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Gurbaj Singh Multani wears his kirpan as he poses in his home in the Montreal suburb of Lasalle, September 18, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
Gurbaj Singh Multani wears his kirpan as he poses in his home in the Montreal suburb of Lasalle, September 18, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

Charter of Values

Sikh student who won kirpan case now considers leaving Quebec Add to ...

Gurbaj Multani walked into his Montreal school when he was 11 years old and found 300 adults shouting at him.

There was a time in his teens when virtually the whole province was united against him. But through it all, he still liked Quebec. Only now, at age 23, is Mr. Multani contemplating leaving it.

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The soft-spoken Sikh, an accounting student at Concordia University, has his name on a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that broke new ground for religious freedom throughout the country. The entire court supported his right to wear a kirpan – a ceremonial dagger – to school, as long as it was sewn into his clothing.

Mr. Multani may be a harbinger for Quebec’s religious minorities, if the proposed Charter of Values that would ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in the public-sector workforce becomes law. He thought he had won his fight for good, thought he would live on happily in the province, his right to wear his religious symbols guaranteed. But Mr. Multani also wears a turban, which would run afoul of the charter’s provisions if he were to work in the public sector. In effect, the powerful emotions he helped touch off in Quebec have rebounded on him, and may drive him out.

“It’s a friendly province,” he says, and he doesn’t wish to leave. “But when the government doesn’t give you a choice, what can I do? Why would I have to choose between my religion and a job?” He fears the private sector would copy the constraints.

The kirpan he wears was once the ultimate symbol of overt religious garb in the province. As a boy, he was kept from school for five months over his wearing of it. Then he won the right at Quebec Superior Court. That’s when he returned to his public school and got shouted at – some told him “Go home, Paki,” he says.

“That was a little bit discouraging. They don’t even know who I am.”

But “that’s not the whole Quebec population,” he says. “I’ve seen many, many, many people who are positive, who try to learn” about the requirements of his faith. He points to the experience of his father, a truck driver, being helped by strangers on his routes. “They don’t judge him by looking at his turban. No one ever harasses him.”

His father, Balvir Multani, whose name is also on that Supreme Court ruling, tells of being lost near midnight in a village on Route 108, past Quebec City. He approached a francophone woman to ask for directions. She didn’t speak English, but went inside her home and roused her husband and daughter, who emerged to explain to him in English how to find his way.

“That was 10 years ago,” the 60-year-old says. “I still remember that lady.”

Quebec hasn’t been able to move on in the seven years since it exploded in anger when Supreme Court Justice Louise Charron, a franco-Ontarian, wrote a ringing endorsement of Mr. Multani’s rights. Ninety-four per cent of French-speaking Quebeckers and 79 per cent of non-French speaking Quebeckers were opposed.

“A lot of people couldn’t get their head around the fact that the kirpan isn’t dangerous,” says Hugo Cyr, a law professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal. “They leaped to the idea that there are people who are getting special privileges.”

Mr. Multani and his kirpan have had an enormous influence on his province. The Charter of Values proposed by the governing Parti Québécois is partly an attempt to let the majority set the rules for reasonable accommodation, and take back those rules from the judges who were perceived to have botched the job with Mr. Multani.

The rest of Canada is not immune from similar battles over religious garb. Where Mr. Multani challenged Quebec, Baltej Dhillon fought for the right to wear a turban in the RCMP. He, too, faced opposition: More than 250,000 people signed a petition against allowing a turban on a Mountie. He received death threats.

But the federal government changed its rules for him in 1990, and when two fellow Mounties fought the change in court for the next five years, they lost. For a while, “what came out of it was a lot of pain, a lot of hatred, a lot of injury,” he says – but eventually the country moved on. Today the 47-year-old – a Mountie for 23 years – has an important job as operations officer for the RCMP’s provincial intelligence centre in Surrey, B.C.

“The RCMP stood by my side,” he says. “I can’t speak enough about the RCMP and I can’t speak enough about Canada.”

A fight over a religious symbol helped bring the Multanis to Canada. Balvir Multani came to Canada 17 years ago from the Punjab province of India because of a religious conflict that began, he says, with a comment his Hindu boss made about his beard. If Gurbaj leaves Quebec, his father would leave, too.

“We’re living in Canada – Canada is known for its human rights,” Gurbaj says. “The Charter of Quebec Values is very disappointing. Canada doesn’t have a problem with people’s religion or the way they look. Why is one charter putting a block to it? What’s most disappointing is they’re telling you not to follow your religion.”

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