Opinion: Fighting the helmet fight

Today is the 37th anniversary of the signing into law of the Constitution Act, which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s as fundamental to Canada as the Declaration of Independence is to the United States. You could even say that it defines us as Canadians.

Section 15 (1) states clearly that: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

You know where I’m going with this…

Khushwant Singh, of the Sikh Motorcycle Club of Canada, is happy to explain the fundamentals of being a Sikh and wearing a turban.
The Sikhs

The Sikh Motorcycle Club of Canada was at this month’s Spring Motorcycle Show in Toronto to explain their recent exemption to Ontario’s mandatory helmet law. It’s simple really: a devout Sikh must cover his uncut hair as a symbol of respect and humility toward God, and also as a gesture of equality with other Sikhs. The only times a devout Sikh can uncover his hair (the rule is not generally enforced for women) is in the privacy of his home, and even there, if not sleeping or bathing, a smaller turban or covering must be worn.

Yes, a motorcycle helmet covers the hair, but it’s impractical for a Sikh to remove a helmet and rewrap the turban in a public place. Some say it’s pretty quick, while others say it takes several minutes. Even so, the unshorn hair must not be seen. Not all Sikhs are so devout, but plenty are.

“It would be like if we take a fish out of the water. It cannot swim and we cannot keep a fish alive out of the water,” said Khushwant Singh, the club’s secretary. “It’s the same for a turban-wearing Sikh – it’s part of our dress. We are not complete without turban. We cannot go anywhere without our turban.”

Because of this, Sikhs who like to ride motorcycles do not want to wear motorcycle helmets. They’ve been exempt from the law in British Columbia and Manitoba since 2017, and in Alberta for the past year. In the UK, where most riders use All The Gear, All The Time, they’ve been exempt since 1976 without any incident. There’s no increase in health care or insurance premiums because if a rider crashes and strikes his head wearing a turban, he’s more likely to die than be severely injured, and it’s generally far cheaper to pay out for a death than for medical rehabilitation.

Ross Hutchings, at left, with ERA members Norman Mortimer and Bill Petterson, says the fight is about equality, not wearing helmets, but it’s a tough sell.
The Debate

So last year, as part of a promise made to Sikhs during his summer campaign, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the change to provincial law. “The safety of our roads will always remain a priority,” he said in a statement at the time. “But our government also believes that individuals have personal accountability and responsibility with respect to their own well-being.”

Shwiiing! Boy, did this open a can of worms. Other riders across the province seized on Ford’s words, and on the words of the Charter, to insist that if Sikhs can be exempt, so too can they. At the Spring Show, both ABATE (Association of Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education) and the newly-formed ERA (Equal Rights Association) had booths to explain themselves; the ERA had a petition demanding “That the Ontario government eliminate the motorcycle helmet law, making the law equal for all. Allowing anybody the free choice to either wear a motorcycle helmet or not to wear a motorcycle helmet.”

Apparently, the petition has 7,000 signatures already, and the plan is for several hundred motorcyclists to ride down to Ontario’s Legislature at some point in the next couple of months and present it to the government.

A passer-by at the ERA booth pauses to sign the petition that demands equal rights under the Canadian Charter.

The ERA insists this is not about getting rid of the current helmet law, though that’s a very tough sell. “From my perspective, this is real simple,” says Ross Hutchings, one of the “core four” founders of the ERA. “The Constitution allows certain rights for all of us – not just the Sikhs, not just the Newfies, or the black people, but for all of us. If the government wanted to adjust things to allow for the Sikhs to not wear a helmet, they should have taken into consideration the fact that we all should be riding under the same rule.

“They should have decided, okay, we’re going to take helmets off the table, which gives Sikhs the right to ride with no helmet along with the rest of us, or you know what Sikhs? Sorry, you’re going to have to go back to your church and figure out headgear that will accommodate a helmet. Enough’s enough. This is just wrong.”

The ERA stresses that this is not a racist, anti-Sikh protest. In fact, Hutchings – a card-carrying Conservative originally from Newfoundland who voted for Doug Ford – says it was a Sikh friend of his who told him, in his office in Orangeville last December, that if he didn’t like the law, he should fight against it as the Sikhs had done. So he did.

