Concept 3: Freedom of Conscience and Religion

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Noa Mendelsohn Aviv
Director, Freedom of Expression Project
Canadian Civil Liberties Association
January 21, 2009

Freedom of religion is a freedom that is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter guarantees everyone the right to freedom of conscience and religion and, what this essentially means, is that everyone has the right to believe what they want, to state those beliefs opening, to practise their religious rituals, their religious practices as they see fit, as their, as their religion sees fit. All of that is a part of freedom of religion and the other aspect of it is the freedom not to be forced to practise someone else's religion.

The Multanii case involves the first kind of practice. Mr. Multani and his parents say that, in his sect of Sikhism, they are required … every person who has been baptized in the Khalsa Sikh faith is required to wear five ritual objects on their body at all times; they all begin with the letter K. One of those is a kirpan and the kirpan is a metal object that resembles a dagger.

The conflict came up in a school setting where he was playing one day with his friends. The dagger fell out of his clothing onto the floor. School authorities saw this. They were horrified. At the time, in Quebec, there was a zero tolerance policy in his school against weapons. And so you had this direct conflict between this policy, the zero tolerance policy, and between his right to wear his kirpan as his religion required him to do. The school authorities were not of one mind on what could be done about Mr. Multani's kirpan. The school principal had purposed an arrangement. I believe it had actually come from the school board originally, but it had been arranged with the principal, that Mr. Multani could continue to wear his kirpan in the school, as long as he met certain restrictions. It had to be in a sheath that was not made out of metal so that no one would be able to hurt themselves by it. It had to be sewn tightly into some kind of strong cloth garment, worn underneath his clothing. He would have to notify school authorities of the fact that he had it, notify them if he lost it, etc. This is the same arrangement that had been reached in Ontarioii when a similar issue had come up. It should also be noted that in many other provinces in Canada, in Alberta and British Columbia, they also had provided for students to wear kirpans in school with certain restrictions.

When it came time for the school board to approve this plan, the governing body of the school and the school board were deeply uncomfortable with the notion of Mr. Multani having a kirpan in school. These were the concerns that they stated. They said, "This object is a weapon; it's sharp; it's dangerous; it can be used to threaten people." The school board also had concerns that if Multani could bring his kirpan into the school, other students would say, "Well, if there is this kind of weapon floating around, we need to bring knives in to defend ourselves," and it could lead to a proliferation of weapons in schools and we're trying to cut back. That's why we have a zero tolerance policy. They were also concerned because they felt that, they felt that it would create, send, send an unwanted message in the school. "After all, a dagger shaped object," they said, "sends a message of violence. That using force is a way to resolve conflict." And all of this they saw tied up in the kirpan.

Mr. Multani and his parents argued before the Court that it wasn't quite that simple. The kirpan, for people who practise their religion and for those people who wore the kirpan, was a religious object, a symbolic object and it didn't stand for violence. In fact they said, theirs was a religion of pacifism, in which pacifism was taught, and the kirpan stood for such symbols as honour. They also said that it would go against their religion to use their kirpan violently, and they showed that there had never been a kirpan related violent incident in a school, ever, and there have been Sikhs living in Canada for over 100 years. This evidence had been accepted by the Courts in this case. It had been accepted by the Courts in other cases in Ontario and in British Columbia.

  1. Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 256, 2006 SCC 6
  2. Ontario (Human Rights Commission) v. Peel Board of Education (1991), (sub nom. Pandori v. Peel Board of Education) 80 D.L.R. (4th) 475 (Ont. Div. Ct.), leave to appeal refused (1991), 3 O.R. (3d) 531n (C.A.)

Disclaimer - The resources presented in this learning tool, the Charter in the Classroom: Students, Teachers and Rights (CC: STAR) are included only to assist in the study of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They do not necessarily represent an endorsement of a position or issue, opinion or view of its contributors, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Inukshuk Wireless, the Ontario Justice Education Network, the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust or any of the people, organizations, or institutions affiliated with it.