New Delhi: Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh, who was born in 1979 in Ontario to a couple from the Punjab, is being touted as “kingmaker” after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party failed to secure a majority in elections this month.
Meanwhile, a new neighbourhood has sprung up in the city of Woodstock, around 100 km from Toronto, where 80 per cent of the inhabitants are Sikh.
Given their demographic dominance, the real estate chief developing the neighbourhood has gifted a few acres to the community for a gurdwara.
Eighteen Sikh MPs have been elected to Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons this election, the same as in the 2015 polls. Meanwhile, the equivalent Indian legislative body — the 543-seat Lok Sabha — only has 13 Sikhs.
Punjabi has for years been the third-most spoken language in Canada, after English and French.
The Sikh community may comprise just 1 per cent of Canada’s population, but they have come to wield more power than most of their immigrant counterparts.
The credit goes to a robust culture of grassroots politics, organisational skills and fundraising capabilities, and a particular feature of Canada’s electoral system that requires each candidate to bring in a certain number of signatures and party members in order to get nominated.
What do the numbers show?
According to Statistics Canada, between 2006 and 2016, the number of Punjabi-speaking citizens in Canada grew from 3.68 lakh to 5.02 lakh, a growth of 36.5 per cent. The only other communities to grow at a greater rate were the Filipinos and Arabs, at 83.1 per cent and 60.5 per cent, respectively.
However, it should be noted that the Filipinos had a much smaller population in the base year, 2006, at 2.36 lakh, and Arabs include people from multiple countries in West Asia and North Africa.
Of the 92,231 people admitted into Canada as permanent residents in 2018, 39,600 or 43 per cent were Indian citizens. Punjabis, especially Sikhs, are believed to comprise a large share of this.
While permanent residency is considered a stepping stone to Canadian citizenship, it does not grant people the right to vote. Nevertheless, a large number of PRs go on to become citizens.
Sikhs’ political clout in Canada
The political influence Sikhs have come to enjoy in Canada was on clear display in 2018 when a Canadian intelligence report listed Khalistanis as one of the top five terrorist threats in the country.
The backlash from the Sikh community — including from within the Liberal Party — was so severe that Trudeau’s government subsequently watered down the claims regarding Khalistani terrorism.
“Sikhs are the dominant ethnic group in eight federal seats and have a substantial presence in 15 other seats important enough to tilt the balance in favour of a party,” professor Shinder Purewal of Canada’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University told ThePrint.
Canadian election results have shown that MPs from ethnic minorities often win constituencies where their community doesn’t form the majority. “(In 2015) nine of the 47 visible minority MPs were elected in ridings where the voting population was less than a 20-per-cent visible minority,” a May 2018 opinion piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail stated.
What explains this is Canada’s “pay to play” nomination system. For a candidate to be nominated by their party, they need to bring in a large number of letters by actual voters in their and the party’s support.
“Most federal parties allow electoral districts to nominate the candidates through local contests (nomination meetings). If a candidate can recruit enough members (from his ethnic group), he/she is able to win the contest easily,” Purewal said.
“The Sikhs have strong internal unity based on the caste (vast majority are Jatt Sikhs).”
The Sikhs are known to have a tight community structure, which places them at an advantage in such a system, say observers.
“To succeed in the nomination system you need to have very strong grassroots networks from which to sign up members and then deliver at the nomination selection meeting,” Jaskaran Sandhu, senior consultant at political consultancy, Crestview Strategy told ThePrint.
“These networks are very sophisticated and layered, and have been organically developed and refined in the Sikh community over decades in a way few others can easily mimic.”
This particular nomination system has also allowed a minority within a minority — the Khalistan supporters — to gain a voice in Canadian politics.
“The reason why the Sikh community in Canada is politically successful is that it is well organised. Through the gurdwaras, they organise community events, non-profits, fundraising for charities, food banks… It’s a very community-oriented community,” said Anita Singh, a PhD from Dalhousie University, Canada, and an expert on the country’s diaspora politics, told ThePrint.
“There’s also financial means within the community to spend on political campaigns,” she added.
At the grassroots level, substantial politicking among Sikhs begins at board elections for gurdwaras. Eventually, a group of 10 to 20 men gain control of a gurdwara, and can use it to raise campaign money and influence about 40 to 50 extended families.
“From a young age, Sikhs are encouraged to volunteer in campaigns and learn not only how to fight elections but how government works in general,” said Sandhu.
“Sikhs take community building, democratic engagement, and grassroots empowerment seriously. It is built into our very ethos,” he added.