COLUMN: Rising above racism, fear

Baltej Singh Dhillon honoured by Kwantlen Polytechnic University

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.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A sign posted to a tree in Maccaud Park urges people to email White Rock City Council and oppose the construction of pickleball courts in the park. (Contributed photo)
White Rock council deems Maccaud Park pickleball courts out of bounds

Unanimous vote against constructing courts follows public feedback

Surrey city council chambers. (File photo)
Surrey drugstores seeking relaxation of spacing rules ‘a challenge,’ councillor says

‘Obviously we need pharmacies but it seems to me that we are getting an awful lot of applications,’ Brenda Locke says

Shannon Claypool, president of the Cloverdale Rodeo & Exhibition Association, stands outside the Cloverdale Rec. Centre. The rec. centre has been set up as a mass vaccination site by Fraser Health and the Association has decided to cancel the rodeo in order to offer the fairgrounds for public parking. (Submitted)
Cloverdale Rodeo cancelled

Fairgrounds to be used as public parking for mass vaccination site at Cloverdale Rec. Centre

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media file)
Man charged after pushing pregnant woman to the ground in Surrey, police say

Surrey RCMP say it appeared to be an ‘unprovoked assault’

News Bulletin file photo
Surrey waives outdoor patio fees for pubs, restaurants

Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, praised the move

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

In Ontario, COVID-19 vaccine clinics have been set up at local mosques. (Submitted photo: Rufaida Mohammed)
Getting the vaccine does not break your fast, says Muslim COVID-19 task force

Muslim community ‘strongly’ encouraging people to get their shot, whether or not during Ramadan

A plane is seen through the window on the tarmac of Vancouver International Airport as the waiting room is empty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
100+ international travellers who landed in B.C. refused to quarantine

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it issued $3,000 violation tickets to each

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A health-care worker holds up a vial of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Montreal, Thursday, March 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
PHAC receives first report of blood clot linked to AstraZeneca

The federal agency says the person is now recovering at home

A real estate sign is pictured in Vancouver, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS Jonathan Hayward
1 in 3 young Canadians have given up on owning a home: poll

Data released Monday says 36% of adults younger than 40 have given up on home ownership entirely

Dr. Bonnie Henry gives her daily media briefing regarding Covid-19 for the province of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C, Monday, December 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. urges people to stay in their neighbourhoods, discourages out-of-household meet-ups

Dr. Bonnie Henry says there should be no travel, even to the next city over

Looking east at the Cascade Range with the potential Alpine Village site in the foreground. Mt. Archibald rises on the left.
Ambitious all-season mountain resort proposed near Chilliwack

Proponents say Bridal Veil Mountain Resort could cover 11,500 acres bring in $252 million a year

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Most Canadians plan to get COVID-19 vaccine, but safety fears drive hesitancy: poll

This comes as confidence in governments is plummeting in provinces being hit hardest by the pandemic

Most Read