What Not to Wear

April 30th, 2007

Should people in Canada have to ask politely to wear what they want? Canadians define our nation with pride as a cultural mosaic, a vibrant and colourful collection made up of people who immigrated to Canada from every corner of the world. Multiculturalism is the rule in Canada, and it carries the force of the constitution.

This month we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Among other things, the Charter guarantees freedoms of belief, religion, and expression.

One would think that in this cultural climate in which Canadians take such pride, we wouldn’t be concerning ourselves with how people dress. Yet there have been all too many instances where individuals have had to fight hard to have their religious wardrobe accommodated.

– In 1985, when Baltej Singh Dhillon, a devout Sikh, wanted to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he was able to meet all the requirements except for the dress code. He could not wear the trademark “Mountie” hat because of his religious duty to wear a turban. It took a long and concerted effort all the way to the national parliament by Dhillon to have this policy officially changed.

– In a Montreal school in 2001, a 12 year old boy was sent home because he was told he could not wear his kirpan, a ceremonial dagger worn under the clothing. Of course the school had a policy against any weapons, but when the issue of safety was looked at closely, with the dagger in a wooden sheath and sewn under cloth, it is not accessible. In 2006 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the boy’s favour.

– Earlier this year at a soccer tournament in Quebec, a young Muslim girl was ejected because she was wearing a headscarf on the pitch. The referee was another young Muslim-Canadian, but was following rules set out by the sport’s international governing body FIFA, which says that nothing may be worn on the head for reasons of safety. At a recent meeting FIFA upheld this rule, saying essentially that “rules are rules”.

Rules can work both ways when it comes to protecting rights in a multicultural society. On the one hand, the courts have continued to rule in favour of allowing people to wear what they wish. If the young soccer player chooses to appeal this rule in the Canadian courts, it is likely she would succeed.

But she should not have to go that far. In these cases rules were being followed without a real thought to why they were made in the first place. The soccer rules are meant to protect players, so that children can play the sport safely. Was the headscarf really a danger to her or other players on the field? Is the risk anything close to the possibility of injury from suiting up for a game of hockey, Canada’s national sport? Telling this young girl that she can’t wear her headscarf misses the point.

We have important rules in place that protect rights. We have other rules that may infringe on rights. As the philosopher Thomas Reid said “the rules of architecture never built a house”. How you dress in Canada should not be a matter of rules. No one should have to ask nicely to wear clothing that is important to their religion. This is not only Canadian law but a Canadian value. Restricting that would make for a pretty dull mosaic.

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