Monday, October 25, 1999

Oct. 25, 1999. Alberta Report on Indo-Canadians in BC politics

Alberta Report, Oct 25, 1999 v26 i40 p24
Have vote, will travel.(influence of Indo-Canadians in politics)(Statistical Data Included). O'NEILL, TERRY.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 United Western Communications

Non-aligned Indo-Canadians become B.C.'s leading political power brokers

Canadians of East Indian ethnic origin comprise less than than 2% of the country's population, according to Statistics Canada. In British Columbia the proportion is twice as high, but still relatively small. The 1996 census found just 141,000 of the province's 3.7 million residents to be of East Indian origin.

Nevertheless, despite their modest share of the population, Indo-Canadians are playing a pivotal role in B.C. civic and provincial politics this fall. And while it is true that tightly organized groups of ethnic voters--including Irish Catholic voters in the U.S. northeast beginning last century--have long wielded remarkable influence in North American politics, the rapid emergence of the Indo-Canadian bloc in B.C. is raising new and troubling questions. Indeed, some prominent Indo-Canadians are worried the increased politicization could exacerbate already-bitter religious tensions within the Sikh community. Other observers are concerned that one large and well-organized interest group can so easily manipulate the political system.

The latter fear was fuelled when a prominent ethnic journalist, Indo-Canadian Link founder Promod Pun of Vancouver, wrote a late-September editorial describing Indo-Canadians as "the Kingmaker Community." After listing examples of Indo-Canadians' successful involvement in provincial and federal politics (such as their "crucial" role in supporting Jean Chretien at the 1990 Liberal leadership convention in Calgary and their electoral support of B.C. Reform MP Gurmant Grewal), Mr. Puri disclosed that members of his community unapologetically manipulate the country's party system to their advantage. "The Indo-Canadian community's political involvement cuts party lines whereby one can hold membership in NDP, Liberal, Reform and Conservative parties simultaneously," he declared. "It may look strange that there's no respect for political ideologies, but for these multi-faceted political activists, commitment is more toward individual candidates rather than with any party."

Mr. Pun continued by declaring he and other Indo-Canadian activists consider all political parties in this country to be the same. "Parties are just the different brand labels, otherwise the contents inside are the same," he wrote. "The Indo-Canadian membership knows that, and that is one reason it's playing its roles in all the political outfits."

Those roles have been significant of late. In the sprawling B.C. municipality of Surrey, for example, a little-known civil engineer named Sukh Dhaliwal burst into the news last month after he managed to sign up 2,600 Indo-Canadians for membership in the powerful Surrey Electors Team' (SET), whose candidates comprise the majority of council and school board members. With so much support, the 38-year-old immigrant became a de facto king-maker at SET's recent nomination meeting, but it was a power he did not wield other than to ensure he personally won a nomination for council. Nevertheless, his success, combined with the failure of incumbent school trustee Gary Tymoschuk (who did not court Indo-Canadian support) to win a nomination, underscored the importance of the Indo-Canadian vote not only in the nomination process but in the November elections.

At the provincial level, prospective New Democratic Party leadership candidates have been working assiduously to sign up new members in the Sikh community. Armed with the fact each group of 25 new members allows a riding to elect one extra delegate to the February convention, workers for leadership hopefuls Moe Sihota and Ujjal Dosanjh--both of whom are Sikh cabinet ministers--are reported to have signed more than 2,000 new members. Mr. Dosanjh's team has gained support with Sikh moderates, while Mr. Sihota's backers, who include fellow Sikh cabinet minister Harry Lali, are courting militant fundamentalists who back independence for the Khalistan region of India and oppose the use of tables and chairs in temples. Both issues have sparked violence in temples in recent years.

