New Canadian Media

By: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC

Nearly 70 years since South Asians won the right to vote in Canada, Jagmeet Singh has become the first non-white leader of one of the country’s major political parties.

Media coverage of Singh’s historic victory has ranged from admiration of the new leader’s alpha-male swagger to questions of whether he will hinder his party’s appeal at the Quebec polls. While most stories have understandably commented on the visible symbols of his Sikh faith, a few have taken an oddly suspicious tone of whether keeping a turban and beard is a gateway to misplaced loyalties — in Singh’s case that being in supporting Sikh separatists.

Ironically, the one media outlet that seemed to fumble over itself to roll out this unwelcome mat was none other than Canada’s public broadcaster, the traditionally left-leaning CBC.
In an aggressive Fox-style interview on Power & Politics, veteran journalist Terry Milewski interviewed Singh for his first appearance on the station since winning the NDP leadership. He tossed Singh a few softball questions about his leadership plans before cutting incongruently into a question that rhetorically implied a connection between Singh and the Air India bombing from three decades ago: Does Singh condemn Sikhs who venerate Talwinder Parmar, the man considered to be the architect of the bombing of Flight 182 in 1985?

The broadside seemed to take Singh by surprise. He deflected while the CBC host kept doggedly pressing him. Eventually the awkwardly un-Canadian exchange ended in a stalemate. The post-mortem discussion on social media, however, questioned the fairness of this line of inquiry.

Milewski’s cross-examination was loaded, first of all, with the assumption that Singh, a Sikh born in Canada on the cusp of the millennial generation, should be studied in the history of Talwinder Parmar, and the intricacies of an Indian separatist movement from 30 years ago. This would be on par with assuming that Tom Mulcair, the previous NDP leader, should know the history of Sinn Fein just because his father was an Irish Catholic immigrant.

But even if Singh knows his history of 1980s Sikh separatism, was he being asked to denounce the personal views of other Sikhs who venerate Parmar because Singh himself is a baptized Sikh?
Or was he being asked because there are such followers in his political base?

Either way, these questions lead to a troubling double standard when compared to CBC’s treatment of other politicians, such as the Conservative Party’s new leader Andrew Scheer. In an interview earlier this year, Scheer was asked about his views on same-sex marriage and abortion, but at no point was the devout Catholic asked to openly condemn his fellow Catholic congregants who view same-sex marriage as an abomination.

Meanwhile, other Canadian politicians with a significant following in the Sikh community have also been spared Milewski’s rough treatment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never been asked to condemn the portion of his Sikh base who view men like Parmar as martyrs. In the 2015 election, Trudeau benefited mightily from the Sikh vote, delivered to him by organizers from the World Sikh Organization — a group that once advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland, on the heels of the Air India bombing. The WSO has also delivered for past Liberal leaders, including Jean Chretien.

Media hypocrisy, however, reaches its apex each spring in Surrey, when dozens of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, along with senior representative from the armed forces, RCMP, major banks and other federal bodies congregate at the Khalsa Day Parade on 128th Street. The event, which drew 300,000 attendees this past year, is hosted by Dasmesh Darbar, the largest Sikh temple in B.C. At this temple, a kind of Sikh version of the Yasukuni Shrine, Parmar and other Sikh separatists are lionized through posters and photo memorials.

In the years since the Air India bombing, mainstream media has leaned heavily on a false, and self-perpetuated, binary of “moderates” versus “fundamentalists” when reporting on news with a Sikh angle. This was partly the consequence of non-diverse newsrooms in the 1980s and 1990s struggling to decipher the inner-workings of a complex community with which many were unfamiliar.

So media outlets created go-to contacts, such as temple presidents and politicians, who became the default spokespeople for an entire range of issues, regardless of their familiarity on these topics. These individuals, in turn, used their privileged positions to perpetuate this divide in which “moderates” became seen as forward-looking secularists who, typically, didn’t wear turbans, while fundamentalists were orthodox in religious practice and ardent supporters of an Sikh homeland independent of India.

In the three decades since Air India, two generations of Sikhs have grown out of the shadow of the separatist turmoil. These youth tend to speak English and French better than they do Punjabi and they are politically active through social justice causes.

Singh is part of this new educated generation which continues to advocate — arguably with more passion and idealism than their parents — for redress on behalf of the 10,000-plus Sikhs systematically murdered by government supported pogroms in Delhi in 1984. Singh, and other young Canadian Sikhs, however, are equally as impassioned by other Canadian-based causes such as attaining meaningful reconciliation for this country’s Aboriginal communities and protecting the environment.

This complexity, however, becomes lost in translation for reporters like Milewski because they still insist on viewing the Sikh community through the tenuous lens of Air India and the separatist struggle that long ago withered on the vine. The community has changed but their narrative framework for reporting has not evolved.

