Urban Affairs Reporter
When Stephen Harper kicked off his election campaign on a Sunday morning in Brampton, with Sikhs flanking him on both sides for a national news audience, the scene seemed straight out of an old Liberal play book.
Every time Harper emphasized a point, bearded, turbaned men clapped and let out a low drone in unison — all orchestrated by the party that not long ago was seen as unfriendly to core Sikh Canadian issues such as immigration and religious freedom.
There’s been little attention to why members of the Sikh community have begun crossing over from the Liberal camp they helped prop up for decades.
“The Conservatives are working for us now,” explains truck driver