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The Mounties Got Their Man

by THANE BURNETT [The Toronto Sun]

Herman Bittner's shed is locked in time. It's a decade and a half out of date.

Inside the storage barn, behind his place south of Calgary (Alberta, Canada), he stockpiles left-over novelty calendars from the early '90s. The calendars made Bittner money and nationally infamous. And he takes pride of his footnote in history to this day.

His calendars ridiculed the notion Sikh Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP) should be able to wear turbans instead of the traditional Stetson hat.

"That was the attitude - out here in the west, we're a little more vocal," the 59-year-old businessman tells me.

Damned by human rights groups, including the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the $6 calendars lampooned the uniform change. During the crescendo of the national debate, despite the uproar, he sold more than 13,000. His was just one of the angry  -  although his was extreme  -  voices raised over the changes to a uniform which had previously gone through several less raucous reincarnations.

Other Alberta vendors sold anti-turban pins. Several MPs opposed inclusion of religious elements into the uniform. An unsuccessful lawsuit was filed on behalf of retired Mounties.

Baltej Singh Dhillon heard the voices. And many more. But they didn't stop him then. And he doesn't resent them now.

2006 marked the fifteenth anniversary since the devout young man from B.C. graduated from the RCMP training academy in Regina (Saskatchewan, Canada), as the first officer allowed to wear a turban and unshorn beard. Today, he's a seasoned sergeant on the force.

"I have to thank them for using the words they used," he says of the critics. "I'm tougher for having come through it."

While May was the anniversary of the changing face of the RCMP, Dhillon actually counts his years from August 30, 1990 -- the day he signed up and took his oath.

The Malaysian born officer came to Canada when he was 16 years old. He didn't intend to redefine 118 years of history  -  or even become a police officer. He wanted to be a lawyer. To help with a volunteer component of that study, he began giving his time to the Surrey, B.C., RCMP detachment.

That community was seeing an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Asia. Often, Dhillon would be used as a translator. Those new Canadians assumed he was an officer. And soon, he began to feel like one. Or, at least, what it would mean to hold that title.

He turned his back on his dream to become a lawyer, and set his sights on wearing the Red Serge uniform of the RCMP. His family was supportive, though his brother did try to convince him to follow him into chemical engineering.

"Today, he has a nicer car," Dhillon says of his brother, but adds: "However, mine has a siren and flashing lights."

During the early months and even years, he never saw himself as a symbol or a role-model  -  though others did. Instead, he was content to focus on becoming a good police officer, without having to sacrifice his religious ideals.

Some fellow officers  -  including a crusty sergeant who came to see him as a son  -  told him they were against the changes. Dhillon simply thanked them for their honesty.

But there were times when he wasn't so forgiving. "I would read the newspaper and feel very disabled," he recalls. "That I couldn't stand in front of those people, walk into their living rooms, and say: 'This is what I stand for.'"

And there were also moments of face-to-face inspiration. When he graduated, Dhillon's posting was to a detachment in Quesnel, B.C., which had a population of just 65,000.

On his first night in town, while his wife Lisa was elsewhere, he sat drinking coffee in a local Tim Hortons. His mother and younger sister sat with him.

QUICK JUDGMENTS

They heard the sound of motorcycles pull up. A rough looking crew entered the coffee shop, and began to, off and on, stare over at the new officer. The bikers moved toward Dhillon's table. He recalls whispering directions to his family -- 'leave quickly', 'call the police'  -  while counting down his own list of training tactics.

Then, in a flash, the first biker to stand in front of him extended his open hand, to ask if he was the new Sikh officer in town. They simply wanted to welcome him.

"I learned I was doing what others had done to me  -  I made quick judgments on looks," he now recalls, from his office.

He works in a Surrey RCMP branch which specializes in interviewing, including giving polygraphs. He has a gift for reaching people  -  tearing back curtains with just his voice. People seem to respond to his natural empathy, says RCMP Insp. Don Adams, who has worked with Dhillon for years.

"He's very good at understanding people," reasons Adams, who never opposed the inclusion of turbans and beards. "What I've always cared about (in 32 years on the force) in the quality of the members."

Dhillon worked on the lengthy investigation of the 1985 Air India terrorist-caused crash which killed 329 passengers. But it's lesser known cases which he judges himself by. They include counselling a teenage boy who started a fire in his home -- accidentally killing family members -- because he longed for attention. Then there was facing the killer of a 20-year-old suspected drug dealer.

FELT LIKE A PREACHER

And helping to solve a crime and save a marriage after a man had burned down his own home. When Dhillon interviewed the man, he was told the arsonist didn't fear justice for what he had done -- he worried his wife would leave him.

"I told him I'd be willing to sit down and talk to her with him -- he couldn't believe a police officer would do that," Dhillon says. "I felt like a preacher." He did talk to the man's spouse, even as his own wife, Lisa, waited outside in their vehicle. The woman promised to stand by the man, as he faced justice.

"Those are the moments I think about," adds Dhillon, a father to 8-year-old daughter Rasna and 14-year-old daughter, Onkar. He would have no problem with either of his children following his bootprints.

When he began, people would check and recheck his badge. They would make him wait, until another RCMP officer arrived. Today, that seldom happens. The image he walked through fire to earn and maintain  -  a proud RCMP officer and baptized Sikh  -  is now no longer so risky or controversial in Canada. While the service doesn't keep statistics on how many members now wear turbans, the loud voices of opposition have been dulled by time.

Outside of Calgary, Herman Bittner still has some left over calendars -- reminders of a different year in Canada's history. They sit, largely collecting dust, in a shed. He still believes as he did -- religion is private and not to be worn by the Queen's cavalry. But there's no longer any great, national demand for the coarse and tactless way he tried to express that.

