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Above: RCMP's Baltej Singh Dhillon.

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Years Ago, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper Launched His Political Career By Trying To Ban The Sikh Turban.
He Lost





The rhetoric over the niqab in the federal election campaign is proving reminiscent of another furor, more than 20 years ago, around the Sikh turban and its compatibility with Canadian values and the country's dearest institutions.

What was allegedly at stake in that debate in the 1990s was the very fabric of the nation, and the sanctity and perhaps survival of an important historic symbol of the country -- the Stetson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Baltej Singh Dhillon, a young Sikh-Canadian, wanted to become a Mountie. But his application to the force led to a kind of turban turmoil and an eventual intervention in Parliament by the Progressive Conservative government of the day. [The ‘Progressive Conservatives’ were a completely different party from today’s ’Conservatives/Tories’; the latter, now led by Stephen Harper, is merely the reincarnation of the racist Reform Party which then led the fight to ban the turban.]

The debate was featured on newscasts and dominated the public conversation. Political parties took positions on it, including the Reform Party, which deemed allowing the right to wear a turban unnecessary, and went so far as to pass a resolution at its 1989 convention banning such religious attire for the RCMP. At the time, Stephen Harper was a defeated Reform Party candidate and the party's policy chief.

Baltej Singh is now a staff sergeant in the RCMP. The force refused to allow him to speak to CBC News about the turban debate. But in a video story produced by Telus Optik in B.C. and posted online, Baltej recalled the tone of the debate.

"It was vicious. It was angry. It was emotional. It had all the elements of racism in there. It was a disappointment is what it was," he said in the video.

"The fear was that we would lose the symbols that defined Canadians and defined our culture and defined who we were and our branding with the rest of the world."

"And that was the greatest irony: That on one hand, we need to protect our symbols, and in the same breath, we need you to not protect your faith or your religion or your roots."


That analysis points to parallels with Stephen Harper’s new crusade against the wearing of the niqab in citizenship ceremonies. The niqab has become a topic of debate due to the Harper Conservative government's legal battle with an Ontario woman over the right to wear the niqab during the public portion of the citizenship ceremony.

"Both the turban and the niqab are seen as religious requirements. So the link is obvious in my mind," says Natasha Bakht, law professor at the University of Ottawa, who studies the intersection of the Muslim face-covering and the law.

"We went through a situation where we were not used to seeing Sikh men. We were not using to seeing them on the streets, we were not used to seeing them in positions of authority, and usually when you're not used to seeing something, you are uncomfortable with it, or you are fearful of it. But we got past that."

Bakht believes discomfort is at the root of the debate about the niqab, too. She can find no legal argument to support its banishment, only an assessment the niqab is not necessary for Muslims -- and therefore, the right to wear it is not in need of protection.

Bakht says that position amounts to interference in the practice of faith. It supposes there is one correct, and state-sanctioned, interpretation of whether Muslim women ought to cover their faces.

But if one does imagine the assault on Canadian values allegedly posed by the niqab is a justifiable reason for restricting the wearing of the niqab when swearing the oath of citizenship, Bakht points out that has only recently been deemed a problem.

Until Jason Kenney announced the changes in 2011 when he was immigration minister, women were allowed to wear the niqab at those ceremonies, Bakht notes. It was Kenney's move that was the change.

Zunera Ishaq, an Ontario woman, challenged the ban in court and has had two rulings in her favour. The government has announced it will appeal the most recent ruling to the Supreme Court and is seeking a stay to prevent the niqab from being worn at citizenship ceremonies in the meantime.


The comparison between the niqab and the turban also resonates with Sukhpaul Singh, the vice-chair of the Canadian Sikh Association.

Opponents of the turban thought it unnecessary, or, at least, deemed the religion it represented not worthy of the protection the charter affords.

“They were using those religious symbols as a way to divide the communities, to divide our Canadian society and to challenge our values of tolerance," Sukhpaul Singh said.

He adds that the debates about the turban and now the niqab should not dissuade Canadians from pride in their acceptance of Canadians of other faiths and their faiths and traditions.

"You have to give Canadians a lot of credit," he said. "We're a tolerant society. And I think a lot of folks will see through this misinformation."

[Courtesy: CBC News. Edited for]
September 30, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), September 30, 2015, 11:23 AM.

The niqab and the turban are not analogous as religious articles of faith.

2: Hardyal Singh (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), September 30, 2015, 12:23 PM.

Any Sikh-Canadian would have to be really, really stupid to vote for this silly man or his party or anyone running on a Conservative/Tory ticket. The same goes with any other thinking Canadian who has any self-respect and love for Canadian values. We need to be surgical in weeding out such bad politicians. They are like cancer for our beautiful country. Let's remember that on October 19 -- Voting D-Day.

