Feds to Quebec soccer officials: Let the children with turbans play

A decision to ban turban-wearing Sikh kids from Quebec soccer fields was loudly condemned Tuesday by the federal government.

Conservative ministers weighed in on a provincial sports-association decision that has attracted coverage from some major international media.

They criticized the Quebec Soccer Federation’s decision to uphold its ban and demanded that the association let turban-wearing kids play.

The federation has stood pat on its decision, and dismissed criticism that the move was racist and intolerant. It said the policy was based on concern for player safety.

But the country’s actual public safety minister wasn’t buying it.

“Telling 5 year old kids they can’t play soccer because of bogus safety excuses is not acceptable in any province,” Vic Toews tweeted Monday.

The federal government next voiced its displeasure on several fronts Tuesday, including in the House of Commons. Bal Gosal, the minister of state for sport, denounced the ban and called for the federation to change its position.

“We believe that amateur sports like soccer should encourage the participation of children rather than exclude them,” Gosal said. “We see no valid reason why kids should be banned from playing soccer because of their religion.”

The federal reaction was far more vigorous than it was under comparable circumstances a few years ago. When a Quebec taekwondo meet expelled Muslim girls with hijabs in 2007, the federal Conservatives went out of their way to avoid commenting.

At the time, minister Jason Kenney rushed up a staircase to avoid commenting. This time, the immigration minister was adding his voice to the chorus of condemnation.

“A sport such as soccer should encourage children to participate, and not exclude them because of their religious traditions,” Kenney tweeted in French.

A day earlier, the Quebec association had held a news conference to explain its policy but struggled to provide any evidence or studies that turbans present a risk on the field.

Brigitte Frot, the director-general of the provincial group, was asked what she would tell a five-year-old boy in a turban who shows up to register to play soccer with his friends. She replied: “They can play in their backyard. But not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer. They have no choice.”

The move ignores a non-binding directive from the Canadian Soccer Association, which has called for provincial associations to allow turbans by extending an existing rule that allows Islamic hijabs for girls.

Quebec is the only province that has balked at the directive.

That means as many as 200 Sikh soccer players will remain on the sidelines because the federation refuses to allow them on the field with turbans, patkas and keskis — the religious headgear worn by Sikh men and boys.

Practising Sikhs believe they must cover their hair with a turban.

Fellow Conservative MP Parm Gill said Monday that he’d written letters to the three main stakeholders — the Canadian and Quebec federations, as well as FIFA, soccer’s governing body. In those letters, he condemned the ban and requested a compromise to get kids back on the pitch.

Gill launched a petition Tuesday calling on FIFA to amend its rules to “expressly permit the wearing of religious head coverings.”

The Opposition New Democrats say they’ve already urged FIFA to clarify its policy on turbans and have not heard back.

“If they (FIFA) would get their act in gear and respond, everyone would be able to move forward with this,” said sports critic Matthew Dube.

Dube wouldn’t weigh in on the safety issue and said it wasn’t up to politicians to tell provincial associations how to conduct their affairs.

A quick ruling from the governing body would resolve everything, he added.

He later tweeted that the “important” thing is “for youth to play.”

While the NDP was taking a more nuanced position, the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau was, like the Tories, more squarely in favour of overturning the ban.

“Wearing a turban shouldn’t stop you from playing soccer or participating fully in any other activity,” he tweeted, in both official languages.

“The (federation) must drop its ban now.”

FIFA’s media department offered an email following a request for comment on the Quebec issue.

In July 2012, FIFA declared Muslim hijabs were okay and spelled out a temporary trial period. It also approved designs for headscarves specifically suited for the pitch and established rules for their use. Quebec followed suit in March 2013.

FIFA has not explicitly added turbans to its policy — at least not yet.

“Any amendment to ‘Law 4 – The Players’ Equipment’ in this regard would be made only on conclusion of the trial period in March 2014,” FIFA said in its email.