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Balpreet Singh, lawyer at the World Sikh Organization of Canada, poses in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City Tuesday January 18, 2011. Singh was denied entrance by Quebec National Assembly security because he insisted on wearing ceremonial kirpans.

Francis Vachon

By barring four kirpan-wearing Sikh men from public hearings on reasonable accommodation on Tuesday, the Quebec National Assembly failed to live up to its obligation to promote the widest possible participation in the democratic process.

Where is the leadership to cool passions associated with the current debate around minority religious observances? The wearing of the kirpan by Sikh schoolchildren in Montreal was the most inflammatory part of an inflamed, province-wide debate. The Supreme Court of Canada gave its unanimous support to the wearing of the kirpan five years ago. Reason should long ago have prevailed over passion, especially in the seat of government.

Committee chairman Bernard Drainville, a Parti Québécois MNA, should have suspended the hearings until the issue could be settled by discussion. The hearings focus on Bill 94, which would limit the wearing of Islamic face coverings by users of public services. To bar those who observe minority religions such as Sikhism is to render the committee's work incomplete and, frankly, ridiculous from the start. Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil, sponsor of the bill, said she would not comment on a decision of National Assembly security. The opposition PQ, leaping to exploit the passions, said the face-covering bill does not go far enough. But Ms. Weil's silence is worse, an abdication of duty.

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It is fair to set regulations around the size of the kirpan and how it is secured and sheathed. But it is wrong to bar it completely. British Columbia does not do so. Ottawa does not do so. Imagine the hostile message to religious minorities if the kirpan-wearing Liberal MP Navdeep Bains and others were barred from Parliament.

Sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor wrote movingly in their government-sponsored report 2½ years ago on accommodation about the need for French-speaking Quebec to find common ground with immigrants and minorities. It is hard to be optimistic when government itself is so cowed.

Editor's note: In early editions of the newspaper and in an early online version, MP Navdeep Bains was incorrectly identified as a Conservative. This version has been corrected.

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