Excuses Must Be Left At The Door.
Jason MacGregor has nearly 13 years of service in the Canadian Armed Forces. He holds the rank of sergeant and currently belongs to a signals regiment.
As a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), I know the importance of removing your headdress when you walk into a legion or a mess. Sometimes people forget because we're all human after all. When people forget it's one of those rare moments when a private or corporal can lean in and quietly remind an officer, "Sir, your beret,". For those who are too slow to respond then, it would be no surprise to hear a senior non-commissioned member (NCO) shout to "get that hat off!".
It's a custom with almost religious stature among serving members, veterans, and their families.
On Wednesday evening, January 17th, two young men and a woman walked into the Tignish Royal Canadian Legion. They removed their winter coats and hats and played some pool. The woman, Annemarie Blanchard, was local to the area. But the two men with her, Mr Janwinder Singh and Sunny Pannu were not. They were clearly of East-Indian descent and one of them--Jaswinder, was wearing a Sikh head covering.
As covered by P.E.I. media, a situation erupted which garnered international media attention and a statement from the Minister of National Defence.
It was disappointing to see legion staff acting unprofessionally, and to see locals giving the finger and saying racist, hateful things to these strangers.
Admittedly, I didn't give the matter much thought at first. It is somewhat--somewhat understandable how a relatively isolated legion hall in western P.E.I. could have been uninformed about the types of headdress worn by followers of Sikhism. Historically, the Sikh population on the Island has been marginal. I chunked up the racist comments and profane actions to the effects of alcohol. I mean, a lot of Islanders from outside West Prince have experienced the wildness that is the Tignish Legion. As I presumed would happen, the legion president apologized for what took place, and the Royal Canadian Legion National Command sent out a reminder that religious headdresses are exempt to the rule of no hats in the legion.
So story closed?
And that's where it gets frustrating. In a poll released by The Guardian newspaper, 51% of respondents found nothing wrong with the actions that took place in Tignish. On social media, this result was seemingly backed-up by far too many ignorant and hate-filled replies to CBC's article on the matter.
A lot of people said that these men should pay respect to Canadian culture and the culture of the legion. I garner that the vast majority of these comments come from people who have never served in the military or do not know what military culture is like today. So let's talk about that.
What happened in Tignish is not just ignorance of Sikhism. It's ignorant to the principles and values that the Canadian Armed Forces is built on.
Every serving member, from the time they do their Basic Military Qualification to the time they retire sit through annual briefings on Defence Ethics. Scenarios are played out, debated and critically analysed by privates, sergeants, majors and every other rank that push the boundary of people's misconceptions. It can be frustrating because the outcome is very rarely black and white. But there are a few principles that are written in stone and taken extremely seriously by serving members.
The most important ethical principle of the Canadian military is "respect the dignity of all persons." No exceptions, no excuses. That goes for how service members treat each other, and especially how they treat members of the public--Canadian or foreign.
From my own experience, it seems that a lot of people have this wild west idea they get from American war movies about how forces members act. But Hollywood isn't real life. The reality is, CAF members pride themselves on being uber professional. They know that by wearing the uniform they each represent something much bigger than themselves. They represent the best values of Canadian society.
The Canadian military has come a long way since WW1. It was after the that that legions were first established. Even then, Sikhs and other nationalities of the British Empire were fighting alongside their brothers in arms from Canada and elsewhere.
Although legions are stilled heavily focused on keeping alive the memories of the world war and Korean War veterans, that generation has mostly faded to history. Today, the bulk of veterans have seen tours in Bosnia, Haiti, the Golan Heights, and most notably Afghanistan. The fighting environment has changed drastically and so has the professionalism of the military itself.
Legions are cultural hubs for our veterans, and in essence are military establishments. That means respect needs to be paid to military customs and traditions. That is done through noticeable acts like removing your headdress, and through less noticeable acts like how you treat others. As we all know, hats aren't allowed in a legion unless they are for religious reasons. But that also means that acting like a prick isn't allowed either. Sure, go ahead and get drunk. Get silly. Let loose.
But don't think for a second that a legion is some sort of safe space for white, straight, predominantly Christian men. If that's what comes to mind when you think of a veteran then turn off your T.V.
Being drunk is no excuse, just like ignorance is no excuse.
A small minority of ignorant people with outdated ideas shouldn't be allowed to drive the public conversation about what happened at the Tignish Legion.
The CAF, like much of Canadian society, embraces a multitude of a colours, creeds and orientations. I can personally tell you it's one of our greatest resources. The contribution of our Sikh members has been--and continues to be very noteworthy. I've worked with Sikh members and last year had a Sikh recruit join the unit I was at. Being his immediate supervisor I never thought for a second or heard any other member of the regiment say that he didn't belong there. When he asked about getting an issued turban (dastar), and being allowed to keep his beard I had to tell him I wasn't sure what the procedure was. I had never dealt with it before. So I turned to the CAF dress regulations which had a special paragraph and illustrations for Sikh members.
