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Tensions erupt at Queen’s Park over keffiyeh ban as government MPPs walk out

Click to play video: 'Ford government divided over Speaker’s ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park'
Ford government divided over Speaker’s ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park
WATCH - Ford government divided over Speaker’s ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park – Apr 18, 2024

A second attempt by the Ontario NDP to overturn a ban on wearing the keffiyeh inside the legislature ended in failure after Ontario Premier Doug Ford appeared to admit defeat and allowed his caucus a free vote on the controversial ban.

The issue first surfaced in the house last Thursday, when Ontario PC MPP Robin Martin defied Ford and voted to block an attempt to lift the prohibition on wearing the Arab headdress.

Ford, along with Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles and Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie, has said the ban should be removed. The premier said it “needlessly divides” people but met fierce opposition from within his own caucus.

Speaker Ted Arnott introduced the ban on the checkered scarf, which he said should be considered under the same strict rules that stop MPPs from using clothing or props to make a “political statement.”

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MPPs sit inside the Ontario legislature on April 23, 2024. A second attempt by the Ontario NDP to overturn a ban on wearing the keffiyeh inside the legislature ended in failure Tuesday. Global News

The keffiyeh is typically worn in Arab cultures and has come to symbolize solidarity with Palestinians.

On Tuesday, the NDP tried to reverse the ban a second time by asking the Ontario legislature for unanimous consent to have the keffiyeh recognized as a cultural piece of clothing rather than a political statement.

“Lots of things take on political meaning at various moments, but cultural attire that connects to your heritage … it’s a symbol of pride,” Stiles said ahead of the vote.

The question hanging over the legislature was whether Progressive Conservative MPPs were willing to support the motion given the premier’s stance against the ban.

Just before the motion was introduced, however, the premier’s office issued a statement that seemed to release PC MPPs from their obligation.

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“The premier has been clear that he does not support this ban and has called on the speaker to reverse his decision,” Ford’s office said in a statement. “Members of caucus are free to support or oppose the NDP motion.”

The new edict – a departure from the party’s efforts last week to whip the vote – emboldened more government MPPs to support the ban.

Stiles said it “isn’t about a free vote” and criticized the government for voting the motion down.

“I gave the premier the opportunity over the weekend to talk to his caucus, convince his team to do the right thing, and they chose not to,” she said.

Palestinian children hold up a large keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, as they participate in a march to commemorate  Nakba, which is Arabic for catastrophe, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, May 17, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Tara Todras-Whitehill

Multiple Progressive Conservative MPPs were heard saying “no” during the verbal vote, which immediately ended the effort.

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“I was a bit taken aback because I heard more ‘nos’ than I heard last week,” Ontario Liberal MPP John Fraser said.

“The keffiyeh has a deep, cultural tradition … and it wasn’t that long ago we were debating whether people could wear turbans in the Houses of Parliament in Canada. I can remember that. The right thing to do is just to allow it.”

MPP Martin, who became the centre of the pushback against the premier after the first vote, issued a statement Tuesday morning that said she was prepared to face political consequences for her opposition.

“I recognize that I may personally face political repercussions because of my vote and continued stance on this motion. I accept that,” part of Martin’s statement read.

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Moments after the vote, however, the legislature descended into chaos after protesters waving keffiyeh yelled “free Palestine,” leading to a shouting match with PC MPPs.

“That’s what you wanted,” one PC MPP said in response, while another claimed the protest made her feel “unsafe in my own chamber.”

During another charged moment, as the PC caucus walked out of the legislature after the Speaker called a recess, one government MPP was heard saying “You’re on the same side as the Islamic regime” to Stiles.

Speaking after the vote, Martin said she had “no idea” if she would be punished by the party.

“We have a very diverse caucus and everybody has an opinion and I’m glad the premier recognizes that,” Martin said.

“I appreciate the fact that people have reconsidered and thought about it over the time we had to think about it. I think it’s important just to keep the legislature free of political symbols like this.”

Later in the day, Premier Ford told reporters he had allowed a free vote because it is a “very sensitive topic” for some in his caucus.

“I can tell you we had a great conversation in there, we’re united as a team no matter if we agree or disagree on certain items, but we’re a very strong team and I’m happy,” he said.

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“We had a great conversation with all the members and they all got to speak freely.”

Ford said Martin and other MPPs who voted differently to him would not face any consequences.

“If someone had major policy issues, that’s a whole different ballgame,” he said. “But we have a strong team.”

Meanwhile, MPP Sarah Jama, who was removed from the NDP caucus during an earlier flashpoint over the Israel-Gaza conflict, immediately donned her keffiyeh after the ban was upheld.

Speaker Arnott said he hadn’t been able to see what Jama was wearing because she sits at “the very other end of the chamber” from him.

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“The member for Hamilton Centre sits a long way from where I sit and I saw that she was in the house but I couldn’t, from where I was sitting, determine what the pattern of whatever she was wearing was,” he said Tuesday.

“I don’t do a scan of what everyone’s wearing as my first priority. But again, if it’s drawn to my attention by way of a point of order, I’d obviously have to deal with it.”

Jama told reporters she planned to continue wearing the keffiyeh inside the legislature.

Stiles said her party would continue advocating for the overturn of the ban but hasn’t detailed what method she would employ.

“We will be looking at other options,” she said.

“I don’t think the keffiyeh should be banned at Queen’s Park. So we will continue to look at other options. And, you know, we’ll see what happens.”

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