In 1991, Baltej Singh Dhillon became the first member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police permitted to wear a turban — as part of his Sikh religion — instead of the Mounties’ traditional cap or stetson. Dhillon’s request that the RCMP change its uniform rules triggered a national debate about religious accommodation in Canada.
Born and raised in Malaysia, Dhillon immigrated to British Columbia in 1983 at the age of 16. After he graduated from high school, he studied criminology. Although initially wanting to be a lawyer, he decided to seek admission to the RCMP after spending time at a Mountie detachment in Surrey, BC, where he volunteered as a translator for Asian immigrants.
Dhillon applied to the RCMP in 1988. Although he met the entrance requirements, he refused to abide by the RCMP dress code of the time, which banned turbans and required clean-shaven faces. As a Sikh, Dhillon’s religious obligations required him to have a beard and wear a turban. Instead of giving up his dreams of becoming a Mountie, or compromising his religious beliefs, Dhillon sought changes to the RCMP uniform policy.The RCMP uniform had been altered before. In 1974, skirts and women’s heels were introduced to accommodate female officers. In 1987, the RCMP had begun affirmative action policies aimed at recruiting visible minorities. The following year, in response to Dhillon’s application, the RCMP Commissioner recommended removing the force’s ban on beards and turbans. The case was controversial, causing heated debate and protest across the country.
Baltej Dhillon joined Spice Radio for an in-depth talk about his experience. Listen to the full interview below: