Ford government divided over Speaker’s ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park

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Ford government divided over Speaker’s ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park
WATCH: Progressive Conservative Leader and Premier Doug Ford is facing internal strife after a member of his own party shot down an attempt to reverse a ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park. Ford had said he was opposed to the ban. Global News' Queen's Park Bureau Chief Colin D'Mello reports – Apr 18, 2024

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is facing caucus dissent after a member of his own party shot down an attempt to reverse a ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park, despite Ford’s view that the ban “needlessly divides” people in the province.

Legislative assembly Speaker Ted Arnott recently banned the Arab headdress inside Queen’s Park and said people wearing it were making a political statement. The ban came as tensions in the Middle East continue, with the conflict between Israel and Hamas running for more than six months.

A keffiyeh is a black-and-white checkered scarf typically worn in Arab cultures that has come to symbolize solidarity with Palestinians.

The rules that govern politicians inside the chamber of Ontario’s legislature are meant to stop people from using clothing or props to make a political point.

Calls to reconsider the ban

In a statement issued late on Wednesday evening, Ford said the decision to ban the keffiyeh was “made by the speaker and the speaker alone.”

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

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles and Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie both agreed with the premier.

At the end of last week, Stiles wrote to Arnott asking the Speaker to reverse his ban.

“The Assembly has always permitted Members, staff and guests to openly celebrate their culture, including wearing traditional clothing that represents their history, culture or faith, and I don’t believe it is your intention to change that precedent,” Stiles wrote.

Crombie urged Arnott to reconsider the ban on Wednesday evening.

“Here in Ontario, we are home to a diverse group of people from so many backgrounds,” the Liberal leader said. “This is a time when leaders should be looking for ways to bring people together, not to further divide us.”

Ford reasserts position

On Thursday morning, Ford publicly asserted his view that reversing the ban was the right thing to do.

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“It really comes down to uniting Ontarians,” Ford said. “This would just divide the community even more.”

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“Hopefully the Speaker will change his mind.”

At Queen’s Park, Progressive Conservative insiders told Global News government members were instructed to “stay out of the chamber” if they did not support an upcoming motion by the NDP to reverse the ban.

Sources also said MPPs were given “verbal communication” from the premier’s office on how to vote and received little direction from government house leader Paul Calandra, whose office typically would offer instructions on votes.

Ultimately, one MPP decided to go rogue.

Unanimous consent fails, triggering caucus division

At the beginning of question period, the NDP asked for unanimous consent to “acknowledge the keffiyeh is a culturally significant clothing item to many in Ontario’s Palestinian, Muslim and Arab communities” and should be permitted to be worn in the house.

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The request, however, was met with a single and firm “no” from the government benches, causing the motion to fail. Unanimous consent motions require all members of the house to agree, otherwise they cannot pass.

Arnott said Thursday he had heard “audible ‘nos’” in response to the motion and said he had heard more than one member expressing their opposition.

Conservative MPP Robin Martin, who said no to the request, said the Speaker had “researched that decision” when he suggested wearing the keffiyeh was a political statement.

“The decision was the correct decision in my view,” Martin said. “As a member, I have a vote and I voted to not change that decision because I think it was the correct decision.”

Asked if she had defied the premier and her party leader, Martin said she was “doing what is right according to the rules” of Ontario’s legislature.

The vote, however, also created division in the Progressive Conservative caucus.

Sources said Natalia Kusendova-Bashta, who represents Mississauga-Centre, vocally supported the NDP motion to reverse the ban and “stormed out” of the legislature shortly after the motion was defeated.

Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod said in a statement she agreed with Martin’s decision not to grant unanimous consent.

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“As the longest serving woman at Queen’s Park I support his ruling because it keeps with tradition and reminds members to keep our debates focused on words rather than on political props,” she wrote. “This ruling was consistent with so many others over years by numerous speakers and true to his unimpeachable character, Speaker Arnott chose parliamentary convention over political weather veins (sic).”

Liberal MPP Adil Shamji pointed out that it’s “very significant” that Martin “defied” her party leader.

“They have some serious soul-searching to do whether it’s a party that genuinely wants to reflect all Ontarians in this house as opposed to picking on specific groups and cultures,” Shamji said.

Future requests

Arnott told reporters that there have been times in the past when unanimous consent was not granted at the first time of asking and the issue has been raised again.

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“I believe there have been instances in the time I’ve been here where the house denied unanimous consent but then it was raised again on a subsequent occasion,” he said. “Sometimes the same day.”

The Speaker admitted the issue was “extremely politically sensitive” but said he felt he had made the correct decision “procedurally.”

— with a file from The Canadian Press

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