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Ontario legislator defies order to remove keffiyeh at Queen's Park

Independent Member of Provincial Parliament Sarah Jama speaks with members of the press at Queen's Park while she wears a keffiyeh, a traditional utilitarian scarf worn across the Arabic-speaking world which also holds political significance for Palestinian people, in Toronto, Thursday, April 25, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Casey

TORONTO — An Ontario legislator refused to take off her keffiyeh at Queen's Park on Thursday, prompting an order for her removal from the legislative chamber and her subsequent refusal to budge.

Sarah Jama, who sits as an independent for Hamilton-Centre after being booted from the NDP caucus last year, wore a keffiyeh draped over her shoulders during question period. 

It was the second time this week Jama wore the scarf inside the legislature and she said she will continue to wear it. 

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

Speaker Ted Arnott banned the scarf in March after a complaint, saying it was being worn to make a political statement, contrary to the rules of the assembly. All four party leaders, including Premier Doug Ford, have called on the speaker to reverse the ban. 

Ford's Progressive Conservatives had effectively silenced Jama in the fall when they censured her over comments she made about the Israel-Hamas war. 

On Thursday, Arnott "named" Jama, which meant she was not allowed to vote on matters at the legislature, or participate in any committees or table motions.

"You must leave the chamber," Arnott said.

Jama did not move. The clerk and the sergeant-at-arms both spoke with Jama, but no one tried to remove her with force.

Arnott said later that he was not willing to go that far.

"There was no way for me to have her removed short of physical force," Arnott said. "I wasn't prepared to do that or order it."

Jama, who has Palestinian family, said wearing the keffiyeh is the least she can do to show solidarity. 

"The repression against Palestinians and the anti-Palestinian racism in this place needs to continue to be called out," she said.

"And I think it's upon all of us to fight injustice with our feet and hands, with our tongues, with our words and in our hearts."

NDP Leader Marit Stiles has twice tried to get the legislature to pass a unanimous consent motion to overturn the Speaker's ban on keffiyehs.

But they were shot down after a few Progressive Conservative members refused to consent to the motion. 

Stiles said the keffiyeh is cultural attire and once again called on the government "to do the right thing."

"People come here from all over the world and they bring their traditions and their culture with them and this place that I'm standing in right now is the people's house, we should be able to wear those items of clothing proudly here," she said.

Liberal parliamentary leader John Fraser moved another motion on Thursday calling on the government to move their own motion to do away with the ban. 

Again, several Conservatives refused to agree.

Fraser said the government has to bring the matter to a vote, rather than opposition parties moving unanimous consent motions that will invariably fail – Progressive Conservative Robin Martin has said she will continue to support the ban.

"It needs to be brought to a vote on the floor of the legislature," Fraser said. "It can't be one or two or three people who say no. We live in a democracy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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