Herb Dhaliwal became the first Indo-Canadian minister when he was given the revenue portfolio in 1997. Though retired from politics now, he pays special attention to the Justin Trudeau government and enjoys sharing this anecdote: “Somebody was telling me, when he walked into a NATO meeting, one person remarked they didn’t know India was part of NATO.”
He was referring to Canada’s national defence minister Harjit Sajjan, one of four Indo-Canadians Trudeau appointed to his Cabinet last November.
In the year since, it has become even more evident that those appointments went beyond symbolism. Sajjan is tasked not only with dealing with Canada’s role in the Iraq-Syria theatre but its expanded peacekeeping ambitions at the UN and in Africa.
Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, has emerged as the de facto liaison between Ottawa and New Delhi.
As Trudeau looks at investing $1 trillion in infrastructure, the importance of infrastructure and communities minister Amarjeet Sohi becomes clear. And small business and tourism minister Bardish Chagger was elevated to Leader of Government in the House of Commons this year.
Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of Fraser Valley in British Columbia, said: “These were very thoughtful and very meaningful appointments and they were done with real confidence in their skill sets and not pandering to political communities.”
Dhaliwal added: “They have performed well. It’s a credit to Trudeau to have confidence in these people who had not been in the cabinet before.”
He said this is a trend that will be emulated in future by the opposition Conservatives and New Democratic Party. “It generally sends a very good message. I think others will follow.”
In fact, messaging is important. Last month, as racist anti-Sikh posters appeared at the University of Alberta, Sajjan tweeted: “Proud to be Canadian, proud of my service to Canada, proud of my turban.” That was retweeted by Trudeau.
That “showed a sense of purpose”, Bains felt. “I felt very empowered by his tweet,” she said.
As the presence of Indo-Canadians in the cabinet becomes normal, the process of mainstreaming is enhanced. “They’re sitting at the table, setting the agenda, writing up the policies. That’s huge,” Bains said.