Premier Pauline Marois has thrown her support behind Quebec soccer officials' ban on Sikh turbans, as a contentious debate over the religion and sports spilled onto political turf.
The Canadian Soccer Association has suspended the Quebec Soccer Federation over its decision this month to uphold a ban on turbans and other Sikh religious headgear, a conflict that now risks dragging thousands of children who play organized soccer into the controversy. After remaining mum for more than a week, the Parti Québécois government stepped in Tuesday.
The Premier called it "unacceptable" for Canadian soccer officials to suspend the Quebec federation, and said the provincial body has the right to set its own rules.
"[The Quebec Soccer Federation] is autonomous, not subject to the Canadian federation and, in this regard, I support it in its orientations," she said in Quebec.
The Premier's comments, which underline the division between her sovereigntist government and federalist politicians who oppose the ban, came as soccer officials in the province were to hold an emergency debate on the issue.
Representatives of 18 regional soccer associations met for emergency talks Tuesday night to discuss whether to repeal the provincial ban, which Sikh groups say has kept 100 to 200 Sikh children off soccer pitches this season. According to one source, the members agreed to negotiate with the Canadian Soccer Association but put a lid on disclosing any information about the talks.
The decision by the CSA to punish Quebec until it lifts its restriction could have widespread repercussions. According to one official, the CSA decision affects hundreds of Quebec children and young adults, who would be unable to compete in tournaments with teams from other provinces.
"It means our teams [from Quebec] aren't recognized as federated, so they couldn't compete," said Marc St-Amour, director of competitions at the Outaouais Regional Soccer Association in Western Quebec. "It could be major."
He said hundreds of Outaouais children who cross the river for games in Ottawa would also be barred.
The controversy is unfolding amid discussions over the place of religion and the accommodation of minorities in Quebec. The PQ government plans to introduce a charter of Quebec values in which secularism plays a central role.
The minister responsible for the charter, Bernard Drainville, portrayed the soccer controversy as one of safeguarding Quebec from meddling. "The principle we are defending is the principle that the Quebec Soccer Federation has the power and the right to decide what goes on in Quebec soccer fields," he said Tuesday.
Marie Malavoy, minister responsible for amateur sports, said the Canadian soccer body's move could threaten the participation of young Quebec soccer players at the Canada Games in Sherbrooke, Que., in August. That would be "deplorable," she said.
Mr. St-Amour says he understands Quebec's need to protect its identity and culture, but he supports repealing the turban ban so that Sikh children can join a popular game.
"It's Quebec philosophy to say: 'When you come here, you're coming to our place and you play by our rules.' It's part of our heritage, and I can understand the fears," he said. "However, there are situations where we should live and let live." . This [turbans] doesn't take anything away from anyone else, so why worry about it? We can find common ground."
The issue has inflamed passions inside and outside the province. Federalist politicians, including Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, have spoken against the turban ban. Some Montreal city politicians want an emergency debate seeking to overturn it.
Critics question the QSF's argument that it was basing its decision on safety concerns, when there was no evidence of turban-related injuries in soccer.
At the Sikh Sports Club in Brampton, Ont., thousands of boys have played soccer with turbans and other religious headgear without injury, treasurer Harjinder Atwal said. Soccer is important to immigrant families, who find it more affordable than hockey and other activities, he said.
"Kids should have the chance to play, everywhere," Mr. Atwal said. "I feel bad for the kids [in Quebec] – why should they be sitting at home? They should get a chance to play.There has never been an issue with safety."
Sikh families in Quebec said they hoped provincial soccer officials would reverse their position. Gagandeep Ahlawalia's 6-year-old son, Rasnamjeet, was told he could not sign up for soccer this season because of his religious head covering.
"I want to see all kids on the field. To deprive anyone the opportunity to be an integral part of society while they're growing up is just not something I accept," Ms. Ahlawalia said. "I just hope the ban will be lifted and my son will be able to play with the rest of his kindergarten buddies."
The controversy was making waves outside politics. Joey Saputo, president of the Montreal Impact professional team, called the CSA's suspension of the Quebec body "exaggerated" and urged all parties to "find some common ground for the good of the sports."
"Personally, I don't think we should stop a child from playing soccer at the youth level because they wear a turban," Mr. Saputo said in a statement. However, he said that the Quebec group's decision based on rules set out by FIFA, the soccer's world governing body, "allows for interpretation." He said accusations of racism against the Quebec soccer body are misplaced because the CSA merely recommended lifting its ban "and did not officially state its position to provincial federations."
With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec