I have lived in Canada my entire life and have always believed that this is a free and democratic society with equal rights for everyone. We are one of the most diverse and multicultural countries in the world and we strive to protect everyone’s fundamental freedom of conscience and religion under section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Whether you’re a Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or a follower of any other faith, you are entitled to freely practice your religion without anyone discriminating against you.
In recent news, the province of Quebec proposed new secularism legislation called Bill 21, which would prevent certain public sector employees from wearing overt religious symbols at work. This would include teachers, police officers, court clerks, and other government jobs. This ban would have a direct impact on people who wear religious clothing and they would be forced to remove it if they choose to work within Quebec’s public sector. I find this very disheartening because I think of the young kids in Quebec who may dream of growing up and working a government job, but their success may be dependent on removing their Sikh turban, Muslim hijab, or Jewish kippah. CTV News writer Rachel Gilmore wrote that a member of Quebec’s National Assembly, named Christopher Skeete, issued a statement regarding this new bill.
“We’re saying when you come to work, when you exercise the power of the state, that you leave your religion at the door, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask in a secular society.”
“Of course, they can always wear their religious symbols when they’re finished work.”
I don’t think this man realizes that religion isn’t like a jacket or a hat, where you can wear it everywhere but then you must take it off once you get to work. Religion is a part of one’s identity that should be freely expressed no matter where you are or what you are doing, as long as you aren’t forcing it upon others. For Quebec to invoke the notwithstanding clause and purposely limit people’s fundamental freedom of religion is just discriminatory and embarrassing. This news hit close to home because my father currently wears a turban, and all my grandfathers and great-grandfathers wore turbans as well.
Quebec’s proposed religious ban is reminiscent of France’s religious bans. I have always admired the country of France for its beautiful landscapes, unique culture, attracting landmarks and vast history. This history includes the time when France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940 after just 6 weeks of fighting during World War II. Many brave soldiers fought until their last breaths to help defend the people of France before it was taken by Adolf Hitler’s forces. One of those soldiers who fought to protect French society was my great-grandfather. His name was Puran Singh and he proudly wore a turban on his head.
My great-grandfather was a Sikh man from a small village in Punjab, India, who joined the British Indian Army. Puran Singh abandoned the comfort of his own home and he travelled a far distance to be in a place where he didn’t have to be, and do something that he didn’t have to do. He chose to serve the greater the good while the world was at war and help put an end to humanity’s darkest chapter. Puran Singh was sent to protect France and he fought with the hope of upholding others’ freedom whom he had no personal connection with. Puran Singh was eventually captured by enemy forces and he made the ultimate sacrifice, as he died as a prisoner of war in France in 1944, all while wearing his turban.
My grandmother, the daughter of Puran Singh, lived her entire life not knowing what happened to her father and why he never came back home. She never got any closure and she passed away without even knowing where her father’s final resting place was. This was the unfortunate case with many Indian wives and daughters at the time, as their husbands, fathers, and brothers fought for the British Indian army in countries such as Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, Greece and Italy. Although they did not have much strength in numbers, minorities and turban-wearing soldiers still fought bravely alongside the Allies against the Axis powers comprised of Germans, Italians, and Japanese.
Only a handful of Indian soldiers were sent to France in 1940 to defend it against the invading German forces and I am proud to say that my great-grandfather was one of these soldiers. It was not until a few months ago that my family conducted some research and we found out that my great-grandfather’s grave is located within a cemetery in Champenoux, a small commune in France. Puran Singh rests there to this day. He was a silent guardian and protector of France who gave his life to uphold freedom and peace in the face of tyranny.
It is important to remember the past in order to make sense of the present. In the many years that have passed since Puran Singh died protecting the people of France while wearing a turban, the government of France has essentially tarnished his reputation and image. They have banned turbans from being worn in public schools and while taking pictures for passports, driving licenses, and other identification documents. In other words, they have forgotten the past and they have forgotten the sacrifices made by all the turban-wearing individuals who gave up their lives for a free and peaceful France.
There seems to be general contempt against minorities because if a government must pass laws that prevent people from expressing their religious identity, they are sending a clear and negative message. I am not arguing that everyone living in Quebec and France feels the same way, but the representatives who are making these discriminatory laws are essentially elected by the people through a democratic process. These laws are the equivalent to the government saying, “go back to your country,” which is insulting and demeaning. They forget that people of colour and religious minorities helped protect Canada and France in the most desperate of times. If my great-grandfather was alive today, he would be extremely disappointed with these laws and he would feel disrespected after all he’d done.
Regardless, I am still glad to see that some of the most prominent political figures in my country proudly wear turbans and display our multiculturalism and diversity. Without any political bias, these people include Jagmeet Singh (leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada), Harjit Singh Sajjan (Canada’s first Sikh Minister of National Defence), Navdeep Singh Bains (Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development), and Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria (my riding’s Member of Provincial Parliament). These individuals instill hope within me that people of colour and religious minorities are not afraid to have their voices heard, break down stereotypes, and change the status quo.
I would rather see my country united than divided, and we can only achieve this by understanding each other and embracing our differences. Any law that infringes the freedom of religion, whether it is in effect throughout Quebec, France, or any other part of the world, needs to be re-evaluated and should be struck down. Whether you are religious or not, there should never be any reason to treat others unequally just because of their different views or appearances. Treat others the way you wish to be treated, and the world will become a more accepting and loving place.
– Jaskaran Singh Chahal
March 31, 2019
I write this in commemoration of my great-grandfather, Lance Daffadar Puran Singh, and his sacrifice for the greater good. His story has remained buried for 75 years until now. Puran Singh’s final resting place is near the city of Nancy in France, which I hope to visit soon. His only remaining photograph and official documents can be viewed below.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) record:
Referenced CTV News article by Rachel Gilmore: