Canada nixed a decade-old policy on Thursday that required prospective Sikh immigrants to change their last names to avoid confusion with other Sikhs.
Because most male Sikhs have the name Singh, meaning "lion", and most females have the name Kaur, translated as "princess," Canada had required those wanting to immigrate to add a surname or use a different one.
"The names Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada," the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi wrote in May to Jaspal Singh, who was applying to be a permanent resident. The letter was made public this week.
In a formal statement, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley said: "This letter does not reflect the policy of (the Canadian) government ... I can assure you I have directed the department to ensure that this type of erroneous letter is not sent out again."
"The practice of asking applicants with the surnames Singh and Kaur to provide an additional surname was designed to help identify and differentiate applicants who shared the same first and last names," Finley added.
She also said that offering an additional surname was "entirely voluntary" and that no application would be rejected if an applicant did not offer an added name.
Harinder Gahir, a Toronto-area immigration lawyer, has dealt with about 100 name-change-related cases in the last seven years.
"I don't think there was any thought of intended discrimination," he said. "I would say it was an ill-advised policy."
Gahir said that most of his clients did not object to the policy because they wanted to avoid administrative delays.
"If they had objected, their cases would have been delayed. They chose not to do that for the sake of family reunification," he said.
"There were a few people who were quite emotional and it was a serious matter for them ... eventually they had to change it because they had no choice."
Jasbeer Singh of the World Sikh Organisation in Canada was less understanding, referring to Citizenship and Immigration's explanation as "window dressing or damage control."
"The policy is offensive and they should say yes, it is, and we are getting rid of it," Singh said.
"There are more Lees and Mohammads in Canada and merely picking on Singh and Kaur, alleging that it is a common name, doesn't make sense."