DUE to a lack of understanding of the Sikhs religion and more specifically the Sikh turban, there were certain laws and regulations in place in the province of British Columbia that prohibited practicing members of the Sikh community from participating in activities. This contravened the rights and freedoms allowed by the Canadian Charter of Rights to all Canadians. One of those practices was the ability to ride a motorcycle. Laws in many provinces in Canada (including B.C.) required that a helmet was mandatory for a rider. This was not practical for a turban-wearing member of the Sikh community. Therefore, members of the Sikh community who wear turbans were not able to ride a motorcycle.
This had been an issue for some time, and Avtar Singh Dhillon took it upon himself to raise awareness of the Sikh beliefs and the importance of the Sikh turban. Dhillon has been fighting to maintain the sanctity of the turban and ensure the Sikhs continue to have the right to wear the turban for almost 40 years.
Dhillon was born and raised in the village of Dingrian Majara in Hoshiarpur district in the state of Punjab in India. His father, S. Niranjan Singh Dhillon, and mother, Chanan Kaur Dhillo, were very hard working and God-fearing individuals. Dhillon was immensely influenced by his grandfather, Subedar Gulzara Singh Dhillon, a retired member of the Indian Army who had fought in World War I while wearing a turban. Dhillon inherited his religious values from his elders.
Dhillon immigrated to Canada on November 21, 1970. Soon after arriving in Canada, he took Amrit and became a baptized Sikh in 1971. That same year, he moved to Fort St. James, B.C., in search of employment. Soon after getting his first job, Dhillon was forced to stand up to defend the right to wear a turban. His employer required that he remove his turban and wear a hard hat. Dhillon tried to explain to his employer that this was against the tenets of his religion. However, his employer failed to understand his belief and refused to allow him to wear a turban on the job; so Dhillon was forced to resign.
After several years of working in other low paying jobs in the Interior, he came to Vancouver in 1974. On July 15, 1974, he landed a very well paying union job with a prominent cement company as a mixer and truck driver. Soon after joining the company, it became evident that he would need to remove his turban and wear a hard hat to gain access to certain job sites. For some time Dhillon kept on performing that job without the hard hat.
The employer and the Workers Compensation Board did not have much choice, but to enforce the “mandatory hard hat” rule, since there was no ruling to exempt Sikhs who wear a turban. After repeated warning letters from the employer and the WCB, he was discharged from his job with a written assurance from the employer, that if the WCB permitted him to do his job without the hard hat, they would give him back the same job.
DHILLON was determined to challenge the existing legislation so that other Sikhs who wore a turban would not face this challenge in the future. He knew that taking this position – of not removing his turban to wear a hard hat to keep his employment – was definitely going to be a significant challenge as he was the sole income earner in his household.
Dhillon approached the gurdwaras (Sikh Temples) throughout the Lower Mainland to explain to them what was happening to members of their religion and he requested their support with letters and signed petitions for the cause which he was willing to take forward.
With those letters of support in hand, Dhillon wrote to the then-Premier of B.C. and the then-minister of labour requesting them to address this issue of serious concern to the Sikh community. During the 1970’s a local magazine called “The Sikh Samachar” (The Sikh News) used to be published in the Lower Mainland and all the gurdwaras supported this magazine. At a special meeting held at Akali Singh Sikh Temple, all the gurdwaras decided to unite and take up this issue as representing the entire Sikh community. They also decided that the Sikh Samachar Board would manage the case. The board drafted a letter and met with the then-labour minister, Allen Williams, on April 1, 1976. The board members, in the letter, stressed that the turban stipulated by the Sikh dress code could also provide adequate protection. On June 29, 1977, another letter was written to the minister, to which he replied on July 20, 1977, saying that turban was not safe enough and so it could not replace the hard hat or the helmet.
But Dhillon was not discouraged at all. He again decided to challenge these regulations. On August 1, 1977, he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and requested to take a motorcycle road test. The Motor Vehicle office refused him the test as they did not allow a road test without a helmet. As a result of this, Dhillon filed an official complaint with the B.C. Ministry of Transport, and also approached the British Human Rights Commission. However, all of his attempts fell on deaf ears.
Three years later, on October 23, 1980, Dhillon voluntarily called the RCMP to notify them that someone was riding a motorcycle without a helmet. He then rode a motorcycle along No. 3 Road in Richmond until he was stopped by an RCMP officer. The officer issued Dhillon a traffic violation ticket for not wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle. Dhillon challenged the traffic ticket. The hearing for the ticket was held on November10, 1981, in the B.C. Provincial Court in Richmond. During the hearing, the presiding judge was apprised of the Sikh traditions regarding the turban and presented with the letters of support from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Amritsar, and letters from England in which the Sikhs were permitted to ride a motorcycle with a turban instead of a helmet in1976. After listening to the arguments the judge waived the fine but Dhillon was forbidden from riding a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Additionally, the judge permitted Dhillon to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court. A request for appeal was filed and a date for the appeal hearing was set for September 21, 1984. However, due to advice from his lawyer, it was decided not to proceed with the appeal – a decision that, in hindsight, was probably not a good one.
ON October 8, 1986, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Larry Stone, another motorcycle enthusiast, who had challenged the Motor Vehicle Act 218 and the requirement to wear a helmet while riding. As a result of this decision, the legislation was briefly changed to remove the requirement to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle.
During the brief time that the helmet restriction was removed, Dhillon tried to take the road test with turban twice. Both times he was refused by the Motor Vehicle Branch as they indicated that the Motor Vehicle Act still required a rider to wear a helmet, even though the Supreme Court decision indicated otherwise. The decision was later appealed by the provincial government, and the helmet requirement was reinforced. As a result of the Larry Stone and the previous Avtar Singh Dhillon cases, there were now two cases in the province of B.C. that had challenged the helmet requirement.
On July 21, 1994, Dhillon again acquired the Class 6 learner license (required to ride a motorcycle) and on August 5, 1994, he went to the Surrey office of the Motor Vehicle Branch to take a road test. Again, he was refused a road test, with the Motor Vehicle Officer again saying that wearing a turban instead of a helmet was in violation of the Motor Vehicle Act. On October 4, 1994, Dhillon wrote a letter to the then-Premier of B.C., Mike Harcourt, along with the support letters of support from the B.C. Sikh Societies and the gurdwaras. The Premier’s office replied in December 1994, reiterating that the legislation did not allow anyone to ride without a helmet.
AS a result of this last attempt and reviewing all the attempts made in the previous years, on February 17, 1995, Dhillon filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Commission against those refusals. The Commission accepted the complaint. As a result of this acceptance, Dhillon again felt that there was hope that this issue would be settled once and for all. Thus the cause for riding a motorcycle with a turban gained additional support and momentum. Since it was not an easy task to pursue such a high profile case alone, it was decided by the Sikh Samachar Board to assist Dhillon. Mota Singh Jheeta of Surrey, Pritam Singh Aulakh of Vancouver and Raghbir Singh Bains of Surrey, were appointed by the board to assist Dhillon. These three contacted prominent lawyers to handle this prestigious case which concerned not just one individual but the entire Sikh community. In this regard, foreign government departments were contacted to get information on other countries and jurisdictions where Sikhs who wear a turban already had the right to ride a motorcycle while wearing a turban.
Dhillon gladly accepted the financial responsibility of the case and the other three Sikhs took over the responsibility to prepare the required files, get the required information from all the sources and help Dhillon to prepare for the case and handle the case through the legal channels. Meetings were held almost every week to prepare. To help conclude this case successfully, letters of support from the gurdwara societies in Canada and abroad, a foreign government (British), Sri Akal Takhat Sahib and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, were sought. The Akal Takhat and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee also provided the much needed information regarding the significance of the turban among the true Sikhs from the religious point of view. The committee also hired two prominent lawyers, Alex Dantzer and D.A. Boyed.
This case was between Avtar Singh Dhillon (the “petitioner“), and representing the Government of British Columbia was the Ministry of Transportation and Highways, Motor Vehicle Branch (the “respondent”) and Deputy Chief Commissioner Harinder Singh Mahal, British Columbia Human Rights Commission, as “third party.” The hearing for this case took place March 18-20, 1997, at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This case generated a lot of interest and enthusiasm among the Sikh community. Amar Singh, Principal of Khalsa School, Vancouver, arranged for buses to transport people who wanted to witness the hearings and show their support for this issue. For the three days of the hearing, different gurdwaras and Sikh societies arranged tea, lunch and snacks for the people who were attending the hearing. The members of the Vancouver and Surrey Senior Centers participated overwhelmingly during the hearing.
Due to the large turnout the hearing had to be shifted to the bigger hall. The support was overwhelming. The hearing was presided over by the Chairperson, Ms. Frances Gordon, member of the Human Rights Tribunal of B.C. The decision was reserved for a later date.
TWO years later, on May 11, 1999, the decision was announced as follows:
“Upon hearing this complaint on the 18th, 19th and 20th day of March 1997 From Mr. H. A. Dantzer, the Counsel for the Petitioner, and Mr. J. Douglas Eastwood, Counsel for the Respondent, and Mr. Deirdre Rice, Counsel for the Deputy Chief Commissioner, and upon reserving my decision to this date; I, Frances Gordon, Member of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, having found the complaint to be justified in that the Respondent, The Ministry of Transportation and Highways, Motor Vehicle Branch, discriminated against Mr. Avtar Singh Dhillon, because of religion, contrary to Section 8 of the Human Rights Code, do therefore order pursuant to Section 37(2) of the Human Rights Code. That the Respondent cease the contravention and refrain from continuing the same or a similar contravention, namely discriminating against a person because of the religion, contrary to Section 8of the Human Rights Code.”
In her decision, the Chairperson ordered the Government of B.C. to amend the motorcycle helmet law to accommodate the Sikhs wearing the turban. This was a significant victory for Sikhs. At that time, Harbhajan (Harry) Singh Lally was the Minister of Transport. Consequently an amendment was introduced by the Provincial Government in the provincial legislature to the Motor Vehicle Act #218 which was accepted by the House on July 19, 1999.
The wording of the amendment was as follows:
1. The following persons are exempt from the requirements of section 221 of the Motor Vehicle Act:
(a) a person who:
(i) practices the Sikh religion and
(ii) has unshorn hair and habitually wears a turban composed of 5 or more square meters of cloth.
As a result of this amendment, the Motor Vehicle Act and the BC Safe Riding Guide was amended as follows:
“In British Columbia, all riders and their passengers are required to wear approved motorcycle safety helmets. An exception to this requirement is made for people of the Sikh religion with unshorn hair who wear full turbans.”
For his contribution to such a high profile and landmark decision, Avtar Singh Dhillon was honored with a gold medal by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, on October 30, 1999.
Due to Dhillon’s tireless efforts and perseverance, Sikhs throughout B.C. are seen proudly riding motorcycles while wearing their turbans.
All this is because of the faith and determination of one man, Avtar Singh Dhillon, who refused to give up.
(Compiled by MOTA SINGH JHEETA and RAGHBIR SINGH BAINS)