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Sikh’s sword not welcome on VIA train

Canadian-born U of O student says he was humiliated, treated like al-Qaeda terrorist

File00041.jpg

BY MOHAMMED ADAM

A University of Ottawa law student is accusing VIA Rail of treating him like a terrorist and smearing Canadian Sikhs after he was ordered from a train twice in one month for wearing a sheathed ceremonial sword known as a kirpan.

Balpreet Singh, 24, said yesterday he felt angry, humiliated and very much like a secondclass citizen after the latest incident Friday afternoon when VIA officials escorted him off a Toronto-bound train because he was wearing a kirpan.

VIA officials took the action after someone complained. Mr. Singh claimed his explanation — that the kirpan is not a weapon, but a religious artifact worn as part of his faith — was ignored. The officials said weapons are banned from the trains, and no exceptions are made for religious symbols.

Mr. Singh, who is in his first year at the university, said he has taken the bus, travelled on Toronto’s subway and the GO Train with hundreds of other Sikhs, and there has never been a problem until the incident with VIA. He said what irked him even more was that after they took him off the train, officials made no alternative travel arrangements for him, and he had to abandon a trip to Brampton where he was heading for a congregational service and teaching assignment.

Mr. Singh said the incident follows a similar one last month in Toronto. He said that after the first incident, he’d been assured steps would be taken to ensure it never happened again. Now, he said, he is considering a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“I was born and raised in Canada, but I don’t feel that I am treated like a Canadian. It was absolutely humiliating, what happened to me. They led me off the train as if they captured some big al-Qaeda terrorist. Because I don’t look like everybody else, they treat me differently.

“What happened doesn’t do much for my image, and it reflects horribly on my community. Twice a Sikh is led off the train and the impression people get is these people are dangerous.”

VIA spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutsky said yesterday officials were acting in the larger interest of public safety and security when they took Mr. Singh off the train. VIA’s baggage policy bans weapons, which are defined as including “collectibles, antiques and those of a ceremonial nature,” she said. No exception could be made for Mr. Singh, because he was carrying a weapon that fell into one of the categories.

“Any passenger who is in possession of this type of weapon — collectible items, antique items and knives, such as in this instance, that are recognized as of a ceremonial nature — will be denied boarding,” Ms. Kaloutsky said. “We acknowledge, we respect an individual’s culture and religion, but our priority has to be safety and security of all those who travel with us. It is not targeting any individual.”

Transport Canada spokeswoman Vanessa Vermette said after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the federal government banned the carrying of knives and “knife-like objects,” which includes kirpans, from airplanes.

But there is no policy on trains, and each company is left to make its own decision.

There are about 300,000 Sikhs in Canada, about 15 per cent of whom wear kirpans. VIA’s policy suggests, in effect, that the 45,000 orthodox Sikhs who wear daggers as an article of faith cannot travel on the national rail carrier. The incident involving Mr. Singh is likely to resurrect the debate on individual rights and the balance between religious freedom and public safety.

Orthodox Sikhs have worn sheathed kirpans strapped to their chests since the 17th century as a symbol of strength and willingness to defend the weak and fight for justice.

The daggers are one of the five articles of faith of the religion and range in length between 15 and 30 centimetres. However, their use in countries like Canada and the United States has been marked by controversy, because some people consider them weapons.

While Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta permit them in schools, Quebec prohibits them.

In April, the Supreme Court reserved judgment in the case of Gurbaj Singh in which the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned a lower court decision and banned the wearing of kirpans in provincial schools. Acknowledging that the ban on the kirpans was indeed a limit on freedom of religion, the Appeal Court nevertheless said it was a reasonable limit in light of public safety concerns.

Manjit Singh, a spokesman for the Canadian Sikh Council, called VIA’s action “deplorable,” saying there is no excuse for it. “I don’t want to accuse people of being racist or xenophobic, because name-calling like this doesn’t help. Sikhs have been in this country for over 100 years and as a Crown corporation, VIA should know better,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Singh said he can understand why someone unfamiliar with Sikhism would be concerned about the kirpan, and he would have been happy to explain what it is. But he said nothing justifies the behaviour of VIA Rail officials in Ottawa, especially after his first encounter with the company in Toronto last month.

On Sept. 18, he was in his seat on the train when an official took him aside and said someone had complained about the kirpan and felt intimidated by his presence. After he was taken off the train, Claire La France, VIA station manager in Toronto, apologized for the incident, called her head office and was advised to let Mr. Singh continue with his journey on the next train. She assured him that the issue would be resolved once and for all.

Three days later, Ms. La France told Mr. Singh in an e-mail that she had referred the matter to senior VIA officials. “I know that our Chief Operating Officer has been made aware of the circumstances. I expect it will be a topic of discussion at the meeting of the upper level executives this week. There has been much interest in your specific case by many parties,” she wrote.

Mr. Singh said he was shocked and distressed Friday when he was again taken off the train, in full view of other passengers. He said a VIA official who, he said, would only give his name as Yves, and his employee number 300015, was rude and offensive. He considers the official’s behaviour as blatant discrimination, and said he doesn’t understand how a Crown corporation can allow it.

“I’ve taken public transit in Toronto and Ottawa dressed like the way I was on the train, and there’s never been a problem. Navdeep Singh Bains, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, is a Sikh and he wears a kirpan into the House of Commons and there is no issue. So why is VIA doing this,” he said.

“If I can’t wear the kirpan on the train, next they will say ‘you can’t wear it on the bus, you can’t wear it in the mall.’ Where is it going to stop? What they are really saying is, you can’t follow your religion and live here in Canada.”

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Here is the video can be seen regarding this:

http://cbc.ca/ottawa/media/video/canadanow/canadanow.ram

And downloaded on this link: Right click and save target as:

http://cbc.ca/ottawa/media/video/canadanow/canadanow.rm

Go Balpreet Singh Go !!!!!!!!!!!!! Go Balpreet Singh Go !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You got support from sikh brothers !!!!!!!!!!! :D :D

I can't wait to see via offical bending their discriminating rules...!!!

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Enough noise should be made about this to make sure Balpreet Singh wins. It would be a dangerous thing if he didnt because it could set the precedent for bans against kirpans in other places such as shopping malls and any public place just because some redneck prejudiced hick decides to complain.

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yeah that is a pretty huge kirpan. Can some kind of compromise be made on the size of the kirpan? After all it is a symbol right so it doesnt have to be a functioning sword now does it?

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Thats true hunna... it could be worn small and under the clothes. Actually I know a few people who wear a small kirpan under their shirt.

Whats the smallest a kirpan can go?

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What's wrong if he wants to carry a kirpan that size? How does it interfere in the travel of passengers of Via Rail?

In India, I have seen Nihang Singhs carrying kirpans much larger then that when traveling in busses and trains. This is nothing but a case of some ignorant Goray who have nothing better to do than to pick on a person who just looks different. That is exactly what it is all about.

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Most likely it is an ignorent goray who wanted to report this Singh just out of spite for having too many of us "immigrants" in "their" country. But in India it is quite normal and acceptable to see a sikh carrying much bigger kirpans than this guy but in canada it is more visually shocking to someone who may even be innocently ignorent. What I am saying is that many Singhs wear a small kirpan under their shirt in Canada and in England so why not do that to avoid hassle? Also dont we have a certain blade size we are all allowed to carry by law so if the kirpan blade size falls within that limit then now law would be broken as it stands.

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BAZ, it’s a matter of principle. Why should we be obliged to conceal our Kirpans. Why can’t we carry them outside? Just to make a few Goray happy? This happens every time. In the early 1990’s they wouldn’t allow a turbaned Sikh to join the RCMP because it was not considered ‘normal’ and seemed intimidating. This is what happened to Baltej Singh Dhillon who was not allowed wear a turban in the RCMP.

Why should a Sikh compromise on his principles just because it intimidates an ignorant passenger?

Besides the Via Rail's view of this is full of holes. Balpreet Singh writes:

On first class, when dinner is served, people get knives and forks. That knife is ok but a kirpan isn't.

The rules are completely aribitrary.

VIA doesn't have metal detectors and doesn't check baggage. So a Sikh who wears his kirpan openly is not allowed on, but conversely, someone who decides to hide a weapon under his/her clothes or luggage is fine.

Does that make any sense?

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Why should a Sikh compromise on his principles just because it intimidates an ignorant passenger?

I don't think you should expect canadians general to know about sikhism or any other religion because you have to remember society we living in - it's already socially acceptable to be atheist over religious..i know if i was white i would have been scared in ignorance and thought of kirpan as weapon.. that's how human perceives what they see.... i also feel balpreet singh should have educated that person who complained about sikhism and values.. it's up to us now to educate them... don't expect media approaching us to know about us... we should approach media to raise awareness... I just wish we got canadian sikhs doing parchar to masses just like american sikhs.

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look at the size of his kirpan - why does he need to carry such a big blunt kirpan with him?

Here is what balpreet singh wrote regarding this:

I consider it a foolish mistake on my part to not have thought hard about the photo the paper would take.

The first time I was taken off the train, I was wearin a 9" sri sahib. They asked to see it and it didn't really matter.

The second time, they didn't ask to see my sri sahib at all and just asked if I had one and that was enough to remove me.

Size wasn't an issue in this matter. Just the fact that I had a kirpan was the deciding factor.

In retrospect, I can see how the picture with the larger sri sahib is pretty damaging. But like they say, hind sight is 20/20.

I usually wear the larger one and for the photo I didn't choose to change that. But like I said, it probably would have been better to go with the smaller size.

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look at the size of his kirpan - why does he need to carry such a big blunt kirpan with him?

Here is what balpreet singh wrote regarding this:

I consider it a foolish mistake on my part to not have thought hard about the photo the paper would take.

The first time I was taken off the train, I was wearin a 9" sri sahib. They asked to see it and it didn't really matter.

The second time, they didn't ask to see my sri sahib at all and just asked if I had one and that was enough to remove me.

Size wasn't an issue in this matter. Just the fact that I had a kirpan was the deciding factor.

In retrospect, I can see how the picture with the larger sri sahib is pretty damaging. But like they say, hind sight is 20/20.

I usually wear the larger one and for the photo I didn't choose to change that. But like I said, it probably would have been better to go with the smaller size.

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Why should a Sikh compromise
Why not compromise a little ? Not everyone share your views. If I start to follow a sant and he says that I must carry a gun always, should I, knowing that society outlaws this ? Should I do this at home, privatley, or should I brandish my gun in a holster around my waist whilst walking in public.

In the West we live in an alien environment. With rights come responsibilities. What may have been OK two hundred years ago to do in public (in India) may not be now (in the West). Asserting our rights too vigourously will alienate the indigenous population who will see favouritism and this will sow disharmony & lead to greater intolerance.

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Kirpan issue double-edged

The Ottawa Citizen

Thursday, October 27, 2005

VIA Rail was correct to remove a Sikh passenger for wearing a ceremonial dagger. But it would be better if VIA could find a way to allow kirpans on trains without putting public safety at risk.

Balpreet Singh, a University of Ottawa law student, says he felt singled out and humiliated by the policy. The kirpan is one of five items observant Sikhs wear. It is a spiritual symbol. But reasonable, tolerant people can question whether kirpans are appropriate in all situations.

Trains and airplanes are enclosed areas, travelling at speed. They are their own societies, removed from most emergency services and law enforcement.

It is not unreasonable, therefore, for rail companies and airlines to implement rules about what items they allow. And it is not bigotry for them to apply the rules to all passengers, regardless of religion.

That is not to say that universal rules cannot be discriminatory. Were VIA to institute a rule against head coverings, that would be an unjustified discrimination against people whose faiths require such items. But a policy against weapons, even ceremonial ones, is justified, even if its effect is to discriminate against observant Sikhs.

Arguably, a weapon is defined by the intentions of its holder. A sharpened spoon -- or, notoriously, a box-cutter -- can be a weapon in the wrong hands.

But while almost everything can be used as a weapon, it does not follow that everything is a weapon, or that nothing is. Some things are much more likely to be used as weapons than others. It would be ridiculous to keep spoons away from schoolchildren because they could be used to cause pain. It would be equally ridiculous to distribute swords at recess.

The kirpan falls somewhere in between. It is neither a spoon nor a sword. But it is more like a sword than it is like a spoon. It could very easily be used to hurt somebody. In the wrong hands, a kirpan could be an instant and efficient weapon.

This is not to imply that Mr. Singh or any other wearer of a kirpan intends any harm. But Mr. Singh's seatmates should not be forced to take his word for that. Beside, his intentions might not be relevant. On a train or a plane, Mr. Singh would be introducing the kirpan into an enclosed environment, where someone else could seize it and use it to do harm.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of religion, but it also allows for reasonable limits. Religious freedom does not trump every law and every other right.

If Sikhs can alter the kirpan's form without undermining its significance, perhaps there are compromises they can reach with VIA and other companies. Perhaps VIA could allow kirpans that are very small and very blunt, or with the blade fixed inside the scabbard in a definite and visible way.

