The RCMP has reversed its policy on mask-wearing after being accused of discrimination over the rule, which saw bearded Mounties — including Sikh and Muslim officers — reassigned to desk duty.
The policy, which was condemned by both activists and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, required front line officers to wear properly fitted N95 respirator masks — something that isn’t always possible for RCMP members who wear beards for religious reasons.
In a statement Friday, the chief human resources officer for the RCMP said that, following a risk assessment by commanding officers, “impacted bearded members across Canada may [now] return to operational duties” with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Calls for service will be triaged from call centres, with bearded members being assigned to respond operationally only if the risk of exposure is low or multiple responding officers will be present,” said the statement from chief human resources officer Gail Johnson. “Each case will be assessed on an individual basis.”
The original policy was described as discriminatory and disappointing by Prime Minister Trudeau, who added it “shouldn’t have happened.”
Johnson said she was also disappointed in the policy.
“I share the frustrations of our police officers across Canada who are personally affected. While these dedicated and valued members have been accommodated for medical or religious reasons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the last few months they have not been able to serve Canadians on the front lines as we worked to find equipment and operational solutions,” she wrote Friday.
The policy was implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki issued a directive on mask use for front line officers, saying the respirators had to be sealed correctly and that “one of the most common causes of a breached seal is facial hair.”
World Sikh Organization legal counsel Balpreet Singh said the move resulted in some Sikh officers being removed from their front line duties.
Singh said his organization wrote to Lucki and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to ask for a resolution to the issue. Blair’s office condemned the policy and said it expected the issue to be rectified “as quickly as possible.”
“All officers must be given equal opportunity to serve their community while practising their faith,” said an email from the minister’s spokesperson last month.
“They must not experience discrimination based on religion.”
Under questioning in the House of Commons this week, Trudeau said the policy was an example of systemic racism in the RCMP.
“This is absolutely unacceptable. We asked the RCMP to review its policies to make sure that this example of systemic racism is put aside,” he said.
“We need to correct the faults within our system. We need to make sure that these extraordinary law enforcement officers who step up to serve their communities do so with full respect of their human rights. We will see action taken.”