Aneel Samra took up the Quebec Soccer Federation on its suggestion that he play in his own backyard.
It didn’t work out very well.
His Montreal-area yard is a shade over a dozen square metres. It’s mostly made of stone, except for the surrounding flower bed. The protruding balcony is also an obstacle.
The turban-wearing teen said Wednesday that he remains hopeful there might be a resolution to a dispute that has made international news this week.
Samra is one of an estimated 100 to 200 Sikh soccer players – most of them young – who have been forbidden from playing by the provincial federation.
The head of the association, asked during a news conference what she would tell a child who wanted to play soccer, replied that she’d tell him to play in his own yard.
Dribbling the ball in his yard Wednesday, Samra said he’s perplexed by the decision to uphold a year-old ban on Sikh turbans, patkas and keskis, without any evidence they pose a safety risk.
The 18-year-old said the comments from the soccer federation were pretty disrespectful. And he said the public comments he hears and reads – that Sikhs can simply remove their headgear while on the pitch – demonstrates a lack of understanding of his religious faith.
“It’s a lack of education,” Samra said.
In fact, he argued, it would probably be more dangerous for devout Sikhs to play without headwear, given their long hair.
“It’s actually safer for the individual wearing to play with the patka on because it would keep the hair intact,” he said. “If we played without it we’d play with the fear of having it come unravelled or having our hair pulled.”
Samra played only sparingly in a house league in 2012, thanks to a referee’s discretion. But he didn’t bother to sign up this year after learning referees were told to uphold the rule or face sanctions.
Samra said he got a supportive phone call from federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
He says Trudeau called his father Wednesday to discuss the issue. The family are Liberal party supporters. Samra said he’s also buoyed by the governing Tories’ response.
In Ottawa, Trudeau spoke about the Quebec ban again during a news conference, calling it a “grave error” to exclude young people from a sport they want to play.
Major federal parties have expressed frustration with the ban, to varying degrees. Provincial parties have been less vocal on the issue.
Quebec has spent the last several years embroiled in heated debates about religious identity. The provincial PQ government is preparing a plan, expected this fall, that will likely restrict religious head-coverings like the Muslim hijab and the Sikh turban within public offices.
The PQ claims to have strong public support for its measures. Indeed, the PQ government has released a poll suggesting just that. That poll also shows crushing opposition to allowing religious clothing to be added to sports outfits.
But one academic says it would be a mistake to call Quebec an intolerant place.
He says there are clashing political currents in the province, which has led the way many times on rights issues in Canada.
“I think it would be misleading to tar Quebec with the same brush,” said Daniel Cere, a religion and human rights expert at McGill University.
“I think there’s more to the tradition – there’s more complexity... There’s a lot of antagonistic forces at work, and Quebecers are not of one mind on these issues.”
He notes that it was Quebecers, in 1832, who became the first people under British rule to extend citizenship to Jews, thanks to small-l liberals like Papineau and Lafontaine. Even today, he said, Quebec leads the way in terms of funding diverse religious schools.
He said prime ministers who stemmed from that tradition include Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau, with the result being Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He said such leaders were shaped by the experience of being a minority within Canada.
He said that “rouge” political strain, which also included politicians Therese Casgrain and Claude Ryan, is now looking for a champion.
“We don’t have the political leadership right now that is up to the task,” Cere said.
“Where’s the political leadership? The vision? The intellectual leadership?”
Now there’s a clash between two strains of secularism: those who favour a laissez-faire version against others, like the current PQ government, who prefer a more state-enforced version.
That common aversion to public displays of faith flows from Quebec’s religious history, says someone intimately familiar with the topic.
Gerard Bouchard, who co-presided a provincial commission on minority accommodation, said Quebecers are more suspicious of religion than people elsewhere in the country.
“Quebec’s history has something to do with this,” Bouchard said.
“The abuses committed by the Catholic clergy, especially toward women, and the forms of oppression practiced here, left very bad memories. They left a negative legacy that, for example, has been one of the driving forces behind feminism here...
“That shows up, I’d say, in what we see in this incident with the turbans – it shows up once in a while.”
He said that factor is less strong in the rest of Canada whose traditional relationship with religion, he argued, was more positive.
Both Cere and Bouchard expressed frustration at this latest soccer decision.
Bouchard said court decisions have established limits on practising religion in public – and the turban ban doesn’t meet any of them, he said. He said there’s no demonstrable threat to safety, or to the outcome of a game, or to anyone else.
“I believe that in this case the only explanation is the malaise that people might feel at the sight of a religious symbol,” he said.
“I don’t see anything else. And that is an explanation that clearly doesn’t hold up in court.”
The ban ignored a non-binding directive from the Canadian Soccer Association, which has called for provincial associations to allow turbans by extending an existing rule that allows Islamic hijabs for girls. The world soccer governing body has no clear rule regarding Sikh headwear.
Quebec is the only province that has balked at the CSA directive.
A few petitions were circulating on the Internet on Wednesday, along with a Facebook page calling on the Quebec Soccer Federation to reverse its decision.
That online group was also encouraging people to call a number of companies that sponsor the federation, including dairy giant Saputo and convenience store operator Couche-Tard.
Couche-Tard said in a statement that its partner, the soccer federation, made a decision based on safety and since the company is no expert in soccer, it will defer to them.
The other companies did not immediately return calls seeking comment. A spokesman for the soccer federation also did not return a call.
One member of Quebec’s Sikh community said it’s important to get those young children affected by the federation’s ruling back on the pitch in some capacity.
Mukhbir Singh, vice-president of the World Sikh Organization for Quebec and Atlantic Canada, “We don’t want the children to miss out on soccer,” Singh said. “I think what we’re worried about is how they’ll perceive themselves and their identity in the long-term.”
Singh said they hope to organize a few exhibition matches and let the children play.
“I think we’re trying to reach out to people in the soccer community to see if we can salvage something for these children here,” he said.
Samra said he’s not sure why the federation cited safety as a reason for the ban: “I have played basketball with (the patka) on, which is a lot more physical (than soccer) and it’s never fallen off and I’ve never had an injury.”