By Mukhbir Singh (WSO VP for Quebec and Eastern Canada)
Remembrance Day has particular significance for Canadians this year as we remember not only the sacrifices of soldiers who died in the World Wars but also those soldiers who recently died in the line of duty. Canadians were shocked by the attacks last month on Canadian Forces members Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent who died after being struck by a vehicle in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo who was gunned down while standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
But as a Sikh, what struck a nerve with me was that the two Canadian soldiers who were attacked and killed, were targeted due to their uniforms. Canadian soldiers as a result, were encouraged not to wear their uniforms in public.
For Sikhs living in Canada and the United States, being targeted for what we are wearing is an all too real problem. Sikh men and women wearing turbans are more likely to be physically and verbally harassed than the average Canadian. Following the attacks on September 11th, 2001, Sikhs were attacked and even murdered on numerous occasions. I bring up this sombre information not to elicit sympathy but rather, I believe we Sikhs bring a unique perspective on the issue of uniforms and targeting that has yet to be shared.
The turban and the five articles of faith worn by initiated Sikh men and women (often called the 5 K’s) are a uniform for the Khalsa – the collective of Sikhs dedicated to fighting injustice. During times of conflict and war, when Sikhs stood up for freedom of religion against the invading Mughal armies, the tenth guru of the Sikhs assigned a particular code of conduct and uniform for the Khalsa. This uniform made the Khalsa stand out and be recognized as it allowed for immediate identification. The uniform was a representation of the ideals of the Sikh faith, such as equality and resistance to tyranny. It stood as a marker of sovereignty, dedication, self-respect, courage and piety.
One can only assume that this uniform increased the Khalsa’s chances of being noticed and attacked. But it also brought along a visual identity representing the ideals that they were fighting for; a visual identity that others could recognize and support.
We are also proud that many Sikhs serve in the Canadian Forces wearing both the uniform of a Canadian solider but also wearing the uniform given to them by their Sikh faith. It was significant for us that the announcement of the first Sikh woman to wear the turban while serving in the Royal Canadian Navy came just days after the attacks on Canadian Forces members.
A soldier’s uniform is a visual representation of the values that soldier stands for – a Canadian Armed Forces soldier’s uniform is no different. There is of course no objection to soldiers maintaining a low profile temporarily; however permanently asking troops to remove the uniform when in public would be a step too far.
Just one day following the orders from the Canadian Forces, I observed an off-duty soldier in Ottawa walk home with his uniform proudly worn. The people of Ottawa shared their appreciation for the soldier, and there is no doubt that his actions were in defiance of the atmosphere of fear that the attackers wanted to create.
From a Canadian Sikh’s perspective we believe in the power of a uniform and support and encourage our friends in the Canadian Armed Forces to continue wearing their uniforms in public with pride.