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The kirpan and Canada's French-English divide

Balpreet Singh, a lawyer at the World Sikh Organization of Canada, poses in front of the Quebec National Assembly after being denied entry on Jan. 18, 2011.

Francis Vachon/francis vachon The Globe and Mail

The two solitudes, when they don't ignore each other, yell at each other. This week, they were yelling.

The French are angry with the English for being angry with the Quebec National Assembly.

Security guards, with the assent of both the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois, refused to allow four Sikhs to enter a committee room this week, where they were to testify concerning legislation forbidding the wearing of the niqab or other face coverings while receiving government service. The Sikhs were barred because they refused to surrender their ceremonial daggers, known as kirpans. In the wake of that decision, the Bloc Québécois has announced it will push to have the kirpan banned on Parliament Hill as well.

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National politicians and English-language newspapers, including this one, accused Quebec politicians of intolerance.

"All Canadians have the right to have access to democratic spaces and legislatures," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who was visiting Montreal, said Thursday.

"Shame on the Bloc for playing divisive political games," said NDP MP Olivia Chow. "There have been Sikh MPs in the House for years. This has never been an issue nor should it be."

French-language politicians and newspapers retorted that Quebeckers had a duty to protect both their language and culture, which included prohibiting religious symbols where they posed a threat to human rights or safety.

"Religious freedom exists but there are other values," said Louise Beaudoin, the PQ's designated critic for secularism. "For instance, multiculturalism is not a Quebec value. It may be a Canadian one but it is not a Quebec one."

That there exists such a position as secularism critic boggles an English-Canadian mind. But it's true that the two cultures often have a difficult time understanding each other.

Try spending a day at Harbord Collegiate. For almost 120 years, Harbord has graduated the brightest and best of each generation of Toronto students. Today, its halls teem with infectiously happy and ferociously bright teenagers of Chinese, Filipino, South Asian, Latino and African background. Half the student body belongs to a visible minority, except they aren't the minority any more, at least not at Harbord.

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Toronto and the other large cities of English Canada don't think too much about reasonable accommodation. The opposition parties have no critic for secularism. Partly that's because Quebec is a nation - a community bound by language, history and culture - while the rest of Canada is something that could best be described as postnational, worried less about protecting and more about encompassing.

Partly that's because English and French Canadians sometimes employ different approaches when considering social challenges. As Robert and Isabelle Tombs observed in That Sweet Enemy, their fine history of Anglo-French rivalry, the French are inclined to look at the big picture. Here is a problem; what does it say about the system in which it is embedded? What changes should we make to the system to eliminate the problem? The English tradition favours ad hoc fixes, while avoiding grand designs. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses; each can seem perverse to the other side.

That two such disparate world views can live in the same political space remains a miracle. We should remember that on weeks like this, when everybody is yelling at everybody else.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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