A late 1980s controversy that grew into a potent symbol of identity politics and an early cause célèbre for the nascent Reform Party.
In 1988, a young RCMP recruit, Baltej Singh Dhillon, petitioned the RCMP to change its dress policy to allow observant Sikhs like himself to wear turbans, rather than the force’s traditional – and iconic -regulation stetson. The Force refused to change its rules, and Dhillon – who had aced the gruelling RCMP entrance process – was denied a post.
Eventually, in 1990, the Brian Mulroney government intervened citing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ending the RCMP turban prohibition and enabling Dhillon to join up for what would be a long and successful hitch with the Mounties.
Yet, with tensions still high in the Meech Lake aftermath, a nasty public debate had erupted over the issue. Many, particularly in rural and Western Canada, saw the end of the turban ban as an unacceptable usurpation of a proud Canadian tradition.
Groups like Alberta’s Defenders of RCMP Tradition sprang up, collecting as many as 150 000 signatures opposing turbans. High-minded excuses aside, the true nature of the opposition was exposed by a steady stream of anti-immigrant and racist outbursts, like the poster portraying a turbaned RCMP officer named “Sgt Camel Dung.”
The rancorous opposition caught the attention of the newly-formed Reform Party. At its 1989 convention it overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing turbans in the RCMP, and the policy was heavily promoted by the party going into the 1993 federal election.
The anti-turban debate faded over time, as turbaned RCMP and other police and military officers became an everyday sight to most Canadians. The Reform Party also later abandoned its anti-turban stance (along with its opposition to immigration and official multiculturalism), welcoming turban-wearing Sikh MPs into its caucus. Indeed, the bitter debate now seems like a lifetime ago.
However, echoes of the turban wars can be heard in more recent controversies. In 2013, the Quebec Soccer Federation banned turbans, hijabs and other religious headgear from soccer games,later reversing its decision after a slap down from FIFA.
In 2015, in a transparent play to less savory elements of his electoral base, Prime Minister Stephen Harper – with the enthusiastic support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois – launched a failed but impactful mid-campaign Supreme Court case to ban the wearing of niqabs while taking Canadian Citizenship oaths.
These recent flareups notwithstanding, Canada seems to have changed permanently since the turban debate of two decades ago. The best evidence of all was the new Canadian cabinet announced in November 2015: not only were four Sikhs members of the cabinet (twice the number in India’s cabinet), but the new Minister of National Defence was Harjit Sajjan, a decorated and battle-hardened military veteran – and a former (turbaned) Vancouver cop.
Image source: Flickr user Dave Conner
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