IAN BAILEY - VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Nov. 07, 2015 10:23AM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 09, 2015 4:04PM EST
Canada’s “badass” new Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan is getting particular attention as the star of a new wave of Sikh MPs elected to Parliament – a demographic shift that community leaders note has made Punjabi the third-most spoken language after French in the House of Commons.
Mr. Sajjan, a former Vancouver police officer who did three tours in Afghanistan as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, is one of 17 Sikh MPs elected in the October federal election – 16 from the Liberal Party of Canada and one Conservative – the highest number of Sikhs ever elected.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apppointed four Sikh-Canadians to his cabinet: Mr. Sajjan, Amarjeet Sohi as Infrastructure Minister, Bardish Chagger as Small Business Minister and Navdeep Singh Bains as Innovation Minister. They are not the first Indo-Canadians in cabinet, following such ministers as former Liberal health minister Ujjal Dosanjh.
A spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada said all are accomplished, but there’s a particularly positive dynamic in the case of Mr. Sajjan, elected MP for Vancouver South in his first attempt to win a seat.
“They’re all individuals to celebrate,” Balpreet Singh said. “Minister Sajjan just has a higher profile with respect to the fact that he’s a ‘badass’ [according to some media accounts] and has had some pretty high-profile action on behalf of Canada.”
Mr. Singh said the community takes no offence at the label. “I don’t think anyone is using it to belittle Minister Sajjan, so I have no issue with it.”
Given a challenging past for Indo-Canadians, the praise being heaped on Mr. Sajjan has been overwhelming to some, he said.
“Just 20 years ago, there was a debate in Canada on whether Sikhs should be able to serve in the armed forces or RCMP while wearing turbans and whether Sikh veterans could enter Legion halls wearing turbans. I have spoken to some of our older members, who are saying they couldn’t have seen a day like this coming,” Mr. Singh said from Newmarket, Ont.
Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley’s campus in Abbotsford, B.C., voiced similar sentiments about Mr. Sajjan’s rise compared with that of other Sikh cabinet ministers.
“I think the appointment of Mr. Sajjan to National Defence obviously trumps the others,” she said, adding it is a hugely prominent role that particularly fits Mr. Sajjan. “The only word I keep coming back to is that it’s very purposeful.”
Mr. Dosanjh, Canada’s first Indo-Canadian premier, agreed. “Because we are involved in the bombing mission; because we’re fighting [the Islamic State] and because Mr. Trudeau has promised to recast the mission, it obviously puts a focus on the department and who is heading the department. In that sense, it’s important.”
Mr. Dosanjh, who was a New Democrat in B.C. politics, but served as a Liberal MP and health minister, said Mr. Trudeau has set a new benchmark for gender and ethnic diversity that other leaders will have to consider.
“As a benchmark, it’s news, but it shouldn’t be news,” he said, explaining that diversity is a reality of society that should not be dominating the headlines, but rather be a routine.
Mr. Singh noted that three of the four Sikh cabinet members grew up in Canada, which is an additional point of pride to the community along with the appointment of the first Sikh woman – Ms. Chagger – to cabinet.
In the future, he said, the Prime Minister might find it challenging to reverse gender parity, but his organization accepts that the number of Sikh cabinet ministers could be reduced depending on circumstances. “I don’t think, necessarily, we’d expect the same number to be selected in every cabinet henceforth,” Mr. Singh said.
Ms. Bains said the election of the MPs and the cabinet appointments reflect the maturity of Sikh participation in Canadian politics.
“This is the maturity of a community that has been here for over a hundred years, in this country,” she said. “At the national stage for such a large number of people to put their names forward, to put their shoulders to the work ahead of us, speaks volumes to our commitment to Canada.”