One of the four people honoured by Kwantlen Polytechnic University with an honourary 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 very 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. Other 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 other 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 swear words to express their feelings. Some didn’t sign their letters – shades of anonymous commenting online today.
Undoubtedly, Dhillon heard all that, both in Surrey and after he went to the RCMP training depot in Regina. However, he persevered, and the fact that he has been in the force for almost a quarter-century indicates that he made a successful career choice.
By waging a very public and lonely battle, he broke down many barriers. The RCMP has since accepted applicants of many different religious and cultural backgrounds, including First Nations people.
It is also important to note that the RCMP has constantly changed. Initially, it was a force devoted simply to policing on the northwest frontier, and in fact was originally known as the Northwest Mounted Police.
For many years, new RCMP recruits weren’t allowed to get married until they had served for a certain period. They also weren’t allowed to work in the province they came from.
Women did not join the RCMP until the 1970s, and that was just as controversial as the turban issue. Some women have said the RCMP still does not accept them as full members.
In Surrey, it is vital that the RCMP reflect a varied and diverse community. Turban-wearing RCMP members gain easy acceptance among the large South Asian population, and often can communicate more easily in a familiar language with many residents.
Surrey RCMP, the largest detachment in the country, is likely one of the most diverse as well, and does a good job of serving a community that is equally as diverse.
The RCMP has faced a number of serious 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 eventually other turban-wearing members. They have been a credit to the force, and Dhillon’s actions are worthy of the honour he was given by KPU.
Congratulations to him, and to all who have followed down the trail that he blazed. He persisted at a time of deep divides, and his persistence showed that national institutions are strengthened by being open to change.
Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.