MONTREAL - A Montreal lifeguard has filed a human rights complaint against a local YMCA after the club told her she couldn't wear her hijab on duty.
The 21-year-old woman has been swapping her traditional Muslim headscarf at the poolside for a "burkini," a swimsuit that covers everything but the face, hands and feet.
The Montreal YMCA said the hijab puts lifeguards at risk from the grabbing hands of panicked swimmers in rescue situations.
Before reaching its decision, the Y sought advice from the Lifesaving Society, an organization that oversees safety and lifeguarding.
The lifesaving group suggested the YMCA consider the burkini, which has been approved for use by beach lifeguards who work in the powerful surfs of Australia.
"Based on their research, our estimation at this time is if it's good in Australia, why won't it be good here?" Lifesaving Society's general manager Raynald Hawkins said Thursday.
Hawkins said the lifeguard, who has not released her name, contacted him a week after he heard from the YMCA.
He told her the society merely suggested the burkini.
"For us, we don't have any specific position," Hawkins said.
"This is a tool, this is a kind of bathing suit you can use if you want."
YMCA Montreal spokeswoman Katia Bouchard confirmed details of a report published in a Montreal newspaper, but said the group would not grant interviews Thursday on the subject.
The report said the lifeguard, who converted to Islam last September, has been working at the Y for three years.
Since December, she gradually began covering her hair at work. She first wore a hijab on the job about four months ago.
The woman argued that many on-duty lifeguards wear T-shirts, which could also be dangerous during water rescues.
Meanwhile, YCMA Canada said it has no national policy preventing lifeguards from wearing hijabs. Spokeswoman Mary Stobbe said the issue has never come up before.
"Each local Y handles these situations as they see appropriate," Stobbe said.
This isn't the first time the Parc Avenue YMCA has been at the centre of the sometimes fiery debate of accommodating religious minorities in Quebec.
In 2006, the facility installed frosted glass around its aerobics room to shield young Orthodox Jews from female exercisers.
A synagogue across the alley from the Y requested the obstructed view, but club members demanded the clear windows be re-installed.
Fo Niemi, the co-founder of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, questioned whether management at this particular YMCA is adequately trained to deal with diversity issues.
"We've known cases where employers or institutions tend to jump the gun too fast in saying the hijab should be banned," Niemi said.
"It's not about whether the person wearing the hijab is making excessive demands, the question is whether the institution or the employer has taken reasonable steps in order to understand and to find accommodations, if possible."
Niemi said there is significant bias when it comes to the notion of women wearing the hijab.
He said headscarves are often seen as a sign of oppression against women.
Niemi said anti-Muslim sentiment exists within the public, and the hijab is the faith's most visible symbol.
A spokesman for Quebec's Human Rights Commission confirmed the woman filed a religious discrimination complaint against the YMCA a few weeks ago.