ABATE was busy explaining their association to show goers. From left, Jeremy, Karen Harrison, Chris Quast, and Wheels.

It’s the same thing at ABATE. “We’re not saying that a helmet law isn’t smart, but the helmet law should be there for everyone,” said Chris Quast, the provincial vice-president. “If the law is not for everyone, then it should be repealed.”

My own views on helmets are well-known – I ride with ATGATT, but I also enjoy riding occasionally without a helmet, so I’m glad there’s a helmet law to protect me from my own stupidity. I was happy to sign the petition. However, it’s one thing to allow a seasoned cruiser rider to putt bare-headed around the local country roads, but an equal law would grant the same right to a less-experienced sportbike rider out on the ramps of the Don Valley.

The Legality

Even so, the law is being challenged in Alberta, where a Medicine Hat rider has raised enough money to hire a lawyer to defend his equal rights under the Charter. It’s not cut-and-dried. The very next paragraph in the Charter states that “Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” Is a turban-wearing Sikh really disadvantaged by having to wear a helmet?

The point for most people is that helmets have been compulsory for all motorcyclists in Canada for more than half a century, clear across the country. In the US, 31 of 50 states allow helmet-free riding, but it’s been a total lockdown here in Canada. Well, duh. Wearing a helmet is like wearing a seatbelt, surely. Suddenly, however, riders who’ve been grumbling impotently about having to wear helmets see a loophole.

“We used to believe it was probably an impossible fight,” said ABATE’s Quast, “but since the Sikhs have done it, they’ve opened the door.”

If Chris Quast falls off his rat bike, it doesn’t look like that helmet is going to do him much good, anyway.

Not only is the door kicked open, but it won’t be closing on the Sikhs anytime soon – it’s a done deal. Those riders who’ve been arguing for one-rule-for-all know full well that Ford’s government is not going to rescind the new change in regulation. They also know that a turban-wearing Sikh on a motorcycle is not affecting anyone’s life but his own and those who love him. There are only two options now for the current government: steadfastly ignore the calls for a change in the law, to recognize the spirit of the Charter, or change the law to permit helmet-free riding.

In the meantime, it’s possible a judge will make the decision for them, and if that happens, the law could be struck down with no provisions. If the government agrees to change the law first, however – ignoring the calls of the motorcycle industry, which advocates for mandatory helmet use – then it can include wording to insist on a minimum age, or a compulsory level of insurance, as 28 of those 31 American states currently require.

Would this be a step backward in safety, or a step forward in human rights, and the right of any adult to make a stupid decision? I think it would be both. Good for the Sikhs, and although I’ll keep wearing a helmet and I won’t be delivering a petition from the ERA to the Ontario government, I’m glad my signature is on it.

Four provinces down, six more to go for the Sikhs. And the three territories.

42 thoughts on “Opinion: Fighting the helmet fight”

  1. I can’t wear a seat belt because I’m a man with fake boobs. Will that law pass as well, please sign my petition. The government will do anything to get votes in Ontario. More injuries means more health care spending. Means I pay more for insurance, corporate Ontario wins again. Thanks for making Canada a sh!t hole.

  2. Never mind all this bushwah. Why didn’t DoFo act as quickly on allowing motorcycles in the HOV lanes – something that’s definitely a safety issue and would benefit all motorcyclists, not just a minority.

  3. I don’t have a problem with this helmets save lives period. So let them ride without lids as long as they can’t claim the head injuries in a accident and they cover all the medical expenses themselves we the tax payers should have to pay the medical bills. They say you can’t fix stupid but a good accident can

  4. ENOUGH – can we get back to LOUD PIPES, LANE SPLITTING and what kind of fluid I should put in my turn signals please ?
    This topic is not pining for the fjords, its had its feet nailed to the perch…

  5. I`m not crazy enough to not wear my helmet. If I was not wearing one I would`t be here talking to you. (accident back in 1976 I hit my head hard on the ground luckily I do not have sequel)

  6. I sent my MPP Laurie Scott an e mail on this very topic. In the message I asked for a letter exempting me from wearing a helmet on my 4 wheeler being that motorcycles travel at speeds exceeding 100kph where I seldom travel over 15kph . The reply was that it was promised in the last election I then asked if I wore a towel around my head while riding and hunting if I could identify as a Sikh? No reply the second time. I stressed that religion should not over ride the highway traffic act . I also said the Ontario Conservatives were being racist towards other riders in the province. No response on my second e mail.

