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By Maria Assaf in Oxford

In 2016 Canada’s first Syrian newspaper, The Migrant, was founded by Kameel Nasrawi. Nasarawi worked as a journalist and screenplay writer in Damascus before he and his family came to Canada as refugees two years ago. The Migrant shares positive stories about Syrians across Canada to inspire others in the community to create their own success stories.  

Many diasporas across Canada have started their own media outlets to connect their communities, share vital information and to create a sense of home. Some media outlets like the Philippine Reporter, whose publishers faced political imprisonment in the Philippines before settling in Canada, use journalism as a means to challenge the status quo and discuss the effect political events have on the members of their community. In Canada and their home countries. But it refers to the status quo of having challenges to tell their stories. I explain this point below regarding your question about the word “establishment”, which in this context means the same thing.  The term “status quo” is not limited to a particular country: it means the existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues. 

Back in 2015, Europe was in the midst of a self-proclaimed “refugee crisis.” As the European Union discussed a controversial deal with Turkey that would keep refugees outside its borders, I followed seven Syrian refugee reporters in Istanbul. Leicester University published a paper I wrote in May 2016 about the challenges these reporters faced regarding freedom of expression.  

Importance of refugee journalism 

Richard Carver and Guglielmo Verdirame conducted research in Rwanda and former Zaire in 2001 and found that refugee outlets help their communities exercise their right of freedom of expression and access to information. It also provides communities access to comprehensive and accurate data about conditions in their countries of origin, which is essential when deciding whether or not to repatriate.  

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Nasrawi explained that because of the language barrier, many newcomers are unaware of programs run by the Canadian government, programs designed to help newcomers integrate into Canadian society.  

Tiziano Bonini wrote that refugee reporting can be an important tool for those who may never be able to return home. For refugees, having publications that understand key issues in their community is vital. For example, The Migrant features articles on issues such as divorce, sex education and entrepreneurship, which the paper found to be pressing in among the Syrian-Canadian community.  

With 68.5 million people forcibly displaced around the world and 10,832 refugees accepted into Canada between January and September, ensuring that refugee populations are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression is a pressing issue.   

Challenges it faces 

However, engaging in journalism as a means of challenging “the establishment” is an almost impossible task for refugees worldwide. Although Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights foregrounds everyone’s right to speak out, international legislation often stops refugees from engaging with political issues. Establishment and status quo are political terms that refer to a group in a society exercising power and influence over matters of policy, opinion, or taste, and seen as resisting change. In this article it refers to a world in which refugees encounter difficulties when having freedom of expression. This involves the status quo of the mainstream media excluding refugee voices and portraying lives of those in the developing world as being of less importance than those in the developed world.  

The Organization of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, for instance, specifically forbids refugees from engaging in “subversive activities” or “attacking” a member state of the OAU “through the press, or by radio.". Verdirame and Harrell-Bond found examples of African states that threatened to repatriate refugee journalists for their work. 

Refugees often face uncertain legal status. For example, Turkey hosted 2.7 million Syrian refugees as “guests” in 2016 to attend a signatory to the Refugee Convention. Turkey—which governs international refugee law—decreed to only grant refugee status to Europeans, a restriction which hinders refugee journalism’s ability to thrive.  

Funding for refugee journalism often comes from donors such as INGOs or Western governments, and comes with conditions. The Syrian reporters I met in Turkey mentioned that funding tended to go to Western-friendly outlets and was usually provided for six months up to a year, making it difficult to set up sustainable businesses. Outlets often self-censored and avoided discussing Turkish political affairs “Those are restrictions we are putting on ourselves. Because Turkey is the only place we are left with to work,” one reporter said.  

In some cases, Syrian newspapers themselves had uncertain legal status. Turkish authorities began to require that media outlets have government-issued licenses in order to operate in 2014. Many outlets weren’t able to get licensed and those that did were subject to monitoring and interrogations. 

Even in countries with less restrictions regarding free expression, doing refugee journalism has been a challenge. Jewish refugee reporters fleeing Nazi Germany found that journalism schools in the United States refused to accept them, often citing often anti-Semitic rationale. In Canada, Hermie Garcia, publisher of Canada’s Philippine Reporter, mentioned that he and his wife who were journalists in the Philippines, were unable to find work in mainstream media because they lacked “Canadian experience.”   

Lack of a refugee voice in the global mainstream media  

Major texts on journalistic scholarship, such as the Handbook for Journalistic Studies by Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch, don’t consider refugee reporting as its own genre. However, scholars like Ullamaija Kivikuru, Melisa Wall, Madeline Otis Campbell and Dana Janbek have warned that the lack of refugee voices in international media reinforces soft-colonial discourse by portraying refugee lives as less valuable than those of the “developed world.” Their study revealed that international journalists often took photos of Syrian refugees without their permission and printed distorted stories about them. 

Palestinian reporters play an essential role in the production of international news about Palestine. But despite having relevant journalistic skills, their contribution is usually limited to translators, producers and fixers. Often, to keep their jobs at international news organizations, they avoid disclosing their views on their situation. Journalistic objectivity is often cited as the reason behind preventing those affected by conflict from telling their own stories, however, literature about multiculturalism and multimedia reporting shows that by collaborating across different communities, journalism can help address inequality.   

Seeking solutions

Many refugee and migrant journalists end up starting their own community publications because they can’t work for the mainstream media in their host countries. Some abandon the profession altogether. This issue is not unique to journalism, as underemployment is a banner issue for many Canadian immigrants.   

Several of the Syrian reporters I interviewed sought alternative funding from international media outlets who didn’t attach conditions to their aid. Others tried using advertising, charging for content or getting donations from businessmen, but these often came with requests for editorial control.  

One reporter said “I think before we were fighting for independent media from the regime. Now we are fighting for independent media from everyone.” 

Members of the Syrian press in Turkey have formed alliances such as the Syrian Network of Print Journalists (SNP) to share expertise and facilities. Similarly in Canada, The Migrant recruits volunteer writers from different Arab communities, because many people in these communities are journalists in similar situations.  

Existing in a challenging time, refugee journalism still manages to help their communities have more agency in the international conversation about their lives. However, much needs to be done in Canada and abroad to ensure that refugees can exercise their right to freedom of expression. Refugee reporting funders need to respect the freedom of the press and provide realistic timeframes to their aid for these outlets to thrive. In this last sentence, I mean that aid is usually provided for 6 months to a year. Reporters found that this is not enough time for them to establish their businesses and become self-sustaining. So funding timeframes should be set out with this in mind.  

Finally, despite Western mainstream media’s high valuation of objectivity, what needs to be understood is that the people best suited to tell refugees’ stories are refugees themselves. 


Maria Assaf is a Canadian journalist and communications expert based in Oxford, England.

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. 

Journalism while brown

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.

“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.”

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.

A range of quality

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.

Misread

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.

“I believe I am like everyone else because perspective is diverse and we all have something to contribute to that discussion."

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.”


This article originally appeared in Georgia Straight, read the full version here. Jagdeesh Mann is a journalist and the principal of Sunflower Media, based in Vancouver.

Commentary by: Jamie Liew in Ottawa, ON

There’s been a lot of talk about getting rid of birthright citizenship in Canada and the United States. President Donald Trump announced that he’ll issue an executive order and the Conservative Party of Canada passed a motion that, should they be the next federal government, birthright citizenship will be no more. 

In the U. S., the president will have to contend with the fact that he can’t just unilaterally eliminate a right in the 14th Amendment of the constitution. 

In Canada, birthright citizenship can be eliminated simply by amending or repealing parts of the Citizenship Act. 

In both countries, the preoccupation with ending birthright citizenship is tied to the argument that migrants are engaging in “birth tourism” and challenging the integrity of citizenship. But the facts say otherwise.

As Andrew Griffith, former director general at Citizenship and Immigration Canada points out, fewer than 0.1 percent of total births in Canada in the last 10 years (except 2012) involved births of children to foreign mothers. Griffiths concludes, “An impartial observer would conclude that there is currently no business case for changing Canada’s birth policy.”

