Ongoing colonialism shows itself in Ontario’s legislature, says Independent MPP

‘You don’t have to go far back in Canadian history to see how state powers use suppression of Indigenous cultural dress, language, ceremony and beliefs as tools of genocide,’ says MPP Sarah Jama. 

Sarah Jama

An image posted on social media of a member of the Ontario legislature addressing Independent MPP Sarah Jama. Photo: X

Banning cultural clothing is a slippery slope, says Veldon Coburn, after an Ontario politician was banished from the provincial legislature for wearing a keffiyeh.

Coburn, from the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation and associate professor of the Indigenous Relations Initiative at McGill University, said if Independent MPP Sarah Jama can’t wear a keffiyeh, then other pieces of clothing need to be looked at.

“If we’re going to start banning icons and clothing that resembles that of anyone who is remotely related to terrorism, why don’t you ban the red tunic for RCMP officers,” said Coburn. “They inflicted state-sponsored terrorism on Indigenous people. We see others wearing political garb that’s considered to be neutral, in their view. They are symbols of hatred and persecution, oppression and subjugation.

“Even in Quebec, they ban the hijab and turban, yet religious symbols such as a crucifix are given a pass based on the fact that they call them historical not religious.”

On April 25, Jama was asked to leave Ontario’s legislature when she wore a keffiyeh, a checkered scarf often seen in Arab countries and is currently worn as a sign of support for the people of Gaza.

“In a country with an ongoing legacy of colonialism, you don’t have to go far back in Canadian history to see how state powers use suppression of Indigenous cultural dress, language, ceremony and beliefs as tools of genocide,” said Jama in a telephone interview with APTN News.  

“It is not the keffiyeh itself that is political; it is a cultural piece of cloth that the speaker and the members of the legislative assembly are using as a political tool.”

Jama was asked by Ontario Speaker of the House Ted Arnott to remove her keffiyah, and when she refused he asked her to leave.

“I am disappointed and unsurprised,” said Jama. “This bureaucratic process of what rules are implemented and when is a clear illustration of anti-Palestinian racism.

“I have worn the keffiyeh in the legislative assembly before Oct. 7., this ban was implemented a few weeks ago.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called on Arnott to reverse a ban on keffiyehs at Queen’s Park, describing the move as “needlessly” divisive.

“The decision to ban the keffiyeh was made by the Speaker and the Speaker alone. I do not support his decision as it needlessly divides the people of our province,” Ford said in a statement issued on April 17.

But a motion from the New Democrats to lift the ban on April 23 was defeated after a majority of Conservatives voted against it.

APTN was unable to reach Ford for comment.

“Ford’s commentary and his actions are contradictory,” said Jama. “His [Ford’s] comments come at a time when there is a looming byelection in Milton, which has a high population of Muslim and Palestine supporters.

“Conservatives are making the keffiyeh political when it is, in fact, it’s cultural.”

Sarah Jama
Jama speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Friday. Photo: Facebook.

APTN attempted to contact Arnott but didn’t get a response by deadline.

A photo and post from inside the legislature has gone viral on X, formerly Twitter, with hundreds of shares and comments.

One user commented, “Would she be asked to leave if she was wearing a crucifix?” Another wrote, “This is an image that will live in infamy. Big white man violating the rights of an elected, black woman while other white elected officials sit by indifferent.”

Another commenter said, “White institutional patriarchy imposing their order on people of colour because — it’s always been done this way.”

Another, “So, then, anyone wearing a cross, a star of David, a turban, a political pin— out.”

NDP MP Leah Gazan (Winnipeg Centre) shared the post on X with the caption, “This is a shameful demonstration of Palestinian racism.”

Metis artist Christi Belcourt shared the post with a caption that said, “I would stand beside her/or behind her and ask others to do the same. No way she’s sitting there alone while all these people look away. STAND UP for her. And reverse this prejudiced ban.”

Activist Terrill Tailfeathers shared the post with the caption, “The mentality of the white politician hovering menacingly over a disabled Black woman asserting his dominance and imposing his will is what gave us residential schools.”

Laura Walton, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, reposted the photo with a caption, “We need to look really hard at this picture. A white man leering over a racialized woman in a wheelchair, removing her for wearing a symbol of her culture, while three young, racialized girls look on and privilege looks the other way.”

Jama said her removal from the legislature is hypocritical.

“The same people who are against the keffiyeh are the same people who have worn dog tags in support of Israeli defence forces, who have spoken up on Israel’s right to defend itself, and who have worn cultural clothing in support of Ukraine,” said Jama.

“So these decisions are anti-Palestinian.”

Coburn also references hypocrisy.

“I saw a post calling it the Arafat scarf. It’s a broader symbol of Arab people in the region and not just a dozen or so who may be professed terrorists,” said Coburn. “Arafat also wore socks. I see a great deal of hypocrisy in it.”

Jama said she’ll continue to wear her keffiyeh.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he knows the importance of wearing cultural clothing.

“The ban is wrong. Wearing a piece of clothing that is part of who you are and where you come from is important,” said Singh in an email to APTN.

According to the Ontario Legislature dress code – all members, male or female, are required to dress in contemporary business attire. It also states kilts may be worn on certain occasions like Robert Burns Day, and members of the House who are in the military are permitted to wear their uniforms.

Jama said recently someone was wearing clothing that wasn’t business attire.

“One of the MPPs was wearing a kilt recently, and he even stated it was for political reasons, and no one cared,” she said.

Coburn called the photo in the legislature a “painful image.”

“In the photo that is viral online, the Speaker is bending over Jama, almost sneering. It’s got that feel of the white man’s burden of civilizing the wrongful savages,” said Coburn.

“We are going to civilize you, and this includes any clothing you might wear.  It’s a painful image.”

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