  7. you clowns do realize if you all get together and demanded that you should not be required to wear a helmet and promised to vote as a group you too could wear or not wear a helmet This is not discrimination against you. It is democracy in action It is freedom of choice inits finest form A group of citizens asked for the govt to do some thing they wanted The govt complied with that request If you are too stupid to figure out your problem is with the govt not the Sikhs then I really do not see what not wearing a helmet would do you any harm Jeez Mark Get a life. the Lawes are the problem. the lack of choice is the problem ABATE originally stood for Associated Brotherhood Against Totalitarian enactments. Such as helmet laws
    Not what ever dumbed down crap they call it now

  8. I have no dog in this fight,so not to take anyone’s side. I believe one VERY important rule has been forgotten in all of this. An Ontario drivers license is a privilege not a right as indicated be the Ministry of Transportation.

  9. “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” – NUF SAID! This is total CRAP

  10. It’s funny actually. I don’t see Canadians going to Iran or Syria to live and demanding that the country’s government change their laws to accommodate whatever beliefs/traditions the Canadians may have. You chose to live in Canada, you should obey the laws, period. You believe you can’t take your turban off, don’t ride. Maybe I want to walk completely nude down the streets or shop for groceries naked because my religion believes there is no shame in the human body. Should Canada change the laws for my beliefs? Religion is personal. You cannot possibly accommodate every belief and nor should any person EVER expect that a country will change for one religion or another. Islamic law believes in stoning people to death. Should Canada allow that? Ignorant, barbaric beliefs should not be entertained as to not appear “racist”. There is a VERY BIG difference between being racist and using common sense.
    They want to split there head open like a watermelon, I don’t really care. However, if you think it wont affect insurance rates you are seriously misguided (from someone who has friends who own an insurance company). If you think bending over backwards for every belief is assuring you aren’t racist…be ready to take it up the a** from every religious fanatic with a point to prove. If something goes against your beliefs…don’t do it. Simple. Don’t start asking for exceptions to every law. Soon their will be more chaos then structure.

    I find the whole discussion ridiculous. Politicians are looking for votes. Period.

    1. I agree. It’s just political pandering. Shame on the Conservatives! It’s time for us to take back our values, heritage, traditions and customs. National pride (not ‘nationalism’), something anthema to the lie of multi-culturalism – root words: many cults!

    2. The reason Canadians or anyone else doesn’t go to Iran or Syria to live is because those countries are not democratic and free. It’s a silly comparison. If the Sikhs took legal action and won it’s obvious they acted within the scope of Canadian society’s set laws (which they didn’t have a hand in making), so how do you make the assertion that they are somehow “accommodated”? Canadians love to brag about being a “rule of law” country but can’t stomach it when the law rules in favour of a minority. Same thing happened when the RCMP idiotically fought to the highest court regarding turbans. Sikh fight for things in the courts like civil people should, not like trolls or haters on-line.

