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A Mighty Minority: How Sikhs rose to political prominence in Canada

Jagmeet Singh’s recent election as leader of a political party, four Sikh ministers, a Sikh as the premier of a province: how did the community acquire such formidable political clout in Canada?

long reads Updated: Oct 22, 2017 08:38 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Jagmeet Singh celebrating with supporters after being elected the new leader of the federal New Democratic Party or NDP.
Jagmeet Singh celebrating with supporters after being elected the new leader of the federal New Democratic Party or NDP. (Photo courtesy Jagmeet Singh’s campaign)

Sikhs have had a presence in Canada for nearly 110 years, but their involvement in the North American nation’s politics has been briefer: After 40 years of being denied the vote, they were enfranchised in 1947, about a month after India gained independence and that event was certainly a factor as Ottawa wanted to forge amicable relations with the Jawaharlal Nehru-led government in New Delhi.

Seven decades after gaining that right, the community marked a historic high on October 1 this year as 38-year-old Jagmeet Singh, member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament became the first visible minority, not to mention the first person of Indian origin and Sikh heritage, to take the reins of a major federal party, the New Democratic Party or NDP. At his victory event in a Toronto hotel ballroom, the nearly 500-strong crowd, almost half of whom were Sikhs, burst into raucous cheers as the young politician, known for his immaculate wardrobe, style and proudly wearing a turban, garnered over 50 per cent of the approximately 66000 votes cast in a multipolar contest.

As an analysis in the daily Toronto Star noted, in the early 1900s, a leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation or CCF, precursor to the NDP, had once said the community was “sadly out of place” in the country. More than a century later, that past of discrimination and demonisation has given way to a demonstration of the community’s political chops.

Canadian Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan speaks at a Vaisakhi celebration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on. (Photo Courtesy PMO Canada)

This isn’t the first time the NDP, traditionally the third party in Canadian politics and one that has never held power federally, has played a part in Sikhs making history in Canada. The first Sikh to be elected to a provincial assembly was Munmohan Singh Sihota in 1986 as he won a mandate in British Columbia or BC. Sihota went on to become the first Sikh minister in a provincial Cabinet in 1991. Nine years later, Ujjal Dosanjh became the first Sikh Premier of BC.

What Aids The Rise

Curiously enough, even though in the United States Dalip Singh Saund entered the House of Representatives from a California district in 1957, the level of political success Sikhs are enjoying in Canada with four members in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet and now Jagmeet Singh’s emergence, is unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon. Among those is Canada’s much vaunted liberal tradition, and as Nelson Wiseman, professor of political science at University of Toronto puts it, a “fairly open” system. Shachi Kurl, executive director of the opinion research foundation, Angus Reid Institute, seconds that sentiment: “To this point, Canadians have very much taken the principle everyone is equal very much to heart.” In a late June survey, Angus Reid found that 96 per cent of Canadians would vote for woman for Prime Minister, and 85 per cent for a gay person; while the corresponding numbers of American preferences for their President are 90 and 63 per cent. Curiously though, the numbers for those supporting a person wearing a religious head covering, as in the case of Jagmeet Singh, are fairly similar – 56 per cent in Canada and 53 per cent in the US. Five days after Singh was elected NDP leader, the Institute found that “seven-in-ten Canadians are saying they themselves would consider voting for a national party leader who wears a turban and carries a kirpan.” Such tolerance, though, isn’t quite evident in the Francophone province of Quebec, where overt religious attire is frowned upon.

Beyond Liberalism

The extreme right, which remains outside Canada’s political mainstream, is also obviously averse to such developments. During a meet in Brampton in September, one woman, Jennifer Bush, accused Singh of promoting Sharia, in a video that went viral. Rise Canada, a group that is apparently ‘Defending the Rights of all True Canadians’, states that “other threats include fundamentalist Sikh influences.” At this time, the NDP is a distant third in polling for Federal power, and just how this dynamic will play out if Singh manages to gain steam closer to the 2019 elections, will be a test of the Canadian platform of plurality.

