At first, Rasnamjeet Ahluwalia’s parents tried to hide the reason why he wasn’t playing soccer like his friends. His mother told him that his coach was making sure he was a “well-behaved player,” and being only six, he accepted her explanation. One day, though, another boy on his school playground, broke the truth: he wasn’t playing because of his turban.
“Those weren’t easy words,” his father, Sunny, says, recalling the conversation that night to explain that the Quebec Soccer Federation had banned turbans because of safety concerns, even though around the world, players wore them without issue. “It’s kind of tough to tell your child that.”
Rasnamjeet may soon be contemplating his second soccer season, once he gets hockey and karate out of the way. But even with news this weekend that FIFA, soccer’s international body, has put the matter definitively to rest by permitting turbans and hijabs on the pitch, and that the Quebec Soccer Federation will abide by the decision, Mr. Ahluwalia acknowledges that the warmth he once felt for his native province has cooled.
The soccer controversy last summer was one factor – although Rasnamjeet was able to join his team about a month later, when the provincial ban was lifted after FIFA announced a trial period during which religious head gear would be allowed. More disillusioning was the September announcement by the Parti Québécois, which also supported the soccer federation’s ban on turbans, to create a Quebec charter that would ban government workers from wearing religious symbols and head gear, including hijabs, kippas and turbans.
Today, his family has no plans to leave the province, but the Montreal dad worries that, if the Quebec charter passes, his two sons will have limited job opportunities in the future. “It does put you in a situation where you feel like a second-class citizen,” said Mr. Ahluwalia, a computer analyst. “I was born and raised in Montreal. I was proud to be a Quebecker. But today my heart has changed.”
A CBC poll released last weekend, suggested, in fact, that half of Quebec’s anglophone and allophone residents had thought of leaving the province in the past year, although the main reasons given were economic ones, such as jobs and taxes. (Among francophones, only 11 per cent had considered moving.) But Quebec’s proposed charter of values – which would require private companies with government contracts, as well as schools, day cares and hospitals, to follow the same secular rules – has also evoked fierce and widespread criticism from many sectors, including the business community.
Mr. Ahluwalia is careful to separate the two actions, and to take on face value that the soccer decision was based on a safety concern, although he notes that he has Sikh friends who, until last summer, had been playing for years in the province without issue. But, on the positive side, he points out that the soccer ban also revealed the inclusive character of Canadians – as non-Sikh parents pulled their kids from their teams, and one coach supported all his players wearing turbans in protest.
“Some good came out of it,” said Gagan Mukkar, Rasnamjeet’s mother, who went in to sign up her eager son for soccer that day, only to be handed a slip of paper saying he’d have to remove his turban to play. “I kept my cool, but I was very angry,” she said. “To see him being alienated, as his mother, was very hard on me.”
But Balpreet Singh, spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, says that it is the spontaneous response of other Canadians, and the unity within the Sikh community itself, that will be the positive memory many will take away from the events of last summer, now put to rest, at least on the soccer pitch by FIFA’s written directive. (The PQ could not be reached for comment.)
For Aneel Samra, a 19-year-old student and avid soccer player, who tweeted at length last spring about not being allowed to play for refusing to swap his turban for a hair net, the power of public pressure turned him on to politics. Mr. Samra is now volunteering for his cousin, who is hoping to run as a Liberal candidate.
“It showed that with a bit of hard work change can happen.”