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Ontario Legislature keffiyeh ban remains in place

Keffiyehs remain banned in the Ontario Legislature after a unanimous consent motion that would have allowed the scarf to be worn failed to pass at Queen's Park Thursday.

Premier Doug Ford says he doesn't support move that 'needlessly divides' people

Vote fails to overturn keffiyeh ban at Queen’s Park

1 month ago
Duration 3:52
Keffiyehs remain banned in the Ontario Legislature after a motion to overrule House Speaker Ted Arnott’s prohibition failed to pass at Queen’s Park on Thursday. CBC’s Lorrenda Reddekopp dives into the details of the debate.

Keffiyehs remain banned in the Ontario Legislature after a unanimous consent motion that would have allowed the scarf to be worn failed to pass at Queen's Park Thursday.

That vote, brought forth by NDP Leader Marit Stiles, failed despite Premier Doug Ford and the leaders of the province's opposition parties all stating they want to see the ban overturned. Complete agreement from all MPPs is required for a motion like this to pass, and there were a smattering of "nos" after it was read into the record.

In an email on Wednesday, Speaker Ted Arnott said the legislature has previously restricted the wearing of clothing that is intended to make an "overt political statement" because it upholds a "standard practice of decorum."

"The Speaker cannot be aware of the meaning of every symbol or pattern but when items are drawn to my attention, there is a responsibility to respond. After extensive research, I concluded that the wearing of keffiyehs at the present time in our Assembly is intended to be a political statement. So, as Speaker, I cannot authorize the wearing of keffiyehs based on our longstanding conventions," Arnott said in an email.

Speaking at Queen's Park Thursday, Arnott said he would reconsider the ban with unanimous consent from MPPs.

"If the house believes that the wearing of the keffiyeh in this house, at the present time, is not a political statement, I would certainly and unequivocally accept the express will of the house with no ifs, ands or buts," he said.

Keffiyehs are a commonly worn scarf among Arabs, but hold special significance to Palestinian people. They have been a frequent sight among pro-Palestinian protesters calling for an end to the violence in Gaza as the Israel-Hamas war continues.

Premier calls for reversal

Ford said Thursday he's hopeful Arnott will reverse the ban, but he didn't say if he would instruct his caucus to support the NDP's motion.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Ford said the decision was made by the speaker and nobody else.

"I do not support his decision as it needlessly divides the people of our province. I call on the speaker to reverse his decision immediately," Ford said.

WATCH | Ford talks Keffiyeh ban: 

Ford says division over keffiyeh ‘not healthy’

1 month ago
Duration 1:20
Ontario Premier Doug Ford reiterated Thursday that he does not support Speaker Ted Arnott banning keffiyehs in the Ontario Legislature because they are “intended to be a political statement,” as Arnott said in an email Wednesday.

PC Party MPP Robin Martin, who represents Eglinton–Lawrence, voted against the unanimous consent motion Thursday and told reporters she believes the speaker's initial ruling was the correct one.

"We have to follow the rules of the legislature, otherwise we politicize the entire debate inside the legislature, and that's not what it's about. What it's about is we come there and use our words to persuade, not items of clothing."

When asked if she had defied a directive from the premier, Martin said, "It has nothing to do with the premier, it's a decision of the speaker of the legislative assembly."

Stiles told reporters Thursday she's happy Ford is on her side on this issue, but added she is disappointed the motion didn't pass.

"The premier needs to talk to his people and make sure they do the right thing," she said.

Robin Martin answers questions from reporters.
PC Party MPP Robin Martin voted against a unanimous consent motion Thursday that would have overturned a ban on Keffiyehs at Queen's Park. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

Stiles first urged Arnott to reconsider the ban in an April 12 letter. She said concerns over the directive first surfaced after being flagged by members of her staff, however they have gained prominence after Sarah Jama, Independent MPP for Hamilton Centre, posted about the issue on X, formerly Twitter.

Jama was removed from the NDP caucus for her social media comments on the Israel-Hamas war shortly after Oct. 7. 

Jama has said she believes she was kicked out of the party because she called for a ceasefire in Gaza "too early" and because she called Israel an "apartheid state."

Arnott told reporters Thursday that he began examining a ban on the Keffiyeh after one MPP made a complaint about another MPP, who he believes was Jama, who was wearing one.

Liberals also call for reversal

Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie also called for a reversal of the ban on Wednesday night.

"Here in Ontario, we are home to a diverse group of people from so many backgrounds. This is a time when leaders should be looking for ways to bring people together, not to further divide us. I urge Speaker Arnott to immediately reconsider this move to ban the keffiyeh," Crombie said.

WATCH | An explainer on the cultural significance of keffiyehs:  

Keffiyeh: How it became a symbol of the Palestinian people

5 months ago
Duration 3:08
Keffiyehs are a common garment across the Arab world, but they hold a special meaning in the Palestinian resistance movement.

Stiles said MPPs have worn kilts, kirpans, vyshyvankas and chubas in the legislature, saying such items of clothing not only have national and cultural associations, but have also been considered at times as "political symbols in need of suppression."

She said Indigenous and non-Indigenous members have also dressed in traditional regalia and these items cannot be separated from their historical and political significance. 

"The wearing of these important cultural and national clothing items in our Assembly is something we should be proud of. It is part of the story of who we are as a province," she said.

"Palestinians are part of that story, and the keffiyeh is a traditional clothing item that is significant not only to them but to many members of Arab and Muslim communities. That includes members of my staff who have been asked to remove their keffiyehs in order to come to work. This is unacceptable."

Stiles added that House of Commons and other provincial legislatures allow the wearing of keffiyehs in their chambers and the ban makes Ontario an "outlier."

Suppression of cultural symbols part of genocide: MPP

Jama said on X that the ban is "unsurprising" but "nonetheless concerning" in a country that has a legacy of colonialism. "Part of committing genocide is the forceful suppression of cultural identity and cultural symbols," she said in part. 

Sarah Jama
Sarah Jama, Independent MPP for Hamilton Centre, is pictured here outside her office in the Ontario Legislature wearing a keffiyeh. (Sarah Jama/Twitter)

"Seeing those in power in this country at all levels of government, from federal all the way down to school boards, aid Israel's colonial regime with these tactics in the oppression of Palestinian people proves that reconciliation is nothing but a word when spoken by state powers," she said.

Amira Elghawaby, Canada's Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, said on X that it is "deeply ironic" on that keffiyehs were banned in the Ontario legislature on the 42nd anniversary of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"This is wrong and dangerous as we have already seen violence and exclusion impact Canadians, including Muslims of Palestinian descent, who choose to wear this traditional Palestinian clothing," Elghawaby said.

Protesters who blocked a rail line in Toronto on Tuesday wear keffiyehs. The protest was organized by World Beyond War on April 16, 2024.
Protesters who blocked a rail line in Toronto on Tuesday are shown here wearing keffiyehs. The protest was organized by World Beyond War on April 16, 2024. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Arnott said the keffiyeh was not considered a "form of protest" in the legislature prior to statements and debates that happened in the House last fall.

"These items are not absolutes and are not judged in a vacuum," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Muriel Draaisma is a reporter and writer at CBC News in Toronto. She likes to write about social justice issues. She has previously worked for the Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal and Regina Leader-Post. She is originally from B.C. Have an idea for a story? You can reach her at muriel.draaisma@cbc.ca.

With files from Adam Carter, Lorenda Reddekopp, Clara Pasieka and John Rieti