Pointed comments on the kirpan: “above all a religious symbol”


My colleague Colby Cosh says I was “sowing nonsense” when I wrote that the Supreme Court of Canada “found that the kirpan is a religious symbol, not a weapon.” He says the court found no such thing.

Here’s what Justice Louise Charron said in that 2006 decision on the question of whether she regarded the kirpan as a weapon or as a religious symbol, in the dispute between a Montréal school board and a Sikh student:

“Much of the [school board’s] argument is based on its submission that ‘the kirpan is essentially a dagger, a weapon designed to kill, intimidate or threaten others’.  With respect, while the kirpan undeniably has characteristics of a bladed weapon capable of wounding or killing a person, this submission disregards the fact that, for orthodox Sikhs, the kirpan is above all a religious symbol.”

After that, as I read her, Charron considers the kirpan throughout as as symbol rather than a weapon. On claims that the kirpan is “by its true nature, a weapon,” the judge writes, “These assertions strip the kirpan of any religious significance and leave no room for accommodation.”

She touches on analogous arguments about whether Muslim girls should be allowed to cover their heads for religious reasons if other students aren’t allowed to wear hats in class to look cool.

“To equate a religious obligation,” Charron writes, “such as wearing the chador with the desire of certain students to wear caps is indicative of a simplistic view of freedom of religion that is incompatible with the Canadian Charter.”

To say, then, of a Muslim’s traditional headwear, “It’s a hat,” would be to offer definition empty of significance, even if not literally wrong. Similarly, to declare of the kirpan, “It’s a knife,” is as accurate as it is meaningless.

What the judge was driving at, I’d say, is what the kirpan is “essentially” or “above all” or in its “true nature.” So, Colby, I’ll give you this much: It would have been more precise for me to add a couple of adjectives, and say that the court found that the kirpan is above all a religious symbol, and not essentially a weapon.


Pointed comments on the kirpan: “above all a religious symbol”

    • It's pointy. I screwed up the formatting.

      • And I just read your other article, where you link to the Star paper. So feel free to delete my useless comments. My point is just if it's symbolic size should be limited or locking into sheath. Or maybe they should figure out what metaphors mean, do a new exegesis of Sikh scripture. Christians don't carry around large crosses on their backs. But then they wouldn't be considered Orthodox, so ya nothing to add. flame bait etc, I'm glad Colby, pressed you on the correct interpretation of 2006 ruling, and your correction. Cause the Hon. Bains, was mischaracterizing it.

        • Arguments about how Sikhs "should" interpret their doctrine are interesting as far as they go, but once a complainant has rejected them and want to rely on his religious right to freedom of religion, they have little relevance.

          • Which I acknowledge in the loss of orthodoxy. Heterodox sihksim. etc. nothing to add.

  1. Nicely done!

  2. Hold on a sec. Maybe I need a remedial lesson on Sikh theology (ok, first I would need an introductory lesson…), but isn't the kirpan a religious symbol precisely because it is a weapon?

    I thought that was the whole, er, point. It is a defensive weapon that the pure peace-loving Sikh must carry at all times… and never use.

    But I think that was also Colby's point. Here's mine: Sure, it's a weapon, OF COURSE it's a weapon, but who cares, as long as we trust students not to grab the fire extinguishers and squirt the chemical goo into each other's eyes, maybe we can trust kirpan-carrying Sikh students, too?

    • Oh great. Now we have to get rid of fire extinguishers! And pens (saw it in a movie), and decks of cards (saw it on Cape last week).

      I wonder whatever they'd do with the well trained martial arts students?

      • In Red, Helen Mirren incapacitates a guard with her pocketbook. In one of the Bourne movies, Matt Damon does a pretty good job on someone with a rolled-up magazine.

        Won't someone think of the children?!?

      • One should claim knighthood as a religion.

    • Absolutely right!

      Anything CAN be used as a weapon, but we don't ban all sharp objects, all heavy objects and all corrosive substances just because they might be so used, and indeed have been so used.

      So why ban a kirpan but not a letter opener, or scissors?

