In Ontario, it was more than 10 years in the making. Promises by several transport ministers went unfulfilled until 2018, when the provincial government finally passed legislation fundamental to diversity and inclusiveness, allowing Sikh motorcyclists to ride while wearing a turban.
Turbans are an integral part of the Sikh faith. A uniform of sorts, they are a physical representation of the values that reside deep within the heart of every Sikh. More than 80,000 Sikh soldiers gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars, fighting alongside Allied forces. Seventy-two kilometres from Vimy Ridge – an escarpment familiar to most Canadians as the site of the nation’s most celebrated military victory – Sikh soldier Indar Singh fought on the Somme. In September 1916, he wrote a letter to his loved ones: “It is quite impossible that I should return alive. Don’t be grieved at my death, because I shall die arms in hand, wearing the warrior’s clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die.” Indar Singh was not wearing a helmet.
Despite their contributions, Sikhs have yet to be fully accepted. Helmet exemptions were first granted to turban-wearing riders in British Columbia and Manitoba in 1999. Alberta and Ontario have since followed. However, all other provinces have failed to adopt similar legislation.
Concerns about safety are most commonly cited in discussions about helmet exemptions, but 22 years of riding with turbans have yielded precisely zero fatalities among Canadian Sikh motorcyclists. On the other hand, these same motorcyclists have had a markedly positive impact on the community, in particular through the work of the Sikh Motorcycle Club.
The Sikh Motorcycle Club considers motorcycling to be both a hobby and a means of having positive impact. In the onset of COVID-19 last year, the Ontario chapter alone conducted nine motorcycle rides to 35 distinct first responder sites to recognize the efforts of frontline workers. The club also distributed thousands of meals to vulnerable families impacted by the pandemic. In the past, the club has raised $115,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society, $55,000 for Diabetes Canada, and $30,000 for United Sikhs. Other rides have focused on raising awareness for breast cancer and substance abuse.
The upcoming 2021 season will see the club continue this work. On June 6th, the Ontario chapter will ride to raise funds for Renos for Heroes, a charity that delivers essential building and renovation services to injured Canadian war veterans. Later in the summer, the club will ride in support of Diabetes Canada and in recognition of the 100th year anniversary of the discovery of insulin.
Restrictions affecting turban-wearing motorcyclists will prevent these projects from being undertaken to their full potential. Why? Because club members still can’t ride coast to coast while wearing turbans, which means that any cross-country rides must stop as Sikh motorcyclists enter Saskatchewan or head east toward Quebec and beyond. Sikhs in Saskatchewan and the eastern provinces can’t ride within those provinces at all.
The riding community has supported and accepted Sikh riders. If Canadians don’t discriminate, then it’s about time that our politicians don’t either.
Jeeventh Kaur is a medical student and member of the Sikh Motorcycle Club of Ontario.