The Indo-Canadian community is punching well above its weight in the new cabinet in Canada. With four out of 30 ministers, or 13 per cent, in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet sworn in on November 4, the community’s contribution is far higher than the 3 per cent of Canada’s population that it accounts for. This is also double the Indo-Canadian community’s roughly 6 per cent share of the current House of Commons, itself a record high.
Remarkably, three of the four new cabinet ministers, who are all Sikh Canadians, are first-time Members of Parliament. Harjit Sajjan, Amarjeet Sohi and Bardish Chagger were elected to the House of Commons for the first time last month, while Navdeep Bains has previously served between 2004 and 2011.
With the 2015 election, Punjabi–the fourth most commonly spoken language in Canada after English, French and the Chinese dialects–has vaulted to the third spot in the cabinet and the House of Commons. In another remarkable illustration of their progress in Canada’s public life, South Asians are the only ethnic minority group represented in Trudeau’s cabinet, with one minister of Afghan origin besides the four Indo-Canadians.
Canada’s New Defence Minister
The most significant of Trudeau’s appointments is Harjit Singh Sajjan, Canada’s new Defence Minister. Canada is a G-7 country and a founding member of the NATO, making Sajjan the first person of Indian origin in-charge of a NATO member force. Sajjan, who was elected from Vancouver South, is a former army man and police officer. He was born in Punjab, moving to Canada at the age of five. A retired lieutenant colonel, he is a much-decorated veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan and one in Bosnia.
He was also the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment. While serving as a Vancouver police officer, he worked in the force’s anti-gang unit to prevent Punjabi youth from joining gangs, a common problem in the region. He has said he used similar tactics while performing a counter-terrorism and intelligence role in Afghanistan to deter locals from joining the Taliban.
While it’s a prestigious appointment, Sajjan will have his work cut out for him. An immediate challenge will be to act on Trudeau’s election promise to withdraw Canadian forces from the US-led coalition’s air strikes against the Islamic State. This is unlikely to go down well in Washington and will require all the tact and resolve he is said to have employed in Kandahar. Sajjan will also be under pressure to increase Canada’s defence spending, which stands at barely one per cent of GDP at present.
Sajjan is joined by a fellow Sikh in the cabinet; Navdeep Singh Bains, who was born in Toronto, is now the Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development. He was elected from Mississauga-Malton, a riding in Toronto’s suburbs with a large Indo-Canadian population. Bains played a crucial role in Trudeau’s Liberal Party leadership bid in 2013.
Indo-Canadians in Trudeau’s Cabinet
Harjit Sajjan: Minister of Defence
Born: Punjab, India
Came to Canada at the age of five
Elected from Vancouver South, British Columbia
Served in the Canadian Army, Vancouver Police Department
Amarjeet Sohi: Minister of Infrastructure and Communities
Born: Punjab, India
Came to Canada at the age of 17
Elected from Edmonton-Mill Woods, Alberta
Former Edmonton bus driver, City Councillor
Navdeep Bains: Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development
Born: Toronto, Canada
Elected from Mississauga-Malton, Ontario
Former MP, 2004-2011
Bardish Chagger: Minister of Small Business and Tourism
Born: Waterloo, Canada
Elected from Waterloo, Ontario
Former political staffer, campaign worker
From a Suspected Terrorist to Cabinet Minister
Amarjeet Sohi, the Minister for Infrastructure and Communities, was also born in Punjab and immigrated to Canada in 1981 when he was 17. Sohi who was a bus driver in Edmonton, was elected to the city council three times before entering Parliament.
Interestingly, Sohi, who does not wear a turban or keep a beard, once spent nearly two years in a Bihar jail in the late 1980s after being arrested on suspicions of being a terrorist. Speaking about the experience to an Edmonton newspaper, he described returning to India in 1988 to study with Punjabi playwright and reformer Gursharan Singh, and traveling to Bihar with a group of activists advocating for land reform. He was branded a Khalistani activist, and even a Pakistani and Maoist agent, as well as having links to the LTTE. He was finally released in 1990 after prosecutors asked for the case to be dismissed without filing any charges. He said he had been opposed to both Sikh fundamentalism and human rights abuses by the Indian government.
Gender Parity Also Evident
The youngest member of the Indo-Canadian contingent is
Bardish Chagger, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism. She was elected
to Parliament from Waterloo, Ontario, her native town, which is about a hundred
kilometers east of Toronto and is best known as the headquarters of the
technology firm Blackberry. Chagger was also an early supporter of Trudeau’s leadership bid in 2013. She is one of the 15 female ministers in
the cabinet; Trudeau had pledged to reserve half his cabinet for
Also finding a spot in Trudeau’s Cabinet as Minister for Democratic Institutions is Maryam Monsef, 30, who arrived in Canada from Afghanistan as an 11-year-old refugee fleeing the Taliban.
But Khalistan Issue Remains
While the cabinet appointments are a major milestone for the
Indo-Canadian community, Sikhs in Canada continue to be divided by the
Khalistan issue. As recently as last December, CBC News reported that a large
group of Sikhs in the West Coast province of British Columbia were quitting the
Liberal Party, alleging Trudeau was being “manipulated” by the World Sikh
The WSO advocates for a separate Sikh state and has alleged the Indian government was involved in the Air India Kanishka bombing of 1985 and that it fabricated the threat of Sikh terrorism. In fact, the Sikh Liberals were protesting the nomination of Sajjan as the candidate from Vancouver South, based on the fact that his father was a former WSO board member; Sajjan told CBC News that he was not a member of the WSO. The rebels were also opposed to Bains’ “influence” over Trudeau. But these protests may well have been a fallout of internal Sikh politics in Canada.
(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist currently based in Toronto)