People of the Indian origin are doing well in politics in different parts of the world, particularly in Canada. N. Ramgoolam in Mauritius, Basudev Pande in Trinidad, Mahinder Chaudhary in Fiji, S.R. Nathan in Singapore and Ujjal Dosanjh in British Columbia, Canada, are some of them who have made it to the top in the political arena in their country.
In Canadian politics, Indo-Canadians add to its presence at the national as well as at the provincial level. They are a vibrant and vital part of particularly Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton occupying prominent positions in academia, business, politics, legal, medical and other professions, besides forming a key component of the labor force.
As many as, approximately 950,000 Indo-Canadians (Census 2001) form a veritable multicultural society within the Canadian mosaic, drawn from far-flung lands, bringing a fascinating mix of languages, religions and cultures. They have come a long way from 1897, when Sikh soldiers, then a part of the British Army, passed through Canada en route to India from London, where they had participated in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Their stories of this gorgeous land led to 45 Indians in 1904 becoming the first immigrants from the Indian sub-continent.
In 1907 the B.C. legislature disenfranchised all "natives of India not of Anglo-Saxon parents" and barred them from logging on Crown lands and entering the legal and medical professions. The racist atmosphere was highlighted by the infamous Kamagata Maru incident in 1914, when a Japanese freighter carrying 376 Indians anchored in Burrard Inlet on May 23. Most of the passengers were denied entry and forced to depart on July 23.
It was only in 1947 that Indo-Canadians were given the right to vote.
Thus, the political leaders of the Indian origin in Canada rose from the grassroots with no mentor to help them in scaling the political ladder.
The study states, though only 35 per cent of the total Indian immigrants in Canada are Punjabis, yet in the political arena they are the leaders. The numbers have given, particularly the Sikh community, political clout. All are well-established businessmen or professionals. In Canada, they first acquired economic prosperity and then endeavoured for political power. They are in almost all major political parties except Bloc Quebecois. Their entry to the Canadian politics goes back to late 1970s when a few of them contested municipal elections. Tom Gil, in Surrey, is one of the first Indo-Canadian’s to become a Counsel Member. Their actual rise in Canadian politics was in 1993. During the 90s their presence in provincial and local politics was being felt.
It did not come as a surprise that it was in the province of British Columbia in Canada that Indo-Canadians made a dent in the political scenario in the year 1986 when they sent Moe Sihota to the state legislature as an elected MLA on the New Democratic Party ticket. The young lawyer also became the first Indo-Canadian person to become a Minister.
The Indo-Canadian community, especially Punjabis, have, since then, not looked back.
Though, it was an Ismali Murad Velshi, Liberal, who crashed into the provincial Parliament in 1987 after an unsuccessful run in the 1981 elections. Velshi sailed through on the tidal wave of David Peterson’s Liberals, drowning the ruling Tories in Ontario.
In 1991 as many as four Indo-Canadian MLAs were elected: Moe Sihota, Ujjal Dosanjh (NDP--Vancouver Kensington), who was appointed attorney general, has been a pioneer in the union movement. Harry Singh Lali (ND--Yale-Lillooet) and Judy Tyabji (Liberal--Okanagan East), who later along with former Liberal leader Gordon Wilson (whom she married in 1994) formed the Progressive Democratic Alliance Party. One of the former MLA’s Patty Sahota also belonged to the Liberal party in BC.
The province of British Columbia has the largest number of successful Indo-Canadian politicians in the country.
Its present Legislature has 8 MLA’s of Indian origin in the House of 79. One woman, Sindi Hawkins, Hon. Wally Oppal, Rob Nijar, Dave S. Hayer, Raj Chohan, Karan Manhas (Liberals), Jagrup Brar, Harry Bains ( both NDP), were elected to the legislature Assembly in May, 2005.
In the Province of Alberta there are 3 Indo-Canadian MLAs; Dr. Raj Pannu (NDP), Shiraz Shariff (Conservative) and Bharat Agnihotri (Liberal). It was here that another Indo-Canadian, Dr. Cheema (now active in the B.C. Liberal Party) broke political ground a few years ago. A former professor at the U of A, Dr. Pannu was elected president of the Alberta NDP for a number of years.
Ontario, the biggest province of Canada, has also returned 3 Indo Canadian MLA’s; Kuldip Kular, Harinder S. Takhar, Minister for Transportation, and Vic Dhillon. All of them belong to the Liberal party. Former PC Party MLA Raminder Gill couldn’t succeed in the last federal election. While, in the province of Manitoba both the MLA’s – Bidhu Jha and Mohinder Singh Saran – are from NDP. Gulzar Singh Cheema who was first elected as a Manitoba MLA in 1988, afterwards became MLA in British Columbia.
THE FIRST INDO-CANADIAN PREMIER
The election of Ujjal Dosanjh as the Premier of the Canadian Province of British Columbia (B.C.) in the year 2000 was a landmark event for the Indian diaspora in Canada. Dosanjh himself made the trip from Dosanjh Kallan village near Phagwara in Punjab in 1964 at the age of 17 to England. Four years later, he reached B.C.
