A few short months ago, as Sikhs in Canada grappled with media coverage rife with unfounded claims of “Sikh extremism” in Canada, some commentators posed a question that would have caused a massive uproar had “Sikh” been replaced with “women”, “Indigenous” or “black” — by asking the question “are Sikhs over-represented in Canadian politics”?
WSO President Mukhbir Singh wrote an editorial in the Vancouver Sun responding to these questions. To read the article please click here.
Mukhbir Singh: Sikhs have earned their place on the political stage
All Canadians — Sikhs, women, Indigenous, black, LGBTQ — have the right, responsibility and privilege to engage politically and serve their communities without having this right questioned on the basis of their race, religion and gender.
For 50 years, after their arrival on Canadian soil, Sikhs did not have the right to vote and no representation in government, making even the most basic and mundane of tasks — owning or even renting a house, going out in public without verbal attacks or physical violence, a challenge. There was rarely a politician to help or speak out on behalf of the community.
In the early 1900s, senior government officials came up with a scheme to expel the entirety of Canada’s Sikh population to the British Honduras (now Belize).
Incoming migrants from Asia, including Sikhs who had the same status as Canadians as subjects of the British empire, were required to possess $200 — an inconceivable amount — while European migrants were only required to have $20 in their possession.
In 1914, a boat of Sikhs entered British Columbia via the “continuous passage” journey which required a direct journey to Canada from India and were still refused entry. After months of living on the boat, the 376 Sikhs were forced to return to India, resulting in the deaths of many of these Sikh men.
While this was happening, Sikhs from the same families and villages as the men on the Komagata Maru were shedding blood in key battles in the First World War, including the battles of second Ypres, Somme, Vimy, Passchendaele, Cambrai and beyond. Sikh soldiers were reinforcing a weakened Canadian division on Flanders Fields as the first gas attack was illegally used by German forces. Sikhs and Canadians defended the line, shoulder to shoulder as brothers in arms, while the Canadian government and public was instituting racist policies.
Sikhs joined the Canadian British forces even as they faced racist policies and while they protested discriminatory treatment through the efforts of Teja Singh and Hari Singh who presented their case on the restrictions of South Asian migration in England. Average South Asian community members took to the streets in order to publicly protest their conditions and tried to create change through petitions to the Canadian, British and Indian governments.
Activism is an important tool to achieve affect change and work for positive outcomes. In democratic countries, we have the privilege to carry that activism forward by being involved in the process of governing and challenging and changing the unfairness and inequality in our political systems.
Sikhs believe strongly in the principles of service and creating positive change for everyone in society. An important way to do that is through politics.
In 1993, the first Sikh was elected to the House of Commons. In 2015, a record 16 members of the Sikh community became MPs and four were named to Cabinet. In 2017, Jagmeet Singh became the first visible minority and Sikh to be elected as the leader of a major political party.
Such progress and such a Canadian success story should make Canadians proud, but there has been a backlash. A short reading of the comment sections on articles relating to Sikh politicians or the replies on Twitter shows that many Canadians are deeply resentful about what they see as a “takeover” of their country. Some commentators have published opinion pieces that include warnings about an ethnic takeover of Canada, claims that Sikhs in Canada are “over-represented” in politics and the suggestion that Sikhs, including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, carry “blood hatreds” that they have brought with them to Canada. Among the mainstream media, there has been nary a voice condemning these examples of race-baiting.
The charge that Sikhs are over-represented has been particularly jarring. Such allegations feed the type of tribalism and communalism that we see consuming other places around the world. What should be the right amount of representation? Is white over-representation the only acceptable form of over-representation in politics? Such allegations are a clear attempt to marginalize Canada’s Sikh community and seeks to diminish their role in defending, building and contributing to this country.