Federal Election 2015: Questions & Issues Guide
The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in 1984 as a national body, with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of the Canadian Sikhs, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights of all individuals, irrespective of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status.
With the Canadian federal election campaign now well underway, Canadian Sikhs are deciding which candidates and parties to support. Like other Canadians, issues such as the economy, the environment and poverty are of great interest this election. The major parties continue to address these concerns through their party platforms and during debates. There are, however, issues of special concern to Canadian Sikhs that do not receive as much consideration. In order to draw attention to these issues and understand where the parties stand, we are putting the below seven questions (along with a brief backgrounder to each question) to the four major parties and encourage Canadian Sikhs to do the same.
Issue 1: "Secularism" in Canada
The meaning of 'secularism' in Canadian society has recently been hotly debated. What do you feel are the reasonable limits to freedom of religion and what role does the government play in this process?
The issue of freedom of religion in Canadian society is of particular concern to the Sikh community and other religious minorities in Canada.
Practicing Sikhs are enjoined by their faith to wear articles of faith such as uncut hair covered by a turban at all times. As such, the practice of the faith cannot be limited or restricted to within the home or behind closed doors.
With the introduction of Quebec's "Charter of Values" and debates over religious accommodation (such as with respect to the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies), serious questions have been raised with respect to the limits of freedom of religion in Canadian society. The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled on the Loyola case (in which WSO was an intervener) that was in part focused on questions of secularism and reasonable accommodation.
While Canada has a liberal tradition of accommodating religious diversity in the public sphere, arguments have been made that limits must be imposed on visible markers of religious identity.
Issue 2: Canadian Immigration Policy
There has been a perceived shift in immigration to Canada in which family class immigration has become less of a priority with a preference for economic class immigrants. What are your views on the direction Canadian immigration should be moving? What steps can be taken to ensure new immigrants are able to make the best use of their training and skills upon arrival?
In 2013, family class immigration accounted for 79,684 entries, whereas the economic class accounted for 148,181 entries. While limits have been placed on parental sponsorships, strong programs have been introduced to encourage foreign students to study in Canada and apply for permanent resident status after graduation. On January 1st, 2015, the new Express Entry immigration system was implemented. The Express Entry system invites candidates for entry into Canada to send in a job application describing their education, work experience, qualifications and fluency in English. This policy is a continuation of the general trend to allow economic class immigrants over family class immigrants by treating applicants as job candidates.
Foreign credential recognition also remains a major issue with many highly skilled professional arriving in Canada and being unable to pursue their chosen careers.
Issue 3: Canada's Refugee System
Recent changes to the Canadian refugee system have arguably made Canada less hospitable to those who are most in need of assistance and care. With refugee crises around the world, particularly in Syria but also for other groups such as Sikhs in Afghanistan, what steps would you take to ensure Canada remains a safe haven for refugees?
Canada is known as a refuge for those persecuted around the world. Many Sikhs fled human rights abuses in India during the 1980s and 90s and made Canada home. Currently, the Sikh community in Afghanistan is facing persecution and hardship resulting in the exodus of the community. There have been calls for Canada to accept Afghan Sikh refugees.
We believe that recent reforms to the Canadian refugee system have however, made Canada less hospitable for refugee claimants.
The WSO believes that the introduction of the designated country of origin (DCO) list and decreased protections for refugee applicants from designated countries is harmful and unfortunate. It is unclear how countries are chosen for addition to the list and how they can be removed if the situation in the country changes.
The irregular arrival designation of any group of two or more claimants who arrive together, be it by land, sea or air is also problematic as they are subject to immediate and mandatory detention without any possibility of review for 12 months. No exceptions are made for women or children, although the minister has the discretion to allow release in “exceptional circumstances. Designated claimants also cannot apply for permanent residence for five years and are unable to sponsor and be reunited with their families.
Issue 4: Oversight of Security and Intelligence Bodies
Do Canadian security and intelligence bodies have enough review and oversight? If not, what would you do differently?
Bill C-51 granted increased powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), including powers to preemptively disrupt and criminalize the advocacy and encouragement of “terrorism offences in general."
