OTTAWA — The RCMP says there is no safe and proven face covering for officers with beards, but it is working to find one for Sikh members temporarily sidelined from front-line policing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly expressed disappointment that Sikh RCMP officers find themselves on desk duty during the COVID-19 pandemic because their religiously mandated facial hair makes it difficult to properly wear a mask.
In a statement Monday, the RCMP said while a respirator, such as an N95 mask, is not mandatory in all front-line situations, it is sometimes required to reduce risk.
These situations can often be dynamic, moving from low risk to high risk without warning, including wading into crowds and dealing with agitated and impaired people in any number of settings, the force said.
As a direct result of member concerns, the RCMP has assessed a number of possible mask options that would not require a clean-shaven face.
The national police force says it is in a unique position compared to other police services because it is subject to the Canada Labour Code and Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations when it comes to personal protective equipment, known as 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 World Sikh Organization of Canada said Monday that if the problem is indeed regulatory, it would expect the government to correct things, particularly given that the organization raised the issue in early June.
All RCMP officers must be given the opportunity to both serve their community and practise their faith, said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, the cabinet member responsible for the police force.
"The prime minister and I have been quite clear of our expectation that the RCMP will work diligently to rectify this situation as quickly as possible."
The RCMP said it continues to explore ways to address the mask issue, including the development of "inclusively designed" protective equipment.
In addition, a working group in the RCMP's British Columbia division is evaluating the risk of transmitting COVID-19 between officers and the public while carrying out front-line duties.
"The working group is also looking at additional equipment that would keep bearded members safe," the RCMP said.
"All work is being done expeditiously because it is important to us to get our members back in their front-line roles as soon as possible. However, we must follow a thoughtful process in order to ensure that we are not putting our officers or the public at any undue risk."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press