In the world of Canadian realpolitik, Sikh organizers can mean the difference between winning and losing a leadership or an urban nomination battle.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published on Monday, February 26, 2018 in The Hill Times.
OTTAWA—Most Canadians don’t know a kirpan from Khalistan.
But in the world of Canadian realpolitik, Sikh organizers can mean the difference between winning and losing a leadership or an urban nomination battle.
Contrary to popular belief, the Sikh community in Canada is not a homogeneous block. Competing, and sometimes violent differences divide religious ideologues who want to separate from India and secular Sikhs who do not believe in a mix of religion and politics.
Navigating these troubled waters can be treacherous. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got an up-front and personal dose of Indo-reality last week when one of his own members of parliament unwisely secured a high-profile invitation to a private function for a convicted Sikh terrorist.
That mistake dwarfed a highly successful tour of India by the prime minister and his family, amid some criticism of the local garb worn at multiple occasions.
Those who complained about clothing choices fail to realize that this kind of a trip is as much for domestic Canadian consumption as it is for building ties with the world’s most populous democracy.
Every Canadian politician worth their salt in the past five decades has reached out to the growing Indo-Canadian population, in an effort to curry votes and favour. A trip to India is one solid way of connecting with an uber-political diaspora back in Canada.
That comes with its own potential dangers.
Back in 1990, Liberal leadership candidate Paul Martin courted the International Sikh Youth Foundation in support of his own leadership ambitions.
The ISYF, which had been cited as a terrorist group by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, was banned in June 2003 by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien.
Sikhs in Canada are a powerful force because they are highly organized and very political. Politicians ignore them at their peril.
But the split in Sikh politics also runs very deep.
Former New Democratic Party premier of British Columbia Ujjal Dosanjh was hospitalized after an attack by Sikh extremists. He subsequently served as a Liberal minister in the Martin government, and continues to tweet on the issue of Khalistan extremism.
Last week, he was particularly critical of the prime minster, tweeting: “It is Trudeau and other politicians playing footsie with elements in Canada that want o (sic) dismember India. Free speech yes but not standing with elements that want to divide India. Superiority of democracy has very thin veneer!”
He went on to decry the invitation (subsequently rescinded) of a convicted terrorist in this tweet “Do we have no shame? Khalistan has seeped deep into the veins of this administration.”
Trudeau and his ministers will argue otherwise. All Indo-Canadian federal ministers have repudiated separatist connections and focus their attention on building strong links between the Indian and Canadian governments.
During his trip, Trudeau took great pains to distance himself from claims that his government was cozying up to terrorists. He made a special point of meeting the Punjabi chief minister to assuage fears that Canadian government representatives were soft on Indian separatists.
The good news for Trudeau is that, once the initial heat dies down, the issue of India will not likely dominate the news.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh has also been accused in the media, and on Twitter, of harbouring separatist intentions for Khalistan. Five years ago, he was denied a visa to India, reportedly because of statements critical of India’s treatment of Sikhs and other minorities.
Singh also understands the power of Punjabi politics in Canada. He vaulted to the front of the pack in the NDP leadership race, largely on the basis of membership sales in Indo-dominated ridings in the GTA and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
Support can also come with a price.
When Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff squared off in the 2006 Liberal leadership that elected Stéphane Dion, Rae was asked to sign a pro-Khalistan statement in return for a block of votes.
To his credit, he refused, and that decision likely cost him the leadership.
In the end, Rae kept his integrity but lost the Liberal race.
In the perilous world of Punjabi politics in Canada, the way to the finish line is riddled with potential landmines.
Trudeau stepped on one last week.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.