Flashback: LINDA GOYETTE
Look How Times Have Changed
The following is reproduced from "Flashback", a weekly section published in The Edmonton Journal, which features articles from the Journal's archives,
stories that reflect the changing face of Edmonton and northern Alberta
over the 109 years of the history of the community. Edmonton is the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, and it is the largest city of the same province - Calgary - which only last weekend held its wildly succesful Turban Tying fest which drew thousands of Albertans.
This article, by former columnist Linda Goyette, was originally published on Nov. 12, 1989 - that is a mere 5 years after 1984. It captures the negativity created by 5 years of intense propaganda spewed by the Indian government operatives in Canada in order to prevent any international scrutiny of its crimes against its Sikh minority.
My first thought was that she looked like a kindly great-aunt. She stood on Rice Howard Way in sensible shoes and a plain coat, Canadian decency in uniform, and asked me to sign her petition.
"No, I won't," I said, struggling to find polite words to contradict a woman twice my age. "I think you should realize that not all Albertans agree with you."
It was hardly a stirring defence of the right of Sikhs to wear turbans in the RCMP. If anything it was downright cowardly. I was feeling sick about that when a young man who had just signed the petition addressed me furiously.
"They keep coming here and they refuse to be Canadian," he said. He began a lecture on the value of national traditions, police honor and how he wasn't a racist, but . . .
A few people, waiting in line to sign their names, punctuated his little speech with murmurs of agreement. The anger in their eyes astonished me. Auntie raised one eyebrow in victory, saying nothing. She'd won this round hands down, and I knew it.
This happened in early September when Alberta's Defenders of RCMP Tradition had collected only a few hundred signatures. More than 90,000 people have signed the petition since then, and the protest is spreading like stinkweed across the West.
The anti-turban aunties don't speak for all of us. Thoughtful Albertans have to deliver that message to the rest of the country as quickly and firmly as possible.
We should reassure the 250,000 Sikhs in Canada, particularly those in our own neighborhoods, that we wouldn't sign that miserable petition if we were dragged to Eckville and back.
We should write to Solicitor General Pierre Blais and tell him to stop quivering and shivering about the votes of the intolerant. If he had followed the advice of RCMP Commissioner Norman Inkster and authorized the turbans six months ago, he would have spared the Sikhs the indignity of this protest. He has stalled long enough.
Finally, we must contradict the street-corner petitioners, not with timid smiles and half-apologies, but with solid argument. What are they defending after all? A hat. A tall, wide hat. Are hat-defenders so formidable that we can't counter their rhetoric with common sense?
People usually oppose Sikh turbans in the RCMP for one of three reasons. I categorize these objections as the good, the bad and the ugly, although I disagree with all of them.
The good reason for objecting to RCMP turbans is that symbols of religion and the state should remain separate in Canada. People who adopt this position say they wouldn't want to see Mounties wearing a Christian cross, a Jewish yarmulka or a Sikh turban because these symbols suggest the state is not secular.
Well, fair enough. But Christians and Jews can observe their religion without wearing crosses and yarmulkas. A Sikh who cuts his hair to work for the RCMP is breaking one of the five conditions of his faith. Canadians who force him to abandon his traditional head-covering clearly contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
If the rule is unfair, Sikhs just won't join the RCMP. All Canadians will be the losers. When the force needed Punjabi-speaking Mounties to investigate the Air India crash, they could find two in the entire country. So much for a good reason.
The bad reason for objecting to Sikh turbans in the RCMP is nostalgia. People in this camp defend the existing uniform as the symbol of a fine tradition - an untouchable Canadian artifact - probably because they're afraid of change itself.
They refuse to acknowledge that the RCMP has modified the uniform regularly since 1873. The only Mountie who never bothered to change his clothes for years was Nelson Eddy, the insufferable hero of Hollywood's worst movies.
Real RCMP officers abandoned pillbox hats in 1900 because Stetsons protected them better from the Prairie sunshine. This week, they're wearing United Nations berets in Namibia and peaked police caps in Stony Plain. Women in the force wear skirts, high heels and nylon stockings and nobody objects to that change.
Tradition? The bobbies of London have a proud history and their Sikh officers wear turbans. The Canadian Armed Forces, and the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force, allow turbans. So do police in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.
The traditions of the British army didn't crumble when Sikh officers fought in the muddy trenches of France during the First World War and won nine Victoria Crosses for heroism. If stuffy British officers encouraged Sikhs to join the army on their own terms in 1914, what on earth are Canadians afraid of in 1989?
These days, Albertans see more Mounties in shapeless parkas than in scarlet tunics and wide-brimmed hats, so why is the turban the focus of so much rage? This brings us to the ugly reason for the RCMP petition. Raw racism.
Sikhs in Calgary report that the frequency of obscene gestures from motorists has risen since the anti-turban petition drive began. A Calgary company made a tidy sum selling buttons that show a Sikh in a turban and say "Ban this."
