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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.