Canada Cover


As the B.C. NDP heats up, a potent political community flexes its muscle

Jennifer Hunter,Chris Wood February 21 2000
Canada Cover


As the B.C. NDP heats up, a potent political community flexes its muscle

Jennifer Hunter,Chris Wood February 21 2000
The entrance of the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C., is crowned by a massive onion-shaped dome conceived to keep the faithful in awe of the one God, the Akal Purakh. Most people, however, enter through the two back doors, which lead directly into the dining room. Here at midweek, turbanned older men with frizzled beards and kerchiefed grandmotherly women sit at tables partaking in langar, the vegetarian meal that is an essential part of Sikh ritual (today it is curried vegetables, lentils and rice pudding). On the walls, quotations from the gurus urge benevolence. Upstairs, the sanctuary is quiet; only seven people are in prayer. The holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, is covered by a saffron cloth on a dais fronted by artificial flowers. Other copies of the scriptures are kept in a nearby room on a four-poster, queen-size bed covered with a flowered blanket. When the holy books are not being read, they are figuratively put to sleep.

A few kilometers away, on a cul-de-sac, is the more orthodox Dasmesh Darbar temple. There are no tables and chairs in its dining hall, only runner carpets to provide some comfort for those seated on the floor sipping their milky chai tea (conservatives shun tables and chairs, believing it creates humility and equality before God). As in the Guru Nanak, a vegetarian langar is served to all who come and ask, Sikh or non-Sikh. Says congregation member Jarnail Chima: “The aim is to tell the congregation that humanity is one.” But a different message is conveyed by posters on the wall. Gruesome images from Sikh history show a guru serenely being fried to death on a large griddle; others show martyrs sawn in half or crushed between large-toothed gears.

The ideological divide separating the two temples—one moderate, one conservative—reflects the growing pains of an ambitious community struggling to shed a legacy of violence and integrate into Canadian life. Its immense energy is already making an impressive mark. Consider federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal, former television personality Monika Deol, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Wally Oppal and Toronto-born figure skater Emanuel Sandhu. Canada's 400,000 Sikhs—concentrated in Ontario and British Columbia—can deliver votes to help elect prime ministers and change the dynamics of provincial politics. This weekend, Punjabi-born lawyer Ujjal Dosanjh, 52, first elected to the B.C. legislature in 1991, may become premier of British Columbia—the first provincial leader of colour. “Politics in the Indian community,” says Oppal, “is a high form of calling.”

Those who questioned the need for an independent Khalistan or opposed armed struggle came under attack

Fulfilling that calling, however, often leads to fractious dissent among Sikhs. Dosanjh’s campaign to become leader of British Columbia's New Democratic Party has been vociferously opposed by two other Sikh members of the B.C. cabinet: Moe Sihota and Harry Lali, who threw their support behind Education Minister Gordon Wilson. “Sihota saw himself as the godfather of the Sikh community,” says one NDP insider. “Ujjal has taken that away.” Dosanjh, who as attorney general has taken a tough stand on crime, is aligned with Sikh moderates; Sihota is seen as an ally of conservatives.

“Moe did a good job for the community,” says Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak temple. “But he has done some controversial things, too. Ujjal is considered clean and white people like him—not only people from our community.” Both sides have targeted the Indo Canadian community, signing up new NDP members so fast that 1,300 of 11,000 people enrolled did not even know they had become New Democrats. Those memberships were invalidated, possibly sapping Dosanjh’s convention support.

Despite the internecine wrangling, Canadian Sikhs have developed remarkable political heft for a group that was not given the vote until 1947. “Sikhs have always been politically active,” says Manpreet Grewal, an Abbotsford community worker and journalist. “India is a democracy, after all, even though an unwieldy one.” Canadian Sikhs have often given their federal vote to Liberals, in appreciation of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's legacy of multiculturalism, says Prem Vinning, who has organized support for the party in B.C. communities with large concentrations of Indo-Canadians. With exceptions: Gurmant Grewal (no relation to Manpreet) holds British Columbia’s Surrey Central for the Reform party. Provincially, many B.C. Sikhs, who immigrated in the 1970s and worked in sawmills or on farms, saw the NDP as crusading for workers’ rights. In Ontario, Sikhs have nurtured Liberal MP Gurbax Mahli and Tory MPP Raminder Gill.

Sikhism’s political potency was born in the fertile soil of northern India’s Punjab, once the heartland of a Muslim empire. In 1499, Nanak Dev, a Hindu accountant of philosophical temperament, began preaching a new faith of universal love, sexual equality and devotion to one God. The first of 10 religious leaders whom Sikhs venerate, Guru Nanak synthesized Hinduism and Islam, embracing the notion of reincarnation, but rejecting the prevailing caste system. The last guru, Gobind Singh, who died in 1708 after years of warfare against Muslims, instituted two practices that came to define Sikhism for many. One was "Khalsa," a community of the orthodox of both sexes who refrain from cutting their hair (covered by a turban) and carry a kirpan, or dagger. A companion idea was that a true Sikh should be a "saint-soldier.” To Amarjeet Kaur Dhami, a member of the Dasmesh Darbar temple, Gobind Singh’s views are still relevant. “We don’t turn the other cheek,” she says.