Phone calls here at the office have been disheartening. ("I'm not a racist, but . . ." That "but" is Canada's new three-letter obscenity.) Earlier this week, some amateur artist - anonymous of course - sent in a drawing of a Sikh RCMP officer wearing a hat on top of his turban and a Buddhist monk's yellow robe. "Do non-Sikhs or Tibetan llamas also grow beards and shave their heads?" the caption read.
Another letter ridiculed any RCMP officer with "a turban on his head, a sabre at his side and a bone through his nose."
Cheerful, isn't it?
Pierre Blais bows to this drivel when he postpones his decision, again and again. Alberta MPs Bobbie Sparrow and Louise Feltham feed it when they argue in Parliament against the uniform change.
Canadians who signed the anti-turban petitions this fall aren't all bigots, but the impact of their campaign is deeply racist. Wear your turban on Heritage Day, they are telling the Sikhs, but don't wear it with an RCMP uniform because that national institution belongs to us.
The petition is Alberta's disgrace. It's time to tell the soft-spoken woman on the street corner: You are wrong and I won't sign.
POSTSCRIPT: It is to the credit of Canada and Canadians that its legendary national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ("RCMP") moved within a few months after this article was published, removed all restrictions against Sikhs serving in the RCMP with their articles of faith intact, and swore in its first Sardar Officer, Baltej Singh Dhillon! [see image above, right.]
[Courtesy: Flashback, The Edmonton Journal]
July 7, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), July 07, 2012, 11:36 AM.
I should add here that the main reason Sikhs in Canada had to struggle to fight the RCMP battle was not the bigotry of a small number of Canadians, but the secret correspondence received by Canadian government officials from their Indian counterparts, warning them that Sikhs who refused to doff their turbans, and in particular, those who wore their beards unshorn or untrimmed, were aligned with militants and terrorists. I was a young lawyer then and had been retained by a young, bright and rising Sardar in the Canadian Army who was encountering similar problems. It was in my role as his lawyer that I gained access to the actual secret communiques received from Indian government officials.
2: G.C. Singh (USA), July 07, 2012, 3:09 PM.
No matter what its outward postures may be, the Hindutava establishment considers Sikhism as its arch enemy and is bent upon its complete assimilation by all means. Because of the symbolism of a turbaned Prime Minister and an Army Chief, naive Sikhs have become complacent and unmindful of the dangers of the deep rooted and institutionalized anti-Sikh policies of the Indian Government and the conspiracies to destabilize and defame the Sikh diaspora. The ugly face of the Indian propaganda machine's unadulterated venom against Sikhs was again unmasked this year during Balwant Singh Rojonana's death sentence issue in March this year. In June 2010, during a visit to Canada, Manmohan Singh - speaking as a front for Indian agencies - warned of a non-existent Sikh extremism and terrorism in Canada. Just last week, the Indian Government again rubbed salt in the wounds of the Sikhs when it announced that the mass murderer of Sikhs in 1984, Jagdish Tytler, and butcher of Punjab and convicted sex offender K.P.S. Gill would lead the Indian delegation to the London Olympics.
3: Raj (Canada), July 07, 2012, 9:26 PM.
After '84, it was the worst time for us, Sikhs wearing turbans in Alberta. The Indian Govt. spent millions of dollars to demonize Sikhs and the opposition to turban-wearing Mounties was da irect result of that. We have worked very hard to show our neighbours, co-workers and the Canadian Society at large, we're not any different than them. Now, Canadians are reading in between the lines and know the truth. While the Indian Govt. was busy tarnishing our image, we became the second richest ethnic group in Canada. Why wouldn't we? Our Gurus were real people, our religion is not based on comical characters from Chernobyl.
4: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), July 07, 2012, 10:37 PM.
I took a course a few semesters ago and was stunned to hear the comments of a few of my white classmates about the need to preserve traditional institutions such as the RCMP from "political correctness". I would have been wholly disgusted had not a young woman who was on her way to joining the RCMP argued about the need to incorporate all Canadians into these institutions.
5: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), July 07, 2012, 10:40 PM.
@ G.C Singh: Hindutava is much more sinister than that ... it threatens to swallow Sikhism, not destroy it!
6: Manpreet Singh (Hyderabad, India), July 09, 2012, 2:55 AM.
Comment 4 - @ Sunny Grewal: Why would you feel disgusted. I think you should have immediately raised your voice along with the bold woman. I guess this turning 'mum' is the real culprit. I don't know from when we Sikhs have imbibed the desi 'chalta hai' attitude into our tradition and culture. Let me tell you an inciden: with Waheguru's blessings I am growing my kesh to sport a turban. A colleague in my office came to me and said, why are you growing your hair? I gave him the reason and told him that in another couple of months I will also wear a turban. He immediately said that the turban is no more required and it's an old tradition. I corrected him then and there and substantiated with the reason. If i would have kept mum, then his way of looking at the turban and associating with Sikhs would have not changed.