Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC
Earlier this year, Rena Heer, a former reporter for CTV and CP24 in Toronto, hosted a gathering at her home for other fellow Canadian Sikhs who had experience in the communications and media professions. This was not the usual Sunday afternoon chai and gossip session ubiquitous to South Asian households across the Lower Mainland. The guests had convened to discuss a chronic problem that had plagued this community since the 1980s: negative coverage in mainstream media.
This time, Canada’s prime minister, having previously bragged he had more Sikhs in his cabinet than India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had travelled to India with four of his ministers of Sikh faith. It touched a nerve with India’s "alt-right" Hindu-chauvinistic administration. Indian politicians let loose with a series of flimsy allegations, including some that implicated Trudeau’s own cabinet ministers as "Khalistanis", and in particular, decorated Canadian war veteran and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Indian media lapped it up. Canadian media regurgitated it.
Canada’s predominantly white newsrooms ran with panic-stricken pieces about how there is a "revival of Khalistan terror", or how Canadian Sikhs are engaged in "blood hatreds"—or in an attempt to bundle Sikhs with ISIS terrorists—how Sikhs are "promised a place in paradise" when martyred.
Heer was one of a handful of journalists in Canada from the Sikh community who had worked in mainstream newsrooms and she found the reporting lacked not only nuance but overlooked obvious problems with the allegations—such as the glaring lack of any Khalistan-related terror incidents over the previous 20-odd years.
“Once you’ve been in the media industry you know how things are done, that sources should be checked properly, that the motivations of those sources should be examined,” Heer stated. “But with this Trudeau trip to India coverage I knew that wasn’t happening.”
Meanwhile a younger millennial generation of Sikhs (#AskCanadianSikhs) continued to plead on Twitter with various mainstream reporters and outlets to include their voices in the coverage. They found little success, and at times, open hostility. For Heer, the six-week blitz of negative coverage was a lesson that Canadian Sikhs needed to engage in media "pro-activism" based on how underrepresented they are in mainstream outlets.
“Newsrooms are tough environments, and people will ask why should anyone care when you bring up story topics, especially when they don’t relate to those experiences,” she added. “In order for these ideas to get across you need to have all experiences represented in newsrooms.”
But in Canada, it’s not just Sikhs, but all of the country’s minorities that are underrepresented in the country’s newsrooms, which some media watchers estimate are as much as 90 percent white.
To their credit, Canadian media outlets have also acknowledged this problem and sought, over recent years, to hire more reporters from diverse communities. But because change has been slow to come, minority communities in Canada still remain susceptible to misreporting, tokenization, being ignored, or worse, being spoken over, as in the case of the apparent "comeback" of Khalistani terrorists.
An obvious part of solving this problem is diversifying mainstream newsrooms through the hiring of reporters from diverse communities.
In a country where almost two out of every five people is either born outside of Canada or is a second-generation Canadian (born to at least one immigrant parent), it is critical that newsrooms have reporters who can speak languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, or Tagalog, or staff reporters who, at minimum, have some cultural knowledge of Canada’s largest minorities.
But at this point in time, "diversity coverage" still means reporting on issues pertaining to or including people of colour, while "mainstream coverage" implies broader news reporting usually featuring people who are more likely to be white.
Multicultural Canada is often glowingly described as a cohesive mosaic but I would argue our society is more a non-integrated patchwork of self-contained communities that, while peacefully co-existing, generally have limited interactions with each other.
Increasing diversity in newsrooms is not about ceding ground to identity politics, political correctness, or even being more "inclusive". It is about better reporting. Full stop. Without newsroom diversity, too many stories are missed, delayed in coverage, or misreported, and that has a negative impact on all of us. So regardless of your skin colour, it is actually in your interest for mainstream newsrooms to hire more journalists from diverse backgrounds who reflect the immigrant and second-generation realities of Canadian life.
Retaining them, however, may be another issue.
It’s a notable occurrence when someone from a diverse community is hired by a mainstream outlet. Given there are so few diverse reporters in these newsrooms, it serves as a sort of barometer for "progress".
Over the past decade, mainstream newsrooms have made some advances in this regard, particularly in broadcast news where Canada’s diversity is reflected on television screens. But it’s also notable—and for all the wrong reasons—when a journalist of colour leaves the industry, and exceptionally so, when the reporter in question does so in the cause of diversity while torching any hopes of getting a reference letter on the way out of the building.
That journalist was Sunny Dhillon who recently quit his job in the Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. In his recent blog post, "Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away", Dhillon explained that he resigned because of how his newsroom was failing in covering diversity.
The breaking point was when, on the eve of the deadline, he was ordered by his bureau chief to rework an assignment on Vancouver’s recent municipal election into being a triumph for women rather than being yet another failure for racialized candidates. Eight out of the 10 Vancouver council seats were won by women and only one was won by a councillor of mixed heritage.
“I decided to leave The Globe and Mail because that final conversation inside the bureau chief’s office crystallized what I had felt: What I brought to the newsroom did not matter,” Dhillon wrote in his post on Medium that has since been retweeted thousands of times. “And it was at that moment that being a person of colour at a paper and in an industry that does not have enough of us — particularly at the top — felt more futile than ever before.”
His dramatic resignation has renewed discussions on how the diversity angle can be ignored or glossed over in mainstream newsrooms, particularly when the story is not a stereotypical "diversity topic" like an annual Chinese New Year celebration or a Vaisakhi parade.
In the Vancouver council story, for example, both the gender and race angles merit coverage, but not equally so. Based on historical data, the lack of diversity angle would seem more newsworthy given women have been equally (or almost equally) represented on city council for over the past four administrations going back to 2005.
In comparison, a South Asian candidate has not served on council in almost 50 years and there has never been a councillor from the Filipino community.
Regardless, however, of whether a story is revealed through the lens of race, gender, or some other prism, newsrooms are not democracies, as Dhillon was reminded in his clash with his editor. And even though mainstream newsrooms are increasingly using analytics to practice data-driven journalism that maximizes click-throughs, there is still a human element in how stories are assigned, angled, and ultimately headlined.
These remain in the very subjective hands of newsroom editors.
