COLUMN: Kudos to a trail blazer

  - Leader file photo
— image credit: Leader file photo

One of the four people honoured by Kwantlen Polytechnic University with an honorary degree at the May convocation ceremonies is a true trailblazer.

And like most trailblazers, his actions were highly controversial.

Baltej Singh Dhillon is currently head of the RCMP’s Federal and Serious Organized Crime Intelligence Unit. A KPU criminology alumnus, he successfully lobbied to be the first RCMP member permitted to wear a turban.

For those who don’t remember that debate, it was protracted, serious, tinged with racism and fear, and ultimately, proven to be unnecessary. Because as Dhillon’s record as a police officer shows, many Canadians of all religious backgrounds have the ability to be fine police officers.

His case first came to public attention in 1989. There was a protracted debate in Surrey (and across the country) about his request to  join the RCMP and wear a turban. As editor of The Surrey-North Delta Leader at the time, I recall handling dozens of letters to the editor with strong opinions on the issue.

Some came from the perspective that a turban should be no barrier to joining the RCMP. They pointed out that Sikhs had served with distinction in the Second World War as members of the Indian Army while wearing turbans. Others stated that the RCMP, as a national police force, needed to be reflective of the varying people it served.

Others who were equally passionate stated that the RCMP was a national institution with deep roots in Canada’s history. As such, they said it needed to uphold its traditions, even when those were in conflict with Canadian values, such as freedom of religion.

Some letter writers were nastier, stating that relatively recent immigrants to Canada from India or other countries had no business joining the RCMP. Some used foul language to express their feelings. Some didn’t sign their letters – shades of anonymous commenting online today.

However, Dhillon persevered, and the fact he has been in the force for almost a quarter-century indicates he made a successful career choice.

By waging a public and lonely battle, he broke down many barriers. The RCMP has since accepted applicants from many different religious and cultural backgrounds, including First Nations people.

It is also important to note the RCMP has constantly changed. Initially, it was a force devoted simply to policing on the northwest frontier, and was originally known as the Northwest Mounted Police.

Women did not join the RCMP until the 1970s, and that was just as controversial as the turban issue.

Surrey RCMP, the largest detachment in the country, is likely one of the most ethnically diverse as well, and does a good job of serving a community that is equally as diverse.

The RCMP has faced a number of challenges in recent years, and is not out of the woods in dealing with them. But in the case of Baltej Singh Dhillon, it made the right decision to accept him and other turban-wearing members. They have been a credit to the force, and Dhillon’s actions are worthy of the KPU honour.

Congratulations to him, and to all who have followed down the trail he blazed.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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