Thirty years ago, he became the first Mountie to wear a turban. Here’s why he still worries about hate ‘in the shadows’
During a visit to Calgary in late 2019, Baltej Dhillon couldn’t resist paying a visit to Shoulder to Shoulder Militaria & Collectibles after his son-in-law told him what he’d spotted inside.
Behind a glass display case were a bunch of pins that had been produced three decades earlier, when Dhillon was caught up in a fierce national debate over whether the RCMP should allow Sikh officers — like him — to wear turbans on duty.
One pin showed an image of a turban-wearing Mountie with a cross through it and the label: “Keep the RCMP Canadian.”
Another pin showed a turban-wearing Mountie riding a camel. It was labelled: “Canada’s New Musical Ride.”
Stunned to see these “symbols of hate” still in circulation, Dhillon snatched up about $50 worth of the pins. When he went to pay for them, he says, he could sense a tinge of embarrassment from the store’s merchant.
“I am grateful to live in a country where expression is part of our freedom,” he told the Star.
“Propagating hate, however, is not.”
This month marks the 30th anniversary of when Dhillon graduated from the RCMP training academy and made history as the first Mountie to be permitted to wear a turban while on the job. Through a 2021 lens, some will find it jarring to think that such a simple thing could be a source of controversy, but the uniform policy change sparked heated discussion over the meaning of Canadian identity, as well as petitions and court challenges seeking to preserve traditional elements of the Mounties’ garb, such as the Stetson hat.
While Dhillon, of Surrey, B.C., says there’s no question attitudes have evolved over the past three decades, there remains much that has not. The Star discovered as much, recently, when it spoke to some of the people who fought against his right to wear the turban while in uniform three decades ago.
For his part, Dhillon said the continued circulation of the pins, the relatively recent debate over whether people should be allowed to wear face coverings during citizenship ceremonies and Quebec’s ban on government workers wearing religious symbols all show there’s still a lot of work to be done in “finding kindness and compassion in how we interact with each other.”
“We need to continue to be vigilant because that hatred is just in the shadows.”