But like any human being, deadline-pressed editors—whose job requirements include performing newsroom management and story assignment balancing acts—are prone to seeing the world through the lens of their own experiences, which in the senior management realm of Canadian media is even whiter than the ranks staffing newsrooms.
According to Dhillon, it was the constant struggle to table a diverse perspective in this lily-white cultural environment that eventually wore him out: “When a story or column does not adequately if at all, understand or consider the perspectives of the nonwhite people it involves, what do you say?... When you ultimately stop pitching stories on race to preserve your own sanity, what good are you doing the very nonwhite people whose perspectives you deem yourself to be in the newsroom to share?
“How many battles do you have in you?”
For journalists of colour working with their editors, Dhillon’s frustrations are not all that unusual, as he was reminded recently by the large number of responses he received to his post from other Canadian journalists of colour. The friction each experienced ranged from overcoming stereotypes to figuring out when to speak up on race issues and when it was best to just keep their heads down.
Like them, I also had my moment of initiation into the whiteness of this world, back in the late '90s when I was trying to cover the Reena Virk story. Virk was the 14-year old Victoria teen who was attacked by seven teenagers she was hanging with and ultimately killed by two of them.
Although in South Asian media, the race angle was a prominent part of the coverage, it has been largely omitted from mainstream reporting where instead the story has been framed as a troubling case of teen girl violence, the bullying of an "awkward" teen, and the tragic tale of someone who just didn’t fit in. When I pressed on covering this missing race angle, my editorial contact at Postmedia (then Canwest) explained that since one of the teens was of mixed heritage, the attack could not have been racially motivated.
I was new to the industry at the time and I too made a difficult decision to bite my tongue.
Today—just as it was nearly two decades ago when Reena Virk was murdered—bringing up race in a newsroom can still have a chilling effect.
In the 1980s when outlets in Canada first began regularly reporting on diverse communities, the coverage was usually singular in topic, often negative, and usually excluded voices from those communities.
The stories were almost always written by white reporters who, once assigned to an "ethnic beat", became the experts on all things relating to that community. Other white reporters went to those white reporters on questions about "their" assigned ethnic communities.
It was sort of like an exercise in urban anthropology. But by covering ethnic communities through the mainstream’s screen of whiteness, it inevitably produced sticky stereotypes.
People in diverse communities, regardless of their professional status, years of gainful employment, or record of community service, became linked to the fringe criminal elements in their communities. Thankfully, coverage of diverse communities has evolved since then, beginning with taking a U-turn away from focussing exclusively on negative news.
But coverage of diverse communities has still not fully matured from being treated as a separate-but-equal content section, like sports, entertainment, or fashion, rather than as a perspective that layers into a cross-section of stories.
This results in mainstream outlets often publishing neatly compartmentalized stories that feature individuals from diverse communities but that have a limited appeal to readers outside of those backgrounds.
Andree Lau, the editor-in-chief at HuffPost Canada, was recently interviewed on CBC regarding newsroom diversity. She was asked why there are so few people from diverse communities leading newsrooms across this country.
“I think they [people of colour] get to a certain level and they get frustrated. Because they're not seeing enough change or change is not happening fast enough, and they get discouraged,” explained Lau, who is one of the few journalists of colour in a senior position in Canada. “Those very talented people are the ones we need to move up into the next level, and they end up leaving.”
As Canada’s population grows and continues to diversify, the news media is the leading institution to reflect the country’s changing face, in which everyone sees something of themselves smiling back. That work begins first in newsrooms telling stories where diversity is more layered and nuanced and not segregated into a corner.
One of the journalists responding to Sunny Dhillon’s resignation post, was a veteran Vancouver broadcast journalist, Simi Sara.
“What it comes down to is this: I have never seen the colour of my skin as a ‘difference’. But others have seen it that way for me,” she was quoted in a follow-up blog Dhillon posted to his Medium account.
“I believe I am like everyone else because perspective is diverse and we all have something to contribute to that discussion. It shouldn’t be segregated as a ‘diversity’ issue. It’s all of us. It’s our communities.”
Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC
It’s likely Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw events playing out differently than how they actually turned out for his recent state visit to India.
Like most Canadians, he probably thought February an ideal time to fly someplace warm. He would take the family to India, enjoy a weeklong vacation, get some great photo ops at sites like the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple, and then meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a day of official state business to wrap up his trip.
Though he would never admit it, Trudeau probably also hoped to out-Instagram his new arch rival, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was getting married in Mexico this past weekend.
And, last but not least, by taking his four Sikh cabinet ministers along for the trip, Trudeau would score points with his Sikh electoral base back in Canada.
While Canada’s PM did get in his photo-ops, he and his team was put on the defensive throughout the visit by accusations of his government being in league with "Khalistanis"—shorthand for "Khalistani terrorists". These charges came from multiple fronts.
Indian reporters dogged Trudeau with questions about harbouring "Sikh separatists", another term for "Khalistanis", at every opportunity, while leading media outlets like the Times of India, Hindustan Times, NDTV and others pushed the Khalistan narrative relentlessly.
Indian news magazines like Outlook published polemical essays about how “a new real threat of Khalistani terror” has emerged due to support from Sikh temples patronized by unwitting "liberal white politicians", like Justin Trudeau.
Meanwhile, members of the Indian government provided a lesson in how to put the "host" into hostility by repeating the provocative allegations against their guests. Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, where most Sikhs hail from, did his central government’s bidding when he stated, “There seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathizers in Trudeau’s cabinet,” alluding to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, whom Singh has called a Khalistani in the past.
Sajjan has never made a statement in support of a separate Sikh state. If anything, he has spoken against it.
And then, into this charged environment, enter ex-Khalistani terrorist Jaspal Atwal, who makes an appearance at an event with the Trudeaus in Mumbai. A Canadian security official, reported to be Daniel Jean, told Canadian media outlets that it is possible that the presence of Atwal at the function with the Trudeaus was not an accident and had been engineered by elements within the India’s intelligence services.
Even if this turns out not to be the case, the fact that Atwal, an actual ex-Khalistani who tried to kill an Indian government official in Canada in 1986, was granted a visa to enter India at the same time as the Trudeau visit arouses suspicion. Canadian security officials like Jean are in the right to consider all possibilities about Atwal’s incidental presence at an event hosted by the Canadian High Commission in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, mainstream outlets could have benefited from a dose of Jean’s skepticism. Instead Canadian reporters on the most parroted the opinions of Indian media through analysis pieces that stated there has been "a revival of Khalistani terror in recent years". Despite the scraps of evidence the Indian government has presented to push this claim, it highly spurious at best.
