'What does a Canadian look like?': The first Mountie to wear a turban reflects on racism and inclusivity
TORONTO -- Thirty years after becoming the first RCMP member to wear a turban, Baltej Dhillon says the police force has "come a long way" in being more inclusive, but notes that there is still work to be done.
"We’ve made strides, but there's much more to do," Dhillon said in an interview with CTV’s Your Morning on Friday.
Dhillon said recent policy changes to "create exceptions, not entitlements" in the RCMP have allowed for greater representation of all Canadians within the force.
"We now have members that wear their hijabs, and it was soon after that I came into the RCMP we had members [from] our Indigenous community who were allowed to wear their braids," Dhillon explained.
Dhillon was born in Malaysia in 1966 and immigrated to Canada after his father died in 1983. Dhillon says he has worn a turban since he was 12, as per Sikh faith.
Upon arriving in Canada, Dhillon said it was a "tradition" for Sikh men to be taken to a barbershop by their families to have their hair and beards cut so "they would be spared the pain and the injury and the hatred" directed at them.
However, Dhillon refused.
Before his father died, Dhillon made him a promise that he has remained "anchored" to ever since.
"The promise was to maintain my faith. The promise was to maintain my identity and be connected with my traditions. So once that commitment was made, then it was just a matter of dealing with whatever came next," Dhillon said.
Dhillon said working part-time as an RCMP jail guard in his early 20s led him to apply to become a Mountie.
Dhillon said he passed the initial application process, but didn't proceed further because he wasn't willing to conform with the RCMP's uniform policy at the time, which required him to remove his turban.
In spring 1989, then-RCMP commissioner Norm Inkster recommended to the federal government a change in dress regulations to allow Mounties to wear turbans as part of their uniforms. Dhillon was able to join and wear his turban as part of the uniform in 1990, and served in the RCMP for nearly 30 years before retiring in August 2019.
The change in dress code sparked a heated discussion in the ‘90s across the country over the meaning of Canadian identity, as well as petitions and court challenges seeking to preserve traditional elements of the Mounties' garb, including the Stetson hat.
In Alberta, Dhillon said people protesting against his wearing of a turban sold pins with racist sayings on them.
Dhillon said it was "painful" to later learn that his son-in-law saw those same pins being sold in a store in Calgary this year.
"So often the question is asked, 'What does a Canadian look like?' It's not what a Canadian looks like, it's what values we carry as Canadians," Dhillon said.
"We look like a lot of people, but our values is what ties us together, and so that's what we need to celebrate and that's what we need to hold dear to each other and hold each other accountable to, not what we look like," he added.
Dhillon said those pins are a "sentiment of still being in denial" of Canada’s diverse value.
"[It's] painful that we still haven't understood that simple message of who we are as Canadians," Dhillon said.
Looking back at photos of his time with the RCMP, Dhillon said they bring back "a lot of memories," but also the hardships he faced.
While many of his colleagues say they wish they could serve with the RCMP again, Dhillon said "once was enough" for him.
"It was a time where the nation was in great debate about this issue of the uniform and identity. So it brings back a lot of memories, and with the joy... there was there was a lot of controversy as well," Dhillon said.