      • But we DO ban heavy objects nad corrosive stuff in certain circumstances. The issue is in those circumstances, can certain items be let out of these bans because of their religious significance? (For the record, I believe the supreme court decided correctly in Multani and that freedom of religion allows kirpans in the house of commons, although not bladed "weapons" without religious significance).

        • Agreed, the circumstances – and the lethality of the object of course – enter into any reasonable discussion. For example, I have no problem with banning kirpans in prisons. I might even be persuaded that they should be banned in bars and nightclubs. But legislatures? Schoolrooms?

    • I guess the Supreme Court never heard that argument. Apply for intervenor status next time.

    • Well said, MYL.

      When the judge writes "above all else" it is a religious symbol, she has in no way excluded other things, but stated merely that it is first and foremost a religious symbol.

      Of course it is also a weapon and that is the point of the symbolism, but the real issue is whether that even matters, whether there is a real security concern at a building that allows you to walk out of the restaurant with a steak knife.

  3. Cosh is right. I don't see how you say that because something is a religious symbol, it is not a weapon. They are orthogonal concepts. Something can be both; or neither. What is it if it's being held in the hands of somebody who is not a Sikh?

    This doesn't have to come down to a racism or xenophobia at all when thinking about security. The kirpan may be a religious symbol in the hands of a Sikh but in anybody else's hands it's a weapon. Who is to say that somebody bent on causing trouble would be above taking/stealing the kirpan from a Sikh and using it for its other purpose?

    • That IS exactly what I do when I'm bent on causing trouble, exactly. The Sikhs in my neighbourhood can't stand it.

      • They're so touchy about their religious symbols. My lawyer has recommended I restrict myself to bludgeoning people with crucifixes until the furor dies down.

    • Indeed – my knitting needles (yes, again!) are just that in my hands, but they are deemed to be potentially dangerous enough to be forbidden by security when I travel – and if I were to visit the Capitol Building:

      I have always understood this to mean that someone could seize my needles and use them in a dangerous way – I never took it personally: it is not an attack on me, it is not an attack on my freedom, but it's a safety precaution that I am asked to observe for the safety of myself and others.

      • Security theatre again – no knitting needles, but pens and pencils are permitted. I've never heard of a knitting needle modified to fire a bullet, but fountain pens have been so modified.

    • This doesn't have to come down to a racism or xenophobia at all when thinking about security.

      The conservative fallback position on everything; won't somebody think of the security. Whatever happened to common sense that conservatives claim they possess in great quantities. Common sense says the Sikhs barred from entering the National Assembly were not a threat regardless of what they carried with them. Or do you believe they were just playing innocent so that they could get a chance to stab a few Quebec legislators.

      • Did you deliberately miss my point or just stop reading?

      • I have never thought for a moment that security people see me as a terrorist with the knitting needles! Their reasoning, for what it's worth, is that someone not as nice as me could grab the needles from me and use them for more dangerous purposes.

        This is not exclusive to Quebec, but is applied everywhere where there has been a history of atttacks and where a potential for further attacks exists. Hence knitting needles are forbidden in airplanes and for visitors to the Capitol building, and I would bet many other places where they scan for metal objects for security purposes (I don't try anymore – I knit at home).

        That's the world we all live in.

  4. My light saber is a religious symbol as well, although it does come in handy when confronted by a gang of storm troopers.

    • If you'll just tell them how many toilets are in your cave, they'll go away.

  5. You can easily say something is not a weapon when that thing is not a weapon. I see someone on the previous thread has already included the criminal code definition of weapon. That definition includes firearms, and anything that is designed or intended to inflict injury or to threaten others.

    I will go further than that poster and say that the courts have long considered knives to be tools, because that is what they were designed to be. That tool can be converted to a weapon depending on the circumstances, much like a pipe wrench can be converted to a weapon if it is used as one.

    The point is these ceremonial daggers are designed as ceremonial daggers. They are not weapons.

    • Yeah, "the point".

      See, deep down you know they're all terrorists waiting to take over our hard-won freedoms, you just can't admit it to yourself.

      What if I use my time machine to go back and establish a religion that worships flamethrowers, and then come back to now so that there are millions of people who believe in it, does that mean I can bring my flamethrower into the House of Commons?