VIA should accommodate people of all faiths as much as possible, but it must put the safety of its passengers first.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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what exactly does compromising little mean??
It means not doing things which the society at large finds disturbing. So in this case wear a very small kirpan, certainly under your clothes.

However if the wider public still finds this unacceptable, there is nothing to stop you wearing what you like at home. I do not think you need to prove how devout you are by confronting the largely Christian country you live in. Ultimately you will be no less a Sikh, if outdoors you do not wear a kirpan but at home you continue observe the 5 Ks.

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It means not doing things which the society at large finds disturbing. So in this case wear a very small kirpan, certainly under your clothes. .

I agree with this idea having kirpan under your clothes because soceity may find disturbing but at the same time have kirpan under your clothes in a such way where it can be easily accessible.

Also i don't like the idea of standarized one set size of kirpan.. i agree with the range... don't get me wrong i also wear small kirpan however i don't agree with the idea of having one set size of kirpan... range is good... you have to remember singh of siri guru gobind singh ji may wear any size he likes as long as he knows how to use kirpan not in offensive manner but defensive manner.

However if the wider public still finds this unacceptable, there is nothing to stop you wearing what you like at home. I do not think you need to prove how devout you are by confronting the largely Christian country you live in. Ultimately you will be no less a Sikh, if outdoors you do not wear a kirpan but at home you continue observe the 5 Ks.

I strongly disagree with this part. This has nothing to do with proving how devout you are but this has everything to do with singh of siri guru gobind singh ji being tyar-bar-tyaar(ready) all time to fight injustice, help the weak, living up to ideals that guru maharaj ji set for us.

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However if the wider public still finds this unacceptable, there is nothing to stop you wearing what you like at home. I do not think you need to prove how devout you are by confronting the largely Christian country you live in. Ultimately you will be no less a Sikh, if outdoors you do not wear a kirpan but at home you continue observe the 5 Ks.

Roti Jee, how devout can a Singh be if he is willing to take a Kakkar off, in other words go against the Hukam of his Guru because he or she is under the pressure of a Christian majority? For the last 2-4 decades we have Sikhs who have been cutting their hair under some supposed pressure from the Christian majority, but now Amritdhari Singhs should take their Kakkars off just to appease Christian! Sorry bro, it aint gonna happen.

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I would agree that theres nothing wrong with keeping your Sri Sahib discreet. Obviously there are those who will say that we should make a stand and carry a 3 footer if we want to, but realistically, i dont see whats wrong with wearing a kirpan without it being obvious to those around you.

Especially since Paaji in the picture wears Baana, it would make it all the easier for him to be discreet about his Kirpan. I mean why make things more difficult for yourself? A little flexibility isnt going to kill us.

example, once, a few years ago, a friend of mine was walking down the street wearing a 14 inch Tanto (Japanese style chisel tip blade). He got pulled up by police because the tip of it was showing from under his t-shirt. The guy calmly exained what the Kirpan was and why he wore it. The cop asked to see it so the guy drew it, touched it to his forehead and showed it to the officer. The cop then asked if it had to be visible, to which his answer was "no". My friend was allowed to then tuck the Sri Sahib out of sight and carry on with his business.

in another case, a Singh was pulled up. he behaved arrogantly, said he knew his rights etc, and when asked to show the officers his Sri Sahib (which incidentally was a smaller blade and a traditionally shaped one), he gave a response to the effect of "if i take it out i cant put it away without drawing blood with it".

unsurprisingly, he was promptly arrested.

the difference? simply the attitude shown.

So i would say that a Sikh should compromise and show tolerance just like everyone else should compromise and show tolerance. Why? because this makes for a more peaceful and understanding society instead of everyone being in each others faces about our rights and the inevitable conflict that arises as a result.

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i highly respect balpreet singh, but i think he should have been discreet with his srisahib (and possibly go with a smaller size)...at the end of the day, we have to take this kirpan issue bit by bit to make it acceptable, it won't happen with 3 foot kirpans right off the bat.

first we need to get acceptance of having the right to carry 6 and 9 inch kirpans.....once Canadians have been given time to digest that much, then we can move on to bigger and sharper sir sahibs ;)

this is why Guruji tells us to understand Rajneeti (politics)...(highly ironic since the singh is a law student). we can't go charging into this kirpan debate which is a battle even more difficult than the turban. our parents generation fought for the turban, i think our generation will have to fight for the kirpan.

but i don't want to slate balpreet singh, he's our brother and we need to keep his back. he's just trying to impress our father, Guru Gobind Singh ji.

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