A quick refresher here: Khalistan is the name of a currently nonexistent Sikh homeland. It is based on the state of Punjab, a territory slightly larger than Vancouver Island, separating from India. For sake of analogy think of the Basque region declaring independence from Spain, the Kurdish north opting out of Iraq, or Quebec leaving Canada.
Over 30 years ago in the early '80s, this idea of a Sikh homeland erupted overnight out of dormancy into a full-blown political cause when the Indian government made the pivotal error of turning their tanks on the Golden Temple, or the Sikh Vatican. Thousands of people would die in the Punjab from the ensuing violence over the next decade, including over 15,000+ in the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984, murdered by mobs who were provided weapons and transport via Indian government officials. Nobody has even been charged for that mass killing.
And here—the most important wrinkle to this story—it has been over 20 years since a terror attack has been credibly linked to the Khalistan movement. In the late '90s, at the same time the IRA signed its peace agreement in Northern Ireland, the Khalistan militancy faded away. Funds dried up, and the fighters who took up its cause retired back into normal lives.
Even the last of the hardcore holdouts like Lakhbir Singh Rode, the head of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), one of the two key groups at the centre of the Khalistan militancy, now keeps a day job running a meat business in Lahore, Pakistan.
Khalistan died. Khalistanis died. But the Khalistan narrative won’t die. And that is because it won’t be allowed to rest in peace because politicians in India, and ironically, even here in Canada, won’t let it.
The "threat" of Khalistan has more value alive than dead.
And so the storyline of Khalistan terror continues to develop, even if the movement is gone. The theatrics are necessary to showcase it as a viable threat.
Scottish national Jagtar Johal, 31, is one person who seems to be ensnared in this net. The Sikh activist who ran a website called NeverForget1984 was in India for his wedding last November when he was taken by Indian police. Johal is being detained, without charge, for allegedly having a role in a series of political assassinations in Punjab over the last two years.
Sikhs around the world have rallied around the #FreeJaggi hashtag to liberate Johal on what appear to be a politically motivated detention.
Over 100 Sikh temples around the world reacted to the #FreeJaggi controversy by recently barring Indian diplomats from their premises. The response from Indian politicians was predictable—the temple officials, from all 100+ organisations, are Khalistanis.
And now Justin Trudeau leaves India having been compelled into signing a Framework for Cooperation on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism between Canada and India. Canada and India had an intelligence-sharing arrangement before, during the height of the violence in Punjab in the '80s and '90s. That arrangement, however, was ended after the Khalistan movement died out. It is now on the path to coming back into place, renewing a fear that India’s corrupt police and paramilitary will be able to shake down the Indian relatives of Canadian Sikhs whose names appear in intelligence reports shared by Canada.
So what is driving this Russian-style disinformation campaign by India against its own former citizens and their descendants? It is not a terror attack the Indian government appears to be most fearful of. Rather, it is the disproportionate political influence of Canada’s Sikh community on Canada, a G7 country, that has New Delhi in fits.
As unified as India seems, it is an unwieldy coalition of 1.3-billion people with multiple ethnic groups, languages, and religions. The Indian government holds a reasonable fear that external influence could stir trouble again in the Punjab, especially in a country where the ruling BJP, a right-wing pro-Hindu party, itself governs through cold-blooded divide and rule machinations—the BJP frequently turns a blind eye to the violence of its own militant wing, the RSS, when it targets minority groups like Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims.
Currently, four of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers are Sikhs. There is also the possibility the next prime minister, or at least the next kingmaker, could be Jagmeet Singh, also a Sikh and someone with a social justice agenda. With an overall population of close to a million people in Canada, the Sikh community will only continue to grow in political influence for the years to come.
What the Indian government fails to recognize—or refuses to—is that politicians like Jagmeet Singh and others from a new generation of Sikhs are motivated not by separatism but by social justice causes. When they seek to redress past wrongs from incidents like anti-Sikh mass killings of Delhi in 1984, they are looking for reconciliation to heal past wounds, not for further division.
But this nuance is lost on the Indian government and so it indiscriminately responds to any criticism by undermining opponents with labels like "Khalistanis". Or it resorts to an old tactic of withholding travel visas. While ex-terrorist Jaspal Atwal can obtain an Indian visa—on multiple occasions it should be noted—NDP leader Jagmeet Singh cannot.
Singh was denied a visa in 2013, as was Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal in 2011. Both men brought forward motions in the Ontario provincial legislature and in the House of Commons respectively to have the Delhi mass killings classified as a genocidal act.
The motion was eventually carried last year by the Ontario government. The Indian government responded by calling it "misguided".
Ironically, however, hammering down on opponents with the Khalistani cudgel is not beneath the use of Canadian politicians either. In a Sikh community that is as politically active as it is diverse, some groups have also repeatedly resorted to labelling their opponents as "Khalistanis", regardless of how the reckless use of this language can indelibly stain an entire community.
In Trudeau’s Liberal government, it is no secret the World Sikh Organisation, a group that once advocated for the Khalistan state, has the ear of the PM, keeping at bay other voices from the community. The backroom fighting to get into such a position has caused simmering resentment among other Liberal members from the South Asian community. One of these flashpoints for this bitterness was in riding of Vancouver South in 2014 when Trudeau "parachuted" in star candidate Harjit Sajjan and closed the open nomination process.
There was justifiable frustration among the ousted Sikh faction that was likely to win that nomination. But their response was also predictably toxic.
"The Liberal Party, especially Justin, is in bed with extremist and fundamental groups. That's why I decided to leave the Liberal Party," said Kashmir Dhaliwal, ex-president of the powerful Khalsa Diwan Society which operates the Ross Street Temple in South Vancouver.
Ujjal Dosanjh, the former NDP premier of British Columbia and federal Liberal health minister, himself repeated this "Khalistani" critique to describe the Sikh insiders within the Trudeau government. In a radio interview this past week on CBC’s As it Happens, he bluntly stated that Trudeau’s government was infiltrated by Sikh separatists.
