Indo-Canadian representation in Canada’s new government goes beyond the cabinet ministers Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced to the country at his swearing-in ceremony earlier this month.
In what he called “a cabinet that looks like Canada,” 15 of Trudeau’s 30 ministers are women, two are aboriginal, two have disabilities and four are Indo-Canadian Sikhs.
The Indo-Canadian representation of Trudeau’s cabinet was noted around the nation and internationally. From India’s Hindustan Times to New Zealand’s Indian Weekender, global news media showcased Canada’s newly appointed Indian cabinet ministers.
A total of 23 Indo-Canadian representatives were elected into parliament in the recent election, an astounding increase compared to the nine Indo-Canadians elected in 2011.
Moreover, 20 of the Indo-Canadian MPs speak Punjabi, making it the third most-spoken language in Canada’s House of Commons after English and French.
Most Indo-Canadian politicians originate from the northern Indian state of Punjab, which has a rich, politically, fuelled history.
Punjab: A political hotbed
Although this year’s Canadian cabinet announcement appeared to draw a lot of attention to Indo-Canadians’ representation in politics, their involvement has remained steadfast in all levels of government across the nation.
Most Indo-Canadian politicians originate from the northern Indian state of Punjab, which has a rich, politically, fuelled history. Their political inclination is embedded in their cultural background and heritage.
“[Y]ou are dealing with a group of people that never led any kind of comfortable lifestyle. They were constantly invaded.”
“The first thing you have to look at is that Indo-Canadian politicians are mostly Sikhs and [they are] a small, yet highly motivated, religious sect that developed a kind of reformation movement,” explains Shinder Purewal, a professor of political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.
Purewal adds that the geographical positioning of Punjab in India has made it a political hotbed for centuries.
“Every invader from Alexander the Great down to the Ahmad Shah Abdali came through the Punjab,” explains Purewal. “So you are dealing with a group of people that never led any kind of comfortable lifestyle. They were constantly invaded. It moulded that spirit of trying to resist oppression and exploitation and that kind of unity created is highlighted [in the] Sikh diaspora.”
Gradual political participation in Canada
That sense of unity remained for Punjabis when they first settled in British Columbia in 1903.
In 1907, the province of B.C. disenfranchised not only Punjabis, but all of the South Asian diaspora. They were not allowed to vote in federal elections or participate in politics.
After 40 years, the voting restrictions against South Asians were lifted in 1947, but their political involvement developed slowly.
“The numbers didn’t warrant for [Indo-Canadians] to actually be successful at either provincial levels or federal levels,” says Purewal. “But they did work for the parties mostly as volunteers and also raising funds. They were doing this from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s onward.”
“My activism started almost right away when I came to Canada.”
Although political participation was gradual, Indo-Canadians were motivated and outspoken on many issues impacting their communities.
Ujjal Dosanjh, the first Indo-Canadian provincial premier and a former Liberal federal cabinet minister, began his community activism by advocating for the wellbeing of B.C. farmworkers.
Many of these workers were South Asian and Chinese immigrants, who were being underpaid and mistreated.
Like Dosanjh, Raj Chouhan, a long-time member of legislature in B.C., explains how he was driven by advocacy for farmworkers during his early days in Canada.
“My activism started almost right away. When I came to Canada, I saw people working in the farms – they were treated so badly,” says Chouhan. In 1980, after speaking out on the issue, he became the founding president of the Canadian Farmworkers Union.
Inspiring the next generation
Both Chouhan and Dosanjh point to the political culture of India as a nation playing a large role in motivating early Indo-Canadian politicians.
“I had this sense of pride in our history and our civilization, and in the morals and values of the independence movement,” Dosanjh recalls. “There was politics all around as I was growing up.”
“[Politics in India] is part of life, it’s like a second nature.”
India’s democratic system is the largest in the world. It fosters a feeling of responsibility to get politically involved amongst Canada’s South Asian diaspora.
“[Politics in India] is part of life, it’s like a second nature,” Dosanjh says. “It is a very comfortable position for [Indians] to be in when they come to Canada – to be part of the political system.”
That political voice has grown stronger as the South Asian representation in Canada’s highest level of government serves as inspiration for the next generation of young Indo-Canadians.
But Dosanjh highlights that no matter who you are, politics is about believing in yourself and your values.
“You don’t do it for glory. I did it because I believed in it […] Winning or losing isn’t the issue. In the end you have to look at yourself in the mirror and see if you have been true to yourself,” he says.
“I would say to young people, if you believe Canada can be a better place, and you want to make it better, go into politics.”