“Here, in an electoral district, a party will allow you to recruit members and you can go basically among your own ethnic, religious, national minority members who are known to you and through extended family networks you can make members. And bring them to a nomination meeting,” says Shinder Purewal, professor of political science at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Dosanjh, who was a product of India’s secular democracy, doesn’t take kindly to the Sikh label, as he says, “It’s part of me, but it doesn’t define me.” But he believes among the principal reason for the community’s rapid rise in Canada is “the system of choosing candidates.” In Britain, a party presidium elects candidates, while in America, primaries matter. In Canada, it’s the party’s convention, of the sort Jagmeet Singh mastered. “The elites in parties don’t have too much control. In that sense, Canada provides a very democratic setup,” he says.

Shinder Purewal, professor of political science at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC, agrees, “Here, in an electoral district, a party will allow you to recruit members and you can go basically among your own ethnic, religious, national minority members who are known to you and through extended family networks you can make members. And bring them to a nomination meeting.” Not surprisingly, Jagmeet Singh’s campaign had signed up 47,000 new members, out of the 124,000 that were eligible to vote in the leadership race. Finally, he received over 35,000 votes, nearly thrice the number commanded by the runner-up.

The attraction Sikhs have for politics is mutual, as Wiseman says, “We’ve moved to a system where the parties don’t really have that many long-term committed partisans. And then when they have selections of leaders and nominate candidates, the parties are very keen to sign up as many people as they can in a short order of time.”

The Role Of Pioneers

But other factors have also mattered in the community mobilising itself in Canadian politics. In shifting the paradigm, there was role of the pioneers, among them Moe Sihota. And Harbance ‘Herb’ Dhaliwal, who in 1997 became the first Sikh federal cabinet minister. Herb Dhaliwal says the “politicisation” of the community started in the late 1980s. Both he and Sihota showed the community it could “play a meaningful role”. Dhaliwal says, “One of the ways to have their issues dealt with is if they play a very active role in politics.”

Sikhs in Canadian Politics
  • 1907: Legislation disenfranchises those not of Anglo-Saxon parentage, depriving Sikhs of voting rights. Harsher immigration rules introduced.
  • 1947: Just about a month after India’s Independence, Indo-Canadians get the right to vote in Canada.
  • 1967: Immigration policy relaxed, new wave of settlers begin arriving.
  • 1986: Munmohan Sihota is the first Sikh elected to a legislature in Canada as he enters the British Columbia assembly.
  • 1991: Sihota becomes the first Cabinet Minister in a Canadian Government, as he takes over Labour and Consumer Affairs portfolio in British Columbia.
  • 1993: First Indo-Canadians elected to Canadian House of Commons.
  • 1997: Herb Dhaliwal becomes first federal minister of Indian origin.
  • 2000: Ujjal Dosanjh becomes the first person of Indian origin to become the Premier of a Canadian province, British Columbia.
  • 2011: Tim Uppal, becomes the first turbaned Sikh to be part of the federal Cabinet, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
  • 2015: A record four Cabinet Ministers are appointed by new PM Justin Trudeau, including Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan.
  • 2015: Bardish Chagger becomes the first Sikh woman to join the federal Cabinet.
  • 2016: Sabi Marwah is the first Sikh to be nominated to Canada’s upper chamber, the Senate.
  • 2017: Jagmeet Singh becomes the first Sikh leader of a federal political party as he wins the race for leadership of the New Democratic Party.

It wasn’t just about elected positions, but also participating in the process, populating major campaigns. “By being engaged, they gained some political power and learnt the political game,” Dhaliwal feels. For instance, Sukh Dhaliwal (no relation), who worked in Herb Dhaliwal’s campaign, is now an MP. Herb Dhaliwal was part of the first group of Indo-Canadians to be elected to the House in 1993. That trio included Gurbax Malhi, the first turbaned Sikh MP, to accommodate whom Parliament had to reframe its rules regarding headwear in the chamber.

