Indo-Canadian politicians after establishing their credibility at the community level, and now, on the basis of their track record, are emerging as a strong political entity with their growing presence on the provincial and federal stage. When Ontario goes to polls in first week of June, they will be major playmakers, says Prabhjot Singh*, holding their past record since their entry in provincial politics in British Columbia in 1986 has been a success story that every immigrant community across the globe should emulate.
After making a dent in the political scenario of the province of British Columbia in Canada in the early 80s when they sent Moe Sihota to the state legislature as an elected MLA on the New Democratic Party ticket, South Asian politicians have come a long way. They have not only scripted a success story but are a vibrant and rapidly growing political entity that has successfully spread its wings as both federal and provincial lawmaker.
Born in Duncan, Moe – Munmohan Singh – Sihota has been the second generation politician of Indian origin who served on BC Cabinet in different capacities before heading the BC NDP.
“Immigrants from South Asia take more interest in politics back home than flex their
political sinews in the new countries of their domicile. They, somehow, do not get assimilated in their new political environs.” This observation, made by one of the scholars-cum-writers on the Indian diaspora about 30 years ago, now needs to be revised.
The South Asian politicians are now more into the Canadian politics at all levels – from municipal to federal – than remaining involved in politics back home. Their diminishing interest in politics back home was evident from their token presence in the just concluded Punjab Vidhan Sabha elections that gave a landslide win to Aam Aadmi party with 92 of 117 seats.
South Asian immigrants now not only occupy 20 odd seats in House of Commons but also have one of them as the leader of a major federal party, the NDP. It is this leader, Jagmeet Singh, who earlier sat in the Ontario Provincial Parliament for nearly two terms, signed an agreement with the minority Liberal Government of Justin Trudeau to keep it in office till the completion of its term in 2024, for getting important demands of NDP, including free dental care, accepted.
What started as a single seat in the British Columbia Provincial Parliament in October 1986 has now spread to five Provincial Parliaments that have South Asian politicians as members. The latest on the list is Saskatchewan that had in 2020 elected its first ever Indo-Canadian Gary Grewal from Regina.
The South Asian politicians in general and Indo-Canadians in particular will now be sending 50-odd candidates for the ensuing elections to the Ontario Provincial Parliament in the first week of June. Besides representing the ruling Conservatives, they will also be contesting under the banners of Liberal, NDP, Green and other parties.
Interestingly, most of these candidates are not only second generation Canadians but are also well qualified professionals, including lawyers, teachers, nurses, engineers and social activists with degrees from top universities in Canada. Only a handful of first generation politicians will be in fray for the June polls.
The growth of Indo-Canadian politicians has been phenomenal. Fourteen years after Moe Sihota was elected to British Columbia Provincial Parliament, Ujjal Dosanjh earned the distinction of becoming the first Indo-Canadian to take oath as Premier of British Columbia.
The Indo-Canadian community, especially Punjabis, have, since then, not looked back.
Though initial political successes came in British Columbia under the banner of NDP, the South Asian politicians jumped on the Liberal band wagon for rapid strides in the Canadian politics.
The 1990 Calgary Convention of the Liberal Party, leading to the election of Jean Chretien as its leader, was a milestone, for it formed a solid, loyal voting block for the future Prime Minister of Canada. It was the first time the community organised itself as a political force.
Some still believe that the events back home in 1984 was a strong factor that mobilised small but highly vociferous community into a political group.
Now 30 years later, the Indo-Canadian community not only boasts of Indo-Canadian as Defence Ministers of Canada in Harjit Singh Sajjan or Anita Anand or a Punjabi as the first woman Leader of the House of Commons in Bardish Chagger or first Punjabi Premier of British Columbia in Ujjal Dosanjh but also several ministers starting with Herb Dhaliwal, Navdeep Bains, and Amarjit Sohi ; Gurbax Malhi, the first turbaned Sikh as Member of the House of Commons for five successive terms; and Grewals, Gurmant and wife Neena, as the first Punjabi couple in Parliament, but also several Punjabis sitting in Provincial Parliaments of Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In Ontario , Raminder Gill, who represented the Conservative Party, was one of pioneers of Punjabi politicians to be elected as a Member of the Provincial Parliament. Since then, the number of Punjabi politicians as MPPs (Members of Provincial Parliament or MLAs in common parlance) has been growing with every election.
Dr Gulzar Cheema has the distinction of sitting in both Manitoba and British Columbia Provincial Parliaments.
Besides the 1990 Calgary convention of the Liberals, the emergence of this new phenomenon of ethno-politics in Canada is also linked more to the election of three Indo-Canadians to the House of Commons in 1993 — Herb Dhaliwal, Gurbax Singh Malhi and Jag Bhaduria — it has been gradually gaining ground to what the Canadian media used to describe as the “apna factor”, symbolising a movement that was gaining strength using the “block voting” technique.
Arguments given in favour of the “apna factor” and “block voting” techniques were substantiated by the fact that most of the political success stories, for example in Ontario, came from the suburbs of major cities like Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough of the Greater Toronto Area. It is true that not many politicians of South Asian origin have won from the main cities. But things are changing.
Late Deepak Obhrai, who won from Calgary East for a record number of times, used to attribute the influence of the Indo-Canadian community to a passion for politics that he believed was rooted in a movement that led to India’s Independence from Britain in 1947.
It is pertinent to mention here that Kamagata Maru or the Ghadar Movement, too, took off from the shores of British Columbia in Canada, the region from where the battle for political recognition began. The then Indo-Canadians or Indian immigrants worked as lumberjacks
and participated in development projects, before getting together and heading homewards to get their motherland freed.
It was argued that the freedom movement galvanised the whole nation as every cross-section of society was involved. It infused Indians with an intense interest in politics that is still palpable in the Indo-Canadian community, which has been called the “most politically active ethnic group in Canada now.”
Interestingly, the Indo-Canadian community mostly supported the NDP in British Columbia in provincial elections. It also ensured that Sukh Dhaliwal now and Herb Dhaliwal earlier retain their seat in the House of Commons as Liberals. In Alberta, the Indo-Canadian community, though small in number, elected more Reform or Conservative MPs. In Ontario, initially they used to go with Liberals in Federal elections but gradually started supporting Conservatives also. It has supported both Liberals and Conservatives in the provincial elections.
That diversity of view is seen at the elected level, where there are MPPs or MPs with the Reform, Liberals, NDP and Conservative parties. Some former Canadian MPs of Punjabi origin, including Gurbax Malhi, used to attribute the success of Indo-Canadian politicians to timing rather than to the “apna factor”. They argued that Indo-Canadian politicians had spent many years in establishing their credibility at the community level, and now on the basis of their track record, they are getting widespread voter support to jump to the provincial or federal stage.
-To be concluded
* Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit probingeye.com or follow him on Twitter.com/probingeye