With a Sikh Premier in charge, a new day dawns on a Canadian province.
On 24 February, Canada´s far-western province of British Columbia swore in its new premier. The reception was complete with samosas and a sitar and tabla performance, for the new provincial leader was a Sikh — Ujjal Dosanjh. This milestone for Canada´s Indo-Canadian community did not go unnoticed by the media, and for many Canadians, it was proof that the country´s multiculturalism policy is working.
The face of Canadian politics is indeed changing. Last year, Adrienne Clarkson, a Chinese-Canadian woman was appointed the country´s governor general, a symbolic yet high-profile position. A handful of Canadians of South Asian origin have been elected to the federal parliament and provincial legislatures. But no one has come even remotely close to leading a political party, let alone governing a province.
If America is based on the idea of a ´melting pot´, where immigrants are required to leave their baggage at home and assimilate into American culture, Canada defines itself as a cultural ´mosaic´. Since the 1970s, this multiculturalism policy has encouraged immigrant communities to retain their cultures within the framework of official bilingualism (English and French). Critics argue that Canada´s multiculturalism has not been much more than a series of token nods to ethno-cultural communities, while the English and the French have continued to hold real power.
Ujjal Dosanjh is no token, however. In a province known historically for it racist policies (see “Canada Sikhs”, Himal, December 1999), his ascendance makes it clear that eventually the quality of immigrant politicians, combined with the rising immigrant population, will increase the opportunities for nonwhite Canadians to have political clout beyond that of their traditional lobby groups.
At the same time, it is also important to remember that Dosanjh was not elected pre by the people of Columbia (BC), but by his own New Democrat Party (NDP). His predecessor, former premier Glen Clark, resigned from office in autumn of 1999 in the midst of a corruption scandal. This forced the NDP to vote for a new leader who could complete the electoral mandate granted to the party. Dosanjh, the province´s attorney general, was the favourite, and he won on the first ballot itself with a comfortable majority over his runner-up.
The new premier has a daunt task ahead of him. Backed by abour unions, the NDP is Canada´s only real left-of-centre party. Although it has never been elected to power at the federal level, a number of provinces have been governed by the NDP. But it is in trouble in British Columbia. In the past decade, while other provincial governments raised taxes and cut social spending in order to reduce soaring deficits, the NDP in BC has became notorious for its lack of fiscal restraint.
With its abundant natural resources (forests and fisheries), BC has always been regarded as an economic powerhouse among the 10 provinces of Canada. A wave of Asian immigration (including wealthy Hong Kong entrepreneurs) to BC´s lower mainland ushered in a boom in the late 1980s. Yet today, Dosanjh finds himself leader of one of the most unpopular governments in the province´s history with a deficit standing at USD 1 billion.
Most British Columbians don´t think Dosanjh can hope to rescue the NDP before the provincial election in 2001. On top of other problems, the NDP leadership race was tainted with scandal and nasty factionalism between Sikh members. One of Dosanjh´s most fervent opponents was a twice-deposed cabinet minister named Munmohan (Moe) Sihota, also a Sikh.
When the leadership race was in full swing, the party witnessed an unprecedented surge in its membership ranks. Money was pumped into the Dosanjh campaign by Sikhs from BC and Ontario. Under suspicion that some delegates (including Dosanjh) had been signing up new party members to increase their chances of winning, the NDP did a membership audit by telephone. One Canadian newspaper claims the audit found 1300 people who did not know they were members and that 14 of the new members signed up were dead. (Most new members were Indo-Canadian.) Dosanjh claims this was the mischief of his campaign workers, and has tried to distance himself from this latest embarassment to the NDP.
For all that, there are others who believe that if anyone can save the party, it is Dosanjh. A human rights lawyer by profession, he is known for his integrity and courage. In 1985, he was severely beaten with an iron bar by fellow Sikhs for daring to speak out against the Khalistan movement.
Politics runs in Ujjal Dosanjh´s blood. His father was an active Congress Party member in the Punjabi village of Dosanjh Kalian and his maternal grandfather hanged by the British for anti-government activities. The young Dosanjh left India in 1964 at the age of 17, barely able to speak English. He lived first in England, where he was assistant editor of a Punjabi newspaper, before arriving in Canada in 1968. He worked as a janitor, night watchman, and joined the ranks of Sikhs working in BC´s lumber mills where he nearly broke his back.
The injury prompted him to pursue a university BA. He then taught English as a second language to new immigrants and finished a law degree. Both he and his wife, Raminder, are known for their human rights activism. After law school, he disguised himself as a berry picker to uncover exploitation of farm workers, and later formed a legal service to help them.
In 1991, Dosanjh was elected to the BC provincial legislature and held portfolios such as Minister of Government Services and Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism, Human Rights, Sports and Immigration. More recently, as attorney general he championed the rights of minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and took a tough stance on crime. In 1996, his refusal to negotiate in a standoff with an armed aboriginal group won him the respect of the general public.
In an attempt to move away from his predecessor´s autocratic leadership, Dosanjh has promised to unite the NDP under a more consensual style of governing. He also promises to return the party to its grassroots — labour, the women´s movement and the environmental movement — rather than catering to big business. But the ultimate test will be for him to rein in the fiscal deficit before the 2001 election, and restore credibility to the NDP. Only then will samosas and sitars arrive once again at the next premier´s inaugural reception.