Marois backs Quebec soccer body on turbans, calls suspended group 'autonomous'

MONTREAL – Pauline Marois came out kicking in defence of the Quebec Soccer Federation’s refusal to let turban-wearing kids play the sport, a position that has lobbed the controversial debate into the province’s political arena.

The Canadian Soccer Association suspended the provincial association on Monday after the Quebec body showed no sign of overturning its decision to uphold a ban on Sikh religious headwear on the pitch.

It says the suspension will remain in place until the Quebec organization lifts its restriction on turbans, patkas and keskis in organized soccer.

The Quebec premier took issue Tuesday with the CSA move and called it “unacceptable” for the national organization to punish her province’s soccer federation.

The suspension prompted Marois, and several other Quebec politicians, to make their first public remarks on a contentious dispute that has made international headlines. Virtually all lawmakers in the Quebec legislature had avoided the politically thorny topic, but the federal-provincial jurisdictional crossover had several of them talking Tuesday at the national assembly.

“I believe the Quebec federation has the right to make its own rules, it’s autonomous, it’s not bound by the Canadian federation,” Marois, leader of the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois, said in Quebec City.

“In this regard, I support it in its orientations.”

The CSA, however, reports directly to the FIFA world soccer governing body and is responsible for granting or revoking the membership of provincial federations.

Prominent PQ cabinet minister Bernard Drainville stuck to his party’s stance despite the soccer hierarchy.

“It is not up to the Canadian association to decide what is going on Quebec soccer fields — this power belongs to the Quebec Soccer Federation,” Drainville told reporters.

“So, the Canadian association should respect the autonomy of the Quebec Soccer Federation to make its own rules on Quebec soccer fields. This is the principle we are defending and we do not understand why the Canadian association is interfering with this right that the Quebec Soccer Federation has.”

The Quebec body, which did not immediately return calls about the suspension, met late Tuesday to discuss the matter.

A source told The Canadian Press a decision was made after the meeting and that it would be made public in 10 days.

In the meanwhile, the Quebec Soccer Federation will continue to look at the controversy.

It cites safety concerns for banning turbans and points to FIFA rules, which don’t specifically allow turbans. But critics counter that FIFA’s regulations don’t explicitly ban turbans, either.

In Ottawa, Quebec Conservative MP Maxime Bernier was asked by a reporter about Marois’ support for the Quebec federation. He said the Harper government backs the CSA and believes soccer players should be free to wear any religious symbol on the pitch, as long as it doesn’t cause a safety issue.

“So, I hope that we are more open in Quebec in this way,” said Bernier, who noted that all other provincial federations believe Sikh headwear is safe for soccer.

The national soccer organization said last week it expected the Quebec association to reverse the ban, which has drawn condemnation from several federal politicians. Quebec is the only province that has balked at the directive to allow turbans on the pitch.

It’s unclear how the sanction might affect Quebec’s soccer players. A spokeswoman for the Canadian Soccer Association said Tuesday she did not have specific details on the suspension.

The impact, however, could be felt in a variety of ways unless the situation is resolved soon, according to Canadian Soccer News.

Its website said the suspension could prevent Quebec all-star teams from playing outside the province, and even result in games within Quebec being cancelled if they involve a nationally certified referee.

If the suspension lasts long enough, Quebec teams could also be blocked from participating in national championships, the publication said.

Quebec is set to host the upcoming Canada Games in the city of Sherbrooke and there are fears the suspension could keep some of the province’s athletes from competing in the August event.

“I know that there are young people who are among the best and dream of going (to the Canada Games),” Quebec Sports Minister Marie Malavoy said Tuesday.

“And I really hope that the Canadian (Soccer) Association leaves us alone and lets us make our own decisions because it’s the youth who risk suffering in the very short term.”

The technical director of a top Quebec amateur club said the suspension could cancel a match scheduled for later this month between his senior men’s team, Royal-Select Beauport, and the touring Haitian national squad. Haiti is No. 63 in FIFA’s world rankings — 20 spots higher than Canada.

Samir Ghrib said if the dispute isn’t resolved before the fall, it could also prevent his team from earning a chance to defend its 2012 national title. Ghrib, who agrees with the Quebec association’s position on turbans, hopes a solution is found soon.

“Religion doesn’t have a place on sports fields,” he said. “The soccer field must remain neutral.”

The Sikh community, meanwhile, says the Quebec soccer body has put the families of 100 to 200 children in a difficult spot: abandon a religious requirement, or quit playing organized soccer. The World Sikh Organization says those children were forced out of soccer a year ago.

Quebec referees began cracking down in the last year on turbans, patkas and keskis — the religious headgear worn by Sikh men and boys.

Physicians, including former soccer coach Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja, have denounced the ban and insist it has no medical justification.

On Tuesday, even the president of Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact weighed in on the turban-ban debate.

Joey Saputo said in a statement that kids should not be prevented from playing soccer at the youth level just because they wear a turban, but added that he thought the CSA’s decision to suspend Quebec’s federation over the issue was “clearly exaggerated.”

He said the Quebec organization’s ban on turbans was based on a FIFA rule that is open to interpretation. Saputo added that accusations of racism against the provincial federation were uncalled for considering the context of the Quebec body’s decision.

“The Canadian Soccer Association made a recommendation and did not officially state its position to provincial federations,” said Saputo, who also urged those involved to resolve the situation.

“All parties involved must find some common ground for the good of the sport.”

Shortly after the suspension was announced Monday, some of those who opposed the ban said they welcomed the national body’s tough-love approach.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tweeted his approval: “Good to see CDN Soccer Association take action against the Quebec Soccer Federation over its ridiculous turban ban.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau echoed the sentiment, tweeting that “Barring kids from playing soccer because they wear a turban is wrong. The CSA is right to suspend the #QSF.”

– with a file from Marc Tougas