Canadian Sikhs invest political capital in controversial cause

Sikhs in Canada, particularly in the province of British Columbia, have political influence beyond their numbers, but their activism has also become a source of recent conflict in Canadian politics. In the Vancouver Sun (March 10), Douglas Todd writes that Sikhs, who number about 500,000 in Canada, have long had a disproportionate role in Canadian politics. But Sikh support has come back to haunt Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was linked to Sikh separatists during a recent visit to India, while the Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party has likewise been associated with militants supporting a Sikh homeland in India, called Khalistan. Todd notes that more than 12 percent of federal Liberal cabinet ministers are Sikhs, and there are 14 Liberal Sikh MPs. There have been renewed concerns about a resurgence of the pro-Khalistan movement in Canada and the role that Sikh temples may play in such politics.

Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, are the main avenue for garnering Sikh support, and it is at the local party level where Sikhs have been most effective. “The competition to run a gurdwara, which acts like a community center even for non-religious Punjabis [Punjab is where most Sikhs live in India], often pits so-called moderate Sikhs against fundamentalists, a minority of whom want to create a separate Sikh homeland,” Todd adds. In addition to gurdwaras, another resource is the traditional high-status Jatt caste of Sikh leaders, which makes it easier to mobilize their relatives, extended families and friends to political causes and candidates. However, Todd reports that while Sikhs over 55 are more inclined to vote for someone based on a recommendation by a prominent Sikh leader due to ethnic, caste, and religious loyalties, young Sikhs, while also showing support of the Khalistan cause on social media, tend to stress political principles more than personalities and are more likely “to quiz candidates on their actual principles.”