None of Trudeau’s Sikh cabinet ministers has spoken out in support of a separate Sikh state—if anything they have spoken against it. Dosanjh, meanwhile, has found himself on the outside without a role in the current Trudeau government.
"Khalistan 2.0" is a term that has been dubbed by Indian media to denote the future resurgence of the Sikh separatist movement led by "radicalized" Sikhs from countries like Canada. But in actuality, Khalistan 2.0 is already here.
It is a cheap, troll-friendly, media smear campaign—perfectly suited for the social media environment—wielded by the Indian government to discredit diasporic Sikhs, whether they criticize the Indian government’s human rights record or seek redress for legitimate grievances from the state-organized mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984.
And because this faux Khalistan narrative is so effective, it doesn’t even need an actual real terror incident to find its way on to frontpages of Canadian or international news outlets. It just needs a politician—Indian or Canadian—willing to do anything to advance their personal agendas. Unfortunately, those are a dime a dozen.
Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Mann is also a member of the NCM Collective and regular contributor for New Canadian Media. This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.
By: The South Asian Post Desk
About 16 Sikh temples in BC and Alberta have joined Sikh religious organisations in Ontario, the US, and the UK to ban Indian officials and diplomats from making formal visits to their places of worship in response to the arrest of a Sikh activist in India and what they call interference in their affairs.
The initiative in Western Canada was moved forward by the Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar in Surrey, which organizes the annual mammoth Vaisakhi celebrations in British Columbia.
The ban started in Ontario and spread to temples or gurdwaras in the US and the UK, with more than 100 places of worship now involved, Sikh websites said.
Organisations supporting the campaign, said that the ban would apply to official visits but not personal trips to temples.
The November arrest of British Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal by Indian authorities and "interference in Sikh affairs" by Indian officials had led to the move, said campaign organisers.
Johal was detained in the northern state of Punjab and accused of involvement in the killings of prominent Hindu figures.
His family has rejected the allegations against him, explaining that he was in India to get married. Sikh activists say his arrest was politically motivated.
Federal Canada NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and two Liberal Sikh cabinet ministers have joined a chorus of international complaints about the alleged torture of Johal triggering intense reaction by the Modi administration in India.
Adding to the Indian government’s displeasure to the actions in Canada is the recent elevation of Harinder Malhi, an Ontario provincial parliament member as Minister of the Status of Women.
Malhi is the mover of the 1984 genocide motion in the Ontario House last April and the 38-year-old daughter of Canada's first turbaned MP Gurbax Singh Malhi.
In the summer of 1984, Indian troops battling Sikh fighters stormed Sikhism's holiest Gurdwara, the Golden Temple, leaving hundreds dead.
Later that year, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards, who held her responsible for the bloodshed.
In the aftermath of Gandhi's death, thousands of Sikhs were killed as sectarian mobs targeted Sikhs in Punjab, and the Indian capital New Delhi.
Sikhs have described the killings as a genocide, which India has discounted.
The decision by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to elevate Malhi seems to have been taken with an eye to Sikh votes as Ontario goes to the polls in June.
Sikh Siyasat News said that the Sikhs residing in Canada will not give in or bow down to the interference and pressure placed upon them by the Indian state and their representatives, while reporting on the ban of Indian officials at local temples.
“Although this policy of restriction already exists informally, it is due time for a formal declaration”, temple representatives said according to the website.
“It should be noted that this step is being taken not to restrict access to the Guru, but rather to ensure that the Gurdwara Sahib remains clear from the interference of corrupt officials who represent a government that for the last 4 decades has committed genocide against the Sikh congregation and has never had positive intentions in dealing with Sikhs as a separate nation of people. Further, Sikhs in Canada have been humiliated and threatened by Indian
Consulate offices across the country when trying to access their native homeland of Punjab and being required to have a travel visa (issued by Indian Consulate offices) to do so”, the statement reads.
“Gurdwaras in Canada have often been approached by Sikhs with stories of mistreatment at the hands of these Indian officials who are keen to abuse their power, further subjugate Sikhs, and have attempted to infiltrate Gurdwara Sahibs and Sikh organizations in Canada since 1984”, the statement said.
The statement, however, added that no individual is banned from visiting Gurdwara and the prohibition is only for Indian officials when they try to visit the temples in their official capacity.
“To be clear, no individual is being banned from Gurdwara Sahibs, but Indian representatives in official capacity will not be permitted to address the congregation in Guru Darbar and sewadars from each Gurdwara Sahib may individually choose to which degree they will allow Indian officials access. The purpose of this declaration is to make it known that Sikhs in Canada will not be cornered by the Indian government and their representatives will be accountable to the Sikh congregation everywhere they go”, reads the statement.
The ban imposed by Sikh gurdwara committees in Canada on entry of Indian government officials in gurdwaras was also raised in India’s parliament last week.
Congress MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu raised the issue drawing government’s attention to the development in Canada.
“Khalistani (Sikh separatist) elements are behind the decision,” he said, and added that these elements are maligning the image of the entire Sikh community which will not be tolerated.
He cautioned the gurdwara committees concerned that by indulging in such uncalled for acts, they will forfeit the chance of any help from India.
“Government of India and state government of Punjab will not tolerate this,” he said.
This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.
By: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC
Nearly 70 years since South Asians won the right to vote in Canada, Jagmeet Singh has become the first non-white leader of one of the country’s major political parties.
Media coverage of Singh’s historic victory has ranged from admiration of the new leader’s alpha-male swagger to questions of whether he will hinder his party’s appeal at the Quebec polls. While most stories have understandably commented on the visible symbols of his Sikh faith, a few have taken an oddly suspicious tone of whether keeping a turban and beard is a gateway to misplaced loyalties — in Singh’s case that being in supporting Sikh separatists.
Ironically, the one media outlet that seemed to fumble over itself to roll out this unwelcome mat was none other than Canada’s public broadcaster, the traditionally left-leaning CBC.
In an aggressive Fox-style interview on Power & Politics, veteran journalist Terry Milewski interviewed Singh for his first appearance on the station since winning the NDP leadership. He tossed Singh a few softball questions about his leadership plans before cutting incongruently into a question that rhetorically implied a connection between Singh and the Air India bombing from three decades ago: Does Singh condemn Sikhs who venerate Talwinder Parmar, the man considered to be the architect of the bombing of Flight 182 in 1985?
