Those accustomed to seeing Canada sit atop international rankings of best-governed nations may be surprised to learn that a significant portion of Canadian democracy still has a decidedly crooked, 19th-century vibe. Since Canadian political parties operate on a “pay-to-play” basis — in which any voter who wishes to help nominate a politician for office must first sign a form and pay a membership fee — one of the most essential skills for any ambitious Canadian politico is an ability to sell large, but carefully targeted, numbers of party memberships to groups whose loyalty can be assured. This ordinarily includes friends, family members, employees, and coworkers. But, more controversially, it often includes religious congregations and immigrant or minority enclaves as well.
Canada’s legislature is remarkably diverse — the current parliament features more than three dozen foreign-born members (MPs), and an equally sizable caucus of visible minorities — but this diversity is not merely the product of a tolerant populace. Because Canada’s process of selecting candidates can reward the micro-targeting of small demographic groups over the general population, the backgrounds of MPs can be rather unrepresentative of the electoral districts they represent. As the progressive commentator Michael Adams, alongside co-author Andrew Griffith, noted in a post-mortem on Canada’s 2015 election, “most of the visible-minority MPs were elected in ridings where their own groups did not constitute a majority,” and added that “nine of the 47 visible minority MPs were elected in ridings where the voting population was less than a 20-per-cent visible minority.”
The diversity of Canada’s political class can thus tilt in ways that fail to paint an accurate picture of Canadian realities. Until Somali-born Ahmed Hussen was appointed as immigration minister early last year, the visible minorities in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet — a cabinet that he bragged “looks like Canada” — were exclusively either South Asian or Middle Eastern, excluding (among others) Canada’s sizable East Asian and black communities.
Because the status quo remains superficially impressive — Who doesn’t like to see immigrants and minorities in positions of power? — it can be difficult to criticize. Given the lack of diversity that marked earlier generations of Canadian governments, in which a token “Italian” would seem generous, getting fussy about quotas can appear petty. Yet unbalanced representation born from a deeply flawed candidate-selection process can bring powerful political consequences, as the prime minister — if not the entire nation of India — is fast coming to learn.
Though Canadians of Indian heritage are estimated to comprise no more than 4% of the Canadian population, and Indo-Canadians of Sikh heritage about half that, Sikhs are extraordinarily well-represented in Canadian government, a fact easily attributable to the outsize role they play in Canadian party politics — even in communities where their numbers are not extraordinarily high. Trudeau’s current cabinet includes four Sikh ministers, more, he once boasted, than could be found at the cabinet level in India.
Such ministers often began their political careers winning over local associations of the Liberal Party where Sikhs — and thus Sikh political and cultural concerns — dominate. Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, for instance, won nomination for his Vancouver parliamentary seat in a bitter Sikh vs. Sikh battle that saw his opponents portray the decorated soldier as a closet supporter of “Khalistan” — the radical dream of a sovereign Sikh ethnonationalist state. Sajjan has repeatedly denied the charges, but is still often tarred by association, given his father was an active figure in the pro-Khalistan World Sikh Organization. The Khalistan question, in general, is often said to be a far livelier political debate in Canada than in India, and the worst pre-9/11 terrorist attack in North America — the downing of Air India Flight 182 — was plotted by Sikh militants in British Columbia.
In India itself, stories such as these seem to have congealed into increasingly suspicious stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Canada, many of which appeared disastrously confirmed this week during a visit to India by Trudeau. On Wednesday, it was revealed that the prime minister’s delegation included Jaspal Atwal, a Liberal Party activist from British Columbia who also happens to be a former member of the radical International Sikh Youth Federation convicted for a 1986 assassination attempt against a visiting Indian cabinet minister. Atwal had been invited by Randeep Sarai, a Sikh Liberal member of parliament (and considered a divisive figure in the community), and despite apologies, the episode now threatens to severely hamper Canadian relations with Narendra Modi’s nationalist government.
Multiculturalism has always brought foreign-policy consequences. There’s an old joke about American politicians having to make mandatory trips to the “three I’s” — Ireland, Italy, and Israel — and it is inevitable that immigrant-rich democracies will view the outside world through a lens informed by the memories and experiences of its foreign-born residents. The reverse, however, is also true: nations who have experienced net emigration will invariably have opinions on how the people who left have affected the character of their new home.
India is a country presenting tremendous opportunities for the west, both as an economic partner and critical geostrategic ally. Ottawa has often lazily assumed that, since Canada features a large share of Indian-born citizens and Indian-born politicians, it gives the country a natural edge in the contest to cozy up to this much-courted rising power. As Trudeau learned this week, alas, things aren’t always that simple.