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Lawyer Manjit Manga was stabbed on April 2 with a kirpan outside of the Sikh Lehar Centre in Brampton, Ont. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Lawyer Manjit Manga was stabbed on April 2 with a kirpan outside of the Sikh Lehar Centre in Brampton, Ont. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Restricting kirpans would inflict wound on tolerance Add to ...

The stabbing incident in Brampton reportedly involving a kirpan could provoke new calls to limit where and when Sikhs in Toronto should be allowed to wear the ceremonial dagger. It would be a mistake to give in to such appeals. Toronto does not want to go down the route being followed by the province of Quebec, where nativist voices calling for restrictions on the wearing of a niqab and other religious accoutrements threaten to fuel resentment among immigrants.

The kirpan is an unusual religious symbol in that it comes in the form of a weapon and can, in theory, be used as one. Commonly three to nine inches in length, it is worn in a sheath carried in a strap around the shoulder. Often it is blunt; sometimes it is sharp.

But the vast majority of Sikhs never think of drawing their kirpan in anger. For them, it is a purely religious object, one of the five symbols (along with a shorts-like undergarment, unshorn hair, hair comb and bracelet) that they are required to wear. The root words for kirpan are "mercy" and "honour." The dagger stands for the Sikh's pledge to protect the defenceless and cut through lies under the saint-warrior philosophy of the religion.

When the Supreme Court upheld the right of a Sikh student in Quebec to wear the kirpan to class, it noted that in the 100 years that Sikhs had been going to Canadian schools there was "not a single violent incident related to the presence of kirpans ..." The RCMP's Olympic security unit concluded after extensive research that violence with kirpans was extremely rare and that kirpan-wearing Sikhs should be allowed to attend Olympic venues.

Wearing kirpans is prohibited in courtrooms and on airplanes, given the security sensitivities, but allowed in the House of Commons. After a human-rights complaint, VIA Rail modified its policy to allow kirpans on its trains. Yes, kirpans can sometimes be turned into implements of violence, but that can also be said of kitchen knives, hockey sticks or baseball bats.

As long as they fall within the laws of Canada, religious practices and modes of dress are protected by the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantee freedom of worship. Even if they were not protected, it would be bad policy to start banning or restricting things in the cause of integrating newcomers. You can't order people to become Canadians. Far better to respect cultural practices, even if, like the wearing of the face-covering niqab, they offend modern, secular sensibilities and symbolize the oppression of women. The great majority of the sons and daughters of immigrants will abandon those practices as they adapt to Canadian ways.

Other practices will stay on and we will simply get used to them. It seems an eon ago that it was a controversial for a Sikh Mountie to wear a turban. In 1990, a Sikh teacher from Peel was fired (and later reinstated) simply for wearing the kirpan. That, too, seems ancient history.

Mennonites with horse and buggy or Orthodox Jews in dark suits and sidelocks have been going about their business for decades as part of the Canadian experience. The wave of newcomers in turbans and hijabs deserve the same tolerance. They are not a threat to the great engine of integration that turns immigrants into Canadians over time.

The motto of this city is "diversity our strength." Another way to put it is: live and let live.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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