Aside from the business case, what’s not talked about is how the elimination of birthright citizenship would affect not just migrants, but all of us. Undoubtedly, such a policy would increase the number of stateless persons in Canada.

The elimination of birthright citizenship would affect the most vulnerable the greatest

Every person born in Canada would have to apply for citizenship. More tax dollars would be needed to process the applications. Clerks would suddenly have the power to make substantive and legal determinations about the status of every person who applies for citizenship. Like any administrative system, mistakes would be made. Bad or wrong decisions would be challenged in the courts at great expense to both the state and people affected. People would struggle with the fact that they are stateless in the interim.

Being stateless has serious implications. 

Stateless persons have difficulty accessing education, employment, health care, social services and freedom of movement. Simple things like obtaining a bank account, cellphone account or registering birth, marriage or death are complicated, if not impossible. Stateless persons would be subject to arrest, detention and potential removal to places they may never have been to before. 

The elimination of birthright citizenship would affect the most vulnerable the greatest: the indigent, less educated, those with mental illness, children in precarious family situations or wards of the state. These are the people who may not have the appropriate paperwork or proof that they do qualify for citizenship or they won’t have support for obtaining citizenship. 

This one policy would create an expensive social problem for the state. 

The elimination of birthright citizenship is then not an act to preserve or protect the integrity of citizenship. The policy is a dividing tool that fuels discrimination against those of different races and socio-economic classes. It’s a tool to delegitimize persons who have a genuine and effective link to Canada. It would create barriers to important rights that come with citizenship, including the right to vote. 

We only need to look at how stripping citizenship and the denial of citizenship in other places of the world have encouraged discrimination, persecution, and violence against stateless persons. For example, the oppression of and the genocide against Rohingya was precipitated by their denial of citizenship in Myanmar, a country they called home for generations. 

Canadians should be cautious when considering the idea to get rid of birthright citizenship. It wouldn’t stop migrants from coming. Instead of making it harder to get citizenship, we should trust our well-oiled immigration system to deal with the entry of persons within our country.

Such a policy would not build confidence in the integrity of Canadian citizenship. Instead, citizenship would be more precarious than ever before.

Canadians should also be mindful that Canada has signed onto the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which obligate Canada not to create situations of statelessness.

My father was born stateless because the state he was born into didn’t confer birthright citizenship. It affected his opportunity for education, employment, and his mental health.

Being a child of a previously stateless person, I’m proof enough that welcoming stateless persons to Canada with the conferral of citizenship is the best way to build a nation.

Jamie Liew is an immigration lawyer and an associate professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, and a contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, which is based at the University of Winnipeg.

 

This piece is published under arrangement with the Asian Pacific Post.

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Have you been following the tortuous twists and turns surrounding the brutal torture, killing and apparent dismemberment of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2? Can you make sense of all the claims and counterclaims? Do you know who ‘did’ the deed? If you answer yes to all these questions, please step to the head of the class.

Here is what we do know. Mr. Khashoggi visited the consulate to get some paperwork done for his upcoming marriage to Hatice Cengiz, who waited for her beloved outside. He never exited. The Saudis claimed, in chronological order that he a) left the consulate (somehow avoiding his fiancee), b) they do not know where he is, c) he was killed following a fight at the consulate, d) ‘rogue elements’ were behind the killing and e) no one senior back in Riyadh knew about or ordered the assassination. Well, it turns out that a), b), probably c), d) and now e) are all falsehoods.

The Washington Post reported that the CIA on Friday had concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter. This is important as intelligence agencies do not normally issue such statements publicly, as this can expose sources and/or methods and that is a no-no in the intelligence world. We can debate for ever why they did this – are there ‘rogue elements’ in the CIA? – but in the end it is significant and is one more confirmation of what many have been saying for weeks anyway, i.e. that the orders to kill Mr. Khashoggi came from the very top. For its part, the European Union has asked the Saudis to ‘shed clarity’ on what happened.

So that’s that then, right? Case closed. Not so fast.  The Saudis shockingly (not) have denied the CIA assessment and President Trump has equally shockingly (not)said he has not made his mind up yet, since he was personally told by his Saudi cronies that MBS was not involved, preferring to wait a few days for his administration to issue a ‘full report’.  Saudi-friendly media have also written that the US has yet to reach a ‘final conclusion’.

What to make of all this? Well, for one the continued Saudi denials and obfuscations can safely be ignored. The Kingdom has tied itself into so many knots through its repeated lies that no sane person would give what it says now any credence. Saudi Arabia may still be seen as an important international player thanks to oil, but on this issue it must be seen as an unreliable partner.

Now on to Trump. That he has not embraced the CIA report is of course a surprise to no one. He openly mocked the FBI reporting on Russian collusion in the 2016 elections and that too is not unexpected. This most unpresidential of presidents cannot get past his own interests and ego and does not accept any criticism over anything he does. He has invested a lot in Saudi Arabia – and especially MBS – having made the Kingdom his first foreign visit after becoming president (can anyone forget that truly bizarre photo of him and the Saudi King putting their hands on that metal globe??) and cannot seem to let go or admit any error of any kind. That his son-in-law Jared Kushner is also beholden to the Saudis is not helping as The Donald seems to have made an amateur his front man on Middle East issues.

Whether or not Saudi Arabia, and more importantly MBS, are ever truly taken to task over the death of Mr. Khashoggi remains to be seen. The Kingdom is, after all, a very influential player and has been playing the US in particular for decades. For the rest of us who are not smitten with the desert princes there are very real and very crucial questions on whether Saudi Arabia should be seen as an ally on any number of fronts (‘war on terror’, what to do about Iran, etc.). The truth is that the Saudis are not, and never have been, a reliable friend and we need to see beyond the purely surface ‘reforms’ that MBS has graciously introduced (allowing women to drive, cracking down on some clerics etc.).

No, the Saudis are not the friend of the West or of anyone else for that matter. They hew to their own agenda and interests. In addition, their hateful version of Islam is the key to understanding much of modern Islamist extremism, even if they too have been hit with attacks (poetic justice?).

It is time to call the Saudis what they are: pick your own phrase as long as it does not imply they are on our side.

Phil Gurski is Director, Security and Intelligence at TheSecDev Group. He served for over 30 years as a strategic intelligence analyst specialising in radicalization, and homegrown Islamist extremism with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Communications Security Establishment(CSE), Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). He is a member of New Canadian Media.

Monday, 29 October 2018 19:39

If you Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed?

Written by

Commentary by Mohamed Hammoud in London, ON

“All Jews must die.”

This was the shout of a lone gunman as he opened fire on a congregation of Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Saturday morning.  11 people were killed, six injured, including four police officers. The incident has brought together the Jewish and Muslim communities through a reverberating message of responding to hate with love.

Some might wonder how two communities normally seen at odds over political differences can unite, but since the attacks, Muslims in both Canada and the United States have taken to various social media platforms to express their solidarity with their Jewish brethren and are speaking out against hate crimes and all related forms of vitriolic rhetoric. At least two organizations have undertaken crowdfunding activities to raise money for the families of the victims, already exceeding targets with over $110,000 in just two days. Other Muslim organizations have been active in helping the families with grocery shopping and organizing vigils.

Many have been quick to criticize U.S. President Donald Trump for his response; although he denounced the hate incident, when asked about gun control, he responded that the shooting has “little to do with it.” Again, not unlike his response to the Florida shooting earlier this year, Trump recommended using guns to solve the problem and use armed guards to protect churches and synagogues. He eschewed the real issues of curbing gun violence or striving to heal a country rent asunder by his vitriolic rhetoric. And with his unwavering support of neo-Nazis and the Ultra-right, his unapologetic “America First” rhetoric and xenophobic policies, few have any confidence in his ability to curb an alarming increase in antisemitic hate crimes.

In Canada, the wash over effect is a 60 per cent spike in online hate. According to the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and StatsCan, data shows that the Jewish community continues to be the most common target of hate crimes, closely followed by attacks on Muslims.  Understandably, members of the two Abrahamic faiths recognize the importance of finding common ground. The notion of turning faith sanctuaries into heavily-guarded fortresses is very disturbing. Places of worship represent safe havens where we can nurture a sense of belonging and community-building and members can draw on shared experiences to foster opportunities to build relationships with their neighbors through interfaith dialogue. Some fear that turning churches and synagogues into guarded fortresses might have the adverse effect of bolstering more horrific attacks.

When asked about the recent incident in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Debra Stahlberg Dressler of Temple Israel in London, Ontario, explained that “it’s time to acknowledge that rhetoric can and does kill. Maybe not in the moment, but when hatred and falsehoods are the currency of public discussion, violence seems to become inevitable.”  Speaking at the Interfaith Tree Planting held by Reforest London on Sunday, October 28, 2018, Rabbi Dressler expressed her gratitude for the show of support and solidarity from Muslims and Christians.  

What we need most now is not more guns, we don’t need more fear of the other. We need to foster climates of acceptance and open our doors and build bridges and adopt a “zero tolerance” policy against any expressions of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and any other sort of bigotry, as well as attitudes and ideologies that can breed acts of hate and rob us of our religious freedom, pluralism and liberties. As Rabbi Dressler reminds us, there is hope, after all, it is “relationships are what ultimately will keep us safe.”

Mohamed Hammoud has been involved in various public speaking engagements focusing on interfaith as well as training on leadership, diversity and inclusion. He is also an active contributor to New Canadian Media and a member of the NCM Collective.

Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

The ongoing story of phony absentee ballots, and vote-buying swirling around Surrey’s current municipal election is cast with a perfect mix of characters—vulnerable immigrants, greedy developers, partisan journalists, and amoral politicians—to seem like a plot suited for an Indian soap opera, the nightly programming favoured by many of the city’s 160,000 South Asian residents.

This drama is just too tantalizing to pass up. Across Surrey-based South Asian social media threads, Whatsapp chat groups, and Punjabi-language radio talk shows, gossiping over this latest scandal—or appearance of a scandal—has become the latest guilty pleasure.

This issue, which for the past two weeks has overshadowed actual policy matters relevant to the Surrey election, has tarnished the image of the city’s politics-mad South Asian community. But in an election when the leading candidate is someone vying to become the city’s first mayor of South Asian descent, perhaps that was the point. Smearing an opponent is a common tactic in wild anything-goes democracies like India, but its a sort of "dirty politics" most South Asians living in Canada would prefer remain overseas.

But as of the latest police investigation update, it seems this entire affair may turn out to be much ado about nothing. Surrey RCMP reported it had examined 73 applications to vote by mail, and that 67 were fraudulent because they were not completed or signed by the voter listed on the application.

The Mounties added that no ballots were sent out to individuals based on these fraudulent applications.

And lastly—and most importantly here—the RCMP said it had not found any evidence to link any mayoral candidate to these phony applications.

As the RCMP investigation continues, and given all the commentary on social media are unsubstantiated allegations, most mainstream media outlets in the Lower Mainland have wisely remained circumspect in their coverage of the issue.

CBC, StarMetro, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail have all avoided implicating any particular mayoral candidate in this alleged scandal. There is plenty of rumour-mongering online, but it won’t be found in the coverage provided by these outlets.

But there has been one notable exception: Global News. The media outlet has aggressively pursued this story and it recently stepped assertively into a no-man’s land of difficult-to-corroborate allegations via its story, “Two men say they were pressured to participate in alleged Surrey voter fraud scheme”, and published comments from two anonymous South Asian sources—Mr. X and Mr. Y—the type of material other outlets have ostensibly balked at using.

What made the Global News story stand out against all the coverage on this issue, was that it seemed to implicate one of three leading mayoral candidates. The video version of the story can be viewed here.

The piece seemed like uncharacteristically thin reporting by the staid broadcaster that still reigns as the most popular evening newscast in the Lower Mainland and that (arguably) still possesses the reporting credibility to bring down governments in the province—it was Global’s (BCTV) cameras that were first on the spot when the police came knocking on then-premier Glen Clark’s door back in 1999.

By airing its story, Global News seemed to signal that its reporters had corroborating information others outlets lacked. I did make contact with Global’s news director but I did not receive answers in how the outlet verified the statements of these anonymous sources.

But if the statements were accepted with minimal direct corroboration, then it would seem Global—at least when it comes to coverage featuring issues from diverse communities—is willing to relax its standards of reporting and use difficult-to-verify information that otherwise wouldn’t make the grade.

But before diving into that, first some background.

Let’s start with the alleged victims—these are an unknown number of Surrey residents of South Asian descent who by most accounts seem to be recent immigrants with little to no English skills, senior citizens, foreign students with "permanent residency" (though this seems like an oxymoron), and others from this community who typically do not vote. They have either been solicited (made a Godfather-like offer they can’t refuse) by various "poll captains" or their volunteer staff to cast an absentee ballot for their candidate (or made to sign over these ballots which are filled out and submitted on their behalf later).

Pulling the strings behind the scenes are apparently deep-pocketed developers who are watching over the proceedings like fat cats perched on stacks of $100 bills—apparently the going rate per vote.

A grassroots anticrime activist organization, Wake Up Surrey, formed earlier this year to combat gang violence and what it views as the city’s institutional complacency in halting gun crime, blew the whistle on this alleged scandal in September. It has taken on the capes of heroes.

And lastly, a three-term Surrey councillor of South Asian descent, Tom Gill, who is a front runner and has all the coveted endorsements, including one from former Surrey mayor Diane Watts, is seeing his campaign put on the backfoot and his aspiration to become the city’s first nonwhite mayor pulled down into the mud.

That is because it was Gill who was fingered in the Global piece that featured the two anonymous South Asian men, Mr. X and Mr. Y, both of whom work in the Lower Mainland construction trades. According to Global’s story, both men said they were approached by people from Gill’s Surrey First campaign, the difference being Mr. Y got the carrot, while Mr. X, the stick.

In Mr. X’s case, he was asked to fill out a phony mail-in ballot in support of Gill and informed if he didn’t provide assistance that money owed to him from a trades job would be in jeopardy.

Mr. Y said he was asked for the names of South Asian residents in Surrey who typically did not vote. He was promised preferential treatment in a future Gill administration from city planners in terms of his development submissions.

Neither man said they went to the Surrey RCMP with their troubles.

Global kept the identities of both men anonymous out of their fear of reprisal.

Where vote-buying with either money or liquor is a common, almost comically traditional practice in Punjabi villages (where many of Surrey’s South Asian population hails from), voter fraud in Canada is nonexistent. In 2017, the Economist’s Democracy Index ranked Canada sixth in terms of the health of its democracy. (The U.S. came 21st.)
The serious nature of these unprecedented allegations merits an aggressive approach by journalists in digging up the facts. And based on the latest RCMP update, it seems remote that the Surrey First campaign has been guilty (or the most guilty) of this illegal activity.

It seems more likely, however, that the affair has been a smear-and-distraction campaign machinated to perfection to damage one candidate’s credibility.

So while getting this story right and being first on the spot may earn your outlet some extra click-thrus and attention, getting it wrong would not only risk damaging Global’s credibility and more critically, it could unduly influence the outcome of the Surrey mayoral race, in the same way that deliberately fake news bent the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

So in coming back to Global’s recent story, it may be the case that Global took added confidence in the credibility of Mr. X and Mr. Y based on similar muddy claims being made on Punjabi language radio and on social media threads. Wake Up Surrey’s spokesperson, Sukhi Sandhu, has also been quoted for directly fingering Gill’s supportersas being behind the voting fraud.

But as someone who edited a South Asian publication for many years, I hold little value in these parallel opinions of Wake Up Surrey and various Punjabi radio talk shows. And I particularly find zero value in this content when it comes to corroborating Mr. X and Mr. Y’s statements.

As much as Wake Up Surrey has done to bring critical issues of community safety and gun crime to the surface of Surrey politics, the South Asian grassroots organization has been somewhat of a wild card in this controversy. When the group first went public with this voter fraud allegation, it claimed as many as 15,000 of Surrey’s ballots were compromised.

As recently reported, the Surrey RCMP had received only 73 mail ballot registration applications from Surrey’s chief elections officer—a barely audible whimper compared to the howls of protest originally from the group.

Punjabi-language media outlets, meanwhile, which are rarely impartial and have a tendency to play loose with the facts as best meets their agendas, have been giving air time to everyone from victims shocked to learn their signatures were forged to angry talk-back callers spewing all sorts of conspiracy theories.

For months many of these outlets have dogged Gill with negative coverage, fanning these headwinds to slow down his mayoral campaign. This has included devoting undue coverage and talk-back time earlier this spring to an anonymous flyer slandering Gill that was distributed through the city’s Indian shopping areas and neighbourhoods.
Mainstream outlets like the Vancouver Sun chose not to publish the contents of that flyer given "the unsubstantiated, vague and anonymous allegations".

Meanwhile back to Global’s story—after airing the anonymous allegations of Mr. X and Mr. Y, the story concludes by stating that “Surrey's South Asian community is now a pivotal voting group” and that as Western Canada’s second largest city, Surrey politics matter more than ever.

There seems to be an assumption here that there is one bloc of South Asian voters. Perhaps this assumption also contributed to the outlet gaining confidence in the allegations of two anonymous South Asian men that were outing the city election’s main South Asian candidate.

The problem here is that there is not one South Asian voting group—this is a multicultural myth used by xenophobes to rally the troops against the immigrants who are "taking over". In the world of South Asian politics, there are many fragmented groups, and extended families who are often at loggerheads with each other, jockeying for influence in one form or another.

Contrary to the ignorant opinions one typically finds in comment threads on news websites, the South Asian candidate in Surrey is not going to get all the South Asian votes. It is very possible Gill may only get support from one-third of these voters. More likely is that the South Asian vote will be split, possibly equally, between all three leading mayoral candidates. Bruce Hayne, Doug McCallum, and Tom Gill all have a significant South Asian following.

McCallum, in particular, is practically an honourary member of the South Asian community—he is affectionately referred to as ‘Doug Bhaaji’ or ‘Brother Doug’ because of his development-friendly policies that transformed Surrey from a smaller bedroom community in the '90s into a more sprawling bedroom community of larger strip malls and industrial parks that it is today. During McCallum’s three terms as a business-friendly mayor of Surrey from 1996 to 2005, many of Surrey’s South Asian now wealthy developers first started their rise to affluence and influence.

McCallum has been out of power long enough such that the have-nots among the South Asian voters have forgotten, or don’t know, that many of TransLink’s current woes, and hence the lack of public transit in Surrey and the Lower Mainland, began when McCallum was the chairperson of that troubled body.

But these performance issues from McCallum’s past have been glossed over in Punjabi media, which tends to be very development friendly. Both McCallum and Hayne have also generally received softer "nuanced" coverage, at least when compared to Gill.

In the nexus of Surrey’s Punjabi media outlets, activist groups, property developers, temple committees, socialites, singers, and political aspirants, there are numerous layers of family, business, ancestral, and professional alliances that obscure the intentions of anyone coming forward with an allegation. Sussing out who is connected to whom in this cat’s cradle of relationships is truly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Add to that the challenge of covering Canada’s diverse communities when there is a language barrier—it makes covering large minority groups like the South Asian, Chinese, and Filipino communities difficult work.

To be fair, mainstream outlets like Global seem to be devoting more resources to covering diverse communities and the outlet is producing solid work when there are equally solid facts upon which to build out the story.

But there are still instances when Global has over-reached and produced ham-fisted ethnic coverage, such as a piece earlier this year that attributed Surrey gangsterism and violence to gun glamour in Punjabi bhangra videos.

In this voter fraud story, there seem to be too many unknowns—at least from my perspective as someone who has worked in South Asian media—to responsibly press ahead with a story that relies on the allegations of two individuals who didn’t first go to the police and were unwilling to disclose their identities, reprisal or not.

So a question: would Global publish a follow-up story if two other men, in parallel circumstances, came forward with similar allegations as Mr. X and Mr. Y—let’s call them Mr. B and Mr. C—but that implicated one of the other non-South Asian mayoral candidates?

It would seem the evidence on such a story would appear to be equally thin.

Jagdeesh Mann is a member of the NCM Collective, based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter @JagdeeshMann. This commentary first appeared in The George Straight

Saturday, 23 June 2018 19:12

A Mongrel among Media

Written by

Commentary by: George Abraham in Ottawa, ON

ENTREPRENEURIAL journalism sounds deceptively simple to execute. Combine journalism with business acumen … and voilà you have a winner.  

Sadly, that is not the way it actually works in real life. It is a long, lonely slog, made even more difficult with the declining economics of Canadian media companies all around. One soon learns that the ability of reporters to break new ground and the ability of editors to present stories in a way that resonates with their audience derives from the financial strength of the parent media organization.

The M-word looms large: monetization. How do you keep the lights on and feed the hungry beast that is your burgeoning editorial budget?

We weren’t daft when a bunch of us embarked on this journey called New Canadian Media. The trend towards newsroom closures and downsizing was already written on the wall. The business model of legacy organizations itself was broken or breaking down before our very eyes. Sure, there were any number of naysayers who saw no point in trying to carve out a niche that portrayed the collective perspective of newcomers to Canada.  We were warned that we would be neither “ethnic” nor “mainstream” – a mongrel among media – and that advertisers will make no room for hybrid models like ours because they have niche marketing budgets.

But, it was virgin space in May, 2014, when we launched our portal … and remains so even today.

Our first goal was to demonstrate that we could indeed produce high-quality journalism using largely immigrant talent. We’ve done that in spades. It’s our calling card.

Second, we needed to find “seed capital” that would help us convincingly demonstrate the strength of NCM’s original idea. We’ve done that as well. However, as we scaled up, we found the going difficult.

The intervening years since the launch of our site demonstrated not only the endurance of the original idea to represent “the immigrant perspective”, but also to tap into a rich vein of journalism talent that remains largely unexplored in Canada. But, in addition to pioneering a new form of journalism, we went against the grain in several important respects, all in an effort to buck the trend and improve the odds.

The original idea

NCM was founded on a rather simple premise: waves of immigrants continue to reshape this country in both visible and invisible ways. For visible signs, look no further than the sushi restaurant in your neighbourhood, turbans in the RCMP, Canada’s tilt towards the Asia-Pacific driven largely by immigration from that region of the world, ethnic nannies who raise babies for rich Canadians and the entrepreneurial energy that has made this country more prosperous.

While existing media capture the mega-trends, they do a rather poor job of portraying undercurrents and speaking to a new Canada-in-the-making. Our idea was to give voice to the opinion and points-of-view of newcomers, while enabling all Canadians to better appreciate this new perspective.

Jagdeesh Mann, executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post published in English and distributed in downtown Vancouver, has a readership that is as much white as Asian. “Canadians want to know what was happening in the Asian community and Asians want to participate,” Mr. Mann says, adding “food was usually the gateway.”

We, however, went about this in unconventional ways, ensuring that we continually broadened our horizons even while staying true to our core mission of delivering the immigrant perspective. We took great care to avoid creating what media experts call a new, isolationist “silo”, but rather to work with both existing ethnic and mainstream news organizations so our limited dollars did not end up duplicating journalism that was already out there.

There was no template to follow and hence we charted our own course.

