Published May 6, 2024

(Updated) Ontario legislature keffiyeh ban loosened, but not overturned

By Allison Jones and Liam Casey

Updated May 6, 2024 @ 4:08pm

The Speaker of Ontario's legislature is allowing politicians, staff and visitors to enter the building while wearing a keffiyeh, loosening what had amounted to a ban on the scarf, while maintaining a prohibition inside the legislative chamber.

Sarah Jama, who sits as an independent after being booted from the NDP caucus last year, put on a keffiyeh in defiance of the ban as question period started Monday and was asked to leave.

Jama called it ironic that the moment before she was told to leave for wearing a keffiyeh in solidarity with Palestinians, the house held a moment of silence for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"While we can spend time to recognize genocides of the past, we struggle as members of this house to recognize genocides of the present," she said outside the chamber. 

"So wearing the keffiyeh is a testament to the fact that Palestinians have the right to return, they have the right to exist, and they do not deserve to be genocided."

The International Court of Justice is investigating whether Israel has committed acts of genocide in the ongoing war in Gaza, with a ruling expected to take years. Israel has rejected allegations of wrongdoing and accused the court of bias.

Jama also donned a keffiyeh last month in defiance of the ban, but at that time refused to leave the chamber when ordered to do so. She said she decided to leave Monday because others were leaving with her. 

Members of the NDP caucus, Joel Harden and Kristyn Wong-Tam, also put on scarves and left in solidarity with Jama.

"This keffiyeh ban is rather selective," Wong-Tam said. "It's also perpetuating what I see as racism and erasure of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim culture and that is not what this house stands for."

A keffiyeh is a checkered scarf typically worn in Arab cultures that has come to symbolize solidarity with Palestinians, and Speaker Ted Arnott concluded earlier this year that it is being worn to make an overt political statement, which is against the rules of the legislature.

"I stand by that conclusion, and I believe that events which have transpired since have confirmed it to be true," he said at the start of question period Monday.

Four people were ordered to leave the legislature last month after unfurling keffiyehs in the public galleries and chanting "free free Palestine." 

NDP motions for unanimous consent to have the ban overturned have failed because a few members of the Progressive Conservative caucus voted no. 

Wong-Tam said the issue is now resting at the feet of Premier Doug Ford, because he controls his caucus and he can end the division. 

Ford, who has previously called on the Speaker to reverse his decision, said Monday that he will follow the Speaker's rulings.

"I'm going to abide by his rules," Ford said. "I think I've made myself very clear."

Government House Leader Paul Calandra said he is glad the Speaker is allowing people to wear keffiyehs within the building, but that he supports Arnott keeping a ban in place within the legislative chamber.

"He's made a decision to uphold what have basically been over a century of rules with respect to how we govern ourselves in the chamber," Calandra said after question period.

"The rules that govern the chamber are to have respectful debate back and forth between members to ensure that we're focused on the policies and the issues of the day without political statements being made in the house. That has always been the tradition and I think the Speaker has upheld that." 

Ford has given his caucus members a free vote on the issue, Calandra said.

Arnott said since his initial ruling the issue has become politicized and fostered division, so he said Monday the ban will not apply to people entering the legislative precinct, only within the chamber.

"As Speaker, my intent has always been to uphold the conventions and principles that were designed to bring us together to debate important issues," he said. 

"Diversity has been and remains one of Ontario's greatest strengths."

Arnott noted that if a member asks for and receives unanimous consent to wear a keffiyeh in the legislature from all members of provincial parliament, it will be allowed.

Banner image: MPP Sarah Jama speaks to press after being asked by the Speaker of the House Ted Arnott to leave the Ontario legislature during question period, in Toronto on Monday, May 6, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2024.

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