3: Sarvjit singh (Millie, Massachusetts, USA), September 30, 2015, 10:25 PM.

The issue with the niqab is the subjugation of women. However, I agree that the Harper Conservatives were/are generally racist, hiding under the facade of protecting values(same as Jim Crow in the South).

4: Arjan Singh (USA), October 01, 2015, 9:44 AM.

Sunny ji: you are spot right that Sikh turbans and Niqabs do not relate to the same issue. Niqabs are a cultural garment that is worn by only a few groups of Muslims, whereas the Sikh turban is a compulsory article of faith for observant Sikh males.

5: Deep Singh (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), October 07, 2015, 11:09 AM.

If a Muslim woman (or anyone else, for that matter) believes that wearing a certain item is an act of piety, then let them be. In the cases reported in Canada, it is the women who are chosing of their own volition to wear the niqab. These women are exercising their own agency and are well within their rights as Canadians as embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If anyone is compelled to wear something or do something, then it is the responsibility of every Sikh to stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and deal with the oppressor. This is why I found Tom Mulcair's speech so inspiring, his words sounded like the words of my elders when speaking about the sacrifices of the Ninth Master, who made the noblest of sacrifices for the right of others to practise their faith -- in that particular case, the faith of the Hindu pundits was completely antithetical to Sikhi. But the Guru defended their right to practice it. Where are Gurus were so evolved in their thinking, so revolutionary in their practice, I pray that the panth can follow that path.

6: Shoobidek (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), October 07, 2015, 2:56 PM.

Arjan Singh - you're not entirely correct. Most Muslims don't consider the niqab to be a religious requirement but a small minority of them do. It is a genuine religious (not cultural) belief among a small ultra-conservative group and they believe that it is a requirement. So, it is the same thing.

7: Sheila (Canada), October 07, 2015, 3:38 PM.

As a Muslim woman, raised and educated in the west, I can assure you that the niqab is NOT a cultural garment, it is a requirement that few Muslim women adhere to. It takes a lot of confidence to wear one and ultimately we wear it for the same reason, the pleasure of God - believe me, no man could force me to dress like that! Yes, it's true, not many of us wear it anymore but it makes it no less religious ... that's just the hateful manipulation of Harper's paid clerics to make the the cloth less significant! Ultimately, whether we force someone to wear something or force someone to remove it, it is equally oppressive and suppresive. We should enjoin plurality and diversity and be united towards shunning racism and divisive voices. I'm very proud of the Sikh community for holding strong to their identity and hope that we tide these trying times with as much dignity and perseverance as you guys.

8: Babuji Philip (Canada), October 07, 2015, 11:09 PM.

Isn't the simple and logical answer is to have the citizenship oath to be taken in front of a female judge and keep it mandatory to show the face, is the clear answer? Harper certainly does not like this or agree to this suggestion, only because he would then not be able to do his masterful fear mongering to win elections. Divide and conquer is the foreign advice he is getting. Aren't there thousands of other valid social and environmental issues out there that Harper has ignored for the past ten years when he was in power? His future promises are the last straws to hang on to power! Aren't Canadians ready for change? I hope, for sure.

9: Brian Caldwell (Canada), October 08, 2015, 3:34 AM.

The leopard cannot change his spots.

10: Della McGaw (Canada), October 08, 2015, 9:33 AM.

Harper was a racist fundamentalist right-wing Christian then as he is now. The only difference is he has learned to use those he disdains, anyone who isn't a reflection of himself, against each other. He is a master manipulator and unfortunately far too many people can't see the truth.

11: Dalvir (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), October 08, 2015, 11:57 AM.

What's really sad is all the opportunistic, self-centered and self-serving Sikh-Canadian candidates that are lining up behind this clown. Today he's talking about banning the niqab, tomorrow he'll be after your turban again. You shameless power hungry people are selling out the rights and equality our forefathers fought for.

12: Scott Rowswell (Canada), October 08, 2015, 12:54 PM.

I think all of the noise around this issue goes back to the Reform Party (of which Harper himself was one of the founding fathers) and their reactionary and conservative views, many of which reflect the intolerance and what many would call the "small mindedness" of the base they represent. By keeping this issue at the forefront, its seems the Harper Conservative strategy is one of trying to ensure their base gets out and votes - as it is one of the truly strange things that in this country a party with under 1/3 of the vote can form a majority government. That is not how I understand democracy to work and it is most concerning given that only one party expresses ultra conservative views, with the others clustering into similar space characterized by more tolerant views. With respect to the citizenship oath and dress - What a person wears at work, at home, at their citizenship ceremony, or anywhere is immaterial - what is material is that the individual taking the oath agrees to accept being bound by the rule of law that citizenship entails. This is a 2 way agreement as once a country offers citizenship to a person, it then accepts that it will ensure that all rights afforded that person under law are preserved. Sadly, this seems to be an area where the Conservatives are also pandering to their base as recent legislation and actions indicate that citizenship is not the same for all Canadians these days.

