This week, Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, unveiled the most diverse cabinet in the country's history. The majority Liberal government's cabinet is now gender equal — 15 of 30 senior ministerial posts have been awarded to women — and touts a significant presence for the country's ethnic minorities.
"It's an incredible pleasure for me to be before you today to present a cabinet that looks like Canada," Trudeau declared Wednesday.
Among the diverse crowd are four ministers of Sikh origin — a conspicuously high number when you consider that India, where most Sikhs live, only counts two Sikhs in current senior cabinet-level positions.
Harjit Sajjan, 42, a former police officer and veteran of three military deployments to Afghanistan, is now Canada's defense minister. He swiftly became the subject of social media celebrity.
— Tabatha Southey (@TabathaSouthey) November 5, 2015
The others are Amarjeet Sohi, sworn in as Canada's minister of infrastructure; Navdeep Bains, 38, a business school professor who now has the portfolio for innovation, science and economic development; and Bardish Chagger, 35, a daughter of Sikh immigrants who was sworn in as minister of small business and tourism.
Sikhs belong to a religion that emerged at the intersection of Islam and Hinduism in South Asia in the 15th century. They comprise a small percentage of India's population, but a more considerable proportion of the Indian diaspora, particularly in Canada. Indians make up almost 4 percent of Canada's overall population; Sikhs count for around 1.5 percent.
Punjabi, the language of the Indian state that's the homeland of most Sikhs, is now effectively the third language of Canada's parliament. Nineteen Indian Canadians in total were voted into the 338-seat House of Commons in Ottawa in federal elections last month.
The ascension of figures like Sajjan and Sohi may not please all Indians, though. Sajjan is connected to the influential World Sikh Organization, a group, that despite its name, has links to the fringe, militant radicalism of the Khalistan movement — a Sikh separatist uprising that flared in India in the 1980s.
The violence at the time included the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight that killed 329 people. Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Canadian national of Sikh origin, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the bombing in 2003 and is serving a 15-year prison sentence.
Sajjan has brushed off any link to the now subdued Khalistan cause and told CBC last year that he has "no negative vibes from anybody" in his constituency.
Sohi was born in Punjab in 1964 and grew up in a close-knit Sikh family. After moving to Canada as a teenager, he went back to India in his early 20s to work as a social activist. But he was swept up by local police in the state of Bihar amid a climate of fear and hysteria over the threat of Sikh terrorism and was imprisoned for two years without charge.
According to reports, Sohi says he was tortured and kept in solitary confinement. The Edmonton Journal has more:
Amnesty International took up his case, as did a local Edmonton interfaith coalition. Sohi says the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, commonly referred to as CSIS, did as much to help free him as anyone.
CSIS investigated Sohi’s Edmonton activities, reporting to officials in India he was no threat.
But Sohi says his jailers didn’t want to lose face by admitting the big international terrorist they had captured was nothing of the sort. They made up wilder and wilder charges, accusing him of training with Muslim militants in Pakistan, then of being a Maoist agent, then of having links to the Tamil Tigers.
Then came a change of government in Bihar. The prosecutor formally requested the case be dismissed, saying “there is a lack of evidence against Mr. Sohi and also his prosecution is against public policy of the state.”
The judge agreed. On July 9, 1990, he ordered Sohi “released forthwith.”
The ordeal led to Sohi's return to Canada and formed the bedrock of his politics. It's relevant now in the context of growing Islamophobia in both Canada and the United States amid concerns over infiltration by Islamist extremists.
“Once I was mistaken for a terrorist because I was a Sikh. If we start marginalizing people here because of their faith, who does that help?" Sohi asked the Alberta newspaper. "It doesn’t help us. It probably helps [the Islamic State]."
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