Last week, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a student at the American University in Washington DC that he had more Sikhs in his cabinet than his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, he was stating a fact but also being facetious.
He appointed four Sikhs in November, giving the high-profile national defence portfolio to combat veteran Harjit Sajjan. But that throwaway remark was evidence of the evolution of the Sikh community in Canadian politics.
“There’s a certain amount of pride and it speaks to Canada’s multicultural policy but I don’t see it as a challenge to India,” said Satwinder Kaur Bains, director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
While the cliché coming-of-age has often been applied to such moments in time, in this context it’s “very very appropriate”, Bains said.
But it isn’t just in the cabinet that Sikhs are becoming more influential. Recent changes to immigration policy, announced this month by the new Liberal Party government, simplified the process of family reunification and removed the waiting period for spouses to become permanent residents, both significant demands within the community.
As Bains pointed out, “The Sikh community has remained invested in its culture. India is still the main source country for marriage. The fourth cohort of Indo-Canadians didn’t want to see that eroded.”
Canada’s Sikh population is estimated to be between 500,000 and 700,000, and as a percentage of the country’s population may be higher than that in India. But its political significance has increased because it is concentrated largely in the Greater Toronto Area and the Vancouver Metro region, with their wealth of seats that decide electoral majorities.
The Liberal Party’s victory in the 2015 parliamentary election can partly be attributed to winning over the community. In fact, its campaign graphic for how the middle-class would benefit from proposed tax cuts showed a family named Singh.
“If you simply look at the numbers, it’s a significant change. That’s a sizeable portion of the cabinet,” said Shinder Purewal, professor of political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC.
But Purewal, who ran as a Liberal candidate for parliament twice, was sceptical of the impact this will have long-term, even as he described Trudeau’s statement as “childish”.
“Individuals have become more powerful. But it’s the bureaucracy that makes the decisions. You don’t see Sikhs here. Same thing, perhaps, in private boards. I want to see if this trend of political power leads to more power in the public and private sectors.”
Herb Dhaliwal, the first Indo-Canadian and Sikh to be appointed a minister in the Western world, on the other hand, is thrilled: “I’m proud that others have come forward. There are more Sikhs with much bigger portfolios. That says a lot about our country.”
Sikh symbols like the turban or kirpan are no longer alien to Canada. Unlike in the US, where Sikh stand-up comedian Jus Reign recently had to remove his headwear for security reasons, in Canada their higher profile has meant greater understanding.
“There is no why, just because. Sikhs are part of the Canadian mosaic,” Bains said, stressing the country’s policy of multiculturalism, even with its faults, had helped the process. That mainstreaming of Sikhs has helped them win nearly 20 seats in this House of Commons, with a handful in non-traditional areas.
Dhaliwal made history in 1997, and Bains believes “each minister will say they stand on the shoulders of giants”.
Sikhs have been engaged in Canadian politics since they first came to the country, but it took nearly 90 years for them to arrive in Ottawa, the capital and centre of political power in Canada.