Although Sikhs controlled Punjab in the early 19th century, they were a minority: less than two per cent of India’s people and only 13 per cent of Punjab’s. Even so, Sikhs made up 37 per cent of colonial-era Indian army officers, and were prominent in the struggle for independence (Dosanjh’s grandfather fought against the British and was jailed). The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 into India and Pakistan witnessed an exodus of Muslims to the latter, and made Sikhs a slim majority in Punjab. But many felt mistreated by the central government. As tensions mounted, thousands left. The diaspora became so ubiquitous some Sikhs joked that when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, a Sikh was already there asking, “Taxi, sir?”

Sikh immigrants first arrived in Canada in 1903 to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway or in sawmills. Partap Johal, the father of Vancouver philanthropist Asa Johal, 77, arrived in the Kootenays in 1905. “These first Sikhs to Canada were adventurers,” says Asa’s 46year-old daughter, Geven Opal. “They came speaking no English and with no education.” And they met stinging prejudice. Responding to anti-Asian riots in Vancouver, Ottawa restricted immigration in 1908. When entrepreneur Gurdit Sarhali chartered a steamship, the Komagata Maru, to carry 376 Punjabis to Vancouver in the spring of 1914, Canadian officials did not let the passengers disembark, leaving them aboard with little food or water. Immigration officers even stormed the ship, intending to drive it into international waters. The Sikhs resisted until July 23, when the Komagata Maru sailed away. Large-scale Sikh immigration to Canada did not begin again until the late 1960s.

Virtually all Canadian Sikhs have maintained strong family ties to India and pay close attention to events in Punjab. In 1984, a shock wave struck. Early that year, acting on reports that Sikh militants were hoarding weapons, the Indian army stormed a complex associated with the Golden Temple, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine, in the Punjabi city of Amritsar, killing hundreds. Within months, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also dead, assassinated by Sikh bodyguards. In riots that followed, nearly 3,000 Sikhs died, and authorities unleashed a savage crackdown on activists.

The Indian army’s assault at the Golden Temple shattered the tranquillity of Sikhs everywhere. “I lost an uncle in that tragic chapter,” says Const. Baltej Dhillon, the first Sikh to wear a turban in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “He was mobbed, wrapped in tires, doused in gasoline and set on fire.” The attack convinced many moderates that only an independent Sijth state—Khalistan—could guarantee their faith’s security? “In a place like Punjab,’) says Dosanjh, “you may not always get justice from politicians or the courts, and there is a tendency to take the law into vour own hands. That 'carries over into actions here (in Canada)."

Through the decade that followed, pro-Khalistan executives—many with connections to terrorist groups such as the Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation—held power at most Canadian temples, controlling the huge revenues they brought in. In the case of the Guru Nanak, it was $ 1 million a year. Moderates claim some of that money went to pro-Khalistani fighters. Many individual Canadian Sikhs contributed directly to the cause. Dasmesh temple member Dhami took out a $5,000 loan for the “guerrillas” in Punjab: “If money is what they need, why shouldn’t I give it to them?”

In the wake of the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, violence has continued to haunt the community

The few who questioned the necessity of an independent Khalistan, or opposed violence to achieve it, came under attack. In February, 1985, a man wielding an iron bar attacked Dosanjh, putting him in hospital. Charan Gill, now executive director of a community support group and a Dosanjh ally, was also attacked at a temple for writing a letter to a newspaper protesting violence. “To them, anyone who didn’t believe in Khalistan was not a good Sikh,” Gill recalls.

Violence spawned in Canada reached its nadir in 1985. On June 23, Air India Flight 182 exploded off lreland, killing all 329 aboard. The unsolved act of terrorism—in which many Sikhs lost relatives and friends—remains a raw wound. Some Canadian Sikhs came to believe they were sharing langar with terrorists. Others blamed the Indian government—or Canada—for committing the horrific act to discredit Khalistan. The RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service launched investigations that have preoccupied both agencies to little result: no one was ever charged (page 24).

Violence on a smaller scale continues to haunt the community. In July, 1995, officers from six Toronto police divisions broke up a melee between rival groups of Babbar Khalsa and International Sikh Youth Federation supporters. In January, 1997, the RCMP subdued a brawl at Guru Nanak between 70 people who forcibly removed tables and chairs from the temple, and moderates. In a particularly cowardly attack, wheelchair-bound newspaper editor Tara Singh Hayer was killed in his garage in November, 1998 (page 26).

