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.