That “political shrewdness” of the community has paid off, according to Kurl. Jagmeet Singh’s “unprecedented” victory is a “high water mark” but this is “part of a journey,” she says: “It’s part of a progression, of clean shaven mona Sikhs, to Sikhs who were back benchers and not necessarily on the front bench but wearing their turbans in the House of Commons, to defence minister Harjit Sajjan, who is a turbaned Sikh and now we have a federal leader.”

Herb Dhaliwal, the first Sikh to be appointed to Federal Cabinet in Canada, with Justin Trudeau prior to the latter becoming Prime Minister of Canada. (Photo Courtesy Herb Dhaliwal))

These developments were accompanied by a growing Sikh population in the country. They number around 500,000 at this time, growing from less than 10,000 before 1971 to about 455,000 per the 2011 Census. That makes for nearly the same numbers as in the US, where the total population is almost 10 times that of Canada, and equal to that in the United Kingdom, which has 30 million more people. “The sheer numbers and the sheer political acumen and political involvement; there’s been a real understanding that this is a very savvy, politically astute community and each party has embraced that,” Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, says. The volume of presence ensures Sikhs are “not an unknown quantity” in the nation, bringing Canada to this “lightning moment in its cultural landscape”. “We have surpassed the settlement stage and are now in the integration stage,” she says.

The Number Game

Population distribution also matters. Sikhs account for three-fourths of the 20 Indo-Canadian MPs in the current House of Commons, more than double the number after the 2011 elections. Sikh voters are numerous and concentrated enough to dominate some constituencies or ridings in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, like Brampton, Mississauga and Surrey, and even in cities like Calgary and Edmonton in the province of Alberta. In fact, in nearly ten contests in the 2015 federal elections, the top two or even three candidates in a seat were Sikhs. This is their version of a demographic dividend.

“The sheer numbers and the sheer political acumen and political involvement; there’s been a real understanding that this is a very savvy, politically astute community and each party has embraced that,” says Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.

While Sikhs have traditionally been allied to the Liberal Party, Conservatives made inroads as the party governed Canada between 2006 and 2015. And now, with Jagmeet Singh, a flow towards the NDP cannot be discounted. As Wiseman suggests, “It’s a matter of numbers and if you decide to band together as a group and you’re not fussy about which party you are banding together for or which candidate, your primary criteria is that they are Sikhs, that is a factor.”

Unfortunately, there’s also a dark side to this success. Among the organising principles for the community may well have been the issue of separatism, as pro-Khalistan elements remain politically active in Canada, seeking power to advance their agenda. These elements have made a “very well organised and concerted effort” to attempt to occupy the “highest echelons of Government,” Dosanjh argues. “I think there’s absolutely no question that there is an influence of separatist politics that in Canada has had quite a predominant role,” the former Premier and Federal Minister says. Many of them have backgrounds in secessionist families. Others believe organisations that once focused on the old country have learnt to leverage the system, as Purewal says, “They concentrated on Indian politics and India-related issues, about a Sikh homeland, the 1984 affair. Finally they realised they have enough people and they can actually win nominations.”

While the NDP has refused to release a detailed breakdown of each candidate’s vote in the leadership race, earlier fundraising trends suggest that the hardcore bloc may have contributed heavily, with larger amounts being raised in places like the Greater Toronto Area and Metro Vancouver. In fact, leading pro-Khalistan activists in Canada have told this writer they were canvassing for Jagmeet Singh, providing money and supporters. This does not mean Jagmeet Singh’s campaign was aware of this effort or that he has separatist sympathies. But instances like his reluctance to disavow portraits of Talwinder Singh Parmar, considered the principal planner of the Air India terrorist bombing in 1985 being glorified in some gurudwaras, may give the appearance of pandering to this section.

Regardless, Jagmeet Singh’s ascendance further normalises the community within Canadian politics, and provides the first visible minority leader with a shot at becoming Canada’s next Prime Minister. But whether the remarkable progress of Sikhs up the greasy pole of Canadian politics earns such an emphatic pinnacle, will only be known two years later.