Limits of Acceptance
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Limits of Acceptance
A RCMP cadet asks to wear his turban and sparks a stormy national debate
In the late 1980s, an age-old Canadian tradition collided head-on with the country's growing cultural mosaic. A RCMP cadet was at the centre of a debate that challenged the limits of Canadian acceptance.
Since its creation in 1873, the RCMP symbolized Canada to the world. For many people, the uniform including its Stetson hat was one tangible symbol of an elusive Canadian identity. Pictured here, Mounties at Dawson, Yukon, 1898. (Canada Post Corporation s
Since its creation in 1873, the RCMP symbolized Canada to the world. For many people, the uniform including its Stetson hat was one tangible symbol of an elusive Canadian identity. Pictured here, Mounties at Dawson, Yukon, 1898. (Canada Post Corporation stamp issued July 3, 1998)

In 1983, sixteen-year-old Baltej Singh Dhillon immigrated to Canada bringing with him his Sikh customs and beliefs. As Dhillon settled into his Vancouver high school, he quickly learned the price of being different.

"I think I may have taken all of five minutes before realizing that how am I going to get rid of my brown skin? How am I going to get rid of my brown eyes? It was a moment of survival, survival for my soul, for my spirit, for who I was."

Throughout the country, racial tensions had increased as Canada expanded its multicultural panorama in the latter part of the 20th century. For most of the century, Canadian immigration policy had explicitly discriminated against non-white immigrants, but in 1967 and 1976, Ottawa extensively revised the Immigration Act to remove most of the racist barriers.

Thousands of Sikhs were among the flood of newcomers. Sikhs are a cultural and religious group from the Punjab in northern India. Sikh men often wear beards and turbans as part of their beliefs and traditions.

In 1990, Dhillon was accepted into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and told to exchange one tradition for another.

"I was given the option that you can cut your hair, remove your turban, shave your beard. And we would carry on with the process as we did with everybody else."

Since its creation in 1873, the RCMP symbolized Canada to the world. For many people, the uniform including its Stetson hat was one tangible symbol of an elusive Canadian identity.

But Dhillon asked that an exception be made, arguing that the wearing of a turban was a religious duty that no devout Sikh can shirk, and that preventing him from wearing one was a violation of his religious rights. The federal government allowed Dhillon to train wearing his turban, but made no guarantees he could wear it after he graduated.

As politicians reviewed the RCMP dresscode, the issue sparked debate around the country.

A typical response was:

"Respect our traditions, wear their hat," was a typical response.

But so was:

"I think that if somebody wants to wear something that's important to them, to their nationalities, or to their beliefs and it doesn't interfere with what they do, let them."

As Dhillon trained, he received hate mail and threats.

An Alberta man named Herman Bittner created a crude, unflattering calendar that mocked Sikhs.

"Am I really a racist," Bittner said in an interview, "or am I standing up and trying to save something that you know can be lost forever?"

Barbara Frum interviewed Dhillon on CBC television news magazine The Journal.

"Their argument to you, of course, is theres a great long tradition here," Frum put to Dhillon. "This goes back over a hundred years.... You want to be a Mountie. Why dont you join their tradition?"

"I have been practicing my religion for the last twenty-three years," Dhillon replied. "Now, is somebody really asking me to protect a tradition, or are they asking me to sacrifice my religion, my principles, my disciplines, my respect in the community, the respect I have from my family, and all the other things that tie into this religion?"

In 1990, Solicitor General, Pierre Cadieux, responsible for the RCMP, gave his ruling.

"Today, Im announcing the governments decision which is not only the correct one in law but also the right decision."

Canadas Charter of Rights and Freedoms, entrenched in its constitution, had prevailed. Dhillon could wear his turban as a RCMP officer, establishing a precedent of great symbolic power.

"What is it to be Canadian, I think, ultimately becomes what is it to be a citizen of this earth," Dhillon said. "And Canada is, I believe, a petri dish for this world, where we have put all the organisms of this world.... And we are a test sample. And how we do as a country is going to be judged globally."

In 2001, there were more than 147,000 Sikhs in Canada. Dhillon remains a RCMP officer and continues to wear his turban.

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