The Indian connection

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

The Indian diaspora adds to its presence in Canadian politics at the national as well as at the provincial level.

THE election of Ujjal Dosanjh as the Premier of the Canadian Province of British Columbia (B.C.) is a landmark event for the Indian diaspora in Canada. Dosanjh's recent victory at the leadership convention of the governing New Democratic Party (NDP) in B .C. also marked a triumph of the political efforts of the local Sikh community.

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. The first five Sikhs came to the picturesque province in 1904. Today, more than 400,000 Indians, most ly Punjabi-speaking and Sikhs, are spread throughout B.C. A huge Indian population resides in Vancouver and its outskirts and in the growing city of Surrey.

The numbers have given the Sikh community political clout. As the NDP convention showed, the Indo-Canadian vote is significant not only at the provincial level but also at the federal level. All the four major political groups - Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Reformists, the last mentioned a new one - seek the Indo-Canadian vote.

So it did not come as a surprise that it was in B.C. that Indo-Canadians broke political ground with the election of Manmohan (Moe) Sihota to the legislature in 1986. The young lawyer also became the first Indo-Canadian person to become a Minister. The h onour had eluded Dosanjh, who lost elections in 1979 and 1983. He did not contest the 1986 election, but tried his luck again in 1991 and succeeded. Nine years on, Dosanjh heads the government. He now seems to be the NDP's best bet for the next election as well. Meanwhile, Sihota has fallen behind in the race. Nothing signifies the antagonisms prevailing among the Indo-Canadian people here than the enmity between Sihota and Dosanjh.

THE political rise of Dosanjh is seen as proof of the political potency of Indo-Canadians not only in B.C. but across Canada. If Indo-Canadians were proud of the success of another Sikh, Harbance (Herb) Dhaliwal, who was appointed Federal Minister severa l years ago and continues to serve in Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Cabinet, the provincial success of Dosanjh can only further future political hopes.

Indeed, B.C. has the largest number of successful Indo-Canadian politicians in the country. One woman, Sindi Hawkins (Liberal) is in the legislature, and Gurmant Grewal (Reform) is in Parliament.

A question mark hangs on Chretien's future. Will he continue as Prime Minister or quit to pave the way for young blood? Finance Minister Paul Martin is waiting in the wings and he has started to lure the Liberal heavyweight of B.C. Prem Vinning, a staunc h Chretien supporter, into his camp. Vinning has not publicly come out in favour of Martin, but Vinning's lieutenant Sukhi Sandhu was responsible for holding a big fund-raiser for Martin recently.

If Vinning is seen as the deliverer of Sikh votes in B.C., Gary Singh, an investment broker and long-time Liberal member, is seen in the same role in Ontario. Gary is a committed Martin supporter. Ontario, however, has been a good political playground fo r Indo-Canadians at the provincial level. It was an Ismali Murad Velshi who crashed into the provincial Parliament in 1987 after an unsuccessful run in the 1981 elections. Velshi, a travel business owner, who made enough dough in his bakery business in S outh Africa, sailed through on the tidal wave of David Peterson's Liberals, drowning the ruling Tories.

It took another 12 years for an Indo-Canadian, Raminder Gill, to occupy a seat in Parliament, riding a Tory wave.

Gill, now a parliamentary assistant, short of a Minister's post, was also largely helped in the heavily Sikh-populated constituency, part of which is known as Little Punjab, and forms the parliamentary constituency of twice-elected MP Gurbux Singh Malhi (Liberal). Gill, a Sikh, defeated two Indo-Canadians, Dave Toor (Liberal), also a Sikh and son of former Punjab MLA Gurdeep Singh, and Vishu Roche (NDP), a Sindhi.

One redeeming feature of the last elections in Ontario was that at least 11 South Asians, two of Pakistani origin, one Sri Lankan Tamil woman candidate, Janaki Balasubramanian (NDP), making her second attempt, and the rest Indo-Canadians, were in the fra y. Only Gill was victorious. Besides Grewal, Dhaliwal and Malhi, two more Indo-Canadians from Alberta, Ramesh Obhrai and Rahim Jaffer (both Reform), are in the Federal Parliament.

The Province of Manitoba also has an Indo-Canadian MLA, Raj Pannu, and it was here that another Indo-Canadian, Dr. Cheema (now active in the B.C. Liberal Party) broke political ground a few elections ago. Janaki says that Dosanjh's success will help Sout h Asians gain acceptancy in the larger context of mainstream Canadian politics. There are core South Asian groups in all the major parties and more and more Indo-Canadians are taking to politics. Persistence and patience is needed to keep the Indo-Canadi an presence alive in politics and greater success is bound to follow.

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