Sikhism has a strong emphasis on having a warrior spirit and serving your community. The Minister of National Defence, Harjit Singh Sajjan is the poster child of a Canadian-Sikh soldier, and his appointment to that office greatly speaks to the role of Sikhs in the military.
Not only have Sikhs served our military and police forces, but they exemplify Canadian society. Punjab is the fourth most common language in the country, and Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition is a hit for Canadian Sikhs.
As Defence Minister Sajjan pointed out his statement on the issue, allowing religious headdress in legion halls was dealt with decades ago. It was on Remembrance Day, 1993 in Surrey, British Columbia that a WW2 veteran, Pritam Singh Juahal walked into the local legion after the ceremony had concluded. He and the four other Sikh veterans with him were denied entry because of their turbans. Juahal, who had 38-years of military service and fought in battles around the world, said in his memoirs that his fight to allow religious headdresses in legion halls was the hardest battle of his life.
It was in 1988 that Baltej Dhillon was offered entry into the RCMP on the condition he shaved his beard and no longer wore his headdress. He fought back, and in 1990 the government of Prime Minister Mulroney changed RCMP dress codes to allow Sikh dress. But several communities that employed the RCMP didn't agree with the changes and fought the federal government over the new rules. It took until 1996 before the Supreme Court ruled once and for all to uphold the changes.
So for the Islanders who were publically disrespectful toward the Sikh men who were discriminated against in Tignish, there is no excuse for such ignorance. For one, those people could have taken five minutes to research the matter on their smartphone or computer before making disrespectful comments. We live in the information age after all, and all the answers to lifes problems are there for free.
Second, they need to understand the real contribution that Sikhs--and other visible minorities have made and continue to make to Canadian society, our military, and police forces.
And most importantly, they need to understand that military culture would never allow such disrespectful behaviour like that which is disrespectful to a person's dignity.
Across the Island, the Tignish Legion has a bad reputation for being a hot spot for fights. It seems that there is automatic grounds for locals to pick fights with anyone not from West Prince. But this latest incident takes the rag.
The president of the Tignish legion and Minister of National Defence can only be professional and politically correct in their responses to this incident. That's the nature of their roles. And although I can't speak on behalf of the forces, I think the folks who frequent the Tignish Legion need to be read "the riot act".
In the army, when the officer in charge is about to dismiss his or her troops they'll hand over the floor to their sergeant-major or platoon warrant officer. That's when the room gets real quiet, soldiers stiffen up, and things get serious. That's when the sergeant-major (or senior NCO in charge), lays out the DO-NOTs. Do not cause any fights. Do not drink and drive. Do not get arrested. Do not be dressed inappropriately. Do not break this rule or that rule. Do not act unethically.
This is being "read the riot act" in the army. At the end of his rules, the sergeant-major will pause then sternly ask "is that understood?". Everyone then comes to attention and shouts back "Yes, sir!". Soldiers know that those rules are non-negotiable. If they're broken, then they'll be hauled in front of the sergeant-major and there will be hell to pay.
So I think Tignishers need to reminded that the legion hall isn't the place to go looking for a fight. Leave the fighting to our service members when it's required. If you can't hold your liquor, or your tongue then find a barn to drink in. For the management there I can only recommend having zero tolerance for anyone who disturbs the peace. Our military culture today is inclusive. Respect is given to everyone, no matter their religion, skin colour, or orientation. As such, the legion should enforce the same policy. If people are entering your establishment with their backs up, afraid that a fight with a local is inevitable, then you're doing something wrong.
Here's my riot act for the Tignish Legion. Rule number one, respect the dignity of all persons. Non-negotiable. Hats are to be removed at the door, except for religious headdresses. As such, ignorance is also to be left at the door, no excuses. And any fighters or troublemakers will be banned for life.
As for other Islanders who have made ignorant remarks on this topic, there is a lot of underlying racism there that worries me. People have tried justifying what happened in Tignish by marking the two Sikh men as being instigators. I don't know how so many Islanders are being influenced by these hateful perspectives because P.E.I., unlike other places, has never had to directly deal with racial policies. Clearly, a lot of this second-hand hate is being imported via T.V. or the internet. But that's a whole other story.
I ask Islanders to realize that what happened in Tignish, and the ignorant responses that followed is unacceptable. People have cited respect for our veterans to back-up their ignorant comments. But if you have respect for our veterans and current serving members, then please take a lesson from military culture today. Be inclusive and have respect for the dignity of all persons.