The Liberal government said Thursday it has raised concerns with the RCMP about the national force declining to accommodate bearded Sikh officers during the pandemic, but the force said it is subject to a health and safety regulation for respirator fittings that “specifically requires a clean shave.”
The World Sikh Organization (WSO), which seeks to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, said Sikh officers have been removed from front-line policing duties and given desk roles for nearly six months because the RCMP says its personal protective equipment or PPE does not seal with facial hair.
“The RCMP are the only police force in Canada that refuse to accommodate bearded Sikh officers,” said WSO president Tejinder Singh Sidhu.
There has been no attempt to accommodate Sikh officers with alternative PPE that would work with their facial hair, the organization added.
The concerns were raised as the RCMP and police forces across Canada face increased calls to confront systemic racism, including after a number of police shootings.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the reports from the WSO are a concern and it is essential the RCMP provide necessary PPE “in a timely manner” to Sikh officers. “We have raised this matter with the RCMP, and expect that this be rectified as quickly as possible,” said press secretary Mary-Liz Power.
All officers must be given equal opportunity to serve their community while practising their faith, she added. “They must not experience discrimination based on religion.”
In a statement late Thursday, the RCMP told The Globe and Mail it regrets that members with accommodations for medical or religious reasons have been affected by the need to wear PPE in response to COVID-19.
“We have heard the concerns of our members regarding the lack of safe facial PPE for members with beards,” the force said. “As a direct result of these concerns, we have assessed a number of possible alternative PPE options that would not require a clean-shaven face.”
It said the RCMP is in a unique position compared with other police forces and the military given it is the only organization subject to the Canada Labour Code and Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.
“Under the current legislation, the RCMP does not have the authority to allow members to be fit-tested with beards or to select PPE that is not approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,” it said.
“Specifically, the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations require that we follow the Canadian Standards Association Group standard for respirator fit-testing, which specifically requires a clean shave.”
The RCMP said they are concerned that some members are unable to serve in front-line policing and pledged to continue to explore options. “In cases where we find accommodations were not appropriate, we will address them through internal processes,” it said.
Alberta Conservative Tim Uppal, who was a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, told The Globe on Thursday that now, more than ever, the RCMP should not be excluding anyone based on their religion or their race.
“There are other police forces who do not have this issue, have not sidelined their members,” he said.
The WSO said Thursday it previously wrote to Mr. Blair and the RCMP commissioner in early June requesting they intervene to resolve the situation.
It also said it had written to Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains requesting their help to resolve the situation but that it did not receive a response.
Mr. Blair should answer why calls for action from the community were ignored when they were raised, Mr. Uppal said, adding the Liberals talk a great deal about systemic racism.
“When it comes to action, we see now again that there actually ignoring calls for action,” he said. “That’s disappointing to see. Frankly I am not surprised either.”
In the Speech from the Throne on Wednesday, the Liberal government promised changes to address systemic racism, including a pledge to reform the RCMP and to modernize training for police and law enforcement.
The government also said it would address training for police and law enforcement including around the use of force.
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