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Hindu community is slowly coming of age in Canadian politics

Hindus are getting politically mature in Canada’s largest and most politically important province of Ontario, as numbers become significant and all parties court the community.

world Updated: Nov 26, 2017 19:07 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times, Toronto
Hindus in Canada,Dipika Damerla,Ontario’s minister of seniors affairs
Ontario’s minister of seniors affairs Dipika Damerla speaks at an event to observe November as Hindu Heritage Month. (Image courtesy: Jenna Gould Muirhead)

Crackers were burst across the suburbs of Toronto this year even as Diwali fireworks were banned in Delhi.

A bylaw that allowed such celebrations on Victoria Day and Canada Day allowed that activity on private property without a permit. And in recent times, in the towns of Brampton and Mississauga, with large Indo-Canadian populations, it has been extended to the festival of lights, for which two days have been designated.

Days later, Canada’s most populous and politically significant province, Ontario, also observed the first-ever Hindu Heritage Month through November. While a motion for that observation was passed in the provincial Assembly last December, it also points to the growing clout of the Hindu community in the province.

At the centre of that rising political profile is Dipika Damerla, the first, and so far only, person from the community to even become a provincial cabinet minister (none has yet achieved that at the federal level).

Damerla, in fact, was a prominent figure at the Ontario Liberal Caucus’ celebration of Hindu Heritage Month in Toronto’s Queen’s Park, the seat of the provincial government and legislature. “It’s not a frill any more, not just a nice thing to do, I think it’s fundamental to making a multicultural society,” she said during an interview there.

Ontario, with between 400,000 and 500,00 Hindus, accounts for over 70% of the community’s population in Canada. Immigration patterns have boosted their numbers significantly in the last decade.

Damerla, Ontario’s minister of seniors affairs, said it was “natural progression” that the community was becoming increasingly politically relevant.

That has resulted in other measures like permission to immerse ashes in provincial parks, and by spring next year, structures may be provided there for ceremonies or contemplation.

“The fact there’s a spotlight on an issue like the ashes is because there’s an elected member who understands it and is able to champion it,” Damerla said.

Damerla, who was born in Secunderabad and grew up in Pune, may be a pioneering figure, but many others could join her as provincial elections due next year.

“To me interestingly, there’s a Conservative nomination taking place in Scarborough (a part of Toronto), but both candidates are Hindu. I’ve never seen something like that. That just shows you the community’s becoming very active,” she said.

She made it clear, however, that as a member of the provincial parliament or MPP, “it doesn’t matter what my faith is, my job is that the aspirations of my constituency is reflected in my agenda. So there is a balance.”

But there is a cross-party trend in reaching out to the community, as even Jagmeet Singh, the Sikh leader of the New Democratic Party, and until he was elected to that post, a member of the Ontario Parliament, has sent out messages wishing people on Dussehra and Diwali.

The outreach, particularly from the Liberal Party, has been aggressive since a motion in the Ontario Parliament in April terming the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide” was passed. Since then, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has performed aarti on the 10th anniversary of the consecration of a temple in Toronto in July, and attended Diwali celebrations on consequent days in Ottawa and Toronto last month.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was at multiple Hindu Heritage Month events as she attempts to woo back the community.

Damerla voted against the “genocide” motion but will not comment directly on the matter, though she did say, “If you’re not democratically engaged, then you will cede issues that are important to you to somebody else.”

First Published: Nov 26, 2017 19:04 IST