The fear is that the leadership race will make the problem even worse. "This thing will divide our community more," Sikh historian Sohan Singh Sangha told the Vancouver Sun. "This is doing much more bad to our community than good." It is a problem that also concerns commentator Manpreet Grewal. Writing in the Sun, she said the "extreme factions" within the Sikh community have clearly targeted Mr. Dosanjh, who was once beaten by militant fundamentalists for speaking against Sikh separatist violence. "The second step is for his opponents to actually play that card and fuel that sentiment," she wrote. "Sihota's presence at temples and radio stations connected to those [extreme] factions alludes to the fact that the card is indeed being played. A community exhausted with the temple leadership feuds knows how dangerous that game can be. Those feuds have a violent, vicious history and Dosanjh was once a victim."

Editorialist Pun did not address the possibility the NDP leadership race will ignite more Sikh violence, but he did acknowledge the importance of the Indo-Canadian vote in the race. "The reason for the current hot NDP leadership controversy is largely due to the overwhelming membership drive within the Sikh community," he wrote, "and that has instantly put the community in the driver's seat to pick the party's next leader and B.C.'s next premier."

Mr. Puri was also forthright in explaining how politics within the temple and politics in the broader community are intertwined. As Indo-Canadians' influence in the selection of candidates grows, Sikh "temples play the most significant part," he said. "And that explains why controlling the leadership in these institutions is both prestigious and influential for political reasons."

Curiously, neither the mainstream media nor most opinion leaders have criticized this unabashed mixing of religion and politics. "It's because of the liberal media's bent," says Stephen Harper of Calgary, president of the National Citizens' Coalition. "Somebody pointed out to me quite rightly that the concerns about the involvement of activist Christians in U.S. politics did not arise until it was the religious right. When it was liberal Christians pursuing their agenda under Jimmy Carter, everything was all right."

Similarly, opinion leaders in Canada raise no objections when left-wing activists in the United Church involve themselves in NDP politics, but regularly fume against involvement of evangelicals in moderate or conservative parties. This openly double standard is again apparent in the lack of criticism of the Sikhs, Mr. Harper suggests.

More troubling to him is Mr. Puri's admission that Indo-Canadians have no particular party loyalty. He says the implementation of a formal voter-registration system, as is in place in U.S. primaries, might solve the problem. "That said, I point my finger at political parties that have refused to be vehicles for coherent policies," says the former Reform MP. Canadian political leaders such as Preston Manning suggest their parties are "a Coca-Cola or a Pepsi, 'and anyone can drink from us.' And then they're shocked when they find out their core has stopped supporting them." The Sikh community has simply been "the most pragmatic in embracing this reality. I don't like it, but I'm not going to blame them for doing this. The parties have asked for it."

Similarly, Surrey school board chairwoman Heather Stilwell, a Catholic who is also leader of the socially conservative Family Coalition Party of B.C., does not blame Sikhs for organizing along ethnic and religious lines. The real problem is that more people do not get involved in politics, especially social conservatives. "You can't get them out and they won't join," Mrs. Stilwell says. "I find it extremely difficult to be critical of the Sikhs or anybody who gets out and gets organized." On the other hand, most Canadians "are just so reluctant to join anything. We want to whine about politicians, but we don't want to get out and work and get involved."

While Mrs. Stilwell is not troubled by Sikh political activism, University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff is critical of their multi-party memberships and their stated lack of political ideology. "My main thought is that it kind of undermines the opportunity that B.C. has to build an open multicultural society," Professor Ruff explains. "Mobilizing people purely on ethnic lines undermines the possibilities of the new demographics of B.C. Rather than building bridges, it builds up walls and, potentially, breeds hostility between groups."

He predicts major social and political changes will occur within the province over the next 15 years because of the massive influx of immigrants, but the direction of that change is uncertain. "There's a potential to build something positive out of this," he says, "but unless you handle it right, there's racism on both sides that could potentially undermine everything."

Ethnic Origin
Overall British Isles East Indian
Pop. of Canada 28,846,761 10,647,625 548,080
Pop. of B.C. 3,724,500 1,779,120 141,370
SOURCE: 1996 Census, Statistics Canada