The Canadian Soccer Association says Quebec teams will be banned from national and international competition as long as their provincial body maintains a ban on Sikh turbans in an escalating dispute that could jeopardize games for countless children.
The two sides appear to have reached an impasse in a conflict over religious accommodation that now threatens to scuttle matches and hold thousands of soccer-loving children in Quebec "hostage," according to coaches and directors.
"They essentially want us to play in our own backyards and not play with anyone else," said Marc St-Amour, director of competitions for the soccer association in Quebec's Outaouais region. He opposes the turban ban, but said Canadian soccer officials "are using a sledgehammer" against Quebec. "I can't believe it's gone this far," he said in an interview.
The Canadian Soccer Association says the Quebec Soccer Federation will remain suspended from the national body as long as it refuses to rescind the ban, upheld in a provincial vote on June 2. The director-general of the Quebec group, Brigitte Frot, said at the time that Sikh children who want to play soccer in turbans "can play in their own backyard."
In a sign it is hardening its position, the Canadian Soccer Association says the suspension means that teams in Quebec are barred from hosting or taking part in Canadian and international competitions, tournaments and matches, including all-star showcases and national club championships.
"It is with regret that the Canadian Soccer Association recognizes that the Quebec Soccer Federation suspension will, in the short term, affect a number of players and clubs," the association said in a statement. "The association remains committed to resolving this issue for the long-term growth and development of the sport of soccer in Canada."
The Ottawa-based body issued a toughly worded statement after Quebec's soccer federation said on Wednesday that it would maintain its ban on turbans while seeking a dialogue with Canadian soccer officials to resolve the issue.
The Canadian group also said it welcomed dialogue to reach a "timely resolution." But in a rebuff to Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who said the Quebec soccer federation had the right to call its own shots, the Canadian Soccer Association stated that it has ultimate say over the rules.
It says the CSA is Canada's national governing body for soccer and as a member association, Quebec has to abide by its bylaws, one of which forbids discrimination against any group "on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics" or other reasons.
The rift threatens to drag in more children. This weekend, the Lac St. Louis Regional Soccer Association, a major Montreal-area group, is holding a tournament that includes teams from Ontario. However, the CSA says Quebec's suspension means it cannot host "inter-provincial competitions, tournaments or matches."
It means Montreal organizers would have to redraw the tournament's schedules, and the Ontario children would have to stay home, Mr. St-Amour said.
"I find this outrageous," he said. He said that while he supports repealing the turban ban, he feels Canadian soccer is acting with "political contempt" toward Quebec and blowing the disagreement out of proportion.
One soccer coach in the Quebec City area supports the turban ban, but says the Quebec soccer federation was wrong to present it as a safety issue.
"They should have said it was a question of the rules. Sports and the sports field should be neutral. The problem with turbans is that they're a religious symbol," said Samir Ghrib, coach and technical director of the Royal-Sélect de Beauport. "As a soccer coach, I believe soccer is an area where religious and colour barriers should fall. I'm for total neutrality."
He said the conflict must be resolved promptly. "It's not just the Sikh community that's been taken hostage, it's all young people."
The CSA spelled out other consequences of the Quebec suspension. It says Quebec would not be able to have national or international referees officiate its games and could not participate in or benefit from international clinics, coaching, and refereeing, as well as CSA meetings and disciplinary hearings.