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Baltej Singh Dhillon is the first RCMP officer permitted to wear a turban

Simranpreet Kaur Anand

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Sikhs and the State: A Timeless Appeal 

In 1991, Baltej Singh Dhillon became the first turbaned Sikh RCMP Officer.

After volunteering as an interpreter for the RCMP, Dhillon was recruited by the force, though he refused to observe its ban on turbans and beards. In 1989, Dhillon wrote an appeal in defence of his religious beliefs to the RCMP Commissioner. This appeal brought open racism toward the Sikh community and even anonymous death threats toward Dhillon. White Canadians led the charge in opposing accommodations: anti-Sikh RCMP pins were sold, as well as racist satirical calendars.1 Despite the controversy, the government allowed dress code changes that allowed an exemption form for Sikh officers. More than 200,000 people signed a petition to keep the RCMP uniform as it was, arguing that this change would give preferential treatment to Sikhs and break years of Canadian tradition. Opposition consistently challenged the courts until 1996, when the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Federal Court and Supreme Court of Canada all upheld the changes.

Dhillon’s win has been considered a major milestone within the Sikh community, a community of immigrants that was experiencing immense racism and anti-immigrant sentiments at the time. While there are many in the Sikh community who are critical of the RCMP, the majority of Canadian Sikhs celebrate this event. I even have a photograph from a Nagar Kirtan parade in the mid-1990s of my twin sister and myself sitting on an RCMP police motorcycle while my mum and older sister stand uncomfortably next to a white cop. The RCMP works to embed visible minority officers into its ranks, though this effort has taken more of a PR turn in recent years. In 2021, following the unearthing of unmarked Indigenous graves throughout Western Canada, Surrey formed the RCMP Diversity and Indigenous Peoples Unit to showcase, through public imaging, their work to integrate their presence into racialized communities.2 Despite its constant touting of “diversity,” it is important to recognize that the RCMP is built on racist foundations and continues to be a predominantly white and male institution.

This is not the first time Sikhs have been absorbed into state power. Alongside Dhillon’s historic victory, many also celebrate the Sikhs who fought in World War I and World War II as part of the British India Army. Many of the passengers on the famed Komagata Maru had previously served in the army; despite their fight amongst colonial forces, they were rejected entry by the racist Canadian state. The British Columbia regiment involved in forcing the passengers of the Komagata Maru out of the Vancouver Harbour would, decades later, be commanded by former Canadian defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan.3

This event is exemplary of a larger contemporary movement of Sikhs aligning themselves with state power and thus becoming a model minority. As minorities reflect on these kinds of cultural histories, I find it imperative to examine which systems, institutions and legacies we want to align ourselves with.

Simranpreet Kaur Anand

Simranpreet Kaur Anand is an artist, curator and cultural worker creating and working between the unceded territories of the Kwantlen, Katzie and Semiahmoo peoples (Surrey, BC) and the lands of the Anishinaabeg: The Three Fire Confederacy of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations (Ann Arbor, MI). Her art practice interrogates the so-called neutral audience in multicultural society. To accomplish this, she uses materials—particularly textiles, language, performative gestures, and photographs—that resonate beyond the typical art gallery context. Her practice is informed by familial and community histories, often engaging materials and concepts drawn from the histories of Punjab and the Punjabi diaspora, and their disruption by colonialism and forced migration. She holds a BFA with Honours in Visual Arts along with a second major in Psychology from the University of British Columbia and is currently working towards an MFA at the University of Michigan.


1 Douglas Quan, “Thirty years ago, he became the first Mountie to wear a turban,” Toronto Star, May 9, 2021.

2 See the Surrey RCMP’s Diversity and Indigenous Peoples Unit webpage.

3 Nadim Roberts, “B.C. regiment that once forced out the Komagata Maru is now commanded by a Sikh,” The Globe and Mail, May 24, 2014.