Comprising around four percent of the Canadian population, Indians have emerged as one of the most influential demographic groups in the country’s polity. Over a score of Indian-origin politicians have made their way into the Parliament of Canada, more than any other diasporic community in an increasingly multicultural nation.
Three Indian-origin ministers are part of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recently re-elected government. The Indian community is politically so influential and powerful that Trudeau – endearingly called Justin ‘Singh’ Trudeau by the community – replaced his long-time defence minister Harjit Sajjan with only another Indian-origin politician Anita Anand, who had emerged as the best choice for the post.
Anand, 52, a former law professor who was the cabinet minister responsible for Canada’s successful vaccine purchase program during the pandemic as Minister of Public Services and Procurement, is only the second woman in the country’s history to be the defence minister.
Born in the Canadian coastal province of Nova Scotia to Indian parents – both physicians – who hailed from Punjab and Tamil Nadu, Anand holds four degrees, including a bachelor’s in Political Science and a Masters in Law, and has worked as a lawyer, a law professor, and researcher.
Before her election, she was a Professor at the Faculty of Law, the University of Toronto, where she held the J.R. Kimber Chair in Investor Protection and Corporate Governance. She served as Associate Dean (2007-2009) and was a member of the Governing Board of Massey College at the University of Toronto. Anand was elected to Parliament from Oakville in 2019 and became the first Hindu Canadian to become a federal cabinet minister.
Anand is joined by another Indian colleague, Kamal Khera, whose parents immigrated from Punjab, in the cabinet with six women ministers.
A registered nurse, community volunteer, and political activist, Khera, 32, got recognition for her work during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic when she volunteered at a hard-hit long-term care facility in her hometown Brampton. She continued to help on the front lines throughout the pandemic, including administering vaccines in her community.
Introducing her as the youngest member in his team, Trudeau, during the campaign trail, had said: “She will bring to it (the post) both her experience, her passion for serving, for caring for others that she’s always brought as a nurse and a parliamentarian.”
Khera was first elected in 2015 from Brampton West and served as parliamentary secretary to multiple ministers over six years, including the ministers of health, national revenue, and international development.
The third Indian-origin minister in the Trudeau cabinet is Harjit Sajjan himself, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Army who fought in Afghanistan. The former defence minister is now the Minister of International Development and the Minister responsible for Canada’s Pacific Economic Development Agency.
He represents the British Columbia riding of Vancouver South in the House of Commons and took office as MP following the 2015 election.
Sajjan, 51, born in a village in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, was Canada’s first Sikh minister of national defence and the first Sikh Canadian to command a Canadian Army reserve regiment. He served as the minister of national defence from 2015 to 2021. His father was a head constable with the Punjab Police in India, and the family immigrated to Canada in 1976 when he was five years old. His father worked at a sawmill in their new homeland, while his mother worked at a berry farm. Before he entered politics, he had worked as a detective in the Vancouver Police Department.
Fastest growing community
Indians started settling down in Canada around the late 19th century, and the great majority were Punjabi Sikhs who came from farming backgrounds or British Army veterans. According to Statistics Canada, the Indian-origin community is one of the fastest-growing demographic cohorts, which makes up the second-largest non-Caucasian group after Chinese Canadians.
Canada hosts among the largest Indian communities globally, numbering 1.6 million people, which accounts for more than four percent of its total population, estimated to be 38 million presently. In 2016, Punjabi was officially announced as the third language of Canada after English and French. The decision was taken after four years of Punjabi being the most important language in the Canadian Parliament and after the election of 20 Punjabi-speaking candidates to the House of Commons.
Among the early Indo-Canadian politicians who gained the limelight for their work were Herb Dhaliwal, the first Indo-Canadian cabinet minister, and Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary. He won the municipal elections in 2010, 2013, and then in 2017.
While Nenshi was born in Canada and was raised in Calgary, his parents were Ismaili Muslims of Gujarati origin who immigrated to Canada from Tanzania. Dhaliwal was born in Punjab’s Chaheru village and was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1993 election for Vancouver South.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Dhaliwal to the cabinet in 1997 as Minister of Revenue. In 1999, he became Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and in 2002 he was appointed Minister of Natural Resources and Minister with political responsibility for British Columbia. Their appointments helped the Indian-origin leaders find a foothold in Canadian politics.
The Indian community is mainly concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area, the Greater Vancouver area, Montreal (Quebec), Calgary (Alberta), Ottawa (Ontario), and Winnipeg (Manitoba). It has done commendably well in every sector in Canada.
But what makes these Indo-Canadians unique is that the community, especially Punjabis and the Sikhs, are a potent political force in Canada. And this became more visible after Trudeau became Prime Minister during his first term in 2015. In fact, during his first and second term as Prime Minister, Trudeau had inducted four Indo-Canadians in his cabinet.
In a 2018 article, the Vancouver Sun said, “the Sikh connection had been working well for Justin Trudeau, as it did for Jean Chretien (who served as the 20th prime minister of Canada from 1993 to 2003). Punjabi Canadians, most of whom are Sikh, gave Trudeau a big leg up in nabbing the leadership of the federal Liberal party, which soon led him to the commanding heights of the prime minister’s office.”
Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which has always supported immigrants, has come out with favorable rules, regulations, and laws in this regard. He has often visited gurdwaras and temples, and his video where he showed off his bhangra moves has gone viral. He has also participated in Diwali celebrations apart from the recital of Gurbani, various compositions by the Sikh gurus. He has even helped out women in preparing meals in the langar or free community kitchen.
The American media had widely quoted him during his visit in 2016 to the US when he joked, “I have more Sikhs in my cabinet than Narendra Modi (Indian Prime Minister).”
Strong political force
According to political commentators and analysts, the Punjabi, especially the Sikh community, has emerged as a solid political force because of their long history of active political engagement, combined with their unity and organizational strength, which is seen during the gurdwara elections and in their work ethic.
The community was at the forefront in raising funds and fighting for the safe passage of Punjabi immigrants from India into Canada. They also helped immigrants with housing and jobs and constantly challenged the racism that earlier existed in society. This social and political activism not only gave them visibility but ensured that members of the Sikh community became familiar and involved with politics from a young age.
No wonder that a record number of 49 Indo-Canadian candidates were in the fray in the September 20, 2021 elections, of which 16 were from the Conservative Party, 15 from the Liberal Party, 12 from Jagmeet Singh’s New Democratic Party (NDP), and six from the far right-wing People’s Party of Canada.
Of the total 49, 17 Indo-Canadians were successful. While all three Indo-Canadians in Trudeau’s previous Cabinet – Sajjan, former Diversity Minister Bardish Chagger, and Anand – won their re-election, the 42-year-old NDP leader from Burnaby South also won.
Jagmeet Singh had made history by becoming the first non-white leader of a federal party in Canada in 2017. He had also picked up the endorsement of a fellow left-of-center US Senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
This time, as many as 21 Indo-Canadian women had entered the electoral fray, of which only six won.
In the 2019 election, 20 Indo-Canadians, including 19 Punjabis, were elected as MPs.
Among other winners from the Liberal Party was Kamal Khera from Brampton West, Ruby Sahota from Brampton North, Sonia Sidhu from Brampton South, Maninder Sidhu from Brampton East, and Sukh Dhaliwal from Surrey-Newton.
Liberal Member of Parliament Chanderkanth Arya, whose roots are from Karnataka, was elected from Napean in Ontario yet again. He is the lone non-Punjabi Indian-origin MP.
George Chahal from Calgary Skyview in Alberta, Arif Virani from Parkdale-High Park, Randeep Sarai from Surrey Centre, Anju Dhillon from Dorval-Lachine-LaSalle, and first-time candidate Iqwinder Gaheer from Mississauga-Malton.
Tim Uppal from Edmonton Mill Woods and Jasraj Singh Hallan from Calgary Forest Lawn seat were among the winners from the Conservative Party.
What was interesting during the elections was that, as in the past, the polls were Punjabi versus Punjabi in many constituencies, especially around Toronto and Vancouver.
A significant number of Indian-origin leaders winning the elections will not only benefit the community, but also those who are planning to move to Canada under its liberal immigration policies as the new government has promised to make their move, especially for skilled professionals and students going for higher studies, much easier and welcoming.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.