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The federal police force's move to keep bearded Sikh officers on desk duty because masks meant to keep COVID-19 from spreading don't fit them tightly is wrong, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday he was very disappointed to learn the RCMP is preventing bearded officers from working on the front lines during the pandemic because of the force’s concern about how personal protective equipment fits over facial hair.

The RCMP has faced allegations of discrimination over the policy, including from the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), which said officers had been given desk roles for nearly six months because the force said its PPE does not seal with facial hair. The organization, which seeks to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, noted that facial hair is religiously mandated.

Speaking in Ottawa, Mr. Trudeau said many other police forces and organizations have figured out ways of upholding health and safety standards without “needing to create discrimination against certain individuals because of their religion.”

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“It is something that I certainly hope the RCMP rectifies quickly and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” he said, adding the presence of diverse Canadians in police forces and in all our systems of authority is extremely important.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office also said late Thursday it has been in touch with the RCMP on the matter.

In recent months, the RCMP and police forces across Canada have faced increased calls to confront systemic racism after a number of police shootings.

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 RCMP, however, has maintained it is in a unique position compared with other forces and the military because 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,” the force said in a statement Thursday.

“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.”

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The RCMP also said the force is 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.

In 2019, the RCMP allowed its officers to have facial hair for the first time in its history.

In a broadcast this March, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said the force was once again banning facial hair in the interest of health and safety but also said accommodations could be made.

“All front-line regular members must report to work clean-shaven (or with moustaches of appropriate length) unless subject to a specific approved exemption,” the Commissioner said.

“This is to ensure that the N95 respiratory mask is able to properly protect you in the event that it is needed on short notice. If you require an exemption on religious or health grounds, you must speak with your manager.”

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Any break in the mask’s seal can put officers at risk and one of the most common causes of a breached seal is facial hair, she added.

In a statement, the WSO said that it wrote to Mr. Blair as well as the Commissioner in early June requesting they intervene to resolve the situation.

The organization 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.

“No response was received from the ministers' offices,” the statement said.

Conservative MP Tim Uppal, who was the first turbaned Sikh cabinet minister in Canada, in Stephen Harper’s government, told The Globe and Mail that the Liberal government should answer why calls for action from the community were ignored when they were raised.

He also said that now, more than ever, the RCMP should not be discriminating against members.

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