Baltej Singh Dhillon had to “struggle” to maintain his identity when he moved to Canada in 1983.
He chose to continue following his Sikh faith and did not cut his hair or remove his turban. But as the only turbaned student in high school, he was the victim of discrimination — which only prepared him for what lay ahead.
When he joined the RCMP, it sparked an “unprecedented national debate on the question on whether one could serve Canada without compromising one’s faiths and beliefs,” as Dhillon describes it.
But on Sunday, he stood before a crowd of more than 50 Abbotsford community members — politicians, Sikhs and non-Sikhs — as the first turbaned Sikh member of the RCMP. Dhillon, proudly wearing his bright red RCMP uniform and beige turban, shared his story of struggle and triumph as the keynote speaker for the opening of the Sikh Heritage Museum’s exhibit on the turban challenge.
It’s the museum’s third historical exhibit showcasing the history of the Indo-Canadian community since their arrival to Canada in 1904 and the challenges they faced around the turban and its evolution.
“Folks went through a lot of trouble … saying no to turbans,” Dhillon told the crowd about his early RCMP career. “There was a lot of effort, all assigned to do one thing: marginalize one group of people … so it would be easier to hate them.”
The turmoil over his turban followed him into training, he received death threats and a mayor even requested he not be assigned to their city.
“Thankfully there were many who stood up in opposition to this hate mongering,” said Dhillon. “It took time, but it always does.”
“We’re definitely maturing as a country.”
Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman came out for the exhibit and was a testament to how far the country has come: gurdwara members helped tie a bright yellow turban around his head before he entered the temple and addressed the crowd.
“Right now we have an opportunity,” he told the crowd. “(To) come in here and ask (questions), so (we) can understand the importance and the significance of what the turban means.”
“It’s important that we share our religion and share our stories and share our culture with one another,” he added. “The Indo-Canadian community is a vital part of Abbotsford … the Sikhs helped build this province, they helped build Abbotsford.”
Twenty years ago, a mayor or MP would never sit in a Sikh gurdwara wearing a turban, said Dhillon.
“It’s steps forward,” he said. “I’ve seen us mature as a country — we have come a long way. We no longer settle for tolerance, that’s the language of the old. We need to get rid of that word, we now demand acceptance of each other.”
The exhibit is expected to run until September at the Sikh Heritage Museum, located at 33094 South Fraser Way in Abbotsford, directly across from the Khalsa Diwan Society.
LARISSA CAHUTE, VANCOUVER DESI