First member to wear turban reflects on experiences

Un policier de la GRC en tunique rouge

Insp. Baltej Dhillon says he hopes the force never becomes complacent in ensuring that the RCMP is fully representative of the communities it serves. Courtesy: SikhMuseum.com

In 1990, Insp. Baltej Dhillon made history as the first RCMP member to wear a turban on duty, and became the changing face of the RCMP at a time when Canadians were sharply divided on the topic. Heather Hamilton recently reached out to Baltej to reflect on those early days and get his thoughts on how we can continue to foster diversity and inclusion across the RCMP today.

Were you prepared for the media attention and public debate that followed your request to wear the turban?

No, I never expected the sort of debate or national attention the issue garnered. Having been born and raised in Malaysia, it was commonplace to see Sikh police officers wearing turbans and I expected that the turban would be accepted in Canada's national police force in similar fashion.

Can you describe your first days on patrol?

Much of what I experienced started even prior to joining the force, and continued after training. While I was in training, I received death threats. I nearly wasn't sent to my first posting because of concerns about the tensions and controversy my presence might cause.

The first few months at my first posting were interesting to say the least. Like the country, the community of Quesnel was polarized on the issue.

There were numerous instances where community members would ask for a different officer to assist them when I attended the call and patrons would boo me when I conducted bar checks.

It was only through conversation and by being active in the community that I was able to win the trust of many and break through barriers.

Were there any surprises?

Yes. Many residents were supportive of this change in the RCMP. I remember being swarmed by young people congratulating me.

Some community members went out of their way to let me know they were proud of the country we lived in and grateful to me for moving through the challenging times.

They wanted to ensure that my experience of 'the few' did not jade me regarding the support of 'the many'. I was — and still am — very thankful for those times and to those Canadians.

How are things for you today?

I believe we have come a long way. There are a number of turban-wearing officers in the RCMP and in other police services, not to mention our own Defence Minister, the Hon. Harjit Sajjan.

My only interest when I joined the RCMP, which remains to this day, was to be judged on my work, effort and contribution.

Having had the opportunity and responsibility of serving on a number of high-profile cases, such as Air India, the Pickton investigation and the Surrey Six, I believe I have won the confidence and trust of my colleagues and peers, and proven myself to be a good police officer.

I feel I am no longer judged by what I wear on my head, but rather my performance as a police officer.

What advice would you give to a new recruit who might be the first in a community to break new ground?

Be proud of who you are and what you stand for. Welcome every challenge, because with each one you face, you will become stronger and better.

Despite the commentary, the jabs and the pokes, focus on doing your best to serve your community. Eventually, it is your actions and your words that will be remembered. Don't lose sight of that or forget why you joined.

Are there any further changes you would like to see happen?

My hope is that we never become complacent when it comes to ensuring that the force is fully representative of the communities we serve.

If we have an edge over other countries and law enforcement agencies, it is our diversity and desire to take advantage of the multitude of skills and strengths this brings.

We will need to continue our efforts to create, support and nurture an RCMP that celebrates differences, invites contrary viewpoints, sponsors innovative thinking at all levels and engages in constructive conflict.

I have worked toward supporting these philosophies in my area of responsibility and encourage those I serve with to be fearless in their thinking and innovation. I look forward to doing more of the same in the coming years.

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