New Canadian Media

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.

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 10 April 2018 20:15

White Helmets in Vancouver

By: Deanna Cheng in Vancouver, BC

Sniffles came from the crowd. Even the children present knew to remain quiet.

Syrian journalist Maisoun Almasri said she saw her younger brother get shot by a Syrian government sniper. That sniper prevented anyone from trying to rescue the little boy.

Through a translator, Almasri said no one had any experience doing first aid.

“So my brother lost his life in our arms. We can’t do anything. Looking at me, looking at our mother, all those surrounding him, and we can’t do anything. I was haunted by the look in his eyes.”

She said that look haunted her every night. “The feeling of helplessness will kill you. The guilt of doing nothing will kill you.”

Almasri joined the White Helmets after that moment in 2013.

“The feeling of helplessness will kill you. The guilt of doing nothing will kill you.”-Maisoun Almasri

She uses that first memory as a reminder of what it means to be part of the organization and to prevent it from happening again.

In total, she has lost two younger brothers.

Three White Helmets volunteers shared personal stories of their lives in Syria, through Mohammed Alsaleh and two other translators, to a packed hall at Simon Fraser University. Those three volunteers wished for Vancouver residents to understand the daily tragedies happening abroad, to have a better understanding of what the organization is about, and to pressure the Canadian government into helping them build a democracy similar to the one Canadians enjoy.

Syria Civil Defense

White Helmets, known officially as the Syria Civil Defense, is a formal emergency response team of civilian volunteers and an apolitical organization. Its four principles are humanity, objectivity, neutrality and independence.

Almasri said 112,000 lives have been saved by the White Helmets.

Nedal Izdden, one of its board members, said, “We are the only non-armed group doing this kind of work in Syria.”

He adds that 233 volunteers have lost their lives from this war.

By doing this humanitarian work of easing people’s suffering, Izdden said, the volunteers are sending a clear message that violence can only produce violence.

“We strive for stability in the area.”

The ultimate goal is peace, he said. Rebuild the cities and the country.

“We are the only ones praying to lose our jobs,” he joked.

In contrast to the quiet sounds of a little toddler burbling on her father’s lap in the room, Mustafa Almahamed talked about his 10-year-old nephew dying in his arms on December 15, 2012.

Turning to Almasri on the panel, he said, “That look haunted me too.”

Today, Almahamed is the Syria Civil Defense manager for Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria. He continues to face the results of cluster and barrel bombs.

In the last year and a half, the organization started helping people find places to hide when the bombs hit.

Breaking down Gender Barriers

Almasri shared what women have contributed to the cause.

When White Helmets was first established, she said, there were no more than 10 women.

Now there are over 400 female volunteers and more than 45 women centers.

“We provide the same service as men. This includes carrying people to the ambulances and search and rescue.”

The difference they have made are noted in certain conservative groups where women were uncomfortable being helped by men.

Almasri said gender was a barrier. “Women were able to fill the gap and provide support.”

The women centers provide first aid training, search and rescue efforts and trauma support for children, she said. Outreach programs have volunteers doing demonstrations at schools and in people’s homes.

The goal is one rescuer in each home.

“In six months, we have closed more than 30,000 cases,” Almasri said.

Currently, the organization is training women on how to work with unexploded devices and identify non-traditional weapons such as barrel bombs.

Remaining Apolitical

When asked how White Helmets remain apolitical and how to ensure it remains that way, Izdden said, “We all know countries have a humanitarian side to them and it is the side we are talking to.”

He said the organization is lucky to be recognized by countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

In response to the second part of the question, Izdden said the 4,000 White Helmets are not angels.

“We are everyday people. Our work, like schools and institutions, is dedicated to a code of ethics and a code of conduct.”

He said when they recognize a member who isn’t committed to the organization’s four principles or to its code of ethics and conduct, they simply stop their association with the person and he or she is no longer a member.

Reasons for expulsion include using a gun or an affiliation with a political group.

“Mistakes do happen,” Izdden said. “We do our best to address them when they happen.”

Almasri still reports on life within Syria, issues such as safety and socio-economic affairs, in between her duties as the head staff of women’s affairs. She plans to commit fully to journalism after the White Helmets are not needed anymore.

Same as Izddan with dentistry. Same as Almahamed with auto mechanics.

The event was co-hosted by SFU International, PeaceGeeks and the British Consulate-General Vancouver. The three Syrians visited Ottawa with the assistance of Global Affairs Canada before coming to Vancouver.


Deanna Cheng is a member of the NCM Collective based out of Vancouver.

Published in Top Stories
Sunday, 11 March 2018 13:42

Khalistan – Theatre of the Absurd

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. 

Published in Commentary
Friday, 26 January 2018 12:51

Sikh Temples Bar Indian Officials

By: The South Asian Post Desk

About 16 Sikh temples in BC and Alberta have joined Sikh religious organisations in Ontario, the US, and the UK to ban Indian officials and diplomats from making formal visits to their places of worship in response to the arrest of a Sikh activist in India and what they call interference in their affairs.

The initiative in Western Canada was moved forward by the Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar in Surrey, which organizes the annual mammoth Vaisakhi celebrations in British Columbia.

The ban started in Ontario and spread to temples or gurdwaras in the US and the UK, with more than 100 places of worship now involved, Sikh websites said.

Organisations supporting the campaign, said that the ban would apply to official visits but not personal trips to temples.

The November arrest of British Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal by Indian authorities and "interference in Sikh affairs" by Indian officials had led to the move, said campaign organisers.

Johal was detained in the northern state of Punjab and accused of involvement in the killings of prominent Hindu figures.

His family has rejected the allegations against him, explaining that he was in India to get married. Sikh activists say his arrest was politically motivated.

Federal Canada NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and two Liberal Sikh cabinet ministers have joined a chorus of international complaints about the alleged torture of Johal triggering intense reaction by the Modi administration in India.

Adding to the Indian government’s displeasure to the actions in Canada is the recent elevation of Harinder Malhi, an Ontario provincial parliament member as Minister of the Status of Women.

Malhi is the mover of the 1984 genocide motion in the Ontario House last April and the 38-year-old daughter of Canada's first turbaned MP Gurbax Singh Malhi.

In the summer of 1984, Indian troops battling Sikh fighters stormed Sikhism's holiest Gurdwara, the Golden Temple, leaving hundreds dead.

Later that year, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards, who held her responsible for the bloodshed.

In the aftermath of Gandhi's death, thousands of Sikhs were killed as sectarian mobs targeted Sikhs in Punjab, and the Indian capital New Delhi.

Sikhs have described the killings as a genocide, which India has discounted.

The decision by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to elevate Malhi seems to have been taken with an eye to Sikh votes as Ontario goes to the polls in June.

Sikh Siyasat News said that the Sikhs residing in Canada will not give in or bow down to the interference and pressure placed upon them by the Indian state and their representatives, while reporting on the ban of Indian officials at local temples.

“Although this policy of restriction already exists informally, it is due time for a formal declaration”, temple representatives said according to the website.

“It should be noted that this step is being taken not to restrict access to the Guru, but rather to ensure that the Gurdwara Sahib remains clear from the interference of corrupt officials who represent a government that for the last 4 decades has committed genocide against the Sikh congregation and has never had positive intentions in dealing with Sikhs as a separate nation of people. Further, Sikhs in Canada have been humiliated and threatened by Indian

Consulate offices across the country when trying to access their native homeland of Punjab and being required to have a travel visa (issued by Indian Consulate offices) to do so”, the statement reads.

“Gurdwaras in Canada have often been approached by Sikhs with stories of mistreatment at the hands of these Indian officials who are keen to abuse their power, further subjugate Sikhs, and have attempted to infiltrate Gurdwara Sahibs and Sikh organizations in Canada since 1984”, the statement said.

The statement, however, added that no individual is banned from visiting Gurdwara and the prohibition is only for Indian officials when they try to visit the temples in their official capacity.

“To be clear, no individual is being banned from Gurdwara Sahibs, but Indian representatives in official capacity will not be permitted to address the congregation in Guru Darbar and sewadars from each Gurdwara Sahib may individually choose to which degree they will allow Indian officials access. The purpose of this declaration is to make it known that Sikhs in Canada will not be cornered by the Indian government and their representatives will be accountable to the Sikh congregation everywhere they go”, reads the statement.

The ban imposed by Sikh gurdwara committees in Canada on entry of Indian government officials in gurdwaras was also raised in India’s parliament last week.

Congress MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu raised the issue drawing government’s attention to the development in Canada.

“Khalistani (Sikh separatist) elements are behind the decision,” he said, and added that these elements are maligning the image of the entire Sikh community which will not be tolerated.

He cautioned the gurdwara committees concerned that by indulging in such uncalled for acts, they will forfeit the chance of any help from India.

“Government of India and state government of Punjab will not tolerate this,” he said.


This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.

Published in Top Stories

By: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC

Nearly 70 years since South Asians won the right to vote in Canada, Jagmeet Singh has become the first non-white leader of one of the country’s major political parties.

Media coverage of Singh’s historic victory has ranged from admiration of the new leader’s alpha-male swagger to questions of whether he will hinder his party’s appeal at the Quebec polls. While most stories have understandably commented on the visible symbols of his Sikh faith, a few have taken an oddly suspicious tone of whether keeping a turban and beard is a gateway to misplaced loyalties — in Singh’s case that being in supporting Sikh separatists.

Ironically, the one media outlet that seemed to fumble over itself to roll out this unwelcome mat was none other than Canada’s public broadcaster, the traditionally left-leaning CBC.
In an aggressive Fox-style interview on Power & Politics, veteran journalist Terry Milewski interviewed Singh for his first appearance on the station since winning the NDP leadership. He tossed Singh a few softball questions about his leadership plans before cutting incongruently into a question that rhetorically implied a connection between Singh and the Air India bombing from three decades ago: Does Singh condemn Sikhs who venerate Talwinder Parmar, the man considered to be the architect of the bombing of Flight 182 in 1985?

The broadside seemed to take Singh by surprise. He deflected while the CBC host kept doggedly pressing him. Eventually the awkwardly un-Canadian exchange ended in a stalemate. The post-mortem discussion on social media, however, questioned the fairness of this line of inquiry.

Milewski’s cross-examination was loaded, first of all, with the assumption that Singh, a Sikh born in Canada on the cusp of the millennial generation, should be studied in the history of Talwinder Parmar, and the intricacies of an Indian separatist movement from 30 years ago. This would be on par with assuming that Tom Mulcair, the previous NDP leader, should know the history of Sinn Fein just because his father was an Irish Catholic immigrant.

But even if Singh knows his history of 1980s Sikh separatism, was he being asked to denounce the personal views of other Sikhs who venerate Parmar because Singh himself is a baptized Sikh?
Or was he being asked because there are such followers in his political base?

Either way, these questions lead to a troubling double standard when compared to CBC’s treatment of other politicians, such as the Conservative Party’s new leader Andrew Scheer. In an interview earlier this year, Scheer was asked about his views on same-sex marriage and abortion, but at no point was the devout Catholic asked to openly condemn his fellow Catholic congregants who view same-sex marriage as an abomination.

Meanwhile, other Canadian politicians with a significant following in the Sikh community have also been spared Milewski’s rough treatment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never been asked to condemn the portion of his Sikh base who view men like Parmar as martyrs. In the 2015 election, Trudeau benefited mightily from the Sikh vote, delivered to him by organizers from the World Sikh Organization — a group that once advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland, on the heels of the Air India bombing. The WSO has also delivered for past Liberal leaders, including Jean Chretien.

Media hypocrisy, however, reaches its apex each spring in Surrey, when dozens of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, along with senior representative from the armed forces, RCMP, major banks and other federal bodies congregate at the Khalsa Day Parade on 128th Street. The event, which drew 300,000 attendees this past year, is hosted by Dasmesh Darbar, the largest Sikh temple in B.C. At this temple, a kind of Sikh version of the Yasukuni Shrine, Parmar and other Sikh separatists are lionized through posters and photo memorials.

In the years since the Air India bombing, mainstream media has leaned heavily on a false, and self-perpetuated, binary of “moderates” versus “fundamentalists” when reporting on news with a Sikh angle. This was partly the consequence of non-diverse newsrooms in the 1980s and 1990s struggling to decipher the inner-workings of a complex community with which many were unfamiliar.

So media outlets created go-to contacts, such as temple presidents and politicians, who became the default spokespeople for an entire range of issues, regardless of their familiarity on these topics. These individuals, in turn, used their privileged positions to perpetuate this divide in which “moderates” became seen as forward-looking secularists who, typically, didn’t wear turbans, while fundamentalists were orthodox in religious practice and ardent supporters of an Sikh homeland independent of India.

In the three decades since Air India, two generations of Sikhs have grown out of the shadow of the separatist turmoil. These youth tend to speak English and French better than they do Punjabi and they are politically active through social justice causes.

Singh is part of this new educated generation which continues to advocate — arguably with more passion and idealism than their parents — for redress on behalf of the 10,000-plus Sikhs systematically murdered by government supported pogroms in Delhi in 1984. Singh, and other young Canadian Sikhs, however, are equally as impassioned by other Canadian-based causes such as attaining meaningful reconciliation for this country’s Aboriginal communities and protecting the environment.

This complexity, however, becomes lost in translation for reporters like Milewski because they still insist on viewing the Sikh community through the tenuous lens of Air India and the separatist struggle that long ago withered on the vine. The community has changed but their narrative framework for reporting has not evolved.

Consequently, Singh’s social activism and even his belief in self-determination becomes recklessly conflated as support for a man accused of terrorism three decades ago. And it happens on national television, as it did on Power & Politics where CBC got caught judging a book by its cover as Milewski shamelessly tried to pin down Singh as a Sikh “fundamentalist.” 

If there was any extremism in Canada that day, it was in the manner by which CBC treated the new leader of the NDP.

Singh won his party leadership and the support of the party grassroots because he is a person who embodies the modern nuances of multicultural Canada. Until CBC figures out how to articulate that, Canada’s public broadcaster will continue to foster uncomfortable exchanges that do little to bring together Canadians of all backgrounds.


Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Mann is also a member of the NCM Collective and regular contributor for New Canadian Media. This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.

Published in Commentary

By: Davina Bhandar in Vancouver 

Within the space of a few moments, Jagmeet Singh became one of Canada’s most admired politicians. His cool-under-pressure reaction to being confronted by an angry heckler is just one of the reasons Singh is considered to be the favourite contender for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party.

A video of the Sept. 6 incident at Singh’s campaign event in Brampton, Ont., went viral and has been viewed millions of times in Canada and around the world. Moments into the event, an angry white woman interrupted Singh and shouted Islamophobic and vitriolic statements at him, and physically gesticulated, demonstrating her feeling of entitlement — to space, voice and position - in relation to others at the event.

Singh seemed undeterred by the outburst. His response to her rant was to rally his audience to help him relay his campaign message. He asked his guests to chant: “Love and courage.”

In the face of a racist rant, Singh remained calm.

What is the nature of Singh’s call for love? His political slogan is based on a message of universal love and courage. Singh’s message — and chant that evening — is uniquely situated among the slogans of the three other candidates: Charlie Angus “Got your back,” Niki Ashton “Building a movement, together,” and Guy Caron, “Let’s Build a Progressive and Sustainable Economy.”

The dramatic events at the Sept. 6 meeting demonstrates something about Singh, as a person and as a candidate. It also points to new undercurrents of religion and spirituality and its role — not only in Canadian politics, but also in the leadership race for the NDP.

Singh’s campaign and potential leadership arrives in a climate of increasing hatred, fear and division. His call for universal love is coherent with Sikhism, which challenges the division between daily life and a devotional love that guides all thought and action. How does the language of love and courage relate to a New Democratic Party trying to find its way in a shifting political landscape?

Singh’s outward appearance solicits questions from some Canadians — as in the case of the heckler — regarding his secular position: To what degree does Singh’s religion relate to his policy ideas or conduct?

Canada: Judeo-Christian values?

Canadian political institutions and traditions are imbued with Judeo-Christian values and symbols. Yet the separation of church and state maintains religion does not dictate the making of policy and law. However, in the game of politics, courting ethno-racial, national and religious identified voters has become a central art of party campaign strategists.

Political parties of all persuasions have had to navigate this division in a variety of ways. In Canada, the left social democratic tradition, represented now by the NDP, has had less experience with faith-based movements and the religious identity of its leaders than their right-wing counterparts and left-leaning parties elsewhere in the world. Singh’s leadership challenge will likely change that.

While Singh is positioned as a secular politician, his ethos, sense of justice and formation of his identity is connected to a Sikh practice. The very essence of the message of universal love and courage is embedded in a Sikh devotion, rather than a secular idea of loving all humankind. Practising Sikhism defines a way of life — one that is contemplative, meditative and committed to spiritualism and positive actions.

The Clash of Civilizations

To understand the contemporary role of religion in politics, we need to look at one of our turning points: 9/11. The attacks on New York City and the Pentagon served as a marker of the time foreign and domestic policy in North America was called upon to name Islamic terrorism as a universal enemy.

Once North America and other western governments embraced the rhetoric of a civilization divide, the psyche of liberal democratic nations split apart. The already tenuous divide between the religious and secular began to rupture further.

This reinforced a binary division and emboldened a powerful discourse of racism and Islamophobia. The basic premise is that Islam represents something universally distinct from Christian belief systems.

This discourse of racism and difference has gained strength and societal control through the election of conservative governments with moral platforms that build on fears and anxieties of susceptible citizens.

Sixteen years of corrosive discourses since 9/11 has led to: Us vs. Them, the Clash of Civilizations and racism. We are now at the point of the normalization of white supremacy. It is no longer an oddity or a left-wing conspiracy theory to discuss the presence of fascism and neo-Nazis — these are events widely circulated in our social media feeds and featured during the evening news.

Religious discrimination in Canada

Islamophobia and racism are often understood to be twinned structures of oppression. In many ways they are, but there are complex differences between them. They disseminate and exist in different political, cultural and social taxonomies.

Islamophobia operates through systems of stereotypes, often misunderstanding or misrepresenting the traditions, religious practices and customs of highly diverse ethno-national and racial communities. Islamophobia has been manufactured in multiple ways in society through popular culture, media, policy and criminalizing targeting Islam and Muslims.

Racism is a larger systemic operation of power denigrating one race while validating or elevating another.

When the Harper Conservatives were in government, they attempted to map onto Canadian national values a form of social conservatism. This was articulated through a distinction between Canada and the “barbaric cultural practices” of others.

The clear lines that were being drawn between what Harper referred to as “old stock Canadians” during a 2015 federal leaders’ debate brought into discourse front and center the relationship between white supremacy and Islamophobia. It connected the dots between a normative white Christian Canadian identity that could stand against the racialized others.

Now the Conservative Party has a leader who proudly accepts the label: “Harper with a Smile.”“ Andrew Scheer has the support of social conservatives in the Conservative Party. He has steadfastly supported free speech over the condemnation of Islamophobia and was absent during the House of Commons vote for the Anti-Islamophobia Motion M-103, overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons.

 Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer has been labeled the smiling Harper. Here, he speaks at his shadow cabinet meeting in Winnipeg. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

When losing your cool is not an option

Singh said his ability to remain cool under pressure was largely owed to his experience of being a brown, Sikh and turbaned man, growing up in the 1980s in Brampton, Ont., just northwest of Toronto.

His past experiences of religious and racist intolerance helped to fortify him against racist language and assault.

 Leadership contender Jagmeet Singh greets supporters before the NDP’s Leadership Showcase in Hamilton, Ont., on Sept. 17. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

In the moment in which the racist woman yelled at him, she assumed he was a Muslim. Many wondered why Singh did not attempt to correct her misconceived perception; he is not a Muslim, but rather, a Sikh.

Suggesting such a distinction in the moment, he said, would only further the misunderstanding that somehow being Muslim means such treatment is considered justifiable. His reaction, he said, should not be to proclaim his religion. By not correcting this misconception, Singh was acting in solidarity against Islamophobia.

Sikhs have been affected throughout the post-9/11 discourses of Islamophobia, mainly because of this misunderstood identity. In the U.S., and elsewhere, there has been a rise in hate bias attacks against Sikhs, with the 2012 Oak Creek, Wis., shooting as a visible example.

While there are those who, in the similar vein as Singh, have sought to challenge Islamophobia by standing in solidarity, there have also been many instances where Sikhs in America, the U.K. and Canada painstakingly distinguish themselves from Muslims.

However, in countless examples, when Islamophobia is experienced in the public sphere against properly identified Muslims, there has been a lack of outcry.

In Canada, the shooting deaths in Quebec’s Sainte-Foy’s Mosque, in which Azzedine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubakar Thabthi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahim Barry were killed, was unmistakably an act of terrorism. Canadians across the country mourned this tragedy. And yet was it recognized as an act of terrorism against the citizens of this state?

The day-to-day effects of Islamophobia have led to many Muslims living with heightened experiences of fear and not knowing what they might encounter on a walk to school, a day at work or even waiting for a bus.

The left social-democrats of the NDP hold steadfastly to their conception of justice, fairness and equality in a secular world. The ways in which people are encountering the public today, however, is seemingly much murkier than these stark divisions.

The Conversation The issues of racism, religious intolerance and social justice are not central issues for any federal political party. These issues, however, should no longer be viewed as separate from major policy platforms including health, welfare reform, employment, national defense, national security, aboriginal relations and education. Perhaps a political leader such as Jagmeet Singh will be able to navigate these debates with an alacrity and style we have yet to witness in the Canadian political world.

Davina Bhandar, Adjunct Professor in School of Communication and Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Published in Politics

By: Charles Lammam and Milagros Palacios in Vancouver 

With home prices rising across the country, many of us would likely assume that housing costs (including rent and mortgage payments) are the most expensive budget item for the average Canadian family.

In reality, however, the average Canadian household spends more on taxes than any other expense—including housing. Specifically, in 2016 the average Canadian family (including single Canadians) earned $83,105 in income and paid $35,283 in total taxes. That’s 42.5 per cent of income going to taxes.

Surprised? You’re not alone.

For most of us, the income and payroll tax deductions on our paycheques do not total anything close to this percentage. But to understand the full cost of taxation, you must consider all the taxes—both visible and hidden—that we pay throughout the year to federal, provincial and municipal governments including sales taxes, property taxes, fuel taxes, carbon taxes, import taxes, alcohol taxes and much more. All these taxes add up and make our overall tax bill expensive.
So how does the overall tax bill compare to housing costs?

The average Canadian family spends 22.1 per cent of its income on housing—only about half as much as it spends on taxes (again, 42.5 per cent).

In fact, taxes consume more of the average family’s income than all the basic necessities of life combined. If you add up the average family’s spending on housing, food and clothing in a year, it comes to 37.4 per cent of its income—still quite a bit less than what we pay in taxes.

With 42.5 per cent of income going to taxes, Canadian families may rightfully wonder whether they get good value for their tax dollars. Of course, taxes fund important government services. But we shouldn’t simply assume that higher taxes always provide better government services.

While it’s ultimately up to individual Canadians and their families to decide if they’re getting the best bang for their money, you must know how much you pay in total taxes to make an informed assessment. That’s where our annual calculations help. They estimate the cost of government for the average family. Armed with this knowledge, Canadians can then determine if they think they’re getting good value in return.

Some perspective might help.

In most provinces, more than 50 per cent of our tax dollars finance generous pay for government employees. In fact, government employees, on average, receive 10.6 per cent higher wages than comparable private-sector workers doing similar work. And that’s on top of the much more generous non-wage benefits (pension coverage, job security, early retirement) the government sector also enjoys. Of course, we need qualified and well-paid government workers, but is this pay and benefit premium the best use of our tax dollars?

In the case of health care, which consumes around 40 per cent of most provincial budgets and is a fast-growing expense, international comparisons show that, despite high levels of spending, Canadians have comparatively poor access to technology and doctors, and endure longer wait times for surgery. It’s hard to see how we get good value for our money in public health care when measured against other countries that also offer universal access.

Most troubling is when our tax dollars are outright wasted on boondoggles and failed government programs. A recent study documented more than 600 cases where the federal government failed to meet its own objectives over a 25-year period, resulting in up to $197 billion of wasted tax money.

Bottom line—if Canadians are more informed about the true cost of government, they will be better equipped to hold government accountable for how it spends our tax dollars. And that leads to a more robust public debate about the overall tax burden and whether we’re getting our money’s worth.


Charles Lammam is the Director, Fiscal Studies, at the Fraser Institute and Milagros Palacios is the Senior Research Economist at the Fraser Institute. This piece was republished under arrangement with the Asian Pacific Post.

Published in Economy

By: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

To be the “last king” of anything means you left this world either a legend or a tragic figure. Maharajah Duleep Singh, the final monarch of the Punjab kingdom, who was forcibly separated from his family as a child, dispossessed of the Koh-i-noor diamond, converted to Christianity as a teenager, died a penniless, broken man in Paris, and is today buried in England, clearly falls into the latter category. But just as some within England’s Sikh community are seeking to exhume his remains for return to the Punjab, so are others working at rehabilitating his victim legacy. 

Veteran U.K. actor and filmmaker Kavi Raz is one of these reformers. His film, The Black Prince, is a new production on the deposed monarch, who as an 11-year-old was removed from the throne and by 15 was exiled to England after his kingdom was annexed by the British in 1849. Unlike other ‘last kings’ such as Louis XVI of France and Nicholas II of Russia, Singh was spared the guillotine and firing squad, but the impressionable boy king would live out his life cut off from his family, culture, and homeland, remaining forever hidden away, if not lost, from his people.

Raz’s biopic sets course to rescue Duleep Singh from the forgotten recesses of English and Indian history. For the writer-director and his fellow producers, The Black Prince is clearly a passion project; the period piece is scripted in a mix of English and Punjabi, showcases an international cast, and features detail-oriented sets of Victorian England. 

The film is not song-and-dance Bollywood, nor does it fall into the Punjabi-language genre which is bloated these days with slapstick comedies. Like the recent Oscar nominated Lion, The Black Prince is part of a new wave of film and television content capable of generating box office revenue domestically and internationally. In Canada, there are over one million Punjabi speaking South Asians who provide a niche target for the film.

Raz knows his target demographic well—he is originally from the Punjab region—and has crafted a story to win the hearts and minds of this audience. Unfortunately, this comes at an artistic cost, as The Black Prince seems more like a mission than a movie at times. Raz presses hard to recast Duleep Singh as a freedom fighter and a devotee of the Sikh faith, selectively omitting facts to make this case. The oversimplification of Duleep Singh’s re-initiation into the Sikh faith is one example of the film’s rolling-pin approach to the maharajah’s story (more on this pivot point below).

This heavy-handedness flattens characters throughout the movie, whether they be villainous English officers or the maharajah’s wives. Raz’s Duleep Singh is a stripped-down joyless version of an ex-sovereign, who was known to have thoroughly appreciated the velvet trappings of aristocratic life. We also see very little of a maharajah who took considerable pride in being a sportsman, playwright, and musician.

This ‘Black Prince’ who is constantly in a black mood is played by the eminent Punjabi musician Satinder Sartaaj who is forced to brood through his lines and awkward silences that ask too much of his acting skills. When he is not weighed down by a gnawing sense of displacement—the maharajah was, technically speaking, England’s first Sikh immigrant—he suffers from an identity crisis. That only intensifies when he finally reunites with his mother, Rani Jindan, superbly acted by Shabana Azmi.

These repetitive scenes of inner anguish neither advance the story nor reveal the complexity of a maharajah who, as a blue-blooded aristocrat, may have felt as much kinship with members of Europe’s ruling classes as with the average Punjabi peasant or Sikh devotee. The use of a third-person narrator would have relieved the maharajah from having to make banal political statements every other scene. Alternatively, Raz could have shot the film as a historical docu-drama interspersed with interviews to maximise his control over the narrative.

Eventually the maharajah’s contrived emotional distress culminates in a lukewarm climax when he re-converts to Sikhism during a failed passage to India—the British government denied him entry to travel to his homeland. Now near the end of his life, his unrest becomes outright rebellion as he bands with a group of Irish rebels and Russian agents and takes the helm of a quixotic, and ill-advised, plot to seize back his kingdom.

While there was likely some revolutionary fervor in the maharajah’s desire to overthrow English rule in India, it is a stretch to credit these actions solely to a pious freedom fighter, as Raz has suggested.

Historically there was also a financial motive—and a reasonably just one—behind Duleep Singh’s fall-out with his captors. Like many Victorian-era estate holders of his time, he was perpetually in debt due to a profligate lifestyle. His promised annual pension in 1860 of £40 thousand per annum ($7.7 million CAD in today’s terms) was always short-paid by half every year. While £20 thousand per year afforded him a luxurious lifestyle as single man, this amount, not indexed to the rate of inflation, became insufficient later in life as he became a father to eight children and husband to two wives.

At the time of Punjab’s annexation, the British government had also seized his family’s vast personal estates and holdings which should not have been included as state properties. Despite Singh’s ongoing campaigning to the Crown, these assets were never returned, much to his vexation.

Among Sikhs, there is a commonly held view that the modern downfall of their Punjab state actually began over 150 years ago when the kingdom created by Duleep’s father, the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh, crumbled after the Anglo-Sikh wars. A century after the golden age of the Lahore Darbar, Punjab was torn in half by Partition in 1947, and today what is left is being further shredded by rampant drug abuse, gross corruption, farmer suicides, and environmental damage.

Solutions remain elusive, but heroic accounts from the past provide hope that things can be better. 

The Black Prince covers an important story that has long required production. While this movie pays tribute to the maharajah by rescuing him from the shadow of history, it does not, however, set him free. Over a century since his death, Duleep Singh still remains a pawn—now of modern-day Punjabi and Sikh identity politics—as he once was during the Great Game of colonialism in the 19th century. 


Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional who works as the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. This article has been republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.

Published in Arts & Culture
Friday, 07 July 2017 23:27

Carnaval Del Sol Vancouver 2017

By: Sam Minassie

As an integral part of Latin American Week, Carnaval Del Sol has returned for another year with an even larger assortment of activities, vendors and events. Initially established in 2009 with approximately 500 attendees, it has evolved into an annual pillar of the community. In comparison, the festival now hosts up to 100,000 guests annually. 

The festival is slated to take place across 7 plazas: The Food Plaza, Kids Plaza, AON Family Plaza, YVR Travel Plaza, Urban Plaza, Sports Plaza and the Beer Plaza. The different sects will host fashion shows, body painting, street performers, live DJ’s and even artists at work on paintings and sculptures.While recent expansions have resulted in new additions, such as “Music on Wheels”, as well as a Beer Plaza which now seats 600!

An entrepreneur by her early teens, founder, Paola Murillo began her first business, selling sandwiches to schoolmates. And although she received backlash from school authorities, by high school she’d already added pens as a second venture. A testament to her resiliency, Murillo, has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

So, when she moved to Vancouver, recreating an authentic “Plaza Latina” was merely another opportunity. In several Latin-American countries, plazas serve as major hubs for residents to socialize, share news and celebrate. These areas often make up the most intricate parts of a city’s dynamics. Murillo's aim to help connect the community through a more traditional approach has been highly successful and has helped bridge the gap for many newcomers.

Originally from Columbia, Murillo came to Canada in 2005 with business aspirations that have lead her to a number of projects including Latincouver. The online platform which provides a central place to find news and information, also hosts a number of programs. With a list that includes the Latin-Canadian Professional Network (LCPN), Inspirational Latin Awards (ILA), ExpoPlaza Latina (EPL), and the Amigo Card; the site offers something for everyone.

Now a Canadian citizen, she has been honoured a number of times, including the prestigious Mary Ozolins award given to a BC woman who “provides exemplary and meaningful contributions to the community”. And was recognized as one of the 10 Most Influential Hispanics in Canada by the Canadian Hispanic Business Alliance in 2010.

Although Murillo’s efforts often resonate more closely with Vancouver’s Hispanic residents, initiatives like the ExpoPlaza target broader international business relations. The conference which focuses on improving intercontinental trade helps Canadian companies connect with South American distributors and organizations. 

The festival is scheduled to host approximately 250 performers, musicians, and dancers, keeping the stage overflowing with talent throughout the weekend celebrations. Outdoor cooking demos by the Chefs del Sol will also showcase traditional Latin-American recipes. Entry is free and with a variety of over 25 food vendors to choose from, a virtually unlimited assortment of Latin-American dishes is available. 

The event takes place in Vancouver at the Concord Pacific Place, just north of Science World, from 10am - 10pm on July 8 and July 9.

Published in Arts & Culture

by Daniel Morton in Vancouver

One year after Canada first resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canadian communities — a number that has since grown to 40,000 — the refugee program has left Canadians divided as to its merit and efficacy. A recent poll by Angus Reid showed that 6 in 10 Canadians approve of the way the government has handled the influx, but a deeper dive into the polling reveal almost one in four Canadians  support a Trump style ban on Muslims. Despite its welcoming reputation, Canada has already seen an alarming rise in Islamophobic incidents. At this point, failing to help newcomers settle runs the risk of a more intolerant future in Canada.

In Metro Vancouver, a region that has seen a 20 fold increase in immigration since 2001,  newcomers often have trouble navigating the services they need. In 2016, seven Metro Vancouver municipal districts identified access to information and services for newcomers as a top priority to strengthen resettlement efforts. As an example, Metro Vancouver immigrants struggle with backlogs for government funded English lessons while failing to make use of the network of free lessons — many offers are not getting to the people who need them.

At a time when social media discourse about immigrants grows more toxic everyday, Vancouver’s vibrant non-profit community is stepping up with a positive response. Currently a top 10 finalist of the Google.org Impact Challenge, Vancouver-based NGO PeaceGeeks has partnered with the immigrant settlement community to explore how to better connect immigrants to local services such as health, language programs and housing options to ease their transition. PeaceGeeks is one of several Canadian non-profits vying for $750,000 from Google through a public vote to make their project a reality.

The idea for this application builds on another PeaceGeeks project called Services Advisor, a smartphone app that connects refugees to essential humanitarian services like food and medicine across Jordan—a country that has housed almost 656,000 Syrian refugees according to Amnesty International.  The Services Advisor prototype was successfully deployed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan and will soon be deployed in Turkey and Somalia to support another 3 million displaced people.

Now, PeaceGeeks is exploring how tools like Services Advisor can help to significantly improve the experience of newcomers arriving in Metro Vancouver and beyond, through generating personalized roadmaps for newcomers to navigate what is often a dizzying array of settlement and community services.

PeaceGeeks intends to build this app so that it can eventually be used across Canada.

“We want to create better visibility and access to existing services and providers while reducing what can be an overwhelming experience for immigrants as they navigate the steps to becoming active and vibrant citizens in their new communities,” says Renee Black, the Executive Director of PeaceGeeks. “Services Advisor Pathways (the Vancouver version) aims to connect them to the most relevant and timely services to help with their particular circumstances at any given stage of their immigration journey.”

The project is being developed in partnership and consultation with cities, local newcomers, immigrant service providers such as MOSAIC, Immigrant Services Society of Canada (ISSofBC) and S.U.C.C.E.S.S., as well as Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs) across the Metro Vancouver region. LIPs are federally funded, cross-sectoral partnerships that aim to improve integration of newcomers into the fabric of local communities and create more inclusive workplaces.

“By building on their global experience using technology to support refugees combined with innovative approaches that will be developed locally, PeaceGeeks is poised to make a pioneering contribution to the way that immigrants and refugees access information about services in Metro Vancouver,” says Nadia Carvalho, Coordinator of Vancouver’s LIP.

The project has received over thirty endorsements since the beginning of March from key individuals and organizations across settlement, tech and humanitarian spaces, including the B.C. Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services.

“By facilitating the integration of newcomers into British Columbia, this new technology will return benefit the whole Province,” says Minister Amrik Virk.

PeaceGeeks anticipates that Services Advisor Pathways can help reduce the stress on government services, by connecting immigrants to the pathways for success before and upon arrival, straight from their smartphones.

At such a critical time for Canada to stand apart from the closing borders of other nations, PeaceGeeks is hoping that Services Advisor will show that Canada’s strength continues to come from its diversity and inclusion.

For more information about PeaceGeeks’ project, visit votepeacegeeks.org.


The Google.org Impact Challenge supports Canadian nonprofit innovators who are using technology to tackle the world's biggest social challenges. Google.org will award $5 million across 10 organizations to help bring their ideas to life.

Between March 6 and March 28, Canadians are invited to visit g.co/canadachallenge to learn more about the finalists, and to vote for the projects they care about most. One winner will be chosen based on this public vote to receive a $750,000 grant from Google.org. The remaining winners will be selected by a jury during a live pitching session on March 30 in Toronto.

Daniel Morton is a volunteer for the organization.

Published in Top Stories
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Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

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The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

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The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

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