      1. First and foremost laws are not for “minorities” or the majority for that matter, again, this is not about race. Laws are laws and should apply to everyone or no one. It is not “inclusion” if you have exclusive laws. Being granted special rights based on race, religion or gender etc is not equality. Second … ” Canadians love to brag about being a rule of law country ” … ? Since when ? I must have missed this narrative, which is amazing because according to your statement the problem is rampant but never in my life have I heard or seen a group of Canadians boasting about being a “rule of law country”. Canadians in general don’t brag about much, with the exception of hockey and maybe our beer. The one point I agree with you on is that these Canadians ( I’ll choose to refer to them as Canadians instead of Sikhs because they are Canadians and this is not about race even though you really seem to want it to be ) had every right to challenge a law in court. That is their right as a Canadian, not their right as a Sikh. It’s also entirely ok that they won. What is not ok is discrimination by law. And whenever you have a law that is only for a certain sector of the population regardless of who that sector is, it’s discriminatory and it is no more correct for 3 people to discriminate against 10 than it is for 10 to discriminate against 3. Finally, I have to admit, your final statement amuses me greatly. Did you really join an online conversation to voice a critical opinion about people who voice their opinions in online conversations ? That’s funny. Also… I’m confused, are you a Sikh ? The reason for my confusion is that in the very same sentence you claim that Sikhs are ” civil people” you then revert to name calling like a 3rd grader, hardly the actions of a civilized person.

  11. When I rode, I always wore a helmet, I believe helmets save lives, but on that note; if we are going to make exceptions on religious grounds, how about the argument that if you’re a Christian, the Bible teaches that we must pray at all times – be in a constant state of prayer. It also states that it is a shame for a man to pray with his head covered. Riding a motorcycle on most streets and highways is a dangerous activity to say the least so a Christian rider should be praying for his personal safety all the while…but it’s considered shameful for him to pray with his head covered…
    A Christian rider can make his case stand in court if he just carries a small pocket Bible with him, wears a crucifix around his neck, can prove he attends church sorta regularly and insists he’s a prayerful rider.
    Just saying.
    Personally, I think God has better things to occupy Himself with, without condemning some fool who wants to ride sans helmet. But I can’t speak for God…

  12. I am from the UK. We have a similar provision for Sikhs in the UK. It was the first legislation to cater for a religious group. However, this is the thin edge of the wedge. How many of your other laws will be changed to cater for ethnic minorities? I live in Vietnam, I have no issues with race or creed, but the UK has bent over backwards to cater for the minorities, causing major discontent. It is simple, ride a motorbike, wear a helmet

  13. I should have the ability, under law to make the choise. The same as any other Canadian. One group should not have different choices available to them under Canadian laws regardless of provincial or federal law. We need less laws and governing not more.

  14. This is clearly a constitutional issue. Sikh’s have ever right to ride just like the rest of us. However, they do not deserve special exemptions from the law. They can easily wear a “patka” which will satisfy their religious requirements and allow a helmet to be worn. I’ve seen claims that a patka is an “excessive inconvenience”. Well, guess what: inconvenience does not trump the law. All of us are inconvenienced multiple times in a day but we suffer through it. This exemption was ill considered and poorly researched and needs to either be applied equally across the board or withdrawn.

    1. Now this comment I agree with, and I’m Sikh. It’s well thought out and logical, not based on silly bias and “if they can do it, we should too” nonsense. My personal view is that we Sikhs should not have taken this fight (although we have a warrior mentality and don’t shy away when we think we are right). I think this is harmful to Sikhs and is very different than other legal challenges we’ve undertaken (I’m referring to you RCMP). It’s wasted resources really and leading more silly people to want to follow the same path in the name of fake equality. A helmet is good for all people…fools ride without it.

      1. The thing I feel that is being left out of the helmet issue is that it goes just beyond 1 individuals rights because it is a “public” roadway. While I would not like to deny anyone their rights I don’t feel that any ones right to something, religious or otherwise. Does not exceed a bystanders and fellow motorists right to not be exposed to roadside death. Motorcycle accidents are usually traumatic enough to witness taking out the helmets makes that unnecessarily higher. “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” As they say. The other issue that seems to get glossed over is the fact that no one in Canada has the “right” to drive at all. Driving is a privilege that no one is entitled to. It is your right to practice your religion but it is also your right to not wear shoes. However you must wear shoes while driving. You must forego your right to go barefoot for the privilege of driving a motor vehicle. You get to make the choice as to which is more important to you. Your need to be barefoot or your need to drive. In a free country you have the freedom to choose which of those options you take.

