By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
The Free Press (Fernie, B.C.)
June 15, 1994

Gwen Fanshaw says the answer was a resounding ‘no.’

About a month ago, more than 35 members of her Royal Canadian Legion branch voted unanimously against allowing religious headgear in its club rooms, said Fanshaw, president of the Legion’s Sparwood branch.

“We all stand together. We don’t like the idea of people walking in with headgear on,” Fanshaw said in a telephone interview June 8. “Even ladies aren’t supposed to wear hats in the Legion.”

The Sparwood Legion’s vote was a sign of things to come. At the Legion’s national convention in Calgary May 31, delegates voted three to one to maintain branches’ right to ban religious headgear from their meeting halls.

The decision sparked a nationwide controversy and accusations of racial prejudice because it enables branches to ask turban-wearing Sikhs to leave Legion halls if they refuse to remove their headgear.

The national vote was held by the Legion’s Dominion Command to weigh support for a motion that would have required branches to admit individuals wearing religious headgear.

Fanshaw, a 55-year-old native of England who settled in Sparwood in 1974, said the long-standing tradition of removing headgear upon entering a Legion hall is a sign of repect for war dead, not an issue of prejudice.

“I really don’t think there’s any racism in it (the headgear ban) at all,” she said. “We have Hindus that come in, but they don’t wear turbans. How can it be racism if we allow every other nationality in?”

Fanshaw also said she disputes the religious significance of the turban.

“It isn’t the turban that has anything to do with religion, it’s the long hair underneath,” she said.

“They just use the turban to cover it….I haven’t found anything yet to tell me the turban is a sacred thing.”

The Sparwood Legion president added she thinks taking off headgear would be a sign of respect for a Canadian custom.

“Will they (Sikhs) let us go in their temple with our shoes on? No. I don’t think there’s any difference whatsoever.”

But according to an Elkford Sikh man, there is a difference.

“A turban and a hat are not the same thing,” Kuldip Chohan says.

To a baptized Sikh, the turban is a sacred thing and part of his dress, Chohan explains.

“As a baptized Sikh I am not supposed to take my turban off,” Chohan said in an interview June 8.

“If I have to take my turban off to go somewhere, I won’t go, even if someone offers me a billion dollars.”

He said he removes his large turban to accomodate the hardhat he wears at work, but he still wears a smaller turban underneath.

Chohan said he was a sailor in the Indian Navy from 1957 to 1968 and his father was in the British army in World War II.

Now a 21-year Elkford resident and Fording Coal electrician, Chohan said he’s not angry with the Legion for its decision. But he is disappointed.

“If we (Canadian and Indian veterans) can fight together and live together, we shouldn’t have to take our headgear off,” he said.

“Keeping headgear on is no disrespect,” he added. “If we can’t respect each other’s religion, it’s unfortunate.”

Chohan said the turban is one of the five “Ks,” sacred objects which baptized male Sikhs must keep with them at all times.

The other objects include a dagger, a bracelet, a comb and a special kind of cotton undergarment. In addition, a baptized Sikh’s hair is considered sacred, and it is forbidden to cut any hair on the body.

He said he considers the Legion’s decision to be one not motivated by racism, but rather by entrenched tradition.

“People like to preserve their thinking,” he said. “But respect comes from inside, from in your heart.”

Chohan said he accepts the Legion’s decision and doesn’t think it should be reversed.

“If the Legion doesn’t like us to go in, I won’t go.”

Not all branches have taken the hard-line stance adopted by the Sparwood Legion.

A pre-convention vote at the Elkford Legion yielded a 10 to 8 “no” result, branch president Jack Burden said June 8.

But Burden, who served in the Royal Navy from 1947 to 1957, said he voted to allow headgear because he realizes the sacrifices Sikhs and other Indian veterans made in the two world wars.

He added he felt the Elkford vote was unrepresentative because only 18 of 70 voting members cast ballots.

Does the national vote mean the end of the controversy?

“I don’t think it’s over yet,” Burden said. “I think (Dominion) Command will say it’s up to individual units.”