‘secularism’ versus the Charter of Rights first famously came into the news in the 1990s when the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mountain Police] rightfully made an accommodation for a dastaar [turban] in their uniform for their officer Baltej Singh Dhillon. There was a petition started in Alberta against this accommodation. Three retired RCMP officers even filed a lawsuit (Grant v. Canada) against Dhillon’s accommodation in Alberta. This was the first case of its kind where the plaintiffs were arguing that because Canada was a secular state, this meant they have the right to freedom from religion and this right superseded Dhillon’s right to freedom of religion. Seeing Dhillon wearing a turban, they argued, violated their rights. The Federal Court of Appeal disagreed and upheld the RCMP accommodation.
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.