        Also Singh as far as the whole RCMP issue. I think you may have missed the point. Canada is a non secular country and as such the oath was sworn stating that you as a citizen put enforcing the laws of the country above all else(in the RCMP). Its not a question of one religion but a question of all religion having to be put aside to take the office. I don’t now nor have ever seen this as an issue of discrimination, more one of secularism. If you were to function as a Mountie was intended to function then you would be a bad Sikh or Catholic or Jew or whatever really. To me its just a position that requires you to put enforcing the law as your top priority. As a Catholic if I put anything above my faith then I am a bad Catholic. Or I could make my decisions based on my faith first but then I would be a bad Mountie.

  15. How will it be enforced? Will a turban be required if a helmet is not worn? Or will a relentless rider just claim he is Sikh (like the Sikh with the ball cap) and the cops have to take his word for it?

    1. Let me educate you Tim. All male Sikhs have Singh in their name. Easy to see that. Unfortunately most cops won’t know that very public piece of information either…

  16. First it was the Mountie Stetson hat, now motorcycle helmet… what is next… it’s eroding who we are as a nation.
    Someone should be able to design a helmet to accommodate a turban.

    Radar detectors are legal in a few provinces, why not all. The group should tackle this also, as it has not ethnic issues

    1. Ya JL, since the RCMP lost that case in court regarding the turban the nation has eroded beyond repair. What a baseless, stupid comment. Next you’ll go on about how Canada is so kind to immigrants and immigrants should all be thankful eternally to Canada, never realizing that Canada would literally die off if it wasn’t allowing immigration because the birth rate is so low. When a “rule of law” country NEEDS immigrants and they come here, the immigrants have rights to have the law apply to them in a fair manner. That was silly of Sikhs to do so in the motorcycle helmet issue (in my opinion) but they have the right to be silly if it’s legal.

  17. I personally will wear all my equipment all the time regardless of the law. Laws are supposed to be general rules adopted by society to keep everyone on the same page and safe. I personally, am not concerned about the laws when it comes to my own safety and there are times as a motorcyclist that I would dis-regard the law and deal with any consequences if my actions meant the difference between staying safe or being injured or worse.

    That said, I find it interesting that after the exemption came into affect, I was approached by an individual who said to me, “isn’t this great, I don’t have to wear a helmet anymore!” I asked him, if he was Shik. He said he was. So I said, but your wearing a baseball cap, where is your turbin? He told me that I didn’t understand. I actually do understand. He was going to use his Indian heritage to abuse the new rules.

    I also know a very devout Shik. I never ever see him without his turbin. He chose his religion over riding even though he is a devout motorcyclist and rides back home. He is now considering getting his license here. He is super nice and polite and very well liked. I am happy that I my someday ride with him.

    What is most unfortunate is that, the change in the law was a political move and not fully considered. It is not inclusive, but rather divisive. It will create alot of animosity. I divides us and creates a situation where people feel that there are, haves and have nots.

    I personally don’t care, and ride with others that wear alot less safety gear than I do. That is their choice, but this situation sadly divides us.

  18. Dear Mr. Richardson, I’m sorry, but I don’t think you understand the meaning of ATGATT.
    It’s all the gear ALL the time. Clearly you are ATGMOTT: all the gear MOST of the time if you occasionally like to ride without a helmet.

  19. Why do you wear a helmet……to protect your head whether it is a law or not.Anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet ,in my opinion,doesn’t care about the preservation of their brain.End of story.

  20. I believe that it’s a CHOICE as opposed to a necessity/right to ride a motorcycle. Being faithful (religion-wise) is also a choice. Sometimes we have to make a sacrifice for something we believe is more important to us than something else. I know of a family that owns a garden centre that has ALWAYS closed on Sunday because of their faith, in spite of the fact that Sundays are the biggest sales day in the sector. They chose to sacrifice something tangible because they believe observing their faith is more important.

    It’s not always easy to believe in something or to have convictions.

    I think granting this exemption was nothing more than vote seeking.

    And I’m not signing some stupid, ill-conceived petition, “just because”.

