Calgary Sikhs trying to share faith and culture with their communities despite facing harsh discrimination

Although Sikhism is a religion that teaches tolerance and equality of all people, many Sikhs still face discrimination all too regularly, says the president of the Calgary Sikh Society.

Sikhism originates from the Punjab region, an area that spreads across Northern India and Pakistan. In Calgary, the Punjabi community is relatively small, but growing steadily, with over 30,000 members.

However, despite the Sikh community’s growing membership, Surinder Singh Aujla, president of the city’s Sikh Society, says many Calgarians still do not understand Sikh customs or what they stand for. As a result, he says that many Sikhs are facing discrimination within their communities.

Aujla recalls times when he experienced discrimination first hand, with people making racist remarks and throwing rude hand gestures his way.

“We have suffered a lot over here,” says Aujla. He has lived in Calgary since 1981.

There has been a lot of conversation about Sikhism in recent months, with well-known Sikhs, such as actor and fashion designer Waris Ahluwalia, and popular YouTuber Jus Reign (real name Jasmeet Singh), coming forward with claims of discrimination at airports for wearing their turbans.

On his Twitter account, Singh reported an instance in late February where he felt targeted at a San Francisco airport because of his appearance. He was required by airport security to remove his turban for a private screening prior to catching his flight. After cooperating, he asked for a mirror to tie his turban back on, but was refused.

Sukhman Kaur Hehar, founder of Mount Royal University’s Sikh Student Association club, believes strongly that educating people on her religion’s culture and customs is the only way to promote tolerance and prevent harmful xenophobic attitudes about the Sikh community from spreading further.
Photo courtesy of Sukhman Kaur Hehar
“The issue is that after they made me remove it in a private room. I asked for a mirror to retie it again. Which isn’t a complicated request. Instead they told me to walk out to find a bathroom to retie. What was the point in putting me in a private room? That’s the insensitive part,” Singh wrote on Twitter.

Michael Hawley, a religious studies professor at Mount Royal University who specializes in the study of Sikh culture and religion, says that Sikhs are often misunderstood because of their distinct appearance.

“Like many groups of colour, or groups who are of different appearance, there are certainly assumptions made about who they are. There’s very often an underlying thread of fear and phobia about people who appear differently,” says Hawley.

He adds, “Sikhs, and the turban in particular, have been the subject of a great deal of public debate in the past.”

In 1989, when Baltej Singh Dhillon was accepted into the RCMP, wearing a turban was not permitted as part of the uniform code. Dhillon chose to fight for his religious rights, and in 1990, Solicitor General Pierre Cadieux ruled to allow Sikhs the right to wear their turban on duty.

However, the ruling did not come without resistance. Many Canadians protested against the ruling, stating that the RCMP uniform is a distinguished part of Canadian history that should not be altered by other cultures or customs.

According to Hawley, another issue that Sikhs have had to deal with is a rise in “xenophobia” – the dislike or fear of strangers or perceived foreigners – in North America since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Jus Reign, popular YouTuber and musician, released this mock album cover four days after his run-in with the TSA, poking fun at the encounter. “Had a productive chat with the TSA yesterday and lawyers from the Sikh coalition and they had acknowledged the fact that proper resources should have provided, such as a mirror, so I could tie my turban again,” he wrote on his Facebook page. TSA policy was already in place to stop something like this from happening, he added, but unfortunately, the prejudice extended beyond the reach of that policy in this case.
Photo courtesy of Facebook
“Since 9/11, there have also been associations with the turban and violence, the turban and terrorism. We start to get a pattern of Sikhs being targeted because of assumptions that they are associated with violence,” says Hawley.

He adds, “You start to see Sikh’s really have to fight this uphill battle about being able to keep that identity – that external appearance.”

Sukhman Kaur Hehar, a third year student at Mount Royal University, and founder of its Sikh Student Association club, says that educating people is the best way to promote tolerance and prevent xenophobia.

“When I hear that people get mistreated, it inspires me to work harder. I’ve seen the change that happens when you talk to people,” says Hehar.

Hehar is very active with Sikh Youth, and has been involved in many initiatives to educate Calgarians about the Sikh faith. She is open to answering any questions that people may have.

“I think being a minority, you have to be open like that. You have to go out of your way to make people feel comfortable,” says Hehar.

Aujla says that although there are intolerant people out there, most people are considerate, especially in younger generations.

“The idea is that, you are young, and you have an understanding in your mind that is, ‘Why do we hate so much?’” says Aujla, “People learn and times are changing. I think it’s very good for society.”

nholland@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail courtesy of Jus Reign Facebook.

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca