For Sikhs, ‘It Is in Their Blood’ To Campaign

Marina Jimenez, Globe and Mail (Toronto), September 26, 2008

More than two dozen Indo-Canadian candidates are running for next month’s federal election, contesting ridings from Halifax to Vancouver, in some cases opposing one another—a phenomenal success story for this ethnic community.

Most are Sikhs, by far the most savvy campaigners and aggressive political organizers of any visible-minority group in Canada, and the only group with a greater number of MPs than their share of the population.

“Sikhs want to be in charge of power, or behind the power all the time. It is in their blood,” Jagdish Grewal, editor and publisher of Punjabi Post, one of 17 Punjabi newspapers in Brampton, Ont., said with a chuckle. “They want to be MPs, MPPs or on city council. They feel respected and they get recognized in the community and the Punjabi media.”

Ten Indo-Canadian MPs were elected in 2006, compared with three Arab, four black and five Chinese—even though Chinese are the largest visible-minority group in Canada. South Asians comprise 3.1 per cent of the population—but have 3.3 per cent of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, where Punjabi is now the fourth most common language, after English, French and Italian.

In the campaign for the Oct. 14 election, two South Asians are running for the Greens, 14 for the New Democrats, 12 for the Conservatives—including Tim Uppal in Edmonton-Sherwood Park, Rakesh Khosla in Halifax West and incumbent Deepak Obrai in Calgary East—eight for the Liberals, including incumbents Ujjal Dosanjh in Vancouver South and Gurbax Mahli, running for the fifth time in Bramalea-Gore-Malton.

Indo-Canadians are running on both the Liberal and Conservative tickets in Newton-North Delta, Mississauga-Brampton South and Calgary Northeast.

Many factors account for the electoral success of Sikh-Canadians. They are relatively affluent, speak English, and come from the world’s most populous democracy, India. A religious minority, they have a long history of political activism in their homeland. The sophisticated networks that form around gurdwaras, Sikh temples, make it easy to mobilize funds and supporters.

As well, there is a sense of collective ownership of campaigns. Sikhs’ political consciousness comes in part from their public legal battle to win the right to wear articles of faith, such as the kirpan, and from their historic exclusion from Canada, some experts suggest.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized last month for an incident in which the Komagata Maru, a ship filled with Sikhs, was barred entry off the B.C. coast in 1914.

Many Sikh candidates live in Mississauga and Brampton, where they comprise 15 per cent and 19 per cent of the population respectively. These newer suburban ridings in Greater Toronto offer newcomers more opportunities, as political ambitions and machines are not so entrenched as in older Toronto ridings, said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor at Ryerson University.

“The Sikhs are united and know they have to be politically active to defend their interests,” he said. “The black and Chinese communities are more internally diverse and divided.”

Indo-Canadians do not merely support candidates of their own background, but also play the role of kingmakers. A block of Sikh supporters helped to secure the Liberal nomination for Andrew Kania in Brampton West against two South Asian rivals. About one third of the riding’s 170,000 residents are South Asian, and many are involved in Mr. Kania’s campaign.

Mr. Kania, who was chair of John Manley’s Liberal leadership bid, has courted Sikh supporters, attending their weddings and birthday parties, and getting to know them through the area’s gurdwara, the largest in Canada.

Sikhs jokingly say they expect their MPs to earn their “MBBAs,” which means attending marriages, births, bhogs (a Sikh religious ceremony) and anniversaries. Mr. Mahli, a permanent fixture at Sikh community events, even gives out special certificates of recognition at weddings.

Indo-Canadians have traditionally been Liberal—but that is starting to change. Parm Gill, a 34-year-old businessman, is running for the Tories in Brampton Springdale against incumbent Liberal Ruby Dhalla. She won by 7,802 votes in 2006, and Mr. Gill knows it will be a tough race. However, he says he is getting a lot of support on Punjabi-language radio and television call-in programs.

“The Liberals cannot take the Sikhs for granted,” Mr. Gill said. “Sikhs’ social values are closer to the Conservatives. They also have concerns about the immigration backlog, and getting applications processed faster.”

Immigration is often the most significant issue for Sikhs, many of whom are trying to obtain Canadian visas for visiting family members and relatives from the Canadian missions in New Delhi and Chandigarh. They are also concerned about recognition of foreign work credentials. The Conservatives’ immigration reforms, which give the minister discretionary power to screen applicants, are not popular.

In Surrey, B.C., some candidates have put up election signs in Punjabi, while at least two provincial MLAs are studying the language at Simon Fraser University.

“People appreciate this,” said Gurvinder Singh Dhaliwal, news director for a call-in show on Sher-E-Punjab AM 1550 radio in Vancouver with 300,000 listeners. He believes there is a lot of support for the NDP and the Liberals, and says pensions for foreign-born seniors is one of the most important issues for Sikh voters.

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