The broadside seemed to take Singh by surprise. He deflected while the CBC host kept doggedly pressing him. Eventually the awkwardly un-Canadian exchange ended in a stalemate. The post-mortem discussion on social media, however, questioned the fairness of this line of inquiry.
Milewski’s cross-examination was loaded, first of all, with the assumption that Singh, a Sikh born in Canada on the cusp of the millennial generation, should be studied in the history of Talwinder Parmar, and the intricacies of an Indian separatist movement from 30 years ago. This would be on par with assuming that Tom Mulcair, the previous NDP leader, should know the history of Sinn Fein just because his father was an Irish Catholic immigrant.
But even if Singh knows his history of 1980s Sikh separatism, was he being asked to denounce the personal views of other Sikhs who venerate Parmar because Singh himself is a baptized Sikh?
Or was he being asked because there are such followers in his political base?
Either way, these questions lead to a troubling double standard when compared to CBC’s treatment of other politicians, such as the Conservative Party’s new leader Andrew Scheer. In an interview earlier this year, Scheer was asked about his views on same-sex marriage and abortion, but at no point was the devout Catholic asked to openly condemn his fellow Catholic congregants who view same-sex marriage as an abomination.
Meanwhile, other Canadian politicians with a significant following in the Sikh community have also been spared Milewski’s rough treatment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never been asked to condemn the portion of his Sikh base who view men like Parmar as martyrs. In the 2015 election, Trudeau benefited mightily from the Sikh vote, delivered to him by organizers from the World Sikh Organization — a group that once advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland, on the heels of the Air India bombing. The WSO has also delivered for past Liberal leaders, including Jean Chretien.
Media hypocrisy, however, reaches its apex each spring in Surrey, when dozens of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, along with senior representative from the armed forces, RCMP, major banks and other federal bodies congregate at the Khalsa Day Parade on 128th Street. The event, which drew 300,000 attendees this past year, is hosted by Dasmesh Darbar, the largest Sikh temple in B.C. At this temple, a kind of Sikh version of the Yasukuni Shrine, Parmar and other Sikh separatists are lionized through posters and photo memorials.
In the years since the Air India bombing, mainstream media has leaned heavily on a false, and self-perpetuated, binary of “moderates” versus “fundamentalists” when reporting on news with a Sikh angle. This was partly the consequence of non-diverse newsrooms in the 1980s and 1990s struggling to decipher the inner-workings of a complex community with which many were unfamiliar.
So media outlets created go-to contacts, such as temple presidents and politicians, who became the default spokespeople for an entire range of issues, regardless of their familiarity on these topics. These individuals, in turn, used their privileged positions to perpetuate this divide in which “moderates” became seen as forward-looking secularists who, typically, didn’t wear turbans, while fundamentalists were orthodox in religious practice and ardent supporters of an Sikh homeland independent of India.
In the three decades since Air India, two generations of Sikhs have grown out of the shadow of the separatist turmoil. These youth tend to speak English and French better than they do Punjabi and they are politically active through social justice causes.
Singh is part of this new educated generation which continues to advocate — arguably with more passion and idealism than their parents — for redress on behalf of the 10,000-plus Sikhs systematically murdered by government supported pogroms in Delhi in 1984. Singh, and other young Canadian Sikhs, however, are equally as impassioned by other Canadian-based causes such as attaining meaningful reconciliation for this country’s Aboriginal communities and protecting the environment.
This complexity, however, becomes lost in translation for reporters like Milewski because they still insist on viewing the Sikh community through the tenuous lens of Air India and the separatist struggle that long ago withered on the vine. The community has changed but their narrative framework for reporting has not evolved.
Consequently, Singh’s social activism and even his belief in self-determination becomes recklessly conflated as support for a man accused of terrorism three decades ago. And it happens on national television, as it did on Power & Politics where CBC got caught judging a book by its cover as Milewski shamelessly tried to pin down Singh as a Sikh “fundamentalist.”
If there was any extremism in Canada that day, it was in the manner by which CBC treated the new leader of the NDP.
Singh won his party leadership and the support of the party grassroots because he is a person who embodies the modern nuances of multicultural Canada. Until CBC figures out how to articulate that, Canada’s public broadcaster will continue to foster uncomfortable exchanges that do little to bring together Canadians of all backgrounds.
Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Mann is also a member of the NCM Collective and regular contributor for New Canadian Media. This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.
By: Davina Bhandar in Vancouver
Within the space of a few moments, Jagmeet Singh became one of Canada’s most admired politicians. His cool-under-pressure reaction to being confronted by an angry heckler is just one of the reasons Singh is considered to be the favourite contender for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party.
A video of the Sept. 6 incident at Singh’s campaign event in Brampton, Ont., went viral and has been viewed millions of times in Canada and around the world. Moments into the event, an angry white woman interrupted Singh and shouted Islamophobic and vitriolic statements at him, and physically gesticulated, demonstrating her feeling of entitlement — to space, voice and position - in relation to others at the event.
Singh seemed undeterred by the outburst. His response to her rant was to rally his audience to help him relay his campaign message. He asked his guests to chant: “Love and courage.”
What is the nature of Singh’s call for love? His political slogan is based on a message of universal love and courage. Singh’s message — and chant that evening — is uniquely situated among the slogans of the three other candidates: Charlie Angus “Got your back,” Niki Ashton “Building a movement, together,” and Guy Caron, “Let’s Build a Progressive and Sustainable Economy.”
The dramatic events at the Sept. 6 meeting demonstrates something about Singh, as a person and as a candidate. It also points to new undercurrents of religion and spirituality and its role — not only in Canadian politics, but also in the leadership race for the NDP.
Singh’s campaign and potential leadership arrives in a climate of increasing hatred, fear and division. His call for universal love is coherent with Sikhism, which challenges the division between daily life and a devotional love that guides all thought and action. How does the language of love and courage relate to a New Democratic Party trying to find its way in a shifting political landscape?
Singh’s outward appearance solicits questions from some Canadians — as in the case of the heckler — regarding his secular position: To what degree does Singh’s religion relate to his policy ideas or conduct?