No doubt, Dosanjh’s success has helped South Asians gain acceptance in the larger context of mainstream Canadian politics, but sadly enough he left NDP and joined the ruling federal Liberal party of Canada. Later on, he was made Health Minister in the Ministry of Paul Martin.We all know, Dosanjh remained a staunch progressive leader during his thirty year’s of political career. He fought narrow sectarian politics and communal groups with the best of his capacity. It was quite astonishing and unfortunate on his part to repeat the episode of Aaya Ram and Gaya Ram of Indian politics. Taking to his example, now it has become normal for other Indo- Canadian politicians to dump their original party and sup with another which offers them greener pastures.
Since all parties have benefited from such clandestine transfers, they cannot really be expected to join hands in rooting out defections. Nor have all the presiding officers turned out to be paragons of neutrality. Everything boils down to the conscience of the legislators which, unfortunately, happens to be highly malleable and totally untrustworthy.
For the Indo-Canadian community, 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 organized itself as a political force.
Indo-Canadians made their debut in federal politics in 1993, when Herb Dhaliwal was elected as a Liberal in Vancouver South and became a parliamentary secretary. Dhaliwal was also appointed Federal Minister.
Besides Herb Dhaliwal, Keith Martin (Anglo-Indian), Jag Bhaduria, Raminder Gill, Gurmant Grewal, Gurbux Singh Malhi, Deepak Obhrai, Rahim Jaffer, Navdeep Bains, Sukh Dhaliwal, Ruby Dhalla, Wajid Khan, Yasmin Ratnasi and Neena Grewal, from time to time, were elected to the Federal Parliament.
If we look at the background of these successful Indo-Canadian politicians, Ujjal Dosanjh is a professional lawyer; Gurmant Grewal an MBA; Raminder Gill is from the travel trade; Herb Dhaliwal is a businessman, while both Deepak Obhrai and Rahim Jaffer are qualified professionals. Gurbax Malhi has been into real estate, a profession in which Indo-Candians have done exceedingly well in Canada.
At present, there are ten MPs, and 16 members of legislative assemblies in provinces and some members of different city councils from the Indian origin. Though they have significantly climbed the ladder of political power yet their participation and share in politics are not in proportion to their population in Canada.
Today, there are core Indo-Canadians groups in all the major parties and more and more of them are taking to politics. In many ridings they are pitted against each other – an indication that Indo-Canadian’s vote on mainstream policy issues rather than solely on community based considerations. This certainly is a sign of their political maturity. Persistence and patience along with ideological commitment is needed to keep the Indo-Canadian presence alive in politics and greater success is bound to follow.
Though the emergence of this new phenomenon of ethno-politics in Canada is linked more to the election of four Indo-Canadians to the House of Commons in 1993, it has been gradually gaining ground to what the Canadian media has described as the apna factor (our man), symbolizing a movement that is gaining strength using the "block voting" technique.
Encouraged by the electoral breakthroughs, most of the ethnic groups, including Indo-Canadian candidates, literally pigeonhole themselves into a particular community. Then, deciding to run from the party of their choice, they would seek the support of their near-dears (actually termed as group). After that, as it is a known story, they sign instant members in bulk (paying the membership fee from their pockets) to stack-out
nomination meetings, and win power by force of numbers. Rules are so liberal that the "block-voting" technique is working with a great success.
Similarly, there has been an increasing incidence of takeovers of constituency associations by means of large scale signing up of new members. In this manner, people from closely knit communities whether religious, ethnic or other, can achieve a degree of influence over the selection of candidates that is disproportionate to their presence in the community ( I am a witness to all this sordid political game during the last decade, particularly in Edmonton South). The worry is that the ethnic factor is dividing people in parties along communal lines. This also results in distortion of democracy. We need the second-generation Canadians to join the political process. Hope, they bring in a different type of politics based on principles. Besides, since they have grown up here, they are totally in tune with Canada. Of course they can bring some of their South Asian culture of which there is so much to learn.
PASSION FOR POLITICS
The influence of the Indo-Canadian community is due to a passion for politics that is rooted in a movement that led to India’s Independence from Britain in 1947. It is pertinent to mention here that Kamagatamaru or the Ghadar Movement, too, took off from the shores of British Columbia in Canada. he freedom movement galvanized 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 has mostly supported the NDP in British Columbia in provincial elections. It has also ensured that they retain the maximum seats in the House of Commons as Liberals. In Alberta, the Indo-Canadian community, though small in number, elected two Conservative MPs, but in the provincial assembly they are represented by a Liberal, a New Democrat and a Conservative. In Ontario, they went with Liberals in Federal elections and have now elected Raminder Gill as their MP from the Conservative Party.
Besides these successful Indo-Canadian politicians, there are several others who just missed making it to Federal Parliament or the House of Commons or state legislatures. For example, in Edmonton, Tim Uppal, Amarjeet Grewal, Indira Saroya, CKS Sagoo and Sital Nanuan are active in the federal politics, while Sukhi Randhawa, Naresh Bhardwaj, Gurnam Dodd, Peter Sandhu, Sandeep Chaudhry, Aman Gill and certainly a dozen more are very much alive in the provincial politics. Similarly, dozens of Indo-Canadian candidates, all over Canada, are vying to be a MP, MLA or a City Councillor, if and when opportunity arises. But, sadly enough, most of them don’t bother about any socio-political program or an ideological commitment.
It took Indo-Canadians a century to arrive on Canada’s political scene. But, now with a good number of MPs and MLAs they are a part of the decision-making process of the future of this great country. Their assimilation in the mainstream politics is very necessary. They have a role to play and Canada is a country where they can do so.