By Gurmeet Ahluwalia
This will be the first time I’ve worn a poppy in over 20 years.
Growing up as a Sikh in Alberta in the 80’s and 90’s was… interesting. It seemed like we were always in the news, whether because of kirpans in schools or turbans in the RCMP, always because we were vying for our rights to honour both our faith and our country.
Many saw it as an unwillingness to fit in, and adapt to Canadian customs. My community, on the other hand, always felt that “Sikh Values are Canadian values:" our main tenets of doing good deeds, sharing our wealth, and remembering God are very much in line with values held by most Canadians.
Yes, we look different. Those of us who can be considered Orthodox have beards and wear turbans, making us the most visible of visible minorities.
In the 1990’s, these visibilities became an issue when a group of Sikh veterans of World War II were invited by the local Legion to attend a Remembrance Day parade in B.C. Afterwards, when everyone went to the Legion Hall, these veterans were told they could not enter unless they removed their turbans.
These men wore their turbans on the battlefield, defending the British Empire, yet it was deemed disrespectful to wear it in a place meant to honour the sacrifice of those who served.
The debate was waged across the country. As usually is the case when it comes to “reasonable accommodation”, became ugly. In the short term, the Legion decided that they would not have a national rule against “headgear," instead letting each individual hall make their own rules. Approximately 90 per cent of the Legion Halls agreed to relax the no-headgear rules for religious reasons. Eventually, it became acceptable in all Legions across the country to wear religious headgear, as I recently confirmed with Bruce Poulin at Dominion Command.
So – why haven’t I worn a Poppy until now? Well, to be honest, my feelings were hurt. I was born and raised here, and yet the public debate reminded me that I will continue to look “un-Canadian” to a sadly large portion of my fellow citizens.
Maybe I wasn’t expressing it in the fairest way, but my feelings were real.
I’ve always been in awe of those willing to sacrifice for our country. While I haven’t worn a poppy because I felt it was supporting an organization that didn’t want me, I did try to honour our veterans. I was a vocal supporter of my company’s large financial contribution to Canada Company, an organization that serves to connect veterans of the Canadian Armed forces with leaders in the business sector. I also co-founded an organization called Sikhs Serving Canada, designed as an outlet for 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Sikh Canadians to help our neigbours in need through a Food Bank and other endeavours.
I thought that was enough.
This year, however, things changed. With the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, gunned down while doing his duty on Canadian soil, I realized it was time to let go of my hurt feelings from almost two decades ago. For whatever reason, this young man’s sacrifice impacted on deeply emotional level. I picked up a poppy yesterday, and will wear it again in the coming years.
When they get older, I will also be teaching my young children about the brave men and women of Canada’s Armed Forces, and those who have worn a uniform around the world. This includes their great grandfather, who served in Italy in World War II.
I will do this to honour Cpl. Cirillo, and others who sacrifice to help keep us safe.
Gurmeet Singh Ahluwalia is a banker living in Mississauga with his wife and three kids under three(!). He is a co-founder of Sikhs Serving Canada and The Seva Food Bank (www.sevafoodbank.com).