Canadian political institutions and traditions are imbued with Judeo-Christian values and symbols. Yet the separation of church and state maintains religion does not dictate the making of policy and law. However, in the game of politics, courting ethno-racial, national and religious identified voters has become a central art of party campaign strategists.
Political parties of all persuasions have had to navigate this division in a variety of ways. In Canada, the left social democratic tradition, represented now by the NDP, has had less experience with faith-based movements and the religious identity of its leaders than their right-wing counterparts and left-leaning parties elsewhere in the world. Singh’s leadership challenge will likely change that.
While Singh is positioned as a secular politician, his ethos, sense of justice and formation of his identity is connected to a Sikh practice. The very essence of the message of universal love and courage is embedded in a Sikh devotion, rather than a secular idea of loving all humankind. Practising Sikhism defines a way of life — one that is contemplative, meditative and committed to spiritualism and positive actions.
To understand the contemporary role of religion in politics, we need to look at one of our turning points: 9/11. The attacks on New York City and the Pentagon served as a marker of the time foreign and domestic policy in North America was called upon to name Islamic terrorism as a universal enemy.
Once North America and other western governments embraced the rhetoric of a civilization divide, the psyche of liberal democratic nations split apart. The already tenuous divide between the religious and secular began to rupture further.
This reinforced a binary division and emboldened a powerful discourse of racism and Islamophobia. The basic premise is that Islam represents something universally distinct from Christian belief systems.
This discourse of racism and difference has gained strength and societal control through the election of conservative governments with moral platforms that build on fears and anxieties of susceptible citizens.
Sixteen years of corrosive discourses since 9/11 has led to: Us vs. Them, the Clash of Civilizations and racism. We are now at the point of the normalization of white supremacy. It is no longer an oddity or a left-wing conspiracy theory to discuss the presence of fascism and neo-Nazis — these are events widely circulated in our social media feeds and featured during the evening news.
Islamophobia and racism are often understood to be twinned structures of oppression. In many ways they are, but there are complex differences between them. They disseminate and exist in different political, cultural and social taxonomies.
Islamophobia operates through systems of stereotypes, often misunderstanding or misrepresenting the traditions, religious practices and customs of highly diverse ethno-national and racial communities. Islamophobia has been manufactured in multiple ways in society through popular culture, media, policy and criminalizing targeting Islam and Muslims.
Racism is a larger systemic operation of power denigrating one race while validating or elevating another.
When the Harper Conservatives were in government, they attempted to map onto Canadian national values a form of social conservatism. This was articulated through a distinction between Canada and the “barbaric cultural practices” of others.
The clear lines that were being drawn between what Harper referred to as “old stock Canadians” during a 2015 federal leaders’ debate brought into discourse front and center the relationship between white supremacy and Islamophobia. It connected the dots between a normative white Christian Canadian identity that could stand against the racialized others.
Now the Conservative Party has a leader who proudly accepts the label: “Harper with a Smile.”“ Andrew Scheer has the support of social conservatives in the Conservative Party. He has steadfastly supported free speech over the condemnation of Islamophobia and was absent during the House of Commons vote for the Anti-Islamophobia Motion M-103, overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons.
Singh said his ability to remain cool under pressure was largely owed to his experience of being a brown, Sikh and turbaned man, growing up in the 1980s in Brampton, Ont., just northwest of Toronto.
His past experiences of religious and racist intolerance helped to fortify him against racist language and assault.
In the moment in which the racist woman yelled at him, she assumed he was a Muslim. Many wondered why Singh did not attempt to correct her misconceived perception; he is not a Muslim, but rather, a Sikh.
Suggesting such a distinction in the moment, he said, would only further the misunderstanding that somehow being Muslim means such treatment is considered justifiable. His reaction, he said, should not be to proclaim his religion. By not correcting this misconception, Singh was acting in solidarity against Islamophobia.
Sikhs have been affected throughout the post-9/11 discourses of Islamophobia, mainly because of this misunderstood identity. In the U.S., and elsewhere, there has been a rise in hate bias attacks against Sikhs, with the 2012 Oak Creek, Wis., shooting as a visible example.
While there are those who, in the similar vein as Singh, have sought to challenge Islamophobia by standing in solidarity, there have also been many instances where Sikhs in America, the U.K. and Canada painstakingly distinguish themselves from Muslims.
However, in countless examples, when Islamophobia is experienced in the public sphere against properly identified Muslims, there has been a lack of outcry.
In Canada, the shooting deaths in Quebec’s Sainte-Foy’s Mosque, in which Azzedine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubakar Thabthi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahim Barry were killed, was unmistakably an act of terrorism. Canadians across the country mourned this tragedy. And yet was it recognized as an act of terrorism against the citizens of this state?
The day-to-day effects of Islamophobia have led to many Muslims living with heightened experiences of fear and not knowing what they might encounter on a walk to school, a day at work or even waiting for a bus.
The left social-democrats of the NDP hold steadfastly to their conception of justice, fairness and equality in a secular world. The ways in which people are encountering the public today, however, is seemingly much murkier than these stark divisions.
The issues of racism, religious intolerance and social justice are not central issues for any federal political party. These issues, however, should no longer be viewed as separate from major policy platforms including health, welfare reform, employment, national defense, national security, aboriginal relations and education. Perhaps a political leader such as Jagmeet Singh will be able to navigate these debates with an alacrity and style we have yet to witness in the Canadian political world.
By: Bhupinder S. Liddar in Oliver, BC
Nestled in the scenic and stunning rolling dry desert hills and mirror lakes of Okanagan Valley in beautiful British Columbia is the town of Oliver – the wine capital of Canada!
Oliver’s population of 5,000 is made up of about 1,000 Sikhs. If one drives along the town’s Main Street, one is bound to see a turbaned Sikh or a Sikh lady in Punjabi dress, as well as the Sikh Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). And as one proceeds through the scenic Okanagan Valley one is struck by the greenery of wineries and fruit orchards, and depending on the time of the summer, one will drive by cherry, peach, apple, and perhaps prune trees all along Highway 97.