Consequently, Singh’s social activism and even his belief in self-determination becomes recklessly conflated as support for a man accused of terrorism three decades ago. And it happens on national television, as it did on Power & Politics where CBC got caught judging a book by its cover as Milewski shamelessly tried to pin down Singh as a Sikh “fundamentalist.” 

If there was any extremism in Canada that day, it was in the manner by which CBC treated the new leader of the NDP.

Singh won his party leadership and the support of the party grassroots because he is a person who embodies the modern nuances of multicultural Canada. Until CBC figures out how to articulate that, Canada’s public broadcaster will continue to foster uncomfortable exchanges that do little to bring together Canadians of all backgrounds.


Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Mann is also a member of the NCM Collective and regular contributor for New Canadian Media. This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.

Published in Commentary

By: Davina Bhandar in Vancouver 

Within the space of a few moments, Jagmeet Singh became one of Canada’s most admired politicians. His cool-under-pressure reaction to being confronted by an angry heckler is just one of the reasons Singh is considered to be the favourite contender for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party.

A video of the Sept. 6 incident at Singh’s campaign event in Brampton, Ont., went viral and has been viewed millions of times in Canada and around the world. Moments into the event, an angry white woman interrupted Singh and shouted Islamophobic and vitriolic statements at him, and physically gesticulated, demonstrating her feeling of entitlement — to space, voice and position - in relation to others at the event.

Singh seemed undeterred by the outburst. His response to her rant was to rally his audience to help him relay his campaign message. He asked his guests to chant: “Love and courage.”

In the face of a racist rant, Singh remained calm.

What is the nature of Singh’s call for love? His political slogan is based on a message of universal love and courage. Singh’s message — and chant that evening — is uniquely situated among the slogans of the three other candidates: Charlie Angus “Got your back,” Niki Ashton “Building a movement, together,” and Guy Caron, “Let’s Build a Progressive and Sustainable Economy.”

The dramatic events at the Sept. 6 meeting demonstrates something about Singh, as a person and as a candidate. It also points to new undercurrents of religion and spirituality and its role — not only in Canadian politics, but also in the leadership race for the NDP.

Singh’s campaign and potential leadership arrives in a climate of increasing hatred, fear and division. His call for universal love is coherent with Sikhism, which challenges the division between daily life and a devotional love that guides all thought and action. How does the language of love and courage relate to a New Democratic Party trying to find its way in a shifting political landscape?

Singh’s outward appearance solicits questions from some Canadians — as in the case of the heckler — regarding his secular position: To what degree does Singh’s religion relate to his policy ideas or conduct?

Canada: Judeo-Christian values?

Canadian political institutions and traditions are imbued with Judeo-Christian values and symbols. Yet the separation of church and state maintains religion does not dictate the making of policy and law. However, in the game of politics, courting ethno-racial, national and religious identified voters has become a central art of party campaign strategists.

Political parties of all persuasions have had to navigate this division in a variety of ways. In Canada, the left social democratic tradition, represented now by the NDP, has had less experience with faith-based movements and the religious identity of its leaders than their right-wing counterparts and left-leaning parties elsewhere in the world. Singh’s leadership challenge will likely change that.

While Singh is positioned as a secular politician, his ethos, sense of justice and formation of his identity is connected to a Sikh practice. The very essence of the message of universal love and courage is embedded in a Sikh devotion, rather than a secular idea of loving all humankind. Practising Sikhism defines a way of life — one that is contemplative, meditative and committed to spiritualism and positive actions.

The Clash of Civilizations

To understand the contemporary role of religion in politics, we need to look at one of our turning points: 9/11. The attacks on New York City and the Pentagon served as a marker of the time foreign and domestic policy in North America was called upon to name Islamic terrorism as a universal enemy.

Once North America and other western governments embraced the rhetoric of a civilization divide, the psyche of liberal democratic nations split apart. The already tenuous divide between the religious and secular began to rupture further.

This reinforced a binary division and emboldened a powerful discourse of racism and Islamophobia. The basic premise is that Islam represents something universally distinct from Christian belief systems.

This discourse of racism and difference has gained strength and societal control through the election of conservative governments with moral platforms that build on fears and anxieties of susceptible citizens.

Sixteen years of corrosive discourses since 9/11 has led to: Us vs. Them, the Clash of Civilizations and racism. We are now at the point of the normalization of white supremacy. It is no longer an oddity or a left-wing conspiracy theory to discuss the presence of fascism and neo-Nazis — these are events widely circulated in our social media feeds and featured during the evening news.

