No one likes to be called a bigot.But does the label fit second world war vet Frank West, the president of one of Toronto's 20-plus Royal Canadian Legions, which continue to ban Sikh veterans in religious headdress?"I still catch flak for the position the local has taken on the turban issue. I don't care," says West, 75, currently serving a third term as president of the Highland Creek branch (#258) in Scarborough's Rouge River Valley.
The practice, first brought to public attention in the early 90s, has enraged many Canadians, who accuse West and other old soldiers of demonstrating the same intolerance the vets so valiantly fought against.
Yet West rejects the criticism, describing the policy, rather, as an attempt to acknowledge bravery in battle and honour the dead.
"All hats come off at the door, not as a sign of respect to queen or country (but) as a sign of respect for fallen comrades," says West, referring to the more than 50,000 Canadian armed forces personnel who died in this century's last great war, more than 100 of them Indo-Canadians.
While West enlisted in 1942 and served with the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, he was not shipped overseas until the fall of 44 and never, in fact, saw battle.
But, like the majority of his generation, who often went to recruitment offices well before conscription notices were mailed, West grew up in a predominantly white community (today's multi-ethnic Danforth strip). And according to West, his comrades were as overwhelmingly white as that community.
"There were so many casualties of the war, so many of my comrades killed. I respect the Sikh veterans who fought in the war, but they don't know camaraderie. They don't know the veterans who come into the legion. Why would they want to come in here?" asks West, referring to his small clubhouse, where the number of non-veteran visitors rises as that of the aged and often ailing veterans falls away.
And while much has changed since he started coming to the branch 30 years ago, the legion hall's major drawing card hasn't -- at $2.50, the beer is still the cheapest in town.
West points to the success of the legion's Red Poppy campaign -- an average of $35,000 per branch -- as proof that the public backs legion branches regardless of the no-turban policy that the National Dominion board of the legion neither condones nor condemns.
The province's human rights commission isn't nearly as forgiving. "Religious headdress or clothing has to be accommodated short of undue hardship unless it poses a health hazard,' says policy analyst Pearl Eliadis. "I don't think they can claim that here.'
But the policy has never been tested at Highland Creek, says West, and if a Sikh veteran should ever come in with a turban on, West is uncertain how he would handle it. "I don't think I'd really have the nerve to ask a Sikh veteran to leave," says West. "I don't know that anyone would, not really."