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A Montreal teenager displays his kirpan while waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on March 2, 2006. (FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press)
A Montreal teenager displays his kirpan while waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on March 2, 2006. (FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press)

Ibbitson's Points of Order

Kirpan ban puts Canada on brink of multiculturalism debate no one wants Add to ...

Whether we like it or not - and there's not much to like - events could force a national debate on whether multiculturalism is working in Canada.

The Quebec National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion this week banning the kirpan, the small ceremonial dagger worn by Sikhs, from being worn in the legislature, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that it is a religious symbol, not a weapon.

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Louise Beaudoin, the Parti Québécois's secularism (!) critic, repeated her claim that multiculturalism was a federal policy but it wasn't a Quebec policy, pointing out that Quebec has not signed the Canada Act 1982, which enshrined multiculturalism within the Constitution.

On the other side of the pond, British Prime Minister David Cameron has joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel in declaring multiculturalism a failure.

"Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream ... we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism," he said in Munich, which is where British prime ministers go to sell their souls.

But not all the foolishness is to be found on one side of the debate. In Winnipeg, a dozen newly-arrived families are demanding from the public school board that their children be exempted from compulsory classes in music and phys-ed, claiming that music and mixing genders are forbidden in their interpretation of Islam.

Such an accumulation of incident is bound to ignite the spark of debate. Though we should always be free to talk about everything - the public square is, after all, the essence of democracy - some debates are healthier than others.

Debating multiculturalism gives a voice to the angry, the frustrated and yes, the bigoted. It makes newer Canadians feel less welcome. It has the best walking on egg shells and the worst throwing eggs.

It gives rise to demands for a more robust definition of citizenship, which in essence is a demand for a loyalty oath. It forces us to endlessly parse language - like reasonable accommodation, or multiculturalism itself.

Worst of all, it undermines the greatest strength of Canadian society - our capacity to get along - and strengthens its greatest weaknesses - the cultural and linguistic divides that undermine the country whenever we choose to let them.

There is good news in this. Despite an effort by the Bloc Québécois, none of the national party leaders was willing to reconsider the policy of permitting the kirpan in Parliament.

Leaders of the Muslim community in Winnipeg were are as surprised and disturbed as anyone else by the demands of the dozen families, whose Islam is not their Islam.

The consensus around multiculturalism - that it remains an integral value in Canadian life, even if no one can explain what it means - remains broad and deep. For most of us, citizenship is sufficiently encompassed in our Constitution, our laws, and the performance of the men's hockey team at the 2010 Olympics.

The country will survive a debate over multiculturalism, even if we may not be able to prevent one.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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