I'm a Canadian soldier. I'm also Sikh. I shouldn't have to choose between faith and service
My long hair is a symbol of my faith, but the military hasn’t always known how to accommodate it
This First Person column is written by Maj. Sarabjot Anand, an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, who lives in Ottawa. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
In 2018, I was about to be deployed to Romania as part of Operation Reassurance on a NATO Air Policing mission. As part of the pre-deployment process, every soldier on that mission had to pass a simulated gas test to ensure our military-issued gas masks had a proper seal in case the adversary used chemical weapons.
When I was told by the military's departure assistance group I had to do this standardized test, I had a sinking feeling.
You see, I'm a proud Canadian soldier and I'm also a proud Sikh, and this gas mask test was about to force me to choose between serving my country or honouring my faith.
In order for the gas mask to create a seal against the skin on the face, soldiers have to be clean shaven. However, as a Sikh man, I had a beard. It's an important part of my religious identity.
For Sikhs, the beard is considered to be a symbol of courage, self-respect and piety. Sikh men are required to keep their hair uncut, including their beard, as a way of honouring God's creation and as a reminder of their commitment to the Sikh faith. In Sikhism, it is believed that the body is a gift from God and should be respected and maintained in its natural state.
But serving my country has always been equally important to me.
Military service runs in my family. My grandfather was a warrant officer in the Indian Air Force. It was his dream that someone from our family carried on the tradition. Even though I was 12 when I immigrated to Canada with my family in 2004, I grew up listening to my grandfather's stories about his time in the military. It inspired me to serve my new, adopted home. In middle school, a guidance counsellor introduced me to the Royal Canadian Air Cadets program.
After I graduated, I attended the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ont., for my bachelor's degree in computer science.
While Sikh officers have a long history of serving with the Canadian military and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has its turban standards, RMC did not. Even though RMC was founded in 1876, just nine years after Confederation, I was one of the first turbaned Sikh officers to graduate in 2015.
Although it was surprising for me to learn I was among the first turban-wearing Sikh soldiers to enrol in RMC, it explained why the military hadn't considered how the turban should be incorporated into the RMC uniforms. There are rules and regulations for everything a soldier is expected to wear.
That's why I along with my three other fellow turban-wearing Sikhs officers enrolled at RMC developed and implemented its turban standard in 2014. Instead of choosing a turban colour that somewhat matched the uniform, these turbans were colour-coordinated with the headdress of our peers, and we also added a ribbon that matched the colour of the piping on their head dress.
The first time I put on the new black turban with gold ribbons with my red scarlet uniform, I finally felt like I belonged. When we formed up on the parade square, I no longer stood out. I was part of the same team. It was amazing to see the willingness of the senior leadership at RMC to help us in this endeavour and turn it into a reality.
And that's how I found myself staring down a moral dilemma that I had never even considered might come up as a Sikh man serving in the Canadian Forces. A part of me hoped against hope, and I went through with the gas mask test even though I knew the odds were not in my favour.
I started to think, surely I'm not the first Sikh soldier to raise this question?
As it turns out, I was.
To no one's surprise, I didn't pass the gas test with my beard.
Fortunately, the chemical weapons threat was low in Romania, so my task force commander approved for me to go overseas without a properly fitted gas mask.
The experience, however, made me determined to find a place for Sikh soldiers — and soldiers of other faiths – to find their place in the Canadian military.
In Romania, I got lucky. However, I knew this would not be the case for me and other Sikh soldiers in future deployments where the risk of chemical attacks was high.
That's why I was excited to learn that the Defence Research and Development Canada scientists and the CAF were developing gas mask extensions to accommodate beards, turbans and hijabs. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to work alongside them and started recruiting other turban-wearing Sikh soldiers in the CAF to help test the new mask extensions. We gathered so much interest, and over numerous iterations of the solution, we now have a working prototype.
When we work together, there are always solutions that can be found. I believe one should be the change they want to see, and no one should have to choose between faith and country. To me, this is what inclusion looks like.
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