Thirty years ago, he became the first Mountie to wear a turban. Here’s why he still worries about hate ‘in the shadows’

Good reminder of Canada coming to terms with a more open society and identities, even as the RCMP continues to face challenges in recruitment of women and visible minorities (Indigenous peoples are above their population share and labour market availability):

During a visit to Calgary in late 2019, Baltej Dhillon couldn’t resist paying a visit to Shoulder to Shoulder Militaria & Collectibles after his son-in-law told him what he’d spotted inside.

Behind a glass display case were a bunch of pins that had been produced three decades earlier, when Dhillon was caught up in a fierce national debate over whether the RCMP should allow Sikh officers — like him — to wear turbans on duty.

One pin showed an image of a turban-wearing Mountie with a cross through it and the label: “Keep the RCMP Canadian.”

Another pin showed a turban-wearing Mountie riding a camel. It was labelled: “Canada’s New Musical Ride.”

Stunned to see these “symbols of hate” still in circulation, Dhillon snatched up about $50 worth of the pins. When he went to pay for them, he says, he could sense a tinge of embarrassment from the store’s merchant.

“I am grateful to live in a country where expression is part of our freedom,” he told the Star.

“Propagating hate, however, is not.”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of when Dhillon graduated from the RCMP training academy and made history as the first Mountie to be permitted to wear a turban while on the job. Through a 2021 lens, some will find it jarring to think that such a simple thing could be a source of controversy, but the uniform policy change sparked heated discussion over the meaning of Canadian identity, as well as petitions and court challenges seeking to preserve traditional elements of the Mounties’ garb, such as the Stetson hat.

While Dhillon, of Surrey, B.C., says there’s no question attitudes have evolved over the past three decades, there remains much that has not. The Star discovered as much, recently, when it spoke to some of the people who fought against his right to wear the turban while in uniform three decades ago.

For his part, Dhillon said the continued circulation of the pins, the relatively recent debate over whether people should be allowed to wear face coverings during citizenship ceremonies and Quebec’s ban on government workers wearing religious symbols all show there’s still a lot of work to be done in “finding kindness and compassion in how we interact with each other.”

“We need to continue to be vigilant because that hatred is just in the shadows.”


In 1988, Dhillon was in his early 20s and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.

His part-time work as an RCMP jail guard led him to apply to become a Mountie. He passed the initial application process but didn’t proceed further because he wasn’t willing to conform with the RCMP’s uniform policy, which required him to remove his turban, something he’d been wearing since he was 12.

“I’m not able to do that and cannot do that because of my commitment to my way of life and my articles of faith,” he says he told his recruiter.

Having been born and raised in Malaysia, where it was commonplace to see Sikh officers in law enforcement and armed forces, Dhillon says he had no inkling of the “great national debate” about to unfold.

In spring 1989, then-RCMP commissioner Norm Inkster recommended to the federal government a change in dress regulations to allow Mounties to wear turbans as part of their uniforms.

It sparked an outcry.

Three Calgary sisters from an RCMP family — Kay Mansbridge, Dot Miles and Gen Kantelberg — launched a petition calling for the preservation of the “distinctive heritage and tradition of the RCMP.”

“I don’t think we can give up our heritage just to pacify one religious group,” Mansbridge told the Calgary Herald at the time, adding that “chaos” would result when other minority groups demanded the right to wear their cultural garb.

The sisters insisted their petition — which gathered more than 200,000 signatures — was not fuelled by racism.

“I have friends who are East Indian,” Mansbridge told the Ottawa Citizen. “I even looked after their children.”

Meanwhile, some business owners saw potential to make money out of the controversy.

Herman Bittner of Langdon, Alta., produced a calendar containing a portrait of himself wearing a red serge, a turban and dark makeup on his face. He is identified as “Sgt. Kamell Dung” alongside the caption: “Is this Canadian, or does this make you Sikh?”

“I’m doing a job the politicians should be doing — they’re supposed to be representing the views of the majority,” he told The Canadian Press.

Two Calgary business owners — Bill Hipson and Peter Kouda — reportedly started mass producing pins that also mocked turban-wearing Mounties.

One of Kouda’s pins ended up in the collection of the Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge. According to the museum’s website, it depicts a Caucasian man surrounded by three visible minorities with the caption: “Who is the minority in Canada?”

As the controversy grew and respectful debate turned hateful, Dhillon said he could no longer remain the “quiet candidate.”

“I quickly realized there was a lot of ignorance and a lot of misinformation around the Sikh faith, the Sikh way of life, and there weren’t many spokespersons within the community that were able to speak to the issue from my perspective. So I took it upon myself to make myself available at that time.”

The debate found its way into the halls of Parliament in Ottawa.

“The RCMP cannot be frozen in time,” NDP MP Jim Karpoff told the House of Commons at the time. “Canada is an evolving multi-ethnic community and the RCMP should fully represent this.”

As part of the same debate, Louise Feltham, a Progressive Conservative MP from Alberta, asked: “If you make an exception for one group of people, where do you stop?”

“Today’s uniform depicts neutrality, impartiality, tradition, history and heritage. ”

But in March 1990, the government under Brian Mulroney announced it was moving forward with the dress code changes and an application form was created for Sikh officers wishing to be exempted from the standard headdress.