      (Actually, scratch that. The one thing probably everyone here would agree on is that it would be totally awesome to bring a flamethrower into the House of Commons.)

      ::removes tongue from cheek::

      • You don't have to go back in time, you can just go forward. Because how long until the southern evangelicals consider a firearm to be part of their religious culture? If they don't already, I mean.

      • I guess I am not sure I understand your "point". Do you have one?

        • I was just tickled by your (probably accidental?) pun in your closing sentence, and felt like riffing on it for a while. I'm in agreement with your argument.

  6. The scare-quotes around the ontological jargon give the game away, I'm afraid. "Take out the metal detectors, boys, we're installing the 'essence scanners' today."

    • "ontological" – great choice for this debate :-)

  7. Maybe it is a philosophical issue. It is not a weapon until it is used as one.

    I am more concerned about the emotional stability and frame of mind of the individual who is carrying the religious object/weapon. It may be rare but it is simple enough to google "Kirpan Murder Assault" or some other combination of words and see that there are cases where Kirpans have been used with criminal intent.

    The question is then: should we ignore the potential threat from someone carrying a potentially lethal weapon, whether it is a pocket knife or a Kirpan, from entering places like courthouses, legislatures, etc.?

    If a Kirpan is allowed, is there any reason to stop someone who is carrying a pocket knife?

    • We stop people with knitting needles from entering legislatures!

      I have never heard of anyone killed by knitting needles. I'll check. But they are not religious symbols though my mother often said to me that every stitch is a prayer.

      • I think you are coming at this from the wrong angle.

        Instead of banning other things because knitting needles are banned, maybe the question is whether or not banning knitting needles makes sense.

    • In the end it comes down to our recently-developed belief that somehow we can all be perfectly safe always and everywhere. This is not true.

      I remember walking into the gallery during question period while carrying a pocket knife – but that was 40 years ago. I also remember smoking on planes and therefore carrying a lighter filled with an explosive substance. My wife used to carry a knitting bag filled with 5 or 6 long sharp objects onto aircraft. We all felt perfectly safe then – and there were just as many psychologically damaged people around then as now – perhaps more given how many recent war vets were roaming the streets.

    • It is actually a legal issue.

      There are a lot of emotionally unstable people out there. Some of them carry kitchen knives. Some of them carry bottles. Some of them just hit people.

      You are suggesting we deny an entire religion an important part of their religion because every once in a rare while one of them might be crazy.

      • I'm not suggesting anything, just asking if we are prepared to take the risk.

        Put it another way: I really don't know what the political situation is in India at the moment; is their still ongoing tensions between Sikhs and other communities? If the Prime Minister of India was here with an entourage and speaking in the House of Commons, would there be any security concerns associated with unknown Sikh individuals being in the visitors gallery, knowing that each has a Kirpan?

        Are we content to say that the risk is minimal, and therefore it is perfectly fine for Kirpans to be present everywhere? Would we change our mind if someone went berserk and killed several parliamentarians, or court officials, or teachers, because of real or imagined threats.

        I don't know the answer to these questions, but I think it is reasonable to ask them.

        • Yeah.

          i don't know what's going on in Ireland so I say we frisk every red head to make sure they are not carrying anything that can be used as a weapon.


      • Presumably, someone carrying a kitchen knife would be stopped by security before they entered the visitor's gallery. But here you are saying that security would cheerfully wave through an emotionally unstable person because it was important to their religion?

  8. I've heard Sikhs say (colloquially) that if a kirpan were ever drawn from its scabbard for any purpose other than the defense of the utterly defenseless (as a last resort to protect those who cannot protect themselves), it would cease to be a kirpan at all and would debase one of the 5 main tenants of the devout. Even roots of the name kirpan illustrate its purpose is not as a weapon, the roots of the word meaning mercy, grace, compassion, etc. A kirpan is a symbol of "Ahimsa" or non-violence for Sikhs. It also represents the power of truth to cut through untruth.

    For devout Sikhs, a kirpan reminds them of their duty to prevent violence and protect the weak regardless of their race or religion or nationality.

    If the issue is, could it be used as a weapon?: the answer is yes, just like many other sharp or heavy objects found in everyday life – it could be. But to a Sikh, a kirpan is representative of their duties towards non-violence and the protection of others from violence. And if they are devout, it's not an option. Hence, the religious expression side of the argument.

    • I've heard Sikhs say (colloquially) that if a kirpan were ever drawn from its scabbard for any purpose other than the defense of the utterly defenseless (as a last resort to protect those who cannot protect themselves), it would cease to be a kirpan at all

      As a practical matter, this is probably of small comfort to anybody finding one lodged between his ribs.

      Has anybody looked into the very real possibility that somebody wanting to do harm and can grow a beard relatively quickly can simply fake it?

  9. I am 5'11" barefoot – no stilettos for me.

    • LOL lots of tall women wear stilettos….I have no idea why ANY woman would wear them, but they do.

  10. Is there any requirement regarding the materials used to make a kirpan?
    Would a kirpan with a wax blade be acceptable by all?
    If it is a symbolic device maybe its possible to reach a compromise.
    Of course, I may be way out of line to sugest such a thing.

    • It's not that your out of line. It's just that if a Sikh has the sincere belief that he has to wear his bladed kirpan, he can insist on it. If he and security talk about it and he's comfortable with some less overtly dangerous form of kirpan, all to the good. If they can't agree, the fact that some Sikh's may be ok with a different version doesn't affect the rights of those who feel they have to wear the sharp ones.

  11. If the kirpan is a religious symbol, then it doesn't need a real blade. A symbolic dulled blade made of plastic would serve the symbolic nature of the kirpan.

  12. I was just thinking – what this debate really needs is a knock down drag out fight over the obiter of an SCC decision.

    MacLeans obliges!

  13. Part of the problem with this issue is that there are Sikh extremists here in Canada – that is a fact. Just ask Ujjal Dosanjh or Dave Hayer. Dosanjh was nearly beaton to death and Hayer's father murdered for speaking out.

    Then you have the International Sikh Youth Federation, a banned terrorist group. Threats at he Sikh New Year's parade in Surrey, B.C. and the fighting at the Surrey temple. Air India anyone?

    Not exactly reassuring. Come up with a compromise.

    • Oh, for a moment I thought you were naming Ujjal Dosanjh as a Sikh extremist. Which, when you remember his tax policies, he actually is.

      • Are you really Coulter's love child, lol???

        Yeah, good old Ujjal, from an NDP to a liberal with the same love of other people's money.

    • Beaten.

      i.e. "not stabbed".

  14. Mr. Geddes quoted:

    "With respect, while the kirpan undeniably has characteristics of a bladed weapon capable of wounding or killing a person, this submission disregards the fact that, for orthodox Sikhs, the kirpan is above all a religious symbol.”

    John, if symbology is all that matters according to the courts, then where does the truth come in? The truth is, the dagger COULD be a weapon, but in the hands of the sikh it is a relgious symbol.

  15. Let's try the same logic here.
    If I don't hunt, don't want to hunt, and have no desire to hunt, why do I have to pay money to register grandad's 100 year old shotgun? It will never fire again because I have no intention of loading it. While it is true it COULD be loaded, or could be used as a weapon, undeniable capable of wounding or killing a person, the fact remains that to me it is a symbol. A cherished piece of family history.

    The fact that my grandads old shotgun is not a part of my religion has little to do with it if we are only conerned with symbology. Why should feelings for religion trump feelings for one's family history?

    By the way……if you're interested, I say let the Sikh's wear their daggers.

    Remember, a judge….is just a lawyer with friends in politics.

    but they're still just lawyers.

    • You don't need to register the shotgun if it meets the definition of an antique and since you said you'll never fire it; have it permanently deactivated and incapable of discharging projectiles; registration not required.

      But as a general rule, you need a firearm licence to possess the shotgun. Only firearms that have been registered and verified by an approved verifier can be transferred to a new owner. An amnesty applies to some non-restricted firearm owners who take immediate steps to comply with the Firearms Act by obtaining a licence and/or a registration certificate.

      Your grandfather a law abiding person already had the shotgun registered. The transfer of ownership can be done over the phone, online or via paper application.

