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by Eden Debebe

Remembrance Day is a time to honour the people in uniform who serve our country, but oftentimes the contributions and sacrifices of multicultural soldiers are overlooked.

Little was known about the role Sikhs played in the Canadian military service during the First World War until 2007, when the Victory Medal of Buckam Singh was discovered. A Sikh man who fought at a time when his people were denied citizenship, the finding revealed a long and rich history between the Canadian army and Sikh soldiers. According to Martin Singh, commanding officer of the 557 Lorne Scots Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps, it’s a connection that lives to this day.

“The perception of the armed forces within the Sikh community is very, very positive,” said Martin Singh.

“It’s seen as an honourable profession, and many people, like myself included, have a number of our family members that are either currently serving somewhere in the world or have retired from service.”

 

Martin Singh first joined the army as a vehicle technician while attending university in Halifax, Nova Scotia before becoming a pharmacy officer. Today he serves as a cadet officer in Brampton, proud to be showing young people you don’t have to compromise your faith to serve your country.

“The Sikh people have served in the British colonial forces for such a long time that even when I joined, I think it was back in 1993, there was documentation on the books already about what we call the five Khalsa Kakkars,” Martin Singh said.

According to the BBC, the 5 Khalsa Kakkars (also known as the 5 Ks) are 5 physical symbols worn by Sikhs to symbolize their dedication to ‘a life of devotion and submission to the Guru’. They include:

  • Kesh (uncut hair)
  • Kara (a steel bracelet)
  • Kanga (a wooden comb)
  • Kaccha – also spelt, Kachh, Kachera (cotton underwear)
  • Kirpan (steel sword)

“The Sikh articles of faith are considered like a part of the body,” said Balpreet Singh, spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO).”

“They’re worn at all times of day and night and I mean at all times, so it’s not as though we wear it just in public.”

 

 

Although the Canadian Armed Forces’ religious accommodations policy accounts for the 5Ks, Balpreet Singh says there are still instances where soldiers requests are denied. The WSO actively works to support Sikh soldiers in these kinds of situations, one of their biggest cases involving current Canadian Minister of International Development Harjit Singh Sajjan.

“When he was going to be deployed to Kosovo, our organization actually stepped in,” Singh explained.

“He was told that he would not be able to serve with his turban at that time, so our organization had stepped in and sort of convinced the powers that be in Ottawa that this is the wrong thing to do. If you’re going to accommodate the turban, then you should accommodate it.”

Sajjan was eventually allowed to wear a turban on deployment, and his high-profile case served as a great platform for the WSO’s future advocacy work with other Sikh soldiers. For Sajjan, it was only the first of a series of hurdles he would have to overcome.

I had to develop my own device so I could serve because to have a seal with a gas mask, because of my beard,” Sajjan said.

“And even though I was able to use it, there’s still many others who need it as well. Plus in other religions, even in the Jewish faith, as well.”

 

 

Since then, a new military research project has been launched to create a gas mask that accommodates for large beards while following regulation. It’s a step forward Sajjan says highlights the progress being made to support not only Sikhs, but soldiers of all faiths.

“Being Sikh was very important to me to be able to practice my faith while I served in the Canadian Armed Forces,” Sajjan said.

“In fact, I think it not only made me a better soldier, but it makes all who observe their faith a better soldier.”

As Canada marks the 50th anniversary of its official multiculturalism policy, Martin Singh hopes people take the time to learn about our diverse history.

“As much as we talk about the Sikh community…I think its important that we also profile First Nations,” Martin Singh said.

“It’s important that we profile, you know, the first black regiments, particularly the ones that came out of Nova Scotia. I think it would be an important part of a larger discussion.”

You can learn more about the largely undocumented history of Sikh Canadian soldiers as told by filmmaker David R. Gray in the OMNI Television documentary, Canadian Soldier Sikhs: A Little Story in a Big War.