Less than two decades ago, then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien made history when he appointed a first-term MP to his cabinet. That was Harbance Singh Dhaliwal, better known as Herb, who became the minister for revenue and customs in 1997 and the first ever Sikh (and Indo-Canadian) to hold such a post in the Western world.
Now, as current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quips he has more Sikhs in his Cabinet than his Indian counterpart, Dhaliwal recalls his reaction: “I remember saying, ‘Welcome to the New Canada’. If somebody had told my grandfather I would one day become a minister, he would have told them, ‘You drank too much Scotch!’”
In 1993, Dhaliwal was among the first batch of Indo-Canadians elected to the Canadian House of Commons. He remained a minister till 2004, when he retired from politics.
“I had done my public duty,” he said in an interview, “Politics for a businessman is a losing proposition. It’s about public service. I had got the opportunity and I did some good things.”
Dhaliwal was born near Jalandhar and came to Canada aged five. Now 63, the father of two daughters and two sons, he runs a business in Vancouver. He remains engaged with India, as his non-profit provides sanitation in Punjab villages.
“I’m very happy that I was the first minister,” he said. He worked with Justin Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau (and named his eldest son Justin as well). But the situation was far different in his time: “We didn’t have mentors. Our community was not as active. We helped to politicise the community.”
The constituency he represented, Vancouver South-Burnaby, was later dissolved, and it largely gave way to a seat that has elected Ujjal Dosanjh, another former minister and the first from the community to become premier (equivalent to chief minister) of a province (British Columbia), and current minister of national defence Harjit Sajjan.