Amid a climate of great public mistrust of ‘elites’ in general, and the media in particular, we set ourselves up as a non-profit, with paid members across Canada. When we discovered that our contributors could benefit from training and mentoring, we found the funds to launch a national professional development program. Last year, we broadened this grassroots undertaking to create an NCM Collective, inviting our contributors to band together in a countrywide effort to organize and lend even more heft to their inimitable immigrant voices.

At the same time, the organization has sustained itself on the backs of volunteer directors and pro bono time from members of our editorial board.

By the numbers

We’ve taken great pains to cross language and racial divides to address issues that confront every one of the 200 ethnic communities in Canada. Our range of stories and datelines from cities and towns across the country speak for themselves. It has contributed, dare I say, to giving many an immigrant a greater sense of belonging.

In perhaps our biggest break from tradition, we have consistently fostered a bottom-up journalism that privileges the findings of on-the-ground reporters over the preconceived notions of distant editors. We very rarely dictated a story idea, relying on our formidable network to serve as listening posts in their respective communities. Retaining a reporter’s voice is very important to us. We’ve tried our best not to shoehorn a reporter’s findings into a pre-cooked, nifty headline, or come up with an elegant turn of phrase that may not do full justice to the original sentiment.

Trust me, this has made the editing process a lot more laborious, but it has been surely worth it: it has led to unfiltered, authentic voices from communities across this fabulous country. Copy editors have gone apoplectic at times, but this approach has allowed immigrant journalists to portray the everyday experiences, joys and sorrows of new Canadians, signifying perhaps NCM’s biggest accomplishment to date.

All of this pioneering work has been sustained largely through project-based public funding (roughly $275,000 so far), enabling NCM to demonstrate the calibre and depth of its journalism and showcase the work of a growing roster of new reporters in every province.  

Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but here are a few to illustrate our growth and current profile:

  • Original stories published on the NCM platform so far = 855

  • Peak web traffic: 10,840 unique monthly visitors in Nov. 2015 (22,448 page views)

  • E-newsletter distribution list: 1,433 subscribers

  • Twitter followers: 3,811

  • Facebook Likes: 1,630

  • Reporters/commentators published: 220

  • Canadian journalists who have enlisted for NCM’s professional development program: 102

  • Images available in NCM Stock Photo library: 205

  • Canada's first-ever ethnic media and diversity style guide published in Jan. 2016

  • Audience profile: evenly split between foreign-born and native-born Canadians (Ekos survey, 2016) 

Our board of directors believes we are market-ready, and primed to emerge as a media platform in our own right. Towards this end, the board is re-tooling the NCM organization, rethinking our financial and business model, while we revamp our web platform to update several of its key attributes – to ensure that we continue to present the immigrant perspective in all its colour and vibrancy.

We are surely not alone in imagining a different media scene – one that truly reflects Canada in the 21st century. As our good friend and publisher of the Walrus magazine puts it, “If NCM did not already exist, this country would be compelled to invent it.”


George Abraham is NCM’s founder and publisher.

Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC

Over its 132-year history since incorporation as a city, Vancouver has had 39 mayors. All of them have been white men.

Change seems to be coming, however, and suddenly.

Two of the Vancouver’s leading municipal parties will be running mayoral candidates from diverse backgrounds for the upcoming 2018 civic election now only four months away.

Recently, Ken Sim, the second-generation Canadian-born son of Chinese immigrants, won the nomination for the city’s right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association (NPA). This party, which was founded in 1937, has traditionally been aligned with the interests of the city’s business community.

In a surprising result, the entrepreneur and cofounder of Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt bagel shops, beat out the establishment candidate John Coupar, the two-time NPA Vancouver park board commissioner who had the support of other establishment figures like former councillor Suzanne Anton and former mayor Philip Owen.

Meanwhile, the currently ruling Vision Vancouver party has confirmed its mayoral candidate will be Squamish Nation hereditary chief Ian Campbell.

Internet entrepreneur Taleeb Noormohamed—who drew comparisons to Calgary’s wonder-mayor Naheed Nenshi—had been bidding for the Vision Vancouver leadership until recently, when a health matter forced him to drop out of the campaign.

On the sidelines, former federal Conservative MP, Wai Young has indicated interest in running as an independent but hasn’t confirmed her candidacy yet. Raymond Louie, the five-time Vision city councillor who would have made a strong candidate for mayor, has also declared he is not running. There is some uncertainty about why he wasn’t recruited by his own Vision party for the mayor’s nomination (or if he pre-emptively declined the possibility).

It seems 2018 may be the year when Vancouver—one of the most left-of-centre cities in North America, Canada’s commercial and cultural gateway to Asia, and the metropolis that was early to embrace Indian yoga and in gratitude paid the world back with lululemon yoga pants—finally elects a nonwhite mayor.

Leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs from smaller diverse communities have increasingly participated in Canadian politics over the past two decades. It has now become the norm to see the country’s diversity represented among its politicians, whether that be in cabinet in Ottawa or the legislative backbenches in Victoria.

But at the municipal level, and particularly in Vancouver, they have struggled to break through, or perhaps a better term is "break out" from their ethnic silos and gain a voice on a broader citywide stage.

So far, however, the run-up to the 2018 election is proving to be an inflection point in this narrative. Hollywood had its #OscarsSoWhite reckoning two years ago, so it seems apt for Hollywood North to also have its own #VancouverSoWhite moment, though one would think progressive Canadians would have beat their American counterparts to this milestone.

While there is an immigrants-coming-of-age story here, there is also a perfect storm of political conditions that have triggered the backroom players and eminences grise behind the major parties to seek out diverse candidates.

For the NPA, Ken Sim’s nomination effectively counters any potential candidacy of Stephen Harper-era conservative Wai Young, who has significant support from within the Chinese community.

Sim’s family roots go back to Hong Kong and he will pull votes from this segment of the Chinese community (he may have less of a connection among Mainland Chinese immigrants). His last-minute entry—or recruitment—into the mayoral race looks to be an efficacious use of inclusiveness by a party that has been out of power for a decade.

For the progressive left-leaning Vision Vancouver, Campbell’s nomination provides a clean break from the past and a chance to rebrand a party that many believe has much to account (or some would say atone) for after the past decade in power.

For political watchers, this greater-than-usual interest in standing for public office from qualified diverse candidates makes this year’s election intriguing.

But for the average citizen all of this may go unnoticed if it all turns out to be business-as-usual and the 40th mayor of Vancouver—like the thirty-nine previously—once again is another white person.

There are still many twists, announcements, and deals to unfold before that forecast becomes clearer. But it is worth a look to see how various local and Canadian laws, policies, and practices of exclusion over the past century-and-a-half have led to this much delayed point, where diverse candidates—in a city where half the population is not white—finally have a real shot at becoming mayor.

In four months time, this election may be remembered as the moment Vancouverites finally said “Yes We Can” instead of the usual “Yes We Can’t”.

Lack of profile exerts a high price

Among the jigsaw pieces that comprise the map of Lower Mainland municipalities, Surrey is the fastest growing city in the region. Ten thousand new people move into Surrey every year.

Barinder Rasode, a former two-term Surrey city councillor, has come the closest among nonwhite candidates in the Lower Mainland to winning a coveted mayor’s seat.

There have been a small number of nonwhite politicians who have won mayoral races in B.C., but all have been outside the Lower Mainland: Jamese Atebe in Mission, Alan Lowe in Victoria, Akbal Mund in Vernon, and Colin Basran in Kelowna.

Naranjan Grewal of Mission was the first nonwhite mayor in all of B.C. when he was elected in 1954. He died under suspicious circumstances three years later.

Despite late entry to the race, Rasode garnered an impressive 21 percent of the votes in the 2014 Surrey municipal election. She has been one of the few individuals to cross over in appeal to the broader community, a feat not easily achieved given the tendency of potential candidates from diverse communities to remain in their comfort zones, or even self-segregate, when encountering barriers of entry to mainstream political organizations.

“When it comes to municipal elections, if a candidate hopes to compete or have any chance at winning, they must have a profile beyond their own community,” explained Rasode, who served on board of directors for Fraser Health and served as a Surrey city councillor from 2008 to 2014. “This is evident in electoral results. Even when minorities run for council seats as part of recognized slates, they tend to be the ones who fall short or to the bottom of the slate.”

Rasode’s observation holds true whether in Surrey or in Vancouver. In the 2014 Vancouver election, only two Vision Vancouver council candidates out of eight on the slate failed to win seats: Niki Sharma and Tony Tang, candidates from South Asian and Chinese backgrounds.

In 2008, the lone Vision councillor out of eight on the slate who failed to win a seat was Kashmir Dhaliwal, the former president of the Khalsa Diwan Society (Ross Street Sikh Temple). Despite being a power broker within one of B.C.’s biggest Sikh temples, and one with a very politically active congregation, Dhaliwal still fell short of being elected—he just lacked a wider profile beyond his South Vancouver neighbourhood.

Fast forward 10 years and back to the upcoming election. This lack of profile is still an Achilles heel for both the NPA nominee Ken Sim and Ian Campbell. Both will be hampered by being relatively unknown to broader sections of Vancouver’s voting public (Sim likely more than Campbell).

Unlike previous diverse candidates, however, who have in the past ran as independents, both Sim and Campbell will have the party machines of the NPA and Vision to help remedy some of this lack of profile.

But there is a caveat emptor here, particularly for Vision. Ian Campbell will first have much work to do in rebuilding a damaged Vision brand before he hopes to reap any of the rewards of membership.

It is clear the 2018 version of Vision does not have the potency it once did circa 2011 or even in 2014. It looks to be sinking ship with neither Mayor Gregor Robertson seeking re-election, nor three of its councillors. One veteran city hall reporter has even suggested the party may want to consider disbanding for a dignified end to its political life.

For these two newcomers, the mission will be to "get their names out there" into a congested daily news cycle. Bonus points if they edge out other candidates.

This, however, is much more easily said than done.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was meant to deliver oil to offshore tankers for lighting up cities abroad. In actuality, the pipeline has pumped media exposure to antagonistic local politicians and lit up their approval rating numbers.

The fight against Kinder Morgan—the news story of the year in Vancouver—has been a gift to the other anti-pipeline mayoral candidates like NDP member of Parliament Kennedy Stewart, and SFU professor of public practice Shauna Sylvester. It would have also helped popular Green party city councilor Adriane Carr but she has recently decided not to run for mayor. Still, if Vancouver doesn’t elect its first  nonwhite mayor, it may be due to voters electing Sylvester as their first woman mayor, no less a milestone-in-waiting. 

Depending on how the Kinder Morgan narrative unfolds, the pipelines and oil tankers debate could end up overshadowing other hot-button issues, possibly even housing affordability. This would be a boon particularly for Stewart, who was recently arrested in March for contempt after he marched to British Columbia’s frontline and deliberately breached the five-meter exclusion zone buffering "The Fence" that safeguards the Kinder Morgan’s tanker farm on Burnaby Mountain.

His act of civil disobedience against a heavy-handed Trudeau government bulldozing ahead with now their pipeline project has transformed the staid NDP politician into a sort of Gandhi-of-Burnaby.

No doubt this act will add some swagger to Stewart’s campaign. When it counted, he could be counted, standing among those lined up against the carbon-spewing machinery of Big Oil. Stewart’s chances of winning will increase further if the muscle of B.C.’s local NDP machine gets behind him.

Given the vocal opposition to the pipeline by the Squamish Nation, and Vision Vancouver, Ian Campbell also stands to gain on this issue. But he will need to find a way to "out-activist" Stewart, who has gotten to the front of the line on this issue.

Getting arrested and having a record, however, isn’t always a viable strategy for most candidates to gain the profile necessary to win a municipal election—or to stay if office, given they usually have day jobs and other real-life entanglements. Besides, historically speaking, getting arrested for most people, and notably for people of colour, has never been an ideal path to career advancement. Ultimately, diversifying Vancouver city politics is not the same thing as integrating an Alabama lunch counter.

But the real obstacle for diverse candidates seeking to gain name recognition runs deeper than being able to generate viral hashtags, or skillfully jockeying for media airtime.

It is a more permanent and seemingly intractable structural barrier at the heart of Vancouver’s municipal electoral system.

No wards led to more exclusion from power

A ward system divides a city into neighbourhoods with each electing one councillor.

Virtually all major Canadian cities have implemented a ward system to ensure individual neighbourhoods are represented at the council level by an individual who has ties to or lives in that neighbourhood.

These cities include Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax, and so forth. I think you get the point.

Vancouver, however, is the largest Canadian city that uses an at-large system. It is based on a "to-the-victors-the-spoils" approach to city politics.

Vancouver city council is comprised of the 10 candidates who receive the most votes from across all the neighbourhoods of the city. It is a system that has some benefits as it requires candidates to see the bigger picture and know all of the issues in the city, but it is a system that has also been criticized as been exclusionary, even racist, for blocking out candidates of diverse backgrounds.

There have been a number of cases in the United States where at-large systems were found by the courts to be discriminatory toward minority black and Hispanic populations.

Unlike the at-large system, wards allow more localized neighbourhood candidates a channel to access the bigger citywide stage.

Vancouver is a city that is simultaneously diverse but ethnically siloed—it is a place where people from different backgrounds peacefully co-exist but don’t necessarily coalesce. A ward system makes the difference between a candidate from a diverse background getting heard or getting crowded out. It ameliorates the "lack of profile" issue for diverse candidates.

In 2004, the city held a referendum asking Vancouver voters about moving to a wards system. The No side rejected the proposition by a small majority of 54 percent.

Given the momentum currently building for British Columbia to adopt a proportional-representation electoral system, it seems likely that a referendum on ward system would receive more support today than it did 14 years ago.

RJ Aquino, who has previously run for council in 2011 for COPE and in 2014 for the then-nascent OneCity party, believes a ward system would have altered the outcomes of his previous campaigns.

Aquino, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years, serves on the board of Collingwood Neighbourhood House. He is active in various initiatives in his part of Vancouver.

In 2014, Aquino was among the top vote-getters in Collingwood-Renfrew, Vancouver-Kensington, and the Fraser Street and King Edward area, all neighbourhoods with a significant population of Filipinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in B.C.

According to the recent census, there are 94,000 Filipinos living in the Metro Vancouver region, yet there has never been anyone of Filipino descent on Vancouver council, or the Vancouver park board.

“For people from diverse communities, we really have to work that much harder to get our name out there,” said Aquino, who is seeking a OneCity nomination for council this year. “Every time I encounter new people, there is always that extra step of explaining my background, how I fit into Vancouver, and how my values connect with the city’s values.”

But there has always been that extra distance to make up for diverse candidates. For this current generation, this means a "lack of profile" problem. Two generations ago, it was a matter of lacking the requisite language skills.

But going back even further, it was a matter of being barred from participating in the political process altogether.

Institutional racism plays a role

Amid Vancouver’s picturesque surroundings and its generally polite daily exchanges between its multicultural residents of all backgrounds, it is easy to forget the city was once the gateway to enforcing the country’s "white Canada" policy that deterred non-European immigration until the mid 20th century.

This policy was best articulated by former Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose face has been featured on Canada’s five-dollar bill.

In a parliamentary debate on Asian immigration in October 1914, he said: “The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship . . . These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it’s too late.”

It was this racist vision for the country that led to the Canadian government refusing permission to the Komagata Maru to dock in 1914 when the infamous Japanese tramp steamer arrived in Burrard Inlet with 376 would-be immigrants from India. The Vancouver Sun reported on the incident with toxic headlines like “Hindu invaders now in the city harbour on Komagata Maru”.

During that time other publications, like the Vancouver World, routinely railed against Chinese and Japanese residents with their poison pens and the World openly bragged that it was the “the one daily paper in Vancouver which has consistently set its face against the Orientals”.