LIFE-SIZE DOLL

A province over, in Dhillon's living room, there's a giant, life-size doll, made by an Alberta family. It sports the uniform and turban, and the strangers sent it to the officer, out of admiration, on his graduation day, more than fifteen years ago.

The RCMP sergeant keeps it out of storage and moth-balls. He's sure whatever message you take from that, it speaks louder than the voices which used to say the kind of justice Dhillon wanted should be impossible to find in Canada.

[Courtesy: The Toronto Sun]

Conversation about this article

1: Devinder (Melbourne, Australia), March 05, 2007, 1:48 PM.

Excellent, bro ... Keep it up. May the Guru give you more ... We need more like you.

2: Harbans (Malaysia), March 05, 2007, 4:53 PM.

Good job, Baltej. You have made every Sikh very proud. From Malaysia, if you remember Bansi.....

3: Nimret Kaur Chawla (Canada), March 05, 2007, 7:58 PM.

Good job. You are a great role model. May God Bless you and keep you safe.

4: Manmit (Brampton, Canada), March 05, 2007, 8:06 PM.

awesome!!!

5: Bhupendra Singh (Melbourne, Australia), March 05, 2007, 8:19 PM.

Bravo. It's an excellent job & example for people who have choosen a different path. Today, when I put on my turban, every hair on my body feels grateful to the Guru and utters, "WaheGuru, thank you. You paid the price of this holy crown with the blood of your family and innumerable devotees. No king or tyrant can take it away from me. Only ignorant or ungrateful Sikhs may themselves throw it away. They forget that, alongwith the turban, they also lose their right to be respected and addressed as Sardar Ji, the son of Guru Gobind Singh."

6: Harpal Singh (Espanola, USA), March 05, 2007, 9:46 PM.

Sat Nam, Brother. Nice red jacket, raiment of a king. Wahe Guru!

7: JS (AUSTRALIA), March 06, 2007, 12:11 AM.

Chardi Kalaa, mereh Veer!

8: Melagar (Singapore), March 06, 2007, 2:17 AM.

You have made your countrymen proud. People should learn from you. In Singapore & Malaysia, Sikhs in uniform are well known and respected.

9: Navtej Singh (Pompton lakes,USA), March 06, 2007, 12:29 PM.

I am moved by Baltej's picture. It is a proud moment for all Sikhs. May other Sikh youth be equally inspired by him.

10: Tajinder Pal Singh (Sydney, Australia), March 06, 2007, 6:34 PM.

You are our hope for tommorrow. Otherwise, for example, some who preach others to be amritdhari, are the very ones distributing liquor in Gurdwara elections.

11: GB KAUR (SACRAMENTO, CA., USA), March 07, 2007, 6:16 AM.

I thank WaheGuru Ji for showering you with his love, strength and the will power that he has given you. My brother, you truly have made the Sikh nation proud.

12: Siri Om Kaur (Vancouver, Canada), March 07, 2007, 3:31 PM.

We are very proud of you, Baltej. You are a wonderful pillar in our sangat... and obviously the rest of the world too! Love.

13: Gurnam Singh Sagoo (London, UK), March 08, 2007, 7:03 AM.

Dear Baltej Singh, you have made Sikhs proud and entered your name in history for ever. Congratulations and well done! You are a true Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh. The whole Sikh community is proud of you. I wish you all the best and every success in your chosen career.

14: IPS Ahuja (Vaudreuil, Canada), March 08, 2007, 5:43 PM.

Baltej, I am very proud of you. Forty six years ago, I was the first Sikh in Los Angeles with a beard and turban. Therefore, I can very well understand what you had to go through to overcome prejudice and ignorance to reach your goal. Keep up the good work you are doing and always remember that you are trail-blazing for all the Sikhs who want to join the RCMP or any of the other Police/Military forces in Canada and USA. May the Wahe Guru keep you and your family in Chardhi Kalaa.

15: Kanwarjeet Singh Chadha (Somerset, NJ, USA), March 08, 2007, 8:00 PM.

I have been seeing your photo in the Uniform for quite a few years now - believe me, it has been one of the most inspiring photos I have seen. It brings tears of joy to my eyes and an amazing sense of pride. Keep it up, Baltej - indeed, you have walked a rough path only so that others can have it easy - well done!!

16: Baltej Singh Dhillon (Vancouver ,Canada), March 13, 2007, 6:57 AM.

My dear brothers, sisters and elders.. Gurfateh. Thank you for your blessings and kind words. Throughout this journey, I have been blessed by the company of the Sadh Sangat. In short, the glory is not mine; rather, it is God's and the Guru's. I am humbled that I was chosen for this seva: "Inhee ki Kirpaa Se Saje Hum Hein, Nahee Mosay Gareeb Karror Paray". Ang Sung Waheguru. Baltej Singh

17: J. Cloutier (Edmonton, Canada), October 23, 2007, 2:29 AM.

I just want to tell you that the tradition of justice is more important than the tradition of what kind of hat one wears. I am very proud to see that we as a nation can understand that. I am proud, too, of you, sir. You look fantastic and the duality of your uniform, encompassing new and old, really says more about Canada than a 1000 words ever could. Good for you.

18: Alvindarjit Singh (Sungai Siput, Malaysia), February 21, 2008, 7:29 PM.

I can only imagine... I can only imagine how proud you'd feel tying the turban every morning, remembring all the pain and hurdles you had to overcome. I want to feel that too! May Waheguru give me an opportunity. Thank You, brother.

19: Donna Tratch (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), November 15, 2008, 9:00 PM.

What an amazing person you are, Baltej - Thank you for teaching us about Yoga, for your quiet strength and spirituality. What a great joy to have met you and listened to your incredible journey. God Bless you.

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