The relevance of Sikhism

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Forty years ago, there were so few Sikhs in Canada people would stop and stare at men with turbans. Though there are now 500,000 Sikhs across the country, the culture is still little known. Bob Harvey reports.
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada), Mar. 7, 2003
Bob Harvey, The Ottawa Citizen

Manjit Singh says that when he first arrived in Canada in 1961, “people would come to a dead stop on the street and stare when they saw me.”

What grabbed their attention was his turban, which most religiously observant Sikh men consider an important sign of their faith.

Mr. Singh says Sikhs were then so rare in Canada that when he later moved to Montreal, he encountered only three other turbaned Sikhs in his first year there.

There are now an estimated 500,000 Sikhs in Canada — including an estimated 5,000 in Ottawa.

“But beyond the fact that Sikhs wear turbans, most Canadians don’t know much about us,” says Puneet Singh Kohli.

He and other Sikh students at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University are trying to do something about that with An Evening of Sikhi, tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Auditorium.

Mr. Singh, who is now a professor of Sikhism at McGill University, will address the question “Is Sikhism Relevant Today?” Other speakers include Herb Dhaliwal, the federal minister of natural resources, and Chirinjeev Kathuria, a Sikh-American entrepreneur whose Mircorp is building the world’s first private space station.

The Ottawa Carleton Sikh Student Association will also be offering free lunch to students at the U of O and Carleton on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. That event is inspired by the tradition of langar, the offer of a devotional Sikh meal to people of all backgrounds, as a demonstration of the Sikh belief in the equality of all humanity.

Mr. Kohli, a third-year law student at the University of Ottawa, says it is not easy to wear a turban and be a Sikh in North America.

“We faced a lot of backlash, especially in the United States, because of mistaken identity after Sept. 11 (2001). There were putdowns and even violence.

“But wearing a turban is one of those things you either come to accept at a young age or you don’t. In some ways I enjoy it. It makes you stand out,” he said.

“When I walk into a class on the first day, everyone’s eyes are on me. It’s a great marketing tool. When you put your hand up in class, who are they going to remember? The guy with the turban!” said Mr. Kohli.

If turbans are accepted in most workplaces throughout Canada, it is thanks in some small part to Mr. Singh.

He was a senior Air Canada executive in the late 1980s when the Treasury Board and later, the RCMP, asked him to sit on internal committees looking for ways to attract more visible minorities to the public service and the Mounted Police.

When Mr. Singh and the RCMP advisory committee suggested turbaned Sikhs be recruited, the federal solicitor general of the time, Pierre Blais, wanted to know what a turbaned Mountie would look like.

So Mr. Singh tried on the red coat, breeches, and boots just to show the minister. A year later, Baltej Singh Dhillon made history as the first Sikh to enter the RCMP.

In this case, it was not the Mounties who got their man, but the Sikh who got his Mounties, with some help from the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 1991, the court ruled against a bid by a group of retired Alberta Mounties to make the traditional Stetson mandatory for all Mounties. Today there are three turbaned Sikh Mounties and more than 20 Stetson-wearing Sikh Mounties.

Six per cent of all federal employees are also visible minorities now.

The gurus who formed Sikhism starting in the 15th century encouraged their followers to wear uncut hair and a turban to keep it clean and in order as a symbol of spirituality and holiness.

Mr. Kohli said that at the time, only kings were allowed to wear turbans, and they became a symbol for Sikh males of their vocation as soldier-saints.

The custom has also had an unexpected bonus.

“If it were not for our distinctive appearance, we would have assimilated into nothingness,” he said.

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)