Religious discrimination in Canada

Islamophobia and racism are often understood to be twinned structures of oppression. In many ways they are, but there are complex differences between them. They disseminate and exist in different political, cultural and social taxonomies.

Islamophobia operates through systems of stereotypes, often misunderstanding or misrepresenting the traditions, religious practices and customs of highly diverse ethno-national and racial communities. Islamophobia has been manufactured in multiple ways in society through popular culture, media, policy and criminalizing targeting Islam and Muslims.

Racism is a larger systemic operation of power denigrating one race while validating or elevating another.

When the Harper Conservatives were in government, they attempted to map onto Canadian national values a form of social conservatism. This was articulated through a distinction between Canada and the “barbaric cultural practices” of others.

The clear lines that were being drawn between what Harper referred to as “old stock Canadians” during a 2015 federal leaders’ debate brought into discourse front and center the relationship between white supremacy and Islamophobia. It connected the dots between a normative white Christian Canadian identity that could stand against the racialized others.

Now the Conservative Party has a leader who proudly accepts the label: “Harper with a Smile.”“ Andrew Scheer has the support of social conservatives in the Conservative Party. He has steadfastly supported free speech over the condemnation of Islamophobia and was absent during the House of Commons vote for the Anti-Islamophobia Motion M-103, overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons.

 Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer has been labeled the smiling Harper. Here, he speaks at his shadow cabinet meeting in Winnipeg. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

When losing your cool is not an option

Singh said his ability to remain cool under pressure was largely owed to his experience of being a brown, Sikh and turbaned man, growing up in the 1980s in Brampton, Ont., just northwest of Toronto.

His past experiences of religious and racist intolerance helped to fortify him against racist language and assault.

 Leadership contender Jagmeet Singh greets supporters before the NDP’s Leadership Showcase in Hamilton, Ont., on Sept. 17. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

In the moment in which the racist woman yelled at him, she assumed he was a Muslim. Many wondered why Singh did not attempt to correct her misconceived perception; he is not a Muslim, but rather, a Sikh.

Suggesting such a distinction in the moment, he said, would only further the misunderstanding that somehow being Muslim means such treatment is considered justifiable. His reaction, he said, should not be to proclaim his religion. By not correcting this misconception, Singh was acting in solidarity against Islamophobia.

Sikhs have been affected throughout the post-9/11 discourses of Islamophobia, mainly because of this misunderstood identity. In the U.S., and elsewhere, there has been a rise in hate bias attacks against Sikhs, with the 2012 Oak Creek, Wis., shooting as a visible example.

While there are those who, in the similar vein as Singh, have sought to challenge Islamophobia by standing in solidarity, there have also been many instances where Sikhs in America, the U.K. and Canada painstakingly distinguish themselves from Muslims.

However, in countless examples, when Islamophobia is experienced in the public sphere against properly identified Muslims, there has been a lack of outcry.

In Canada, the shooting deaths in Quebec’s Sainte-Foy’s Mosque, in which Azzedine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubakar Thabthi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahim Barry were killed, was unmistakably an act of terrorism. Canadians across the country mourned this tragedy. And yet was it recognized as an act of terrorism against the citizens of this state?

The day-to-day effects of Islamophobia have led to many Muslims living with heightened experiences of fear and not knowing what they might encounter on a walk to school, a day at work or even waiting for a bus.

The left social-democrats of the NDP hold steadfastly to their conception of justice, fairness and equality in a secular world. The ways in which people are encountering the public today, however, is seemingly much murkier than these stark divisions.

The Conversation The issues of racism, religious intolerance and social justice are not central issues for any federal political party. These issues, however, should no longer be viewed as separate from major policy platforms including health, welfare reform, employment, national defense, national security, aboriginal relations and education. Perhaps a political leader such as Jagmeet Singh will be able to navigate these debates with an alacrity and style we have yet to witness in the Canadian political world.

Davina Bhandar, Adjunct Professor in School of Communication and Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Published in Politics
Friday, 25 August 2017 18:40

Sikhs Make World Go Round in Oliver

By: Bhupinder S. Liddar in Oliver, BC

Nestled in the scenic and stunning rolling dry desert hills and mirror lakes of Okanagan Valley in beautiful British Columbia is the town of Oliver – the wine capital of Canada!

Oliver’s population of 5,000 is made up of about 1,000 Sikhs. If one drives along the town’s Main Street, one is bound to see a turbaned Sikh or a Sikh lady in Punjabi dress, as well as the Sikh Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). And as one proceeds through the scenic Okanagan Valley one is struck by the greenery of wineries and fruit orchards, and depending on the time of the summer, one will drive by cherry, peach, apple, and perhaps prune trees all along Highway 97. 

