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Surrey’s Baltej Dhillon, first Mountie to wear a turban, speaks about acceptance

Former RCMP officer now working for CFSEU
Baltej Dhillon, the first RCMP officer to wear a turban, hugs Kevin Kelly of the Kwantlen First Nation at DIVERSEcity’s annual general meeting on Sept. 25. Dhillon was the keynote speaker. (Photo: Margaret Jetelina)

For Baltej Dhillon, tolerance simply isn’t enough.

“I want us to make sure, I would like us to be more in our language,” said Dhillon, a Surrey resident. “We often hear our politicians say, ‘We have to be more tolerant.’ No. Tolerate a pimple, tolerate a hangnail, tolerate a headache. You don’t need to tolerate me. We are better than that. We are much better than that. Don’t diminish my capacity to accept and understand others by telling me that all I can do is tolerate others.

“We don’t have to settle for just tolerance. It’s not necessary. When we say we have to be more tolerant, it’s a cop out. How we need to be and should be with each other is expecting more from each other and at the very least, at the very minimum, we should be expecting acceptance and the next level from there is understanding.”

Dhillon, who was the first RCMP officer to wear a turban, was speaking at DIVERSEcity’s annual general meeting on Wednesday (Sept. 25).

He met the RCMP’s entrance requirements, but it was his turban and facial hair that caused the uproar.

“As a matter of fact, it was the RCMP officers who encouraged me to join the RCMP because I was doing so well as a volunteer. When I went to see the recruiting officer, even he did not mention that, hey, you might have a challenge here, you might have an issue here. But then the debate started, the conflict started.”

In the early 1990s, Dhillon fought for his right to be an RCMP officer, while also still adhering to his Sikh religion which meant having a beard and wearing a turban.

Back then, the RCMP dress code didn’t allow for turbans and required clean-shaven faces – the latter was just changed in May of this year, with RCMP officers now allowed to grow facial hair.

READ ALSO: RCMP allows officers to grow beards, June 19, 2019

While Dhillon has the RCMP commissioner on his side, there were petitions against people wearing turbans to be allowed in the RCMP and there were pins created to express opposition to turbans on RCMP officers.

“Folks were asking me, ‘Well, Baltej, didn’t you think?’ or ‘Didn’t you know?’ No, absolutely not,” he told the room at DIVERSEcity. “You want to know what? It’s the fact that I came from a country where it was commonplace to see police officers with turbans. It was commonplace to see soldiers in the army, in the navy, in the air force with turbans. It was common place.”

Dhillon was born in Malaysia and moved to Canada in 1983, shortly after his father died. He said his brother was already living in the country and sponsored him to move here.

It was when he moved here, Dhillon said, that he learned there was racism in Canada.

He said his first experience of racism was at Frank Hurt Secondary, where he was the only person wearing a turban at the high school at the time. Dhillon said someone slapped his back and said, “Welcome to Frank Hurt Secondary.”

Dhillon said he didn’t find out until the end of the day that someone had placed a sticker for an airline on his back that said “Go home, Hindu.”

“I don’t know if I wanted to grow up that quickly, but I had to,” he said. “It hardened me. It absolutely hardened me.”

After high school, Dhillon said he planned to become a lawyer and a professor at then-Kwantlen College had told him to volunteer with the RCMP for a better resume to get into law school.

He said he would go on ride-alongs and helped to start block watches in Surrey, and through all that he realized the role he played as a visible minority working with police officers.

“There was this affinity and this sort of comfort and easiness when I would be in the car when we were meeting with South Asian families. They would come to me thinking that I was already a police officer,” Dhillon said.

“So if there’s ever a case to be made anecdotally about how important it is to have representation of the community in every service, in every public institution, well I can speak to that over and over and over again.”

From there, Dhillon said he applied to become a police officer.

“That is what changed my decision, conscious decision, to join a police force — not the RCMP, a police force. I applied to VPD, I applied to Delta police, I applied to New West and I also applied for the RCMP. Nobody was ready to hire me until they figured out what the RCMP was going to do.”

Dhillon said he made a decision to not stay silent, “but to rather take the opportunity to educate my fellow Canadians.”

“I often say I got into a tiff with the country. We made up, we’re good now,” he joked.

After finally being allowed to join the RCMP, Dhillon said his first posting was in Quesnel.

He said following his first night shift there, the staff sergeant asked him to come into his office.

“During that time, he didn’t look at me, he said, ‘I don’t agree with what you did. I don’t care for what you wear on your head. I think the commissioner made a mistake and I think he government made a mistake. You’re here now, as long as you do your job, you won’t have any problems with me,’” said Dhillon, adding that he thanked his boss and left the office.

“That was tolerance. He tolerated me.”

Two years later, Dhillon said, he was coming back from the shooting range with the same staff sergeant.

“I remember this like it was yesterday. He looks over at me and says, ‘Baltej, you know you’re like a son to me.’ I said, ‘What?’ He startled me. I know we had developed a relationship. I know we had gotten friendly, but I didn’t know that’s how he saw me.”

Dhillon said he reminded his boss of his first day and their conversation, but he said the staff sergeant didn’t remember.

“That’s because you didn’t look at me that day,” said Dhillon, adding that his boss apologized.

Along with his historic role as the first turban-wearing RCMP officer, Dhillon also worked on the Air India task force and the Pickton case. In the Lower Mainland, Dhillon worked in the major crimes unit as a polygraph operator, he served as a program co-ordinator for the gang task force, he helped start the wrap program in Surrey and helped to build the first-of-its-kind criminal intelligence centre in B.C.

Dhillon “retired” from the RCMP on July 27, and began working for the province’s Combine Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU). He’s currently on leave from the RCMP, with his official last day on Nov. 19.

While it was bittersweet leaving the RCMP, Dhillon said it made it a little easier that he’s still working in the same building with the same people.

“It’s made it a little easier to step off this very rewarding, successful, comfortable journey as a police officer,” he said.

“We invest so much of ourselves into this organization. We come into the organization with this passion to serve, with this desire to lead, having done our very best to make Canada a better place and a safer place. The camaraderie, the friendships, the collegial nature of that network and people that you go to extreme lengths with and work on some extremely challenging cases, they become your second family. How does it feel to leave your family?”

Looking back on his career, Dhillon said it was during the challenges that he grew as a person the most.

Asked if there was a moment he ever thought of turning back and not pushing for his right, Dhillon said no.

“There wasn’t really a moment where I wanted to stop, but there were many moments where I felt disappointed,” he said. “It was challenging in that way. I never gave it a thought that I would quit. Certainly, at many times, I settled into this confusion about why is this happening in this country.”

As for his legacy of the first turban-wearing RCMP officer, Dhillon said it’s not something that he fully realizes, even now.

“That’s not why I joined. I didn’t join to change anything. I didn’t change to be a charter hero. I didn’t join to be an icon. I didn’t join to be any of those… terms that have been associated to me and the journey. I’m humbled by it all. I’m thankful for the journey, I’m thankful to the creator that I had the tenacity and the courage and the capacity to move through that time.”

Dhillon said he’s also grateful for the difficult times and to “those that were non-believers or were upset” about him becoming an officer.

“I’m just humbled by it all. I think we made too much of it, personally… The only reason and the only purpose I find in doing all of these… is if my story, if my journey can help someone else find their strength and find their capacity to stand tall and not have to give themselves up and not have to give up some of themselves and their identity to whatever it is that’s important to them, then I’ll keep doing this.”

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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