  21. If you want to mash your head into the pavement I don’t care. If you think a magic sky man has an opinion on what type of silly hat you wear, I don’t care.
    Someone else riding without a helmet has zero impact on me, so I flat out don’t care. I DO care about people who decide to vilify and demonize people over a law that has no impact on them at all.

    Oh, and for the next donkey who goes “what about medical costs?!” – easy tiger. That same argument can be used for motorcycles in general, alcohol, and eating too many chips. So how about you all stop pretending your anti-helmet exemption posturing is anything other than racism and/or sour grapes and just move on you with your life?

    1. You don’t read? This isn’t racism in any way.The folks want the same treatment as the Sikhs under our charter. No special status for ANYONE.Also those turbans can be removed and replaced atop their heads quite easily, they just don’t want the inconvenience as if their inconvenience is more special than anyone else’s. Donkey indeed.

      1. Right on. I have no interest in seeing an end to helmet laws in Canada, but everyone should be treated the same under the law.

    2. “So how about you all stop pretending your anti-helmet exemption posturing is anything other than racism and/or sour grapes and just move on you with your life?”
      As a democratic society we often try to protect people from themselves, otherwise how do you explain things like seat belt laws ? Nothing racist or sour grapes about that.
      BTW, welcome back, I’m guessing you haven’t signed the petition ?. 🙂

      1. Personally, I am sick of the race card. People hide behind that every time they don’t like an opinion or a comment. As a woman should I constantly claim discrimination because I am a woman? Demanding special treatment or laws based on a personal belief (that’s all it is is a personal belief that not everyone shares btw) is wrong regardless of what damn race, gender, or sex you are. “Racism” is always brought up to try to shut someone up or when the person claiming racism has nothing worthwhile to argue. I don’t frankly care if you are black, white or purple. You come to Canada, obey the laws or go live elsewhere.

    3. So just to clarify your opinion, to you, a law that offers an exemption to certain people based on their race is not racist ? … But complaining about a “racist” law is ? Not everything is a race issue. Also, you’re point about chips, alcohol etc is not even close to valid as it conveniently overlooks the fact that regardless of your race or religion you are LEGALLY allowed to make those decisions for yourself. Thinking is hard, screaming “racist” at everyone who disagrees with you does not make you an intellectual. I can only speak for myself here but, I personally don’t care if helmets are legal or not, I would not dream of getting on a bike without one. What concerns me ( and I think most ) is that we have entered territory where the “laws of the land ” are only relevant if they match your belief system and don’t inconvenience you. Regardless of the race of the group, that is the foundation of the argument here, the group in question does not HAVE to ride motorcycles nor is it impossible for them to do so and adhere to the law and their beliefs, it is simply an inconvenience. … Speed limits are inconvenient if you’re running late as are red lights and a hundred other laws. So despite the fact that I would never ride without a helmet, I absolutely believe that if a provincial law gives the right to choose to some people it should give it to all. But what do I know, I’m probably racist.

  22. Not to put too fine a point on it, but following a religion is a choice. Following the “requirments” of that religion is also a choice. Unlike your skin colour, or gender, nobody is born (in this country) being “required” to wear a turban.

    So, essentially we’re giving these guys a pass to ride without a helmet because of a personal choice. On that basis everybody should be allowed to make the same choice. If I say that it is a deeply held belief of mine that I shouldn’t have to wear a helmet, maybe even a religious belief, who is the government to object? Should the government be in the business of deciding what are or aren’t legitimate religious beliefs?

    I also believe that the same laws should apply to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. We call that equality under the law. There is no “right” to ride motorcycles, or even a need. Nobody in this country “needs” to ride a motorcycle. So these guys should be required to make another choice – find a way to comply with the law and their beliefs, or subjugate their desire to ride to their beliefs.

    1. These “guys” (Sikhs) are human and made a mistake in my opinion. I’m a Sikh so I understand the religion. It’s a religion born of rebellion and in this case we rebelled against our own self interest. It makes no sense to risk our lives in this manner. I love our rebellious past (fighting Islam when they tries to forcefully convert us and other battles we won) but this was energy misplaced. Hopefully we’ll pick a wiser battle next time.

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