While this "white Canada" policy blocked non-European immigrants from entering Canada for much of the 20th century, those who were already living here were not granted the full rights of citizenship.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Asian Canadians from Indian and Chinese backgrounds were permitted to vote and participate in the political process.

Meanwhile, in terms of its treatment of the Indigenous population, when the Canadian government wasn’t tearing Indigenous children away from their families and sending them to odious residential schools, it was also maintaining the ban on status Indigenous people from voting in elections, finally repealed only in 1960.

While that may seem like a long time ago for some too quick to dismiss the institutionalized racism of Canada’s past, consider this: some of the community elders who may be advising Squamish Nation hereditary Chief Ian Campbell on his mayoral bid were in their own lifetime once prohibited from voting in civic elections.

It doesn’t take much digging to unearth the artifacts of Vancouver’s racist history. According to local journalist Francis Bula, the covenant on NPA nominee Ken Sim’s house in the Arbutus neighbourhood on the West Side of the city prohibits someone of Chinese descent from owning the property. Many houses in the city’s elite neighbourhoods still have similar racist clauses in their covenants though they are no longer enforced.

It is understandable for Vancouverites to want to move on, or to forget, Canada’s own Jim Crow-like era. But it has not been as easy for those disenfranchised communities. Even after these race-based antivoting acts were repealed, it would take decades before nonwhite Canadians began putting their names forward to participate in politics.

It would take 25 years after the repeal of Canada racist voting legislation until the first resident of South Asian descent would win a seat on Vancouver council. Since V.S. Pendakur’s lone two-year term ended in 1974, no other person of South Asian descent has been on Vancouver council.

For the Chinese community, the wait was even longer. It would take 35 years before the first resident of Chinese descent, Bill Yee, won a council seat in 1982.

Three decades on, seeing diverse candidates come forward for elections has become normalized. But that doesn’t mean they still don’t encounter the racial slurs and broadsides of yesterday.

In 2016, when Niki Sharma, the former park board commissioner and Vision candidate for council, ran for the Vancity board of directors, someone trolling her Facebook page posted: “We don’t want packys (sic) in politics you people are taking over our country”.

Rather than deleting the comment, Sharma responded to it. Readers shared and commented on her post hundreds of times.

“I was going to delete your comment. As my hand went over to the delete button, something stopped me,” she wrote in the middle of that sleepless night. “As much as we both might want to, you and I cannot delete each other.”

Where diverse Canadians have been under-represented on municipal councils, it has been the reverse for white Canadians. Generation upon generation of white politicians have benefited from an under-acknowledged privilege of being allowed to vote, stand for elections, and get ahead thanks to a wielding a disproportionate voice in the political sphere.

This has created its own adverse consequences, such as encouraging ethnic pandering where white politician seem to show up at temples, and mosques every so often, often in ethnic garb, to hit up vote banks or follow the instructions of cooked up "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plans".

It also led to cringing moments of white paternalism. This white-on-nonwhite crime was most recently witnessed in 2015 when the current Vancouver mayor thought he had a "teachable moment" and tried to educate a prominent local Chinese-Canadian professional about what is and isn’t racist.

Andy Yan, then an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects, produced a study that looked at the names of buyers of homes on Vancouver’s tony west side. He found that buyers with non-Anglicized Chinese names were purchasing the majority of the homes in that neighbourhood.

Gregor Robertson publicly dismissed Yan’s work as racist, failing to see the irony of his criticism of Yan, given his great-grandfather was forced to pay the actually-racist Chinese Head Tax that was designed to keep Chinese immigrants out of B.C. As a social scientist, Yan was just looking at the data and sharing his observations, which were in plain sight.

The irony of the mayor’s response, however, was not lost on Brandon Yan, who is currently seeking to run for city council on the OneCity slate. He countered the mayor’s misguided comments in a line that should be quoted in a Dear White People racism primer, “Let’s leave it to the rich white dudes to decide what’s racist, right?”

This kind of paternalism is a natural outcome of a long history of exclusion. Out a total of 1,080 council and mayor’s seats across 102 administrations, 98 percent have been occupied by white politicians—like Andy Yan, I ran my own name analysis, through of all the city councillors and mayors over Vancouver’s history.

And of the seats occupied by councillors from diverse backgrounds: half have been won only in the past two decades since 2000.

When 98 percent of "leaders" in Vancouver’s brief history have been white but the population has steadily diversified to point of being 50 percent nonwhite, there is bound to be a disconnect between city hall’s perception and the reality on the ground.

Diversity: an optical illusion?

Because of their low turnout rates, municipal elections are notoriously difficult to poll. This is a point that Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, stressed repeatedly in our recent conversation.

“Compared to provincial and federal elections, turnout rates for municipal elections are around 30 percent. The X-factor is turnout, and it’s more exaggerated in city elections,” explained Kurl, who heads the public opinion polling organization.

In the 2017 by-election when Hector Bremner from the NPA was elected to city council, only 11 percent of voters turned out to vote.

“Just look at the recent example in Calgary. The polling for that election was not close to the final results. The polls had (Naheed) Nenshi running neck-in-neck. In the end, Nenshi won extremely comfortably for his 3rd term.”

In the 2014 council election, Vision candidate Niki Sharma placed 17th out of 49 candidates, receiving close to 50,000 votes. She fell short of winning by only 8,000 votes.

From her perspective, every percentage increase in turnout has the potential to reverse a loss into a victory, “In an election with low voter turnout, it doesn’t take many people deciding not to vote for you to be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected.”

The NPA may be hoping Ken Sim can trigger this X-factor in his favour and lure more voters from the Chinese community to participate. It could be all the difference he needs to win the coveted mayor’s gavel.

But as in the case of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the three-term Muslim mayor at the head of one of the more conservative cities in the country, the success of an ethnic candidate is not determined by the strength of his support from within his ethnic base, but rather from beyond it.

Nenshi, the only nonwhite mayor of a major Canadian city, has become a celebrity politician in Calgary, and across Alberta, because of his competence and ability to engage with the electorate.

But this does raise a question about diversity and politics—is there a causal link between Naheed Nenshi’s skills as a politician and his ethnicity?

Consider this hypothetical: if Nenshi had been a white Protestant instead of a brown Muslim, and still produced the same outcomes for Calgarians, then wouldn’t "celebrating diversity" only be emphasizing difference and fostering identity politics? In other words, shouldn’t Canadians focus their "celebration" solely on the actual achievements of their leaders instead of also on their "diversity"?

RJ Aquino, the aspiring city council candidate for OneCity, addressed this criticism often levelled from the right through a personal anecdote.

“In 2011, when I first ran for office, I started getting local university students from my community contacting me because they recognized my last name as Filipino. These were students who otherwise weren’t paying attention or engaged in civic politics, but when they learned I was from the same background, they looked me up and inquired about me.”

“Because I looked like them and because I was in the public eye, it showed to younger generations that it was possible to do this, that we can be represented.”

Where there is under-representation—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—it does not invite wider participation from all citizens, ultimately at the expense of our democratic institutions.

This segues to the other potential benefit of diversity: that diverse candidates bring unique experiences and insights, which may in turn lead to solutions and policies otherwise overlooked.

This claim is also open to some scrutiny given second- and third-generation Canadians—regardless of background—end up sharing common experiences. Or in other words, eventually all Canadians, if you live here long enough, end up being different but in the same way.

A diversity of faces may make for good optics—as in the current Trudeau’s cabinet—but may still be little more than an optical illusion when it comes to actual diversity of ideas.

To be fair, it is a reasonable conclusion that looking "different" does not necessarily translate into thinking differently.

But—and this is the crucial point—this flattening of Canadian diversity over time doesn’t mean that people from different backgrounds don’t empathize differently.

Let’s bring it back to the Vancouver context.

Should either Ian Campbell or Ken Sim become mayor, it is reasonable to conclude neither may have novel approaches to age-old issues facing the city. And as complete outsiders, particularly for Sim, they will likely struggle to learn the in-and-outs of city hall management and governance conventions.

