British Columbia

RCMP mask policy for bearded front-line officers is discriminatory and 'shouldn't have happened,' Trudeau says

The prime minister says the RCMP's policy requiring front-line officers to wear properly fitting N95 respirator masks amounts to discrimination and "shouldn't have happened," because the rule disfavours officers who keep beards for religious reasons.

PM and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair say Mounties need to 'rectify' policy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Sept. 16. On Friday, Trudeau said the RCMP's policy on masks for front-line Mounties is discriminatory to members who don't shave their beards for religious reasons and should be rectified. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The prime minister says the RCMP's policy requiring front-line officers to wear properly fitting N95 respirator masks amounts to discrimination and "shouldn't have happened," because the rule disfavours officers who keep beards for religious reasons.

Justin Trudeau said Friday he was "very disappointed" to hear about the policy which has seen a number of Mounties — including Sikh and Muslim officers — reassigned to desk duty during the pandemic.

"It is something that I certainly hope the RCMP rectifies quickly and it shouldn't have happened in the first place," Trudeau said during a news conference.

"Obviously, health and safety regulations are extremely important and they need to be applied in workplaces across the country, but I was very disappointed to hear of this issue with the RCMP because I do know that many other police forces and other organizations have figured out ways of upholding health and safety standards without needing to create discrimination against certain individuals because of their religion," he continued.

Criticism of the policy arose after front-line Mounties with beards, including officers who leave their hair unshaven for religious reasons, were taken out of the field.

RCMP officers wearing masks walk outside of an apartment complex during a raid in connection with the mailing of ricin to U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday in St-Hubert, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"It's clearly a case of discrimination," said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization (WSO).

"The fact that this has been allowed to linger for almost six months without a resolution — to me, it points to a larger issue of not understanding the need to accommodate." 

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said in March that front-line officers would need to wear respirator masks in the field. A directive sent to officers said "one of the most common causes of a breached seal is facial hair."

A clean-shaven RCMP officer is pictured wearing a respirator mask and directing traffic at a COVID-19 testing centre in Burnaby, B.C., in August. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Singh said the WSO wrote to Lucki and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asking them to amend the policy.

Blair's office condemned the policy in a statement to CBC News on Friday. Like Trudeau, Blair said it needs to be changed.

"All officers must be given equal opportunity to serve their community while practising their faith. They must not experience discrimination based on religion," read an email from the minister's spokesperson.

"It is essential for the RCMP to provide necessary personal protective equipment in a timely manner for Sikh officers. We have raised this matter with the RCMP, and expect that this be rectified as quickly as possible," the email said. 

B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday N95-type respirator masks aren't needed for most law enforcement. The Vancouver Police Department does not have a policy similar to the RCMP's, nor do police forces in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal.

WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry on police wearing masks: 

B.C.'s chief health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says there are "few cases" where a police officer would need to wear a respirator mask. 0:50

The RCMP says it is different from other police forces because it is bound by the Canada Labour Code and Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, which require a clean-shaven face for proper use of N95 masks.

Spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said in a statement Thursday the force does not have the authority to change the rules around personal protective equipment under current legislation. 

With files from Meera Bains and The Canadian Press

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