Dhillon graduated from the RCMP training academy in May 1991 and began working at the RCMP detachment in Quesnel, B.C.

Community reception at the time was mixed. When he walked into some bars to do sobriety checks, he was greeted as a hero. In others, he was greeted with boos.

“I would take it in stride,” he said. “I would take a bow, wave at them and make my way out. What more can you do?”

Dhillon says his staff sergeant greeted him icily on his first day on the job but when he retired a couple of years later, “He looks at me and says, ‘You’re like a son to me.’”

Meanwhile, a group of retired Mounties from Lethbridge — John Grant, Kenneth Riley and Howard Davis — along with Kay Mansbridge, filed a lawsuit seeking an order prohibiting the RCMP from allowing the wearing of religious symbols and a declaration that the commissioner’s actions were unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs, according to court records, asserted that when a religious symbol is allowed to be part of the RCMP uniform, the appearance of impartiality is undermined.

Outside the courtroom, the plaintiffs used far looser language.

“When they come over here why do they have to change it and make it the same way it is in their homeland?” Grant, one of the plaintiffs told Southam News. “Anybody that looks at it any differently in my opinion should get the hell out of Canada because they’re not good Canadians.”

The defendants argued the change in uniform policy was designed to remove a barrier to the employment of Sikhs in the RCMP and to reflect the multicultural nature of Canada.

In 1994, the Federal Court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding there was no evidence anyone had been deprived of their liberty or security by RCMP members wearing turbans, or had experienced a reasonable apprehension of bias.

The decision was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal. The plaintiffs took the case to Canada’s highest court, which declined to hear it.

Laura Morlock, a lecturer at Ryerson University, spoke extensively with Dhillon for her PhD dissertation on religious diversity and dress at the University of Waterloo.

It’s interesting that when Dhillon started his RCMP career, he was accused of “threatening Canadian identity,” Morlock said. Now, when you do a Google image search of “Canadian multiculturalism,” Dhillon is among the results.

“Dhillon went from being an icon of threat to Canadian identity to becoming an icon of Canadian identity. ”


After taking part in high-profile investigations such as the Air India bombing and the serial killings of Robert Pickton and developing expertise as a polygraph examiner and interviewer, Dhillon retired from the force in 2019 and took on a new role as a staff sergeant with B.C.’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, overseeing a program that aims to reduce gun violence.

Prior to his departure, the RCMP relaxed some of its uniform and dress policies, allowing members to wear their hair in a bun, ponytail or braid, to grow out their beards and to display tattoos. They also removed the requirement that members have to seek exemptions to wear faith-based headdresses, including turbans and hijabs, a move welcomed by Dhillon.

“When you give someone an exemption, in essence what you’re saying is you’re not exactly the same as everybody else,” he said.

Another thing he has been heartened by is the number of people who come up to him during his public-speaking engagements who say they were once opposed to the uniform accommodation but have since changed their minds.

“That’s the hope — that there’s opportunity for people to grow,” he said.

Dhillon says he believes there are now a few dozen RCMP members who wear turbans across the country.

Many of the people who led the campaign opposing the RCMP’s uniform change have since passed away. The Star did, however, reach some of their surviving family members.

Mansbridge’s son, John, said the “sentiments of 30 years ago don’t necessarily match with some of the thoughts of today.”

“Some of the points that were being made back then may still be relevant, but they’re drowned out by louder voices. I don’t think any of us want to be part of that, quite frankly.”

“The courts spoke,” he added, “and I think that’s probably the end of the issue for all of us.”

Riley’s daughter, Diana, said she still feels “proud” of her father for taking a stand for something he believed in.

“The only thing I myself remember and still to this day feel very proud of is that Dad believed in something and he believed in it strong enough to take the government to court,” she said.

Her father and the others weren’t opposed to having a diverse force, she said.

“Inclusivity wasn’t the problem. It was flashing the superior garb.”

Hipson, one of the makers of the offensive pins, said he had no regrets about his actions, calling it a “fun time” and an exercise in free speech.

“That was a big highlight for me. I was doing quite well with the pins. When this controversy came, it just opened up another one. I kind of enjoyed it.”

Hipson chuckled as he recalled some of his pin designs.

“Most people were laughing at it. I guess some people took it serious.”

Asked if his position on Mounties wearing turbans had changed in 30 years, he said it hadn’t.

“I still don’t think they should get preferential treatment.”

Reid Moseley, owner of the Calgary collectibles store that Dhillon visited, said he was proud of his collection of “politically incorrect” pins.

“My business is a collectors’ paradise, so I have been told by many of my customers. It represents the true history of our country, through the exhibit and sale of physical reminders of where our country came from.”

It is “sad” that such ignorance persists, Dhillon said when informed of the comments.

“To veil the hateful pins with the thought that they somehow represent the true history of our country is irresponsible,” he said.

“They were symbols of hate in 1990 and they remain that today.”

And to suggest that the debate over the right to wear turbans in the RCMP was a “fun time” is demeaning.

Such sentiment, he said, belongs to someone who hasn’t grasped what it means to be Canadian.

Source: Thirty years ago, he became the first Mountie to wear a turban. Here’s why he still worries about hate ‘in the shadows’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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