|Century of Struggle and Sucess
The Sikh Canadian Experience
by Sandeep Singh Brar
On Remembrance Day in 1993 an incident involving Sikh war veterans arose which would call into question the Sikh identity and their contribution to the two World Wars. Five elderly decorated Sikhs who had served in the allied armed forces had been invited by the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Newton B.C., to march alongside other legion members in their annual Remembrance Day parade. When the parade approached the legion hall to listen to speeches from dignitaries in the legion's canteen, the five Sikh veterans were denied entry because they wore turbans. The reason given was that wearing any "headgear" or hat was disrespectful to the memory of the war dead.
"We were invited there. They knew weeks in advance that we were Sikhs and that we have turbans. If they had no intention of letting us in I don't understand why we were invited to participate… To ask a Sikh to remove his turban is an insult, not only to him, but to the Sikh religion. You will have to remove my neck before I remove my turban." (Harbhajan Singh Minhas)
This very disturbing incident which became a big issue across the country with the media coverage. It revealed two things, one that the general public and the Canadian Legion in particular remains ignorant of the tenants of the Sikh religion and secondly ignorant of the wartime contribution of the Sikh people. As the Sikh religion continues to slowly spread throughout the world over time people will come to understand that the turban and other physical characteristics of Sikhs are religious requirements and not cultural vestiges.
As far as the wartime contribution of Sikhs is concerned, this in now old history and needs to be brought to the forefront of the Canadian people and the Legionaries in particular. Not only were the first Sikh immigrants to Canada soldiers and veterans of the British Army, but throughout both World Wars, Sikhs sacrificed their lives as members of the allied war forces in the British armed forces. Sikhs were never asked to remove their turbans when it came time to fight and die in the trenches and battlefields of far off lands in both World Wars, so why should their sacrifices be discounted with such an insult? The wartime contribution of the Sikh people stands on its own merits.
Hardit Singh Malik was a graduate from Oxford who applied for an officers commission in the British army at the advent of World War I. He was rejected on the grounds that no British soldier would tolerate being subordinate to an Indian officer. Hardit Singh went to France, where he served as a front-line ambulance driver before enlisting and being accepted into the French airforce. When his old Oxford tutor became aware of the situation he wrote the British authorities expressing outrage that ethnic bigotry should force a loyal British subject to be flying for the French. National pride overcame prejudice and Hardit Singh was allowed to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. From September 1917 until the end of the war he would continue to fly missions for the British air force against the Germans. Years later in 1948 this war veteran would became India's first High Commissioner to Canada.