      17 May 2006 Long-gun owners will no longer have to pay to register their weapons, and the government will provide refunds to those who have already registered their long guns.

      • Tommy…

        Hmmm…….you seemed to have missed the point.

        And by the way…..there was no registry when grandad owned said gun….and guess what? He still managed not to shoot anyone with it.

  16. I'm not sure why you are so upset about my choice of Religion.

    “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

    • "Cats leads to Jedi." – Halo

  17. If it is truly symbolic than it seems that Sikh's should have no difficulty with request for it to be truly symbolic. Weld the blade in to the scabard or make it impossible to remove the blade. I do not want weapons in the parliment so some one ( perhaps not the Sikh who wares it but some other person) to draw it and use it. In communion, in a Christian church people do not drink real blood and consume real flesh the use symbols. Why can not Sikh's use the same logic. Keep the kirpan as a symbol but make it so it is no usable as a weapon. why is this so difficult?

  18. Public places with heightened security needs such as courthouses, legislative buildings like the National Assembly or the Capitol building , use scanning devices to remove pointy metal objects as these are deemed to be potentially dangerous.

    Knitting needles have never been regarded in law or in society in general as weapons, yet one is forbidden from entering certain high-risk environments with knitting needles.

    The SC has determined that a kirpan is a religious object that can be worn by Sikhs in the classrom. The classrom is not deemed by governments to be a high-security risk environment. But courhouses, parliaments buildings, airplanes are, so are jails. I can't believe that the SC would allow a convicted Sikh to wear a 20cm kirpan, and I don't believe that the SC would consider the restrictions put upon everyone including Sikhs entering high-security risk environments to be an infringement on their religious rights. In fact, a human rights tribunal has already determined this, as regards air travel.

  19. Surely you can appreciate the distinction between finding that "Orthodox Sikhs' consider it a religious symbol and finding that it is in fact a religious symbol and not a weapon.

    Of course Sikhs considered it a religious symbol.

    The Court was stating a simple truth.

    Did the Court, after declaring the position of one of the parties to the litigation (which is what your quote was) go onto say that the Sikhs were correct?

  20. ''With respect, while the kirpan undeniably has characteristics of a bladed weapon capable of wounding or killing a person''

    And that is my point. It is a knife used a a religious symbol. You know the old ''if it walks like a duck, if it quack like a duck, well, my friend, what you have here is a duck.

    • Isn't there a restaurant in the House of Commons? Would you have them remove all knives from the kitchen and dining room?

      • I would not of course. And I doubt very much that you can take that knife from the cafeteria with you to a meeting area in the National Assembly.

        I believe the incident started with 4 gentleman trying to enter a secure area with their kirpans, were refused entry after the kirpans were found by security personal. That is because the kirpans are knives and the person in charge of security can not let in knives in that area.

        But, in the end, since I am not in charge, people can do what the hell they want. If the majority find it reasonable to have people entering government buildings, schools, churches and airplanes with knives on their persons, so be it.
        I think it is wrong but I also know when an issue has run its natural course ans this one has.

        • So you think people are searched before they are permitted to leave the kitchen?

          See, here is your problem. Knives are actually created to be tools. That they can be used as weapons is obvious, but of course so can many other things. The objects in question here were not created to be used as weapons. I am not sure why that is so hard to understand.

  21. Any blade larger than 2" is a weapon , Christians doe not carry 10ft crosses around , a symbolic smallish Kirpan symbol worn around the neck would still fulfill their obligation to sikhism .

  22. I must admit that I find it pretty amusing to hear right-wing/conservative types essentially argue "it's not people that kill, it's kirpans". I've been hearing since childhood that a gun isn't a problem until it's in the hands of a criminal. Now I'm hearing that a kirpan is always a problem regardless of whose hands it is in.

    Xenophobia sure does strange things to people.

  23. you obviously never heard me state that I think Sikh's should be allowed to wear their Kirpans..

    and I'm a right-wing conservative type….

    In fact, I made the same argument about the Kirpan. If any Siky uses his Kirpan illegally…..that sikh alone should face the consequences.

Sign in to comment.