Quebec soccer federation explains turban ban

Quebec referees began cracking down on turbans, patkas and keskis -- the religious headgear worn by Sikh men and boys -- in the last year. (AP/Carolyn Lessard)

MONTREAL — The Quebec Soccer Federation says if Sikh kids want to play soccer while wearing a turban there’s an easy solution: they can play in their own yard.

The federation held a Monday teleconference to explain its weekend decision to uphold a ban on turbans that is unique in the country.

Brigitte Frot, the director-general of the provincial association, 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.”

Someone could be heard openly laughing as she delivered that response during Monday’s media telephone conference call.

Canada has an office for religious freedom but it said Monday that it will not interfere in the issue. The new federal organization, created by the Harper Tories, explained that it operates under the Department of Foreign Affairs and its work is limited to the area outside Canada’s borders.

A member of the governing party, however, is condemning the Quebec decision.

Conservative MP Parm Gill fired off a series of open letters on Monday to the Quebec and Canadian soccer federations as well as the sport’s governing body over the ban on turban-wearing players.

Gill said a statement he was disappointed with the Quebec federation’s decision and called on the various groups to find a way to change it.

“It is incredibly unfortunate and insulting that, in a nation that prides itself on diversity, such discriminatory regulations are allowed to stand. There is no valid reason for a ban on the wearing of turbans or other religious symbols during athletic competitions,” Gill said.

The soccer federation explains the ban as an issue of player safety.

When asked, however, how many injuries have actually been linked to turbans Frot replied that the association doesn’t have money to commission studies. There have been no injuries, as far as she’s aware, she said.

“The point is we don’t know and because we don’t know we don’t want to take any chances,” Frot said.

“That’s the main concern our board has.”

Frot was asked whether the move was racist and she said she disagreed with the question. When asked whether it might at least be construed as intolerant, she offered a “no comment.”

She said her group was simply taking its cues from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. FIFA rules do not explicitly state a position on such headwear — which is neither banned, nor allowed.

Frot said that if people want to change the policy they should take it up with FIFA.

“They have to knock at FIFA’s door,” she said.

She said the federation would lift its ban immediately if FIFA did. But, for now, Quebec referees who don’t apply the rule could face penalties.

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

The weekend decision to uphold the ban occurred despite a directive from the Canadian Soccer Association in April, calling for provincial associations to allow them by extending an existing rule that allows Islamic hijabs for girls.

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

The Sikh community says this has forced a difficult dilemma onto the families of 100 to 200 children: ditch a religious requirement, or quit playing organized soccer. The World Sikh Organization says those children were forced out of soccer a year ago.

Now this season may already be lost for them because the registration period has ended.

The Sikh organization says it hasn’t ruled out a legal challenge.

The group held a meeting in Ottawa that was already scheduled Monday and the issue was at the top of the agenda.

“In the normal course, what we try to do is reach out and have a dialogue on how we can work around the issue and reassure both sides and find a solution that works for everyone,” said Balpreet Singh, spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

“The fact is we have been trying to reach out to the Quebec Soccer Federation in 2011 and we have been unsuccessful, we have not received any replies.”

Singh, who is a lawyer by trade, said he highly doubts that such a ban would hold up in the courts.

B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec office called the soccer body’s ruling a failure in reasonable accommodation and offered its expertise on Monday for both sides to come to a compromise.

The dispute has germinated in the emotional hothouse of Quebec’s identity debates.

The issue of accommodating minorities landed on the political stage in 2007, when tabloid media carried sensational reports about examples of religious minorities imposing their views on others.

One famous example was when a group of Muslims visiting a Quebec sugar shack managed to get traditional pea soup with the pork removed.

The issue wound up being the subject of a provincial commission under the Liberals. More recently, it has been taken up with greater enthusiasm by the governing Parti Quebecois.

The government now promises to bring in a new charter of Quebec values — with secularism being a paramount virtue.

However, the government has signalled that its proposed brand of secularism will not apply to all religions equally.

Muslim and Sikh headwear, for instance, will likely be banned from public institutions under the proposed policy — while, on the other hand, the large Christian cross hanging over the Quebec legislature will get to stay.

As for the soccer pitch, Muslim and Sikh headwear will be treated differently in Quebec — at least for now. Frot said things might change eventually.

Frot said safety studies were done with the Muslim hijab and, afterward, FIFA relaxed its rules for it. She said she expects the same will eventually happen with turbans, although she noted that the hijab issue took nearly four years to resolve.

“We have an obligation as a federation to put player safety first,” she said.

“FIFA has done this work for the hijab and, when they’ve done it for the turban, I have no doubt that FIFA will put out a directive authorizing it and we’ll be happy to follow suit.”

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