Oliver’s Mayor Ron Hovanes describes his town as an “authentic farming community.” Other than driving along the fruit-tree-lined highway, one can pull into one of the many wineries for tasting, buying, or even a meal.
The Sikhs started migrating and buying orchards and vineyards in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley about three decades ago. Farming is in the Sikh genes. Their ancestral home state of Punjab is the breadbasket of India. Sikhs are also successful farmers in Australia, Kenya, Fiji, among other countries.
The Sikhs bought orchards/vineyards predominantly from the Portuguese, who had migrated here in the 1950s. Mayor Hovanes explains the origins of Oliver are in the irrigation canal built in 1926 under British Columbia Premier John Oliver, after whom the town is named. The intent was to settle returning British veterans of the First World War.
The British migrants were followed by Germans in the 1930s and Hungarians in the 1940s and 1950s. Sikhs own about 70 per cent of orchards and wineries. The average holding is about 10–12 acres, and according to farmer Bhupinder Singh Karwasra, an acre generates an income of about $8,000 to $10,000. Prices of land have doubled or tripled since Sikhs first bought land at $4,000 an acre.
Apart from farming, Sikhs are venturing into other trades and commercial enterprises. Paramjit Singh Chauhan owns and operates East India Meat Shop on Highway 97, down the road from Oliver. Similarly, Surjit Singh Aulakh this month set up a hairdresser shop on Oliver’s Main Street.
Oliver-born Baljeet S. Dhaliwal, a graduate of Simon Fraser University, is now a manager at one of BC Tree Fruits packinghouses. Others, such as Toor twin brothers – Randy and Jessie, have set up an 80-acre, state-of-the-art Desert Hills Estate Winery on what was once an apple orchard. They are the second Sikh family to settle in the area, in the footsteps of Major Dhaliwal. The Toor brothers, from Village of Ucha Jattana, immigrated from India to Canada in 1982 and settled in Winnipeg. On the urging of their sister Lucky Gill, who is involved in the hospitality industry, they moved to Oliver in 1988. Randy Toor was elected to one term on Oliver Town council in 2005.
Oliver’s major communities – indigenous, Portuguese, Caucasian, and Sikhs live in silos, with little or no informal social interaction other than in schools, shopping centres and workplaces. Mohinder Singh Gill, president of the Sikh Gurdwara, attributes this partly to lack of English speaking skills among Sikhs. For instance, the Sikh seniors meet at the Gurdwara instead of going to the central seniors centre.
The indigenous Osoyoos people, almost all live on a reservation adjoining Oliver.
Punjabi was offered at Oliver High School until recently and the search is on for a Punjabi instructor.
Fortunately, days of ugly racism are almost over, though I was told of schoolyard fights among indigenous, Sikh and white students.
According to Mayor Hovanes, there is “no overt racial tension,” and former Town councillor Randy Toor observes there is “very little evidence of racism and it is fading away.”
The future looks promising for the Sikh community in Oliver, though many young Sikhs are opting to head to urban areas and into professions other than farming. But for now, most Sikhs make up a dynamic, vibrant and growing community in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley.
Bhupinder S. Liddar is a Kenya-born Sikh and a retired Canadian diplomat. This piece was republished under arrangement with the Oliver Chronicle.
Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa
Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies. Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause. It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.
Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable. At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.
On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib. Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.
Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.
We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue. It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding. As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.
India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’. That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’ in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.
This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.
It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism. I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.
There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government. Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India.
It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence.
We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs. But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.
Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world.
Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver
Anyone who has travelled to subcontinent knows it is not always such a salubrious destination. Incredible India, as the country sells itself in tourism brochures, can be incredibly chaotic, unwieldy, hot, dusty, venal, bovinely, and polluted – and then you accidently end up drinking the water.
Given his weakened state since returning to Canada, Canada's Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, has no doubt picked up a severe political bellyache from his recent week-long trip to the country.
In what should have been a soft PR exercise, Sajjan’s first trip to India as Canada’s Defense Minister, has gone from being an electoral victory lap in his birth country to a slog on Ottawa’s apology circuit.
The trip has brought into question his integrity as a leader, diminished his venerated standing before military personnel, and even dulled his image within the Sikh community.
During a speech at the Delhi based Observer Research Foundation security think-tank, Sajjan veered off script and deliberately inserted a line about being ‘the architect’ of Operation Medusa, a large-scale Canadian offensive in Afghanistan in 2006. It was a false statement: in Kandahar, where Sajjan served three tours while a reservist, he was as a mid-level officer providing intelligence to his commanders.
At his first sitting in the House of Commons on Monday, the minister, looked weary from repeating contrition for the battlefield boast, but failed to provide an explanation for it.
"I'm not here to make excuses," he said to the press gallery. "I'm here to acknowledge my mistake, apologize for it, learn from it and continue to serve."
Not since the cameras showed up at Premier Glen Clark’s house, had a BC politician seemed in such desperate need for a foxhole.
It's not unusual for Canadian immigrants to flash their success when they return to their homeland – Sajjan also made a visit to his birth village in the Punjab on this trip. These blingy displays however tend to be exhibited through heavy gold sets and brand name clothing, and not, as in the Minister case, through false claims of military prowess.
Had it been Sajjan’s only embellishment of his operational role, this errant speech could have been written off as typical politician’s self-aggrandizement. However, he also stated this alternative fact in an interview in 2015.
While this controversy has hogged the spotlight back in Canadian media this week, it was not the only trouble spot arising from his first visit back to India in 14 years.
The Minister’s tour, particularly of Punjab, was notably bumpy as the Chief Minister of the state, Captain Amarinder Singh and his cabinet, refused to meet with Sajjan.
Singh alleged that the minister and his father, Kundan Sajjan, a former executive of the World Sikh Organisation (WSO), are both Khalistan sympathisers. At the height of the Punjab conflict in the 1980’s, the WSO espoused the formation of an independent Sikh state.
The allegation against the minister is baseless and seems motivated by Singh’s bitterness at the Trudeau government. The Canadian government did not permit Singh to campaign last year among Canada’s one million-plus South Asians, forcing Singh to cancel the Canadian leg of his North American tour.
The Punjab Chief Minister’s rebuff, however, did little to help Sajjan’s mandate of advancing Canada-India relations, or of re-energising stalled Canada-India free trade talks which were first launched in 2010.