Oliver’s Mayor Ron Hovanes describes his town as an “authentic farming community.” Other than driving along the fruit-tree-lined highway, one can pull into one of the many wineries for tasting, buying, or even a meal.

The Sikhs started migrating and buying orchards and vineyards in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley about three decades ago. Farming is in the Sikh genes. Their ancestral home state of Punjab is the breadbasket of India. Sikhs are also successful farmers in Australia, Kenya, Fiji, among other countries.

The Sikhs bought orchards/vineyards predominantly from the Portuguese, who had migrated here in the 1950s. Mayor Hovanes explains the origins of Oliver are in the irrigation canal built in 1926 under British Columbia Premier John Oliver, after whom the town is named. The intent was to settle returning British veterans of the First World War.

The British migrants were followed by Germans in the 1930s and Hungarians in the 1940s and 1950s. Sikhs own about 70 per cent of orchards and wineries. The average holding is about 10–12 acres, and according to farmer Bhupinder Singh Karwasra, an acre generates an income of about $8,000 to $10,000. Prices of land have doubled or tripled since Sikhs first bought land at $4,000 an acre.

Apart from farming, Sikhs are venturing into other trades and commercial enterprises. Paramjit Singh Chauhan owns and operates East India Meat Shop on Highway 97, down the road from Oliver. Similarly, Surjit Singh Aulakh this month set up a hairdresser shop on Oliver’s Main Street.

Oliver-born Baljeet S. Dhaliwal, a graduate of Simon Fraser University, is now a manager at one of BC Tree Fruits packinghouses. Others, such as Toor twin brothers – Randy and Jessie, have set up an 80-acre, state-of-the-art Desert Hills Estate Winery on what was once an apple orchard. They are the second Sikh family to settle in the area, in the footsteps of Major Dhaliwal. The Toor brothers, from Village of Ucha Jattana, immigrated from India to Canada in 1982 and settled in Winnipeg. On the urging of their sister Lucky Gill, who is involved in the hospitality industry, they moved to Oliver in 1988. Randy Toor was elected to one term on Oliver Town council in 2005.

Oliver’s major communities – indigenous, Portuguese, Caucasian, and Sikhs live in silos, with little or no informal social interaction other than in schools, shopping centres and workplaces. Mohinder Singh Gill, president of the Sikh Gurdwara, attributes this partly to lack of English speaking skills among Sikhs. For instance, the Sikh seniors meet at the Gurdwara instead of going to the central seniors centre.

The indigenous Osoyoos people, almost all live on a reservation adjoining Oliver.

Punjabi was offered at Oliver High School until recently and the search is on for a Punjabi instructor.

Fortunately, days of ugly racism are almost over, though I was told of schoolyard fights among indigenous, Sikh and white students.

According to Mayor Hovanes, there is “no overt racial tension,” and former Town councillor Randy Toor observes there is “very little evidence of racism and it is fading away.”

The future looks promising for the Sikh community in Oliver, though many young Sikhs are opting to head to urban areas and into professions other than farming. But for now, most Sikhs make up a dynamic, vibrant and growing community in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley.


Bhupinder S. Liddar is a Kenya-born Sikh and a retired Canadian diplomat. This piece was republished under arrangement with the Oliver Chronicle.

Published in Top Stories
Tuesday, 27 June 2017 08:59

Embers of Sikh Extremism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies.  Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause.  It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.

Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable.  At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.

On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib.  Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.

We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue.  It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding.  As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.

India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’.  That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’  in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.

This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.  I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.

There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government.  Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India. 

It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence. 

We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs.  But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

Anyone who has travelled to subcontinent knows it is not always such a salubrious destination. Incredible India, as the country sells itself in tourism brochures, can be incredibly chaotic, unwieldy, hot, dusty, venal, bovinely, and polluted – and then you accidently end up drinking the water. 

Given his weakened state since returning to Canada, Canada's Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, has no doubt picked up a severe political bellyache from his recent week-long trip to the country.
In what should have been a soft PR exercise, Sajjan’s first trip to India as Canada’s Defense Minister, has gone from being an electoral victory lap in his birth country to a slog on Ottawa’s apology circuit.

The trip has brought into question his integrity as a leader, diminished his venerated standing before military personnel, and even dulled his image within the Sikh community. 

During a speech at the Delhi based Observer Research Foundation security think-tank, Sajjan veered off script and deliberately inserted a line about being ‘the architect’ of Operation Medusa, a large-scale Canadian offensive in Afghanistan in 2006. It was a false statement: in Kandahar, where Sajjan served three tours while a reservist, he was as a mid-level officer providing intelligence to his commanders. 
At his first sitting in the House of Commons on Monday, the minister, looked weary from repeating contrition for the battlefield boast, but failed to provide an explanation for it.

"I'm not here to make excuses," he said to the press gallery. "I'm here to acknowledge my mistake, apologize for it, learn from it and continue to serve."

Not since the cameras showed up at Premier Glen Clark’s house, had a BC politician seemed in such desperate need for a foxhole.

It's not unusual for Canadian immigrants to flash their success when they return to their homeland – Sajjan also made a visit to his birth village in the Punjab on this trip. These blingy displays however tend to be exhibited through heavy gold sets and brand name clothing, and not, as in the Minister case, through false claims of military prowess.

Had it been Sajjan’s only embellishment of his operational role, this errant speech could have been written off as typical politician’s self-aggrandizement. However, he also stated this alternative fact in an interview in 2015.

While this controversy has hogged the spotlight back in Canadian media this week, it was not the only trouble spot arising from his first visit back to India in 14 years.
The Minister’s tour, particularly of Punjab, was notably bumpy as the Chief Minister of the state, Captain Amarinder Singh and his cabinet, refused to meet with Sajjan. 

Singh alleged that the minister and his father, Kundan Sajjan, a former executive of the World Sikh Organisation (WSO), are both Khalistan sympathisers. At the height of the Punjab conflict in the 1980’s, the WSO espoused the formation of an independent Sikh state. 

The allegation against the minister is baseless and seems motivated by Singh’s bitterness at the Trudeau government. The Canadian government did not permit Singh to campaign last year among Canada’s one million-plus South Asians, forcing Singh to cancel the Canadian leg of his North American tour.

The Punjab Chief Minister’s rebuff, however, did little to help Sajjan’s mandate of advancing Canada-India relations, or of re-energising stalled Canada-India free trade talks which were first launched in 2010.

However, Sajjan’s most agonising moments during the week-long trip may have been in his circumspect responses to questions about the Ontario NDP provincial government recently passing legislation recognising the 1984 Delhi killings of Sikhs as an act of genocide. By some counts, as many as 30,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs in a four-day murderous frenzy.

In 2011, Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal was the first federal MP to petition for the recognition of the 1984 killings as an act of genocide, receiving support then from the current Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains. Dhaliwal was denied a visa to India in 2011, retribution for him spearheading this motion.

The failure of the Indian government to prosecute the government officials who organised the mobs has been a source of much pain for Sikhs worldwide for the past three decades. Sajjan however distanced himself from the motion.

In a stumbling response, he highlighted it was brought forward by a private member of the Ontario legislature (Harinder Malhi), insinuating the motion was politically motivated during an election year in the province. He further added that this was not his position as a member of the federal Liberal government. 

Sikhs who were hopeful Canada’s most recognisable cabinet member would help resolve this long outstanding social justice issue were clearly disappointed in these answers. Left in the wake of Sajjan’s India trip are gnawing questions about how much of his cultivated image as Canada’s ‘badass’ minister, and a comic book hero for justice, is truth and how much is hyperbole.

Afterall, why would he distance himself from a social cause as glaring as the Delhi killings? And why would a veteran break the military code about boasting and take credit for the sacrifices of other soldiers? 

After nearly 18 months in office, it seems all we have learned about the first term MP from Vancouver South is that it’s hard to gauge exactly where the soldier ends the politician begins. 


Jagdeesh Mann is executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. This article has been republished under arrangement with the Post. 

Published in Commentary
Saturday, 11 March 2017 14:34

Beyond White Dresses and Tiered Cakes

by Renée Sylvestre-Williams

When Toronto-based lawyer Anjli Patel and her husband, Parambir Keila, were planning their Sikh wedding ceremony, they wanted to keep it simple and have it downtown. But they didn't look specifically for a South Asian planner familiar with their cultures. 

“We found our wedding planner through a listing on Wedluxe.com,” says Patel. It wasn't necessarily the norm for Patel to have a planner. She says traditionally South Asian weddings were organized by families and, in some cases, the entire village. But since her 2012 wedding, she says having a planner instead of relying on family has become more accepted in South Asian communities. 

“There are South Asian wedding planners, like Sapna [Weddings], but we went with our planner [Melissa Haggerty from Spectacular Spectacular], even though ours was their first South Asian wedding, because we wanted to get married in a downtown venue, and our planner had a lot of experience planning events in downtown venues.” Spectacular Spectacular has planned a few South Asian weddings each year since.

That choice, and that distribution of knowledge, wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago, when Vicki Singh was planning her wedding. She was inspired to start her own wedding planning business after trying to find suppliers who could cater to the South Asian market.

As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. With the Canadian wedding industry worth $5 billion and catering to an average of 160,000 couples annually (according to a survey in Weddingbells magazine), the industry has evolved beyond the white dress. And while it's easy for many people to find a planner who understands their wishes in their countries of origin, it can be difficult to find planners in Canada who fully appreciate clients’ varied needs and cultural sensitivities.

“This year will be our 15th anniversary [of the business],” says Singh, who has published two books on the subject, Cultural Weddings and The South Asian Wedding Planner. “This issue kept coming up. Finding suppliers who wanted and could cater to Indian weddings was a challenge. Instagram wasn’t as prevalent, so there were fewer ways to find out about new services and ideas. We were counting a lot on word of mouth to find people to do video, makeup — and the referrals weren’t always of the best quality.”

“We helped plan a Sikh wedding last year where the photographer had never done this kind of wedding before,” Singh explains, describing one typical example. “She was adamant she knew what to do, but there are certain things you need to know beforehand that she never got to: in a Sikh wedding you remove your shoes, cover your head, et cetera, during the ceremony. She came to the venue not knowing any of that.”

Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, says couples who've wanted a diverse wedding have been chronically underserved by the industry, but that is changing. “Diversity has always been a key factor in Canadian weddings, and with more and more couples wanting to incorporate their cultures into their celebration, there has definitely been a shift in the wedding marketplace … Offerings are more multicultural today than ever before, and it is now not as difficult to find a wedding planner specializing in specific cultural celebrations.” She also said that wedding shows — often the place where couples find vendors and suppliers — are becoming more varied, offering services specific to different cultural backgrounds. 

Danielle Andrews, co-founder of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada, has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I don’t know that multicultural weddings themselves have necessarily increased,” she says. “What I’m seeing is more wedding coordinators getting involved. We’re seeing a shift towards having a wedding coordinator handling the [culturally specific] details — and not necessarily always a wedding coordinator of the couple’s culture.”

What has changed, in other words, is that wedding coordinators are educating themselves about different cultures. They might have training in (and until recently, cultural familiarity with) western wedding mores, but now they’re expanding their expertise and range of services.

Andrews says they’re seeing more weddings that blend eastern and western traditions — “more western-style weddings with the Chinese tea ceremony included," for instance. "It’s not heavy on customs, but it’s definitely incorporating customs.” Couples are picking and choosing which customs they want incorporated into their wedding.

Patel and Keila chose not to include extravagant Sikh or Hindu traditions into their wedding, which often include a week of events leading up to the ceremony. Instead, she and her husband kept the wedding small, celebrating at the Art Gallery of Ontario with 150 people, and even skipping the cake. She says working with Haggerty might have sounded risky, but it worked out: “We had a South Asian officiant and we all met a number of times to review the ceremony in detail. We had many design meetings where we discussed the big-picture look and feel and details as well. Having said that, our vision was never beyond her comprehension because we have the same aesthetic sensibility. We were always on the same page.”

Singh, the one who started her own wedding planning business, may have had trouble finding suppliers who could help plan weddings, but now, people can get her books everywhere. “We have brides who get our books at the Bay or Bed Bath and Beyond. And [then they] will have their nieces use it — a progression of people.”


Renee Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Quartz.

This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.

Published in Arts & Culture

A UK-based Sikh organization is coming to Canada to hold a free media workshop in Mississauga on August 17 at Dixie Gurdwara.

The Sikh Press Association – a facilitator between the Sikh community and international media – will be holding the interactive workshop from 6 to 8 p.m. in an attempt to help locals learn media skills directly from professionals.

Indo-Canadian Voice

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Published in Arts & Culture
Wednesday, 06 July 2016 05:00

Sikh Candidate Targeted With Racist Flyers

MELBOURNE – A Sikh-Australian politician contesting the July 2 general election for the country’s Greens Party has been targeted with racist flyers.

Alexandra Kaur Bhathal, a candidate for the seat of Batman (Melbourne), today wrote on her Facebook page, “Yesterday and today, a flyer has been distributed among my electorate, targeting my background and beliefs. The leaflet contains vicious and racist statements about me and my heritage as a Sikh.”

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Published in Other Regions
Wednesday, 29 June 2016 10:46

He Fought to Mainstream the Turban

By Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

One of the most celebrated veterans in Canada, Retired Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh Jauhal, passed away peacefully this past week with his family by his side.

He was 95 years old. 

Lt. Col. Singh served in the British Indian military and lived through the 20th century's era of tremendous social and technological change. When witnessing the emergence of his native India's independence as a youth, he could not have envisioned that one day he himself would become an agent of change in post-colonial Commonwealth.

His courage in battle would serve him well, guiding his rise from humble origins to serving honourably as an officer in several wars including World War II.

