Quebec soccer tournament loses 20 out-of-province teams over turban ban

MONTREAL – The shunning of Quebec soccer has begun.

Hundreds of Ontarians won’t be going to Montreal for a soccer tournament this weekend, amid a political dispute between the Quebec and national soccer bodies over turbans.

The Montreal host association confirmed Thursday that 20 Ontario youth teams are not being allowed to come to play.

An official with the Lac St-Louis Regional Soccer Association said about 170 teams, mostly from Montreal area, were invited to take part in the weekend tournament.

Director-General Edouard St-Lo says Ontario teams are not being allowed to take part because they can’t get travel permits from the Ontario Soccer Association.

“Why they revoked their permit? I can’t tell you,” St-Lo said when reached by telephone.

This week, the Canadian Soccer Association suspended the Quebec Soccer Federation over its controversial turban ban.

The suspension includes prohibiting Quebec teams from participating in — or hosting — interprovincial matches and national competitions.

The dispute has attracted international news coverage and drawn in numerous politicians. It has also placed different value systems on a collision course.

The current Parti Quebecois government, critics of laissez-faire multiculturalism, are defending the right to banish certain displays of religious faith from the public space in the name of secularism.

The PQ has placed its support behind the QSF. And in an echo of the intergovernmental disputes that frequently typify Canadian federalism, Premier Pauline Marois has argued that the national association has no right to tell the provincial one what to do.

However, the national body argues that it is indeed the recognized authority within the country and its decisions are binding on provincial associations.

Even the Quebec federation’s bylaws debunk the premier’s claim.

The QSF’s rule No. 5 says: “(The QSF) is affiliated to, and under the jurisdiction of, the Canadian Soccer Association and is subject to its rules unless it has received a specific exemption.”

The sanctions imposed by the national body have received support from a number of federal politicians.

Also, there are hints that some Montreal-area leagues might try to defy the turban ban.

The political rift has pitted some officials in west-end Montreal, which has proportionally more anglophones and Sikhs than most of the province, against the provincial body.

One neighbourhood association suggests it will do its best to ignore the Quebec federation’s order. Fern da Silva, president of the Pierrefonds Soccer Association, said in an interview that he doesn’t agree with the ban on turbans.

About 2,500 children — including about a dozen who wear turbans — play in the soccer group in the northwest section of the city.

“In the club, we’ve decided that we’re going to do whatever we feel is right,” da Silva said.

“You may go to any field and not see any kid with a turban and then you might get a game where there are two or three… So far we’ve been able to get along, regardless of the ruling, and we haven’t had any issues.”

The provincial federation has threatened to fine referees if they let players play in religious headwear. However, da Silva said he is leaving it up to his referees to decide what to do.

“My refs have already been told to be very objective about it and look at it and if there’s really, really a safety issue, we’ll deal with it,” he said, adding that the Quebec federation’s argument that turbans are a safety issue “is totally erroneous.”

But da Silva isn’t letting the Canadian Soccer Association off the hook, either. He said the CSA has to shoulder some of the blame because, he said, it had been unclear in its wishes and previously left the impression that provincial bodies were free to decide as they wished.

Da Silva said hopes the issue is resolved as soon as possible “and we all get back to what we’re supposed to be doing — looking after the kids on the field and getting as many kids as possible on the fields.”

As for this weekend’s tournament, St-Lo says he’s scrambling to replace the out-of-province teams with other local teams.

“That’s what we’re working on,” he said, adding that he didn’t foresee any problems trying to replace the 20 Ontario teams.