(Editor’s note: In 1990 Baltej Dhillon of Surrey, B.C. became the first observant Sikh to join the RCMP. It required a waiver from regulations prohibiting beards and turbans. More than 200,000 Canadians petitioned against the waiver, MPs debated it in Parliament, and retired RCMP officers unsuccessfully challenged the new regulations in Federal Court. On September 28, 2011 Dhillon spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan about his experience. Following is a transcription of his remarks)
I was 16 when my family emigrated from Malaysia. I studied English. I was the only student with a turban at the high school. There was a lot of name-calling, but I’m very careful in labeling anybody as racist. I keep that term for a special breed. There are ignorant people we label as racist, and they’re not. They just haven’t had a chance to meet us yet.
Surrey RCMP were just starting a new program called Block Watch. I volunteered. This was very appealing to me. As a man, if you do not have commitment, if you cannot anchor yourself in something that is honourable and has integrity, then you have nothing.
Later I applied to join the RCMP. I want to serve in this police force and I want to serve my community. I was overjoyed, ecstatic. I was grateful. It confirmed to me Canada was what I thought it to be.
I remember the first week as cadets, we got our uniforms. I was trying on my turban and my troop mates came running: “Oh, I want see what that looks like!” This was the first turban the RCMP had issued to a Sikh member, so they wanted to see what it looked like. I said, “Do you guys want to try it on?” We all took turns and they took photos of themselves with the turban.
The controversy started when some news media reported there was an applicant who was a Sikh and wore his turban: “Those people should adopt our traditions,” and “Those people should not be changing Canada.” Those people.
Some of it was ignorance, some was fear, this fear that Canadian identity was lost and Canadian symbolism was being usurped by a foreign force. The intolerance surprised me. I received death threats at Regina, letters saying ‘if you ever come to such and such a town we have a bullet with your name on it.’ If the choice was that I must shave my beard and cut my hair to join the RCMP I would do something else, but that was never the compromise.
After I had graduated and met with my detachment commander he said to me, “I don’t agree with you what you did, but you’re a member of this detachment and I will back you 100 percent.” I thanked him. I didn’t want anything more.
Diversity, immigration, people of different colour, race, creed, religion – this is the backbone of Canada. It is the absolute fabric. Policing a community as diverse as Surrey, Vancouver, Toronto, anywhere, if you don’t represent that community within the police force there will be mistrust.
We’ve matured. Give our children credit. They are more intelligent than we were. We live in a world of awareness now.