In 1993 at the age of 73, Singh inadvertently found himself in the middle of media storm when he, along with four other Sikhs, were barred from entering the Royal Canadian Legion in Newton, Surrey. The club's members opposed the men's entry on the grounds they were 'wearing hats', thus turning away the war veterans.

As a Sikh, Singh politely declined the club's demand he remove his turban, which is an indelible part of his religious identity. It was also a sanctioned part of his military uniform which he wore when fighting against Nazi Germany on behalf of the Allies.

Singh's grace through the Legion incident sharply contrasted with the ugly threats of violence that took a heavy toll on his household. Sadly, his wife passed away at that time from a cardiac arrest.

Today Canada's Defense Minister and head of our Armed Forces wears a turban. Its inclusion as part of the Canadian military uniform is now taken as self-evident - as is its place in Royal Legion Halls across Canada.

Lt. Col. Singh's dignified stand over two decades ago is one of the many quiet but indispensable victories that has made Canada a beacon for tolerance and plurality. His grace under fire would lead him to being invited for tea with Queen Elizabeth II who took it upon herself to ask Singh about the incident. Ever an officer and a gentleman, Singh stated that was sorry to have troubled her with the matter. 

In 2013, Singh published his memoir, A Soldier Remembers, in collaboration with the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.

The funeral will be held at Valley View Funeral Home & Cemetary -14644 72 Ave, Surrey, on Sunday, July 3, 2016 at 3PM. It will be followed by a prayer ceremony at 4:30PM at Canadian Singh Sabha Gurdwara, 8115 132 St, Surrey BC.

Jagdeesh Mann is a writer and media professional based in Vancouver. 

Republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post

Published in Top Stories

By Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

Though it can be criticised as lip service, the Canadian government’s ongoing ‘dialogue’ on human rights with China sometimes has a bite.

This was evident last week when China’s touchy foreign minister threw a temper tantrum at a press conference in Ottawa when questioned about Beijing’s dismal human rights record. 
The current practice calls for Canadian ministers to confine human rights discussions to private meetings with their Chinese counterparts. But as much as Canada has failed at curbing Beijing’s habit of executing dissidents and suppressing minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs, China has failed at trapping the issue to government chambers sealed behind closed doors.

Thus every time the world’s economic dragon fumes at being bridled by ‘Western’ values, the issue of human rights gains more ink in the Sino-Canada storyline.

So what should Canada’s terms of engagement be with world’s next rising economic star, the current elephant-in-heat India?

Last year, India’s economy sprinted ahead to post a world-beating 7.6% GDP growth rate, though this result seems wind-aided thanks to some artful statistical spackling of poor data.
And as with China, this top-of-the-class economic report card has not spawned a halo effect to remove attention from the subcontinent’s own poor human rights record. In the foreground of the recently-stalled Canada-India free trade talks are ongoing protests by Canada’s politically influential South Asian community calling for protection of minorities in India.

These boiled at high heat last April when walls of protesters confronted India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi upon landing for his official state visit to Canada, dogging him from Ottawa to Toronto, and to Vancouver. 

Human rights violations are again casting a shadow over Modi’s state visit this week to the United States where he will be addressing a joint session of the US Congress. Even though India is being feted by the West as a counterweight to rising Chinese assertiveness in Asia, US elected officials are also petitioning for change in how the Indian government treats minority Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs. This includes a group of 34 senators and congressmen penned a letter recently urging the Prime Minister to ‘hold perpetrators of this violence to account’.

These episodes of bloodshed include the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs and in which Modi was allegedly complicit – an event that led him to be denied a visa to the United States in 2005.

For Canada’s one million strong Sikh population, justice remains outstanding in the targeted killings of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, along with the earlier attacks on the Golden Temple when hundreds of innocent worshippers on pilgrimage were shot down by Indian soldiers. The failure to convict the organisers of the Delhi mass killings and resolve this violent chapter against India’s Sikh minority – which like Christians in India form a mere 2% of the population – has allowed the wounds to grow toxic.

Although official reports record the killings of nearly 3,000 Sikhs, unofficial estimates are as high as 30,000. According to Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times bureau chief in New Delhi, “Almost as many Sikhs died in a few days in India in 1984 than all the deaths and disappearances in Chile during the 17-year military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990,”

And so this past weekend on Saturday, Sikhs in Vancouver again gathered at the downtown Art Gallery to hold a vigil for victims of these events. This is the first of two annual commemorative events – the second, the annual Sikh Nation Blood Drive is held in November to mark the Delhi killings. It is the largest third party blood drive in the country for Canadian Blood Services.

Now in his early 20’s, Manveer Singh has worked as an organiser for the art gallery vigil. Like others of his generation, he was born outside of India and after the 1984 atrocities. Yet the horror of these events spared few – virtually every family knew of someone who was murdered or was a casualty of violence. These wounds have filtered into the current generation through emotional osmosis.