However, Sajjan’s most agonising moments during the week-long trip may have been in his circumspect responses to questions about the Ontario NDP provincial government recently passing legislation recognising the 1984 Delhi killings of Sikhs as an act of genocide. By some counts, as many as 30,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs in a four-day murderous frenzy.
In 2011, Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal was the first federal MP to petition for the recognition of the 1984 killings as an act of genocide, receiving support then from the current Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains. Dhaliwal was denied a visa to India in 2011, retribution for him spearheading this motion.
The failure of the Indian government to prosecute the government officials who organised the mobs has been a source of much pain for Sikhs worldwide for the past three decades. Sajjan however distanced himself from the motion.
In a stumbling response, he highlighted it was brought forward by a private member of the Ontario legislature (Harinder Malhi), insinuating the motion was politically motivated during an election year in the province. He further added that this was not his position as a member of the federal Liberal government.
Sikhs who were hopeful Canada’s most recognisable cabinet member would help resolve this long outstanding social justice issue were clearly disappointed in these answers. Left in the wake of Sajjan’s India trip are gnawing questions about how much of his cultivated image as Canada’s ‘badass’ minister, and a comic book hero for justice, is truth and how much is hyperbole.
Afterall, why would he distance himself from a social cause as glaring as the Delhi killings? And why would a veteran break the military code about boasting and take credit for the sacrifices of other soldiers?
After nearly 18 months in office, it seems all we have learned about the first term MP from Vancouver South is that it’s hard to gauge exactly where the soldier ends the politician begins.
Jagdeesh Mann is executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. This article has been republished under arrangement with the Post.
by Renée Sylvestre-Williams
When Toronto-based lawyer Anjli Patel and her husband, Parambir Keila, were planning their Sikh wedding ceremony, they wanted to keep it simple and have it downtown. But they didn't look specifically for a South Asian planner familiar with their cultures.
“We found our wedding planner through a listing on Wedluxe.com,” says Patel. It wasn't necessarily the norm for Patel to have a planner. She says traditionally South Asian weddings were organized by families and, in some cases, the entire village. But since her 2012 wedding, she says having a planner instead of relying on family has become more accepted in South Asian communities.
“There are South Asian wedding planners, like Sapna [Weddings], but we went with our planner [Melissa Haggerty from Spectacular Spectacular], even though ours was their first South Asian wedding, because we wanted to get married in a downtown venue, and our planner had a lot of experience planning events in downtown venues.” Spectacular Spectacular has planned a few South Asian weddings each year since.
That choice, and that distribution of knowledge, wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago, when Vicki Singh was planning her wedding. She was inspired to start her own wedding planning business after trying to find suppliers who could cater to the South Asian market.
As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. With the Canadian wedding industry worth $5 billion and catering to an average of 160,000 couples annually (according to a survey in Weddingbells magazine), the industry has evolved beyond the white dress. And while it's easy for many people to find a planner who understands their wishes in their countries of origin, it can be difficult to find planners in Canada who fully appreciate clients’ varied needs and cultural sensitivities.
“This year will be our 15th anniversary [of the business],” says Singh, who has published two books on the subject, Cultural Weddings and The South Asian Wedding Planner. “This issue kept coming up. Finding suppliers who wanted and could cater to Indian weddings was a challenge. Instagram wasn’t as prevalent, so there were fewer ways to find out about new services and ideas. We were counting a lot on word of mouth to find people to do video, makeup — and the referrals weren’t always of the best quality.”
“We helped plan a Sikh wedding last year where the photographer had never done this kind of wedding before,” Singh explains, describing one typical example. “She was adamant she knew what to do, but there are certain things you need to know beforehand that she never got to: in a Sikh wedding you remove your shoes, cover your head, et cetera, during the ceremony. She came to the venue not knowing any of that.”
Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, says couples who've wanted a diverse wedding have been chronically underserved by the industry, but that is changing. “Diversity has always been a key factor in Canadian weddings, and with more and more couples wanting to incorporate their cultures into their celebration, there has definitely been a shift in the wedding marketplace … Offerings are more multicultural today than ever before, and it is now not as difficult to find a wedding planner specializing in specific cultural celebrations.” She also said that wedding shows — often the place where couples find vendors and suppliers — are becoming more varied, offering services specific to different cultural backgrounds.
Danielle Andrews, co-founder of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada, has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I don’t know that multicultural weddings themselves have necessarily increased,” she says. “What I’m seeing is more wedding coordinators getting involved. We’re seeing a shift towards having a wedding coordinator handling the [culturally specific] details — and not necessarily always a wedding coordinator of the couple’s culture.”
What has changed, in other words, is that wedding coordinators are educating themselves about different cultures. They might have training in (and until recently, cultural familiarity with) western wedding mores, but now they’re expanding their expertise and range of services.
Andrews says they’re seeing more weddings that blend eastern and western traditions — “more western-style weddings with the Chinese tea ceremony included," for instance. "It’s not heavy on customs, but it’s definitely incorporating customs.” Couples are picking and choosing which customs they want incorporated into their wedding.
Patel and Keila chose not to include extravagant Sikh or Hindu traditions into their wedding, which often include a week of events leading up to the ceremony. Instead, she and her husband kept the wedding small, celebrating at the Art Gallery of Ontario with 150 people, and even skipping the cake. She says working with Haggerty might have sounded risky, but it worked out: “We had a South Asian officiant and we all met a number of times to review the ceremony in detail. We had many design meetings where we discussed the big-picture look and feel and details as well. Having said that, our vision was never beyond her comprehension because we have the same aesthetic sensibility. We were always on the same page.”
Singh, the one who started her own wedding planning business, may have had trouble finding suppliers who could help plan weddings, but now, people can get her books everywhere. “We have brides who get our books at the Bay or Bed Bath and Beyond. And [then they] will have their nieces use it — a progression of people.”
Renee Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Quartz.
This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.
A UK-based Sikh organization is coming to Canada to hold a free media workshop in Mississauga on August 17 at Dixie Gurdwara.
The Sikh Press Association – a facilitator between the Sikh community and international media – will be holding the interactive workshop from 6 to 8 p.m. in an attempt to help locals learn media skills directly from professionals.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit