‘Unacceptable discrimination’: Some bearded Mounties in B.C. put on desk duty during pandemic

VANCOUVER — Sikh and Muslim RCMP officers are revealing they’ve been removed from the field and assigned to desk duty because the force believes their beards are interfering with protective masks, even though other officers have a choice of whether or not to wear them during the pandemic.

The World Sikh Organization says while it’s a nationwide rollback of the RCMP’s religious exemption for facial hair, the majority of the impacted Mounties are in B.C., which also has the most RCMP officers in the country – a surprising move considering no health officials have directed that bearded workers wear special masks.

“They’re feeling exasperated, they’re feeling as though their hands are tied. They don’t want to speak out against their management, against other senior officers, but they don’t know what to do,” said WSO spokesperson and legal counsel, Balpreet Singh. “They’ve been living with this situation for almost six months now, and their friends and colleagues and other police forces don’t have this problem.”

Vancouver police say no one has been reassigned due to facial hair, and all frontline officers have appropriate PPE they’re encouraged to use when “operationally feasible.” Delta police said their officers have a choice whether to wear PPE such as masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that all members have been trained and fit-tested for appropriate PPE, including those with beards. New Westminster police don’t have a policy on the wearing of cloth masks, but are providing PPE and encouraging physical distancing.

“It’s unacceptable discrimination,” said Singh. “It’s, from my legal perspective, a very clear case of discrimination where solutions exist, the RCMP just seems unwilling to look at those.”

Former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed was outraged as he heard from Sikh and Muslim Mounties assigned to desk duty, which carries a stigma.

“The point has to be made, there are so many other organizations — whether it’s police or military, that are operating under the circumstances we are right now for the pandemic — that are not taking their personnel off operational duty to sit behind a desk,” he said. “I use the term ‘leadership negligence’ in this issue, and other issues in the RCMP, where they have this failed policy. They don’t seem to think it out, they don’t seem to want to learn from other departments around the world on how they are addressing this particular issue.”

CTV News Vancouver asked the B.C. RCMP to respond to the concerns and was sent a written statement. A spokesperson also insisted reassigned Mounties weren’t necessarily put on desk duty, saying some were still allowed to work in areas like traffic or investigative units where wearing PPE was not a requirement.

“You are correct that members who have shaving exemptions for medical or religious reasons have been impacted by our need to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in response to COVID-19. The health and safety of our employees is a top priority for the RCMP,” wrote the spokesperson, who said some officers had raised concerns about their safety. “Unfortunately, there is presently no evidence of a safe and proven alternative to the currently approved PPE that meets the unique uncontrolled setting in which our front-line members operate and that adheres to occupational health and safety regulations.”

Heavily bearded Mounties previously exempt from such requirements under religious provisions have had their duties restricted since March 31, when their religious accommodations were suspended.

“Under the current legislation, the RCMP does not have the authority to allow members to be fit tested with beards or to select PPE that is not approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),” wrote RCMP National Services Cpl. Caroline Duval.”Specifically, the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations require that we follow the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group standard for respirator fit testing, which specifically requires a clean shave.”

But that explanation is at odds with B.C.’s top doctor, who says to her knowledge no one from the RCMP has contacted her office for advice and she sees no issues with bearded police carrying out their typical duties, no matter which agency they work for.

“If we’re talking about respirators and the need to wear a respirator because you’re providing care and assessing somebody who has a respiratory illness like tuberculosis or COVID and you’re doing something like intubating somebody where we know it can be transmitted that way — you cannot get an effective seal if you have facial hair. We know that it is something we work with all the time in the health-care setting,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry when asked by CTV News. “I believe there are very few cases where a police officer would need to wear a respirator. For the most part, they are not involved in resuscitating people and there are many other types of masks that can be used safely for other types of activities police officers are involved in.” 

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