As he readies for new role, 1st Mountie to wear turban reflects on RCMP career
Insp. Baltej Dhillon, 53, is retiring from the RCMP after nearly 30 years with the force
Baltej Dhillon has kept a scrapbook during his nearly three-decade career with the RCMP.
There are photos of him standing proudly in the red serge in the early 1990s, the iconic Stetson hat replaced by a tan turban. There are newspaper clippings — both positive and negative. And there's a schoolyard poem, filled with nearly every ignorant stereotype about Sikhs one could imagine.
"I'll dress up in my coat of red / And wear my laundry on my head," part of the poem reads. "It's much better, they'll decide / If we ride camels in the musical ride."
It was written by a child and shared around the schoolyard, but it's a dark reminder of some of the attitudes the trailblazing officer has faced over the years.
This week, Dhillon, 53, retired from the RCMP after a career that saw him rise to the rank of inspector, as he took part in high-profile cases, including the investigations into serial killer Robert Pickton and the Air India bombing.
"When I first got involved in the Air India task force, I wasn't trusted. I wasn't included in some of the meetings," said Dhillon. "I was told that it was because there was concern that I might compromise the file."
That mistrust is something Dhillon experienced before he ever donned the red tunic.
Born in Malaysia, a teenage Dhillion and his family moved to British Columbia in 1983. After high school, he studied criminology and initially wanted to be a lawyer. But he sought to become a Mountie after volunteering with the RCMP as a translator for Asian immigrants.
Dhillon formally applied to the force in 1988 and passed all the entrance requirements. But at the time, the RCMP dress code banned both turbans and beards — key components of his Sikh faith.
A CBC News story from 1989 shows a spandex-clad Dhillon exercising, as he waits for the regulations to change, allowing him to serve with a uniform that doesn't clash with his religion.
A petition calling for the exclusion of turbans in the RCMP circulated at the time, with thousands of signatures. A Calgary businessman had pins made that clearly express opposition to turbaned Mounties.
But the young prospect had supporters, including mentors and the RCMP commissioner, and the regulations were ultimately changed to allow Mounties to serve with a beard and turban.
"The RCMP commissioner came face to face with the Charter of Rights [and Freedoms] in Canada, which clearly states that one cannot be discriminated for practising their faith," said Dhillon.
When he went for training in Regina, Dhillon said other members of his troop were cordial. But the first time he entered the mess hall, the room fell completely silent.
"When I walked in, there were 1,200 eyes looking at me … it was very intimidating," he recalled.
The young constable's first assignment was in Quesnel, B.C., where he was greeted with a large plywood sign that said, "Welcome to Quesnel, Turbocop." Dhillon decided to assume it was a welcoming message.
But he soon learned that his partner had told other officers that he wouldn't back Dhillon up, because he was wearing a turban.
"All you've got is your partner, and if your partner's saying, 'I'm not backing you up,' well, there goes your lifeline," said Dhillon, adding that his staff sergeant soon took care of the situation.
For seven years, Dhillon was the only Mountie to wear a turban, until another Sikh man was posted in Burnaby, B.C., in the late 1990s.
"It was incredible … I certainly picked up the phone right away and shared with him my excitement and glee of seeing him in the ranks," he said.
While Dhillon is leaving the RCMP, he's not leaving law enforcement. He's beginning a new role with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of British Columbia, an integrated police agency focused on gang activity.
As he looks back on his career as a Mountie, Dhillon chooses to focus on the service he provided for the communities where he worked — not the death threats he received in the mail from across the country.
"Racism exists in our country," Dhillon said. "It takes a toll on all of us.… It takes energy away from being better Canadians, being better citizens, being better neighbours and working toward something more for our children and our future."