Jaskaran Singh Sandhu is executive director of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. Jaspreet Kaur Bal is on the board of directors of the Sikh Feminist Research Institute and is a professor at Humber College. The writers host the monthly #AskCanadianSikhs the Podcast, which covers current affairs from a Sikh Canadian perspective.
Sikhs in Canada recently celebrated a hard-fought victory that showcased the importance of grass-roots advocacy and standing up for one’s beliefs.
In December, Canadian Sikhs were mysteriously placed on the Canadian government’s annual Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada for the first time in the report’s history. The clause was not backed up by any proof, and no intelligence of any sort was cited. This put the section on Sikhs in direct contrast with other listed threats that received lengthy explanations and context.
In response to these accusations, Sikhs from all walks of life challenged the Canadian government by demanding proof, organizing panels and town hall meetings, flooding Punjabi radio call-in shows, writing open letters and engaging their elected officials. This large, collective, grass-roots action resulted in the report being amended and the reference to Sikh extremism removed.
It also renewed a commitment from the community to not apologize for the right to peaceful political advocacy. Many Sikh families in Canada fled India after state-sponsored violence against the community in the 1980s. This violence was officially recognized as a genocide by the Ontario government in 2017. These experiences have taught our community to value our freedom of expression and political voice.
But since the report was amended, the Sikh community has been accused of having a disproportionate impact on Canadian politics by commentators and columnists. This criticism, which would be bizarre against any marginalized community, mischaracterizes Sikhs’ proportionate influence in key constituencies. Moreover, the robust voice and democratic engagement of a minority community are not evils to be wary of, but rather forms of resilience and civic participation to be celebrated.
Minorities often feel that their political opinions are dismissed as “fringe” or that their mobilization is the result of some dubious lobby. This puts their engagement in mainstream society under suspicion. It provides social license to those in power to dismiss valid concerns from the most marginalized and provides fodder for hatemongers.
These critiques also fail to recognize another influence that may have played a role in the decision to include the Sikh community in the report in the first place: lobbying from the Indian government.
The addition of Sikhs comes after repeated Indian accusations of rising extremism in the Sikh community, which reached a crescendo during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India last year. It feels like no coincidence that Sikhs were labeled as terrorist threats after Canada had opened its doors to a bilateral intelligence-sharing framework with India. Recently declassified documents suggest that Canada sought to pander to India on the issue last year.
Groups have raised concerns over India’s attempts to influence Canadian politics in the past. In April, the Globe and Mail reported that the former leader of a major Ontario provincial party was under pressure by the Indian consulate to reject a Sikh candidate. A year ago, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s spokesman, Adam Austen, criticized Indian attempts to dissuade the organizers of a cultural festival in Brampton, Ontario, from having separate pavilions for Punjab and India. (Punjab is the only Indian state with a Sikh majority.)
Given this context, the inclusion of the Sikh community in the report without cause seems like a repeat of the past and an ominous foreshadowing of the future. Instead of worrying about Sikh Canadians’ influence in their own country’s political processes, critics should be more concerned about a foreign government’s attempts to exercise influence against a minority community within our borders.
As people who have fled repression in search of democracy and freedom, Canadian Sikhs hold the rights to vote, form opinions, criticize and dissent close to our hearts. These are the pillars that make up a democracy. And these are what are at stake when community efforts to ensure our safety are needlessly dismissed as fringe influence.