We’ve All Come a Long Way Since Slight

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A man walks into a bar…

The man in this case is my new friend, Gurdip Singh Sahota, a local realtor, who I had the pleasure of meeting at a recent networking event. An observant Sikh who wears a turban in accordance with his religious doctrine.

To Sikhs, their turban is sacred. Their Gurus instructed them to wear it and they have sacrificed their lives to protect its honour.

Actually, the turban figures prominently in the Old Testament as well as a symbol of royalty, dignity, purity, courage, strength and self-respect.

As we chatted, Gurdip shared his story of his involuntary 15 minutes of fame which occurred in 1991, when as a young, new immigrant taxi driver, he was asked to remove his turban when attending a SuperHost function at the White Rock Legion.

He refused and left the bar after which he was in his own words, “reluctantly thrust into the limelight.”  The World Sikh Organization filed a complaint with the B.C. Council of Human Rights.

As an “army brat” who spent part of his childhood in England, Sahota felt insulted at the time although bears no malice today. His father was a Major in the Indian Army and they attended garden parties at Buckingham Palace where no one was asked to remove their turban. His grandfather fought alongside the British Army in World War II.

In World War I, there were more than 100,000 Sikhs enlisted in the British Army. They died by the thousands.

It is the same story in the Second World War where Sikhs figured prominently in the Allied Forces. They fought and sacrificed their lives in Europe, Burma, Turkey and North Africa.

As another somber and soggy Remembrance Day has passed, with CARP laying a wreath once again at the White Rock cenotaph, it seems particularly relevant on the centenary of Vimy Ridge (where more than 10,000 soldiers were wounded or killed) and Passchendaele (more than 16,000 wounded or killed). I wonder how many of the deceased wore a turban.

Having recently visited the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, it was almost impossible to find anything Canadian save for a small showcase depicting Vimy Ridge and a turban-wearing soldier in the wall mural depicting the Allied and Axis forces.

Wanting to learn more about the experiences of non-whites in war, I drove to nearby Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Built in 1827, it was the base of African-American soldiers of the US 10th Cavalry, also  known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, nicknamed by the Native American tribes whom they fought. I had only heard about them in a Bob Marley song and was anxious to learn more.

I didn’t get the chance as they wouldn’t let me enter.  “No foreigners allowed as of one month ago,” I was told.

“But,” I retorted, “I am Canadian and we are children of a common mother!”

I was met with a blank stare and asked to leave.

As a white woman who grew up with privilege and agency, I was dumbfounded as I experienced discrimination head-on.

In a way, I know how my friend Gurdip felt all those years ago.

But luckily we have come a long way as I am sure our Federal Minister of Defense, Harjit Singh Sajjan, a retired Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces would agree.

As no doubt would Jagmeet Singh, the new leader of the Federal NDP party.

I would love to invite them both as well as Gurdip to the bar with me, sporting their colourful turbans.

Problem is, according to Sikh culture, they don’t drink!

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