British Columbia Sikhs have got a sigh of relief since the government announced they no longer have to compromise their faith when entering provincial courtrooms.
According to a ministry of justice release, as of Friday, Amritdhari (baptized) Sikhs will be able to wear their kirpans — a small stylised sword, part of their five articles of faith — when visting public areas of a courthouse.
“It’s a relief,” said Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning, executive director of the World Sikh Organisation of Canada.
“I can focus on being a good civic citizen and I don’t have to worry about compromising my faith, so that’s a huge burden that’s been lifted.Having to testify in court can be a stressful situation, and for Sikhs having to remove the kirpan made it worse." she added.
“To take it off, that’s a painful thing to ask. [It was like] kind of being torn in two … practicing Sikhism and being a good citizen.” she said.
The kirpan, as part of the Sikh code of conduct, is supposed to be worn — sheathed — at all times. The kirpan itself symbolises the Sikh duty to stand against injustice.
“It’s very sacred, it’s an extension of who we are — we wear it all times,” said Vinning. “Taking it off – it’s hard.” she added.
According to director of Abbotsford’s Sikh Heritage Museum, Satwinder Bains, the policy is “the next step” for Sikhs.
“But I still think there’s a lot of work to be done,” she said, adding dialogue outside the Sikh community is needed.
“The conversation about what the kirpan means to Sikhs needs to happen,” she said. “People don’t have all the information — the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a sword, this is a dagger.’”
According to the union representing sheriffs, members “are not concerned with kirpans in the courtrooms, [because] these are longheld religious beliefs and our members respect them”.
“It’s something that they’ll have to monitor and just another issue that they have to deal with in the courtrooms,” said Dean Purdy, spokesman for the BC government and Service Employees’ Union.
Similar kirpan accommodation policies already exist in the Parliament of Canada, as well as in Alberta and Toronto courthouses.
For an Amritdhari Sikh to attend a BC courthouse with a kirpan, the sheriff must be informed and the person must identify himself as an Amritdhari Sikh.
The sheriff will then assess potential risk factors, and has the right to refuse someone with a kirpan on a case-by-case basis.