13: Steve (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada), October 08, 2015, 1:06 PM.

The significance of niqabs and turbans may be different but the debate at the time over turbans in the Mounties is exactly the same as today. Lots of talk about "why don't they conform to our ways" rhetoric and people offended by those who stand up for their principles.

14: Geoffrey (Canada), October 08, 2015, 2:35 PM.

Two different issues. Covering one's face may be a choice and not religious. Covering one's face can be an issue for security. How do you identify someone when you cannot see their face? I believe people are afraid of the niqab due to fact it has been used as an instrument in acts terrorism.

15: Nate (Lantzville, British Columbia, Canada), October 08, 2015, 7:15 PM.

Baltej's first assignment was in my town ... Quesnel, British Columbia. He was the school liaison officer for the school of which I was the Principal. He did a wonderful job in communicating with the kids. I trust him and his words.

16: Hoos (Canada), October 08, 2015, 8:02 PM.

"God" doesn't care what you wear or what you look like. So, why should politicians?

17: Sharon (Victoria, Briitish Columbia, Canada ), October 09, 2015, 2:05 AM.

I've read all your comments and have learned a lot. It warms my heart to know we share a love of the Canada that welcomed us all. Let's keep it that way. Unfortunately, the First Nations who were here first, have not been treated well. I am ashamed. Colonial/imperialism rule is brutal. Let's protect our land / air / water / biodiversity ... and our own diversity, too.

18: Jagtaran Kaur (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 09, 2015, 1:02 PM.

Re #14 above: 1) Whether or not a niqab is religious is for a Muslim to decide, as long as the practice is time-tested and not a mere personal quirk. (The courts have laid out the indicia quite clearly). So, read above what Muslims say about the practice ... it does not have to subscribed by ALL Muslims to be valid. 2) The Harper govt. itself has said that wearing a niqab during the citizenship ceremony is neither a security nor an identification issue; the authorities say that the person can be adequately identified. 3) Terrorism has been committed all over the world through the centuries by those hiding behind the Christian Cross and by those wearing the Christian priest's and nun's garb. Never heard anyone wanting to ban any of them ... and rightly so. I wish people would do their homework and use their heads before spewing misinformation the way Geoffrey has.

19: Tony Singh (Canada), October 09, 2015, 8:43 PM.

Purdah (women covering their faces with a veil) was a common practice during the time of the Sikh Gurus. It was the Third Master, Guru Amar Das, who pointedly spoke out against this practice as he believed in the equality of men and women (as did all of the Sikh Gurus). So, as far back as the early 1500s, Sikh women were freed from having to cover their faces in the presence of men. Today, right minded Sikh-Canadians are speaking out against the 'thinly veiled' racist policies of the Conservatives by defending the right of Muslim women to wear the veil if they choose to do so. This is in the same spirit of Guru Tegh Bahadar, the Ninth Master, who sacrificed himself to defend Hinduism, a religion whose practices Sikhi did not subscribe to.

20: Sharon J (British Columbia, Canada), October 11, 2015, 1:26 AM.

The respect in this discussion makes me so proud to be a part of this great country. I think it is terrific that men with turbans are in the RCMP. With no disrespect whatsoever, if I were being held hostage by evil people, my saviour could be wearing anything on his head, I would be just as delighted to see him (or her). Whatever culture you come from, we should be welcoming you as we all came from somewhere else if we are not aboriginal. As for the niqab, she chooses to wear it. She showed her face to a female official before she took the oath. That is good enough for me.

21: Ken Piercy (Comox, British Columbia, Canada), October 11, 2015, 4:05 AM.

Harper plays a very dangerous game when he taps into people's primal fear of things different or unfamiliar. Once unleashed, this genie can be very difficult to put back into the bottle. Whether the thing we fear is Mounties in turbans, women in niqabs, or same-sex marriage, fanning the flames of this fear has no place in a modern multicultural, multi-faith society. As a 'white' anglo "old stock" Canadian, I am ashamed of the damage Stephen Harper and his Reform Party buddies continue to inflict upon this country.

22: PWLG (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), October 12, 2015, 11:53 PM.

Rather ironic that Harper makes sure he has at least one token turban-wearing Sikh sitting as a backdrop for his photo-ops. But a majority of Canadians have been witness to a variety of Harper inconsistencies (to say the least)... like 'not appointing Senators' -- 62 at last count!

23: J S Sidhu (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), October 13, 2015, 3:16 PM.

Turban crowns a person and enhances the personality, whereas a niqab hides the person and therefore her personality.

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He Lost "

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