For Singh, Canada’s aspiration to expand its trade relationship with a state that refuses to account for the blood on its hands undermines Canadian values.
“At the political level, there is a reluctance to address these past events and press for convictions in the Delhi genocide as this would anger the Indian government,” said Singh in reference to the Canadian government averting its eyes from India’s record of violence towards minorities.

“What pains us most is that those from India’s Congress Party who were behind the killings still live free with impunity,” added Singh, who is currently a university student in Vancouver.

The future lies to the west over the Pacific for both Canada and the United States. North American companies have pivoted towards Asia – the next evolutionary step beyond NAFTA is the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between the US, Canada, Mexico and seven Asian nations that is looking to include India in its next stage.

In this ever unfettered global economy, uranium dug out from the Prairies is today shipped across the Pacific to power India’s nuclear power plants and feed its energy starved population. But in this same environment of capital and labour mobility, blood spilled in Delhi thirty years ago can stain the earth red in Canada today.

The Sikh community in Canada is politically potent, punches above its weight, and stands to be a key arbiter in the future of companies like Saskatchewan-based Cameco, which last year signed a $350 million deal in 2015 to provide uranium for India’s reactors. For Canadian resource companies seeking to reach India’s 1.2 billion consumers, they may find their caravans blocked by the ghosts of 1984 that haunt this new silk-road connecting cities like Vancouver, Saskatoon, and Toronto to Asia’s new El Dorado.

A number of Canadian elected officials have attempted to lay these spirits to rest by seeking official recognition of the Delhi killings as a genocide in order to close the chapter and move forward.

In 2011, MP Sukh Dhaliwal was the first to raise this topic at an official federal level. The member from Surrey-Newton put forward a petition in the House of Commons for official recognition of the 1984 killings as an act of genocide, plowing ahead with the convictions of his constituents despite a rebuke from then Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, as well as the Indian consulate in Vancouver. Dhaliwal received support from current Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains. 

When asked if he would re-submit a proposal, Dhaliwal stated, “I was happy to forward petitions on behalf of my constituents, and now with e-petitions as a new way to facilitate grassroots democracy, I will continue to advance the petitions that are submitted by Surrey-Newton residents.”

NDP leader, Tom Mulcair has also issued an official release on the matter, stating that he and the federal NDP “firmly stand in solidarity with the community, independent human rights organizations and Canadians across the country, in seeking justice”.

And just this past week a motion for recognition of the Delhi killings as a genocidal act was voted on in the Ontario house. Put forward by Ontario NDP MLA Jagmeet Singh, it was defeated by the Liberal majority.
Singh tweeted afterwards, “By voting against the Sikh Genocide Recognition motion the Liberals turned their back on human rights, justice, reconciliation & healing. They not only turned their backs on the Sikhs but all the Hindu & Muslim families who risked their lives to save their Sikh neighbours.”

The World Sikh Organisation (WSO), the activist organisation that contributed mightily to Justin Trudeau’s victory, also expressed its disappointment at the defeat of MLA Jagmeet Singh’s bill. “We also call for justice for the victims of 1984, and that those who were behind the attacks need to be brought to justice instead of being allowed to live free with impunity,” said WSO legal counsel Balpreet Singh, adding the organisation supported Sukh Dhaliwal’s petition.

With 16 MP’s of Sikh heritage in the House of Commons, this matter will not fade into the recesses of the past. The recent recognition of the Armenian genocide by the German government as well as the apology for the Komagata Maru incident have bolstered confidence of achieving genocide recognition from Canada’s Sikh community.

Even the Government of India's Nanavati Commission Report acknowledges "but for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened.”

Despite such a damning statement, the Indian government has yet to move on convictions against the senior Congress Party members who organised the attacks.

Last year, Canada’s then-Conservative government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on the anniversary of China sending in the tanks against the protesters in Tiananmen Square, “Canada urges China to break its silence on the events of 26 years ago by openly accounting for the people who were killed, detained or went missing and by launching a process of national healing and reconciliation.”

The Canadian government has yet to make an equivalent request to India for its Tiananmen moment, when its tanks crackled over the marble promenade of the Golden Temple in 1984 and when senior Congress Party officials ordered police to stand down while sword-wielding mobs cut down thousands of innocent people.

With discussions of free trade in the air, the timing is right for that statement. It stands to be a rare moment where investing in the fight for human rights would provide a good return for business.

Jagdeesh Mann is executive editor of the South Asian Post based in Vancouver. Twitter: @JagdeeshMann. An abridged version of this was first published in The Globe & Mail.

This commentary was republished with permission from the South Asian Post

Published in Commentary
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