Feds step in as B.C. Mounties allege beard discrimination during COVID-19 pandemic

VANCOUVER — A day after a retired police chief and Canada’s advocacy group for Sikh citizens revealed bearded RCMP officers in B.C. had been pulled from their regular duties, the country’s public safety minister has stepped in — while the prime minister says it never should’ve happened.

“The presence of diverse Canadians in our police forces and in all our systems of authority is something extremely important for all Canadians, and it is something that I certainly hope the RCMP rectifies quickly and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said Justin Trudeau. “I was very disappointed to hear of this issue with the RCMP because I do know that many other police forces and and other organizations have figured out ways of upholding health and safety standards, without needing to create discrimination against certain individuals because of their religion.”

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office tells CTV News he expects to see changes to the situation, which has seen Sikh and Muslim Mounties reassigned, often to desk duties and other undesirable positions, because the force says they haven’t been able to find approved masks that would accommodate their facial hair.

“All officers must be given equal opportunity to serve their community while practising their faith. They must not experience discrimination based on religion,” said a spokesperson for the minister of public safety. “It is essential for the RCMP to provide necessary personal protective equipment in a timely manner for Sikh officers. We have raised this matter with the RCMP, and expect that this be rectified as quickly as possible.”

The RCMP acknowledges it’s not just those with religious exemptions but some members with medical exemptions from wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic have also been impacted. The World Sikh Organization revealed Thursday it’s been approached by dozens of Mounties, predominantly in B.C., who are upset about being pulled from the field and are fearful their careers would be impacted if they spoke publicly.

“It’s, from my legal perspective, a very clear case of discrimination where solutions exist, the RCMP just seems unwilling to look at those,” said WSO spokesperson and legal counsel Balpreet Singh Thursday. “They don’t want to speak out against their management, against other senior officers, but they don’t know what to do.”

CTV News contacted three municipal police forces in Vancouver and all of them said they had PPE available for use at their officers’ discretion and did not have special policies around beards, while the RCMP at national headquarters insist they’re subject to different labour laws than other police agencies.

When CTV asked B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry about the issue, she said she saw little reason police would need to wear a special mask called a respirator, which is typically used for medical procedures like intubation. Former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed slammed the force for taking its own path on the issue, rather than following such medical advice.

“I use the term ‘leadership negligence’ in this issue, and other issues in the RCMP, where they have this failed policy,” said Heed when discussing officers who’d gone to him in frustration. “They don’t seem to think it out, they don’t seem to want to learn from other departments around the world on how they are addressing this particular issue.”

CTV News has asked the RCMP for a response to Blair’s comments and is waiting for a response.

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