The RCMP is facing accusations of discrimination because of a policy requiring front-line officers to wear properly fitting N95 respirator masks — something that might not be possible with a beard.
Calls for a change in policy arose after some front-line officers with beards — including Sikh and Muslim RCMP members who leave their hair unshorn for religious reasons — were reassigned to desk duties over the mask issue.
On March 19, as Canada began dealing with the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki sent out a directive outlining the use of respirator masks for front-line officers. Lucki said officers must ensure the respirator is sealed correctly and "one of the most common causes of a breached seal is facial hair."
World Sikh Organization legal counsel Balpreet Singh said Thursday the move has resulted in some Sikh officers being removed from their front-line duties during the pandemic.
"It's clearly a case of discrimination in that once again, Sikh officers are able to serve in the Canadian forces, were able to serve in different police forces and there's been really no issue. The fact that this has been allowed to linger for almost six months without a resolution. To me, it points to a larger issue of not understanding the need to accommodate."
Singh said his organization wrote to Lucki and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asking them to resolve the issue.
Blair's office condemned the policy in a statement to CBC News on Friday.
"All officers must be given equal opportunity to serve their community while practising their faith. They must not experience discrimination based on religion," read an email from the minister's spokesperson.
"The reports from the World Sikh Organization are concerning," the email said. "It is essential for the RCMP to provide necessary personal protective equipment in a timely manner for Sikh officers. We have raised this matter with the RCMP, and expect that this be rectified as quickly as possible."
Vancouver Police spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said the department does not have a policy similar to RCMP and is consulting medical experts to find a way for members with beards to be safe while working.
Other masks available
B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was asked about the issue Thursday and said N95-type respirator masks aren't needed for most law enforcement.
"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 that police officers are involved in."
Henry said respirator masks should be worn when someone is providing care for someone who has a respiratory illness like tuberculosis or COVID-19, or during an invasive medical procedure such as intubation.
WATCH | Bonnie Henry on police wearing masks:
Federal policy dictates rules
However, the RCMP says it is different from other police forces because it is bound by the Canada Labour Code and Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, which require a clean-shaven face for proper use of N95 masks.
Cpl. Caroline Duval with RCMP National Communications Services said in a statement that under current legislation, the force does not have the authority to change the rules around personal protective equipment (PPE).
"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."
The National Police Federation (NPF), which represents 20,000 RCMP members across the country, said the force's directive is "unnecessarily broad and contrary to the RCMP's human rights obligations."
The NPF said it is advocating for a new policy that allows individual members to be assessed for front-line duties.
Retired officer wants resolution
Retired RCMP Insp. Baltej Singh Dhillon, who served nearly 30 years and became the first RCMP officer to wear a turban, said he disagrees with the force's "blanket policy" because it discriminates against one group of police officers.
He said calls to police are often assessed for risk so officers who wouldn't be able to meet the standard for a fitted respiratory masks could go to a different call and still serve on the front line.
"Clearly, the PPE is for that time where a police officer feels that he or she is in a higher-risk situation where they may be exposed to COVID-19," said Dhillon. "Because I think you can generally see that RCMP officers are currently working in our communities, not wearing masks the moment they leave the detachment."