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 Thursday, 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." Under questioning in the House of Commons this week, Trudeau said the policy was an example of systemic racism in the RCMP.
Johnson said she was also disappointed in the policy.
"I share the frustrations of our police officers across Canada who are personally affected," she wrote Friday.
"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."
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 his organization, which liaised with a group of about 30 officers, 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."
"Diversity in policing makes it more effective," Blair wrote in a statement Thursday. "We must always be vigilant against systemic discrimination. Respect for religious and cultural differences is our strength as a Nation and of the RCMP."
"The RCMP will ensure that Sikh and Muslim officers can do their jobs safely, while respecting and accommodating their faith," he added. "We thank them for their service."
Singh said the move was a step in the right direction.
"I'm going to be watching it very closely to make sure that everything goes smoothly," he said.
"But the RCMP officers I've spoken to since this announcement are quite hopeful that it will mean a substantive change to their situations."