Concerns have been raised that the increased grant of powers should be accompanied by increased oversight and review. While SIRC currently has a mandate to review CSIS activity, it has been argued that it does not have the resources to do so. Furthermore, there are more than 20 other federal agencies and departments that perform a national security function but do not fall under the watch of SIRC. In addition, Canada is the only country amongst its allies that does not have a parliamentary or congressional review mechanism.
Issue 5: Accommodation of the Turban on Worksites
Similar to the UK, where turbaned Sikh workers are accommodated on construction and low risk work sites, would your government be willing to create an exemption for turbaned Sikhs under the Canada Labour Code?
The turban is an important Sikh article of faith. For Sikhs, the wearing of the turban is a public demonstration of belief in the Sikh faith and a dedication to the values of equality and spirituality. It is a sign of devoutness and dedication. Approximately 35-40% of all Sikh men in Canada wear turbans habitually as a matter of religious observance.
There is no substitute for the Sikh turban. More importantly, it is the common Sikh belief that nothing can or should be worn over the turban.
Sikhs have worked in industries such as manufacturing, construction and timber for decades while wearing their turbans and informal arrangements are regularly made to accommodate them, although incidents also regularly come to our attention where employers refuse to provide an accommodation.
Earlier this year, the UK Employment Act was amended so as to prove an accommodation to turbaned Sikh workers at all workplaces, subject to certain conditions (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/20/section/6/enacted).
Issue 6: Intimidation of Canadian Sikhs by Indian Officials
Many members of the Canadian Sikh community, including current and former elected officials, have been denied visas to visit India due to their having spoken out about human rights abuses in India. These Canadian Sikhs are added to a "black list" of Canadian Sikhs who are not permitted to visit family and friends in India due to having exercised their Canadian right of freedom of expression. What role can Canada play to ensure that Canadian Sikhs are not unfairly denied visas to India and are not pressured into silence?
Members of the Canadian Sikh community have faced ongoing pressure and coercion by Indian officials in Canada. In 2011, prominent Canadian Punjabi media personality Prof. Gurvinder Singh Dhaliwal was denied a visa to India. Similarly, elected Canadian-Sikh politicians, including sitting Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, have been denied visas to India due to their criticism of India's human rights record. Many other Sikhs who wish to visit their families in India are either restricted from doing so due to a "blacklist" or forced to sign documents affirming their commitment to India's "territorial integrity" and agreeing to remain silent on India's human rights record.
Many Canadian Sikhs have also been threatened with being added to India’s “blacklist". There are many examples of individuals being intimidated in this manner in both Vancouver and Toronto. Being included on India’s blacklist has serious implications for Canadian Sikhs such as being cut off from visiting loved ones and family in India and, in some cases, having their family members become the target of harassment and intimidation by Indian security forces.
The rejection of a visa to Canadian Sikhs is unfortunate given India and Canada’s growing bilateral ties. These visa rejections appear to be based primarily on the exercising of freedom of speech that is a right of all Canadian citizens.
We would note that in May 2010, the Indian government raised serious concerns with Canada with respect to the decision of our visa officers to deny visas to certain members of India’s civil service and security forces due to their alleged involvement and/or complicity in human rights violations and abuses,.
Issue 7: India's Human Rights Record
How can the federal government encourage the Government of India (and other foreign governments) to improve human rights in India and hold the those responsible for human rights abuses, such as those that took place during the November 1984 Sikh Genocide, accountable?
Although Indian Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh acknowledged that the November 1984 massacres of Sikhs across India were " not [a] riot, it was genocide instead" those responsible for the killings have not been brought to justice. India is a signatory to and has ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which recognizes genocide as an international crime and obligates signatories to prevent and punish actions of genocide. While recognition of 1984 as a genocide was a welcome and necessary first step, the government of India must now pursue investigations and prosecutions of those involved.
Furthermore, under the Modi government in India, According to Dr. John Dayal, a member of the Indian government's National Integration Council and former National President of the India Catholic Union, violence against religious minorities, and Christians most specifically, has increased "exponentially" since the election of the BJP. He further alleges that much of the violence has been incited by the RSS and other radical Hindu organizations.
 Ibid at 4.