Another journalist, Kim Bolan of The Vancouver Sun, was threatened after writing investigative stories about Ripudaman Singh Malik, a prominent Sikh conservative. Malik, she disclosed, supported the wife of Inderjit Singh Reyat, convicted in 1991 of manslaughter in the 1985 bomb blast at Tokyo’s Narita airport. On Dec. 23, 1997, Bolan received a letter: “It said I was a bad ‘man’ and I was going to die if I didn’t stop writing about Mr. Malik.” Since then, a shot has been fired outside her house, and her husband and two young children left the country briefly for their own safety. For his part, Malik says bystanders in the community’s debates have nothing to fear, but those who speak out are “different.” Says Malik: “If somebody is going to take a stand, he will be criticized.”

Other prominent Canadian Sikhs acknowledge the struggle against violence and intimidation—and lament the price it has exacted. “There is fear in the community,” says B.C. Liberal MLA Sindi Hawkins. “The actions of a few taint the many.” Since 1998, however, spurred by revulsion over Hayer’s murder, many have had enough. It helps that in India, security forces have been reined in and concessions made to Sikh demands. In the Vancouver area, moderates have replaced conservatives in peaceful elections at temples. There and in Ontario, dissenters have abandoned contested temples to set up their own—like Dasmesh Darbar, where they may worship as they like.

Many younger Sikhs express pride in their faith but distaste for their elders’ politics. “Our generation is tired of the divisions,” says Jay Grewal, 18, a student in Delta, B.C. “It distracts from the real meaning of Sikhism.” Adds Jas Johal, a 29-year-old reporter at BCTV: “They should really be fighting over how to make the temple relevant to my generation.” Without steps to make the faith accessible to younger people, many of whom cannot understand Punjabi-only services, Johal warns, “they are going to lose the younger generation.”

But even among their elders, there is wide consensus on putting factionalism and violence behind them. Other cultural holdovers are proving more resistant. Five hundred years after the first guru abolished social castes, they continue to flourish. “Our faith is very influenced by Hinduism, which is fraught by the caste system,” says Manpreet Grewal. Most Sikhs in Canada are from the Jat, or landowning, caste and prefer to marry in that group. “Our religion tells us that everybody is equal," says social activist Raminder Dosanjh, the mother of three sons and Ujjal’s wife. “But when my brother married someone from a different caste, it bothered my mother very much.”

Arranged marriages are still common. In Canada, the process is often more liberalized—parents or their twenty-something children seek out companies such as Sanjog Marriage Services to make introductions to prospective spouses. Young people may also reject the match—once a taboo act of rebellion. Poet Phinder Dulai, 32, has been married to a Dutch-English woman for more than a decade. “It was tough on my parents,” he says. “It was a question of cultural identity for them. But we have to let go of feudal relations between women and men and caste politics.” Other politics, though, remain fair game. “This is an ambitious people,” says reporter Johal. “You’re going to see a Sikh premier, why not a Sikh prime minister?” It is a goal the gurus would energetically endorse.

An ardent adherent to Sikhism

In 1970, she was a flower-powered, 20-year-old university student trying to find a purpose in life. Then, she went to a yoga class and her teacher, Yogi Bhajan, turned her on to the joys of Sikhism. She embraced the humanistic principles of the religion and became an adherent, wearing a turban and changing her name to Guru Raj Kaur Khalsa (she is of Greek heritage but wont give her pre-Sikh name for spiritual reasons). She is known as a White Sikh—one of 24 in Vancouver—but she has strong ties to the Punjabi community. “White Sikhs tend to be more matriarchal than the Punjabis,” she says. “A lot of our leaders are women.” Khalsa, who teaches yoga, has even converted her garage into a temple, so she can pray whenever she feels the call.

A fighter wins a match out of the ring

Even with the headgear covering his turban, Pardeep Singh Nagra could hear the crowd’s taunts as he danced around the ring trying to elude the jabs of two-time Olympian Domenic Filane at the Canadian boxing championships last month. “Knock his beard off!” one man implored. Nagra, 29, lost the fight, but emerged with his dignity intact. Nine days before the bout, Nagra, the diversity relations officer at the University of Toronto, had won a court order against the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association, allowing him to box while keeping his beard. Nagra is honoured that his four-year battle against the federations rules (it claims facial hair is dangerous) follows Baltej Dhillon’s pioneering efforts to wear his turban as part of the RCMP uniform. “People who struggle to define themselves in the Canadian context define Canada,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the country.”

The devout diva

Monika Deol often wore form-fitting sexy outfits as the diva of MuchMusic and Citytv—epitomizing the glamorous, assimilated Sikh woman. So, many were surprised when, four years ago, she married Avtar Bains in a traditional Sikh ceremony. But Deol, who is in her early 30s, has always been quietly devout, wearing a kara, a steel bracelet, which is one of the five symbols of Sikhism. “My faith is about striving to be a decent person,” she says. Recently, Punjabi-born Deol gave up a Vancouver television job in order to stay home with her two young children—a third is on the way. Several times a year, she flies to her native Winnipeg to help her mother prepare the Ungar, a ritual lunch, in a local temple. “For Sikhs,” says Deol, “family is what life is all about.”