Georgia Straight: Balpreet Singh: World Sikh Organization's parliamentary dinner encourages others to follow our example

While it might not seem unusual for Canadian MPs to dine with an Indian human-rights lawyer, the World Sikh Organization’s annual parliamentary dinner this Wednesday (June 1) says much about what a remarkable country Canada is.


By Balpreet Singh

While it might not seem unusual for Canadian MPs to dine with an Indian human-rights lawyer, the World Sikh Organization’s annual parliamentary dinner this Wednesday (June 1) says much about what a remarkable country Canada is.

We’re a disparate collection of people from a variety of cultural traditions who are free to debate views, question common beliefs, and challenge authority. And in the end, the only place anyone dies is at the ballet box.

Now in its 27th year, the WSO’s parliamentary dinner began in response to a human-rights atrocity in India. In the early 1980s, Sikhs in Punjab were agitating for more influence in India’s federalism, much the way Quebec had been pressuring for greater power within Confederation.

Like French Canadians, Indian Sikhs were backing up their views with the threat of separatism. But unlike Canada, where the decades-long wrangling had led to more talk and table-thumping, the Indian government of the day saw a threat to its power, which led to some citizen-thumping.

In an act that India Today magazine calls one of the "Top 10 Political Disgraces", the state sent tanks to attack the activists meeting in the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Although the numbers are in dispute, the official record shows at least 500 civilians died at the hands of their own government, in what was known as Operation Blue Star. Unofficial estimates range in the thousands. The event kicked off a series of violent incidents.

The Sikh diaspora around the world was in shock. Canadian Sikhs organized to alert their politicians and the public to what was happening in India. The hope was that Canada’s tradition as an international human-rights leader could help protect the vulnerable minority in India.

But that’s history. Twenty-seven years later, the dinner is as much a celebration of the way Canada does things as a call to our fellow citizens to encourage the rest of the world to follow our example.

This year, we welcome Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate with the Indian Supreme Court, who founded the India Centre for Human Rights and Law. He will be speaking about the importance of working with growing economies like India and China to encourage them to respect human rights.

Mr. Gonsalves defends the rights of India’s most vulnerable citizens—including children, prisoners, and minority groups—and he’s often critical of the country’s policies.

He has some tough things to say about India’s handling of minorities especially. And it’s a tribute to the Canadian commitment to fairness and free speech that politicians from all three national parties will be in attendance, even though India’s economic boom makes it an increasingly attractive trading partner.

Nations looking to build international trade don’t appreciate having their human-rights policies criticized, so Indian-funded media in Canada sometimes accuse the WSO of being a hotbed of radicals—a charge that might force a civil-liberties group like ours underground in an oppressive state. But not in Canada.

Jack Layton, now Leader of the Opposition, spoke at the annual dinner in 2008 and he’s joining us again this year. NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu graciously stepped in as host at the last minute when our previous host lost his seat in the May election.

As is the tradition, Mr. Gonsalves will also speak in Toronto on June 4, Edmonton on June 8, and Vancouver on June 12.

This year we’re honouring Kevin Vickers, sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, who reaffirmed the right of Sikhs to wear a kirpan in the House after the Bloc Quebecois moved to have it banned. Its motion was a response to the WSO’s legal brief to the Quebec national assembly in January opposing the provincial government’s move to ban veils.

In effect, it targets Muslim women who choose to wear a niqab. Although our Sikh faith specifically opposes women wearing veils, we believe that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has to be the final word on this. What someone chooses to wear in Canada is a matter of both personal and religious freedom.

We’ll also be honouring Maj. Harjit Singh Sajjan, a Canadian Sikh who has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan. And we’re celebrating the growing number of Sikhs who have entered public service as MPs for all parties.

Our only regret is that the parliamentary dinner falls on the same night as the first game in the Stanley Cup final. But it reminds me that the debate over whether the Canucks were really Canada’s team was another example of just how remarkable this country is.

I was born, raised, and educated in Toronto, so when I heard disgruntled commentators arguing that the Vancouver champs leaned too heavily on foreign talent from the Swedish Sedin twins to American Ryan Kesler, I chuckled. I put it down to the madness that comes from the decades of despair that goes with being a Leafs' fan. But I was impressed by how quickly the counter-argument was made: how much more Canadian can you get than a team full of immigrants all pulling together?

At the WSO, we couldn’t agree more. Go Canucks Go!

Balpreet Singh is legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

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