But that does not mean they wouldn’t bring much-needed new empathy on age-old issues that, if nothing else, prevent these issues from being ignored.

Some examples to illustrate.

The past decade have been halcyon years for developers who have made more profits than ever while recasting Vancouver into an Eden of gleaming glass towers. Out of the billions flowing through Vancouver’s real estate market, a tiny infintesimal fraction could have been diverted to provide a lasting and sustainable solution to the city’s chronic problem of homelessness.

Yet 10 years after Vision took power having promised to end homelessness, the issue remains as chronic as ever.

It is a fitting metaphor for what Vancouver has become when one encounters its homeless residents trying to sleep in the cold-concrete nooks and doorways of its half-empty, but ecofriendly LEED skyscrapers.

It seems unlikely Campbell, someone from an indigenous background, would only pay lip service to this homelessness issue given that 40 percent of homeless people in the city are from an indigenous background, a staggering 20 times greater than their actual percentage of the overall population.

And perhaps it will require a Vancouver mayor from an Indigenous background like Ian Campbell to advance the reconciliation agenda and create new community initiatives that go beyond declarations of recognizing Vancouver as the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

In the case of Ken Sim, he is a second-generation Canadian who witnessed firsthand the struggles of his immigrant parents. He took menial jobs, worked as a janitor during high school, and like other second-generation Canadians found a way to sacrifice and forge ahead.

Would Sim not be more empathetic to Vancouver’s affordability issues than the current mayor, even if he is representing the right-of-centre NPA?

I worked as a janitor during high school and I had immigrant parents who struggled like others in a similar position.  Back then it seemed inconceivable that those sweeping up the offices could one day be the ones sweeping into them. 

For me, the candidacies and civic participation of Ken Sim, Ian Campbell, RJ Aquino, Brandon Yan, and a growing number of other diverse candidates in this coming 2018 election has piqued my interest in civic politics more than ever.

These candidates represent the other half of Vancouver that rarely gets to be heard in our city affairs, and the half that historically has been discouraged and once even banned from participating.

It may turn out that 2018 is still not the year a nonwhite candidate becomes mayor of Vancouver, but it seems 2018 will be the year that finally shows it is possible.

And that is an inflection point when truly "diversity becomes our strength", not just for half our city residents but for us all.


Jagdeesh Mann is the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. Based in Vancouver, he is also an active contributor to a number of publications and a member of the NCM Collective.

Commentary by: Jennilee Austria in Toronto, ON

Back when I was a settlement worker, many of my newcomer clients would enter the job market in positions of non-skilled labour. Ranging from forklift operators to construction workers to food service workers many of them felt that they would have to start with survival jobs before moving on to a role that fit their credentials. The initial joy that accompanied their first tastes of Canadian employment would pass soon after a couple of months, where they would then meet with me to ask if coming to Canada was the right choice.

Upon arrival, their main barriers revolved around a lack of financial flexibility and professional networks, however after working survival jobs for a time, many would lose confidence. Coming from backgrounds in accounting, engineering, law, IT and other multi-faceted sectors; their old professions would seem so far gone that they would begin to doubt that they could return to them.

While precarious work will define the Canadian job market of the future, the majority of immigrants are usually unaware of the available programs that will lead them to more secure positions. As the federal government continues to ramp up efforts to bring in more skilled workers, more support systems have been put in place so that these individuals are able to overcome many of the toughest issues plaguing immigrants in the past.

If some of the newcomers I had worked with had known about opportunities for training or mentorship, I know that they could have been able to start their Canadian careers sooner.

‘Canadian Experience’

One of the biggest issues newcomers often face has been a lack of ‘Canadian experience’. Although the Ontario Human Rights Commission has made concerted efforts to discourage employers from discriminating on this basis, many immigrants can attest to the continued existence of this phenomenon. While it can be difficult to regulate employers’ selection basis for a number of reasons, programs that offer both training and employment experience.

NPower Canada, an organization which advocates for diversity in the workplace, provides cost-free employment training programs for youth aged 18-29. Since its 2014 launch in Canada, the charity has been able to train and support over 500 youth.

The need for such a program has become increasingly apparent in recent years. A 2011 study revealed that 43% of immigrant women between 24-35 with university degrees obtained outside of Canada or the US, were working in positions that required a high school education or less.

But the statistics are truly brought into perspective with first-hand accounts like 27-year-old Nigerian newcomer Adebola Arogundade’s. She arrived in Canada with a B.Sc in Marketing as well as experience abroad in marketing strategies, point-of-sale systems, and customer service; however, she was unable to find work within her field of work.

At a crossroads she decided to enroll in a program with NPower Canada. The 10-week program allows participants to work towards various certifications while simultaneously introducing them to employers such as Rogers, TD Canada Trust and Alterna Savings.

The direct impact the program will have on Arogundade’s job search is yet to be seen, but nonetheless she is content with the training and the Canadian experience she will receive.

Mentorship Programs

For other newcomers, survival jobs become a primary option because of friends and family members they may have, which have already gone down those paths. In an attempt to break this cycle, (The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council) implemented a program that connects individuals with volunteer mentors in a range of careers.

“Immigrants often think that when they come, they have to get a survival job, like drive a taxi,” explains Daniel Kim of TRIEC. “But our whole organization’s mandate is to help those immigrants who come with skills and expertise, and to connect them to businesses who want that talent.”

Kim who is a Communications and Media Relations specialist with TRIEC, states that over 75% of the individuals enrolled in TRIEC Mentoring Partnership are able to find work within their field.

An astounding success rate that seemingly speaks to many of the studies that assert the benefits of mentor-mentee programs. While these relationships allow proteges to further develop their subject knowledge, it also helps facilitate more extensive professional networks. In addition, immigrants are able to practice soft skills which could benefit them immensely once they are within the workforce. The issue of ‘Canadian experience’ extends past the necessary technical skills for many employers. A lot of whom, worry about the soft skills newcomers may have, such as conflict resolution, workplace communication and fitting in with the team.

Professional Immigrant Networks

The TRIEC also provides an opportunity for immigrants to join networks specific to their profession and ethnicity.

PINs (Professional Immigrant Networks) are comprised of a range of occupations and ethnic backgrounds, from the Philippine Teachers Association Canada to the Association des femmes maroco-canadiennes (Association of Female Moroccan-Canadians).

Many of these networks were actually started by immigrants themselves.

Upon emigrating from the United Kingdom, Jenny Okonkwo felt isolated without a group that she could relate to. “Basically, what happened was that I didn’t know any Black female accountants,” she says. “If you don’t immediately have that small circle to call on, that just shows how big the gap is.”

In 2016, Okonkwo started BFAN (the Black Female Accountants Network), and soon after, her network joined PINs.

Today, BFAN has grown to 600 members nationwide and works in partnership with CPA Ontario (Chartered Professional Accountants). Their mandate is to encourage female accountants of African descent to network, share knowledge, and advance themselves in accounting.

“BFAN provides résumé reviews, career advice, development of soft skills, networking opportunities, and more— and all for free to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Canada,” said Okonkwo. While they don’t provide job matches, their members, ranging from executives to university students, are dedicated to helping others develop professional skills.

Their members have already published articles, presented on public stages, and created study groups to help one another pass their CPA exams.

“The value comes from saying to a newcomer, ‘I’ve already walked this path. I’ve walked it two, five, fifteen years ago, and here’s how I did it,’” said Okonkwo. “And they come out feeling like they’ve made the right decision about the progression of their career in Canada.”

TRIEC’s PINs and Mentoring Partnership program as well as NPower Canada’s employment training programs are only a few of the unique opportunities available to newcomers. While these free initiatives can help many immigrants overcome the innumerable barriers they will be faced with, they will only be effective if these skilled individuals are aware of what is available to them. Only time will tell how Ontario will ensure these resources are being utilized.


This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.

Sunday, 11 March 2018 13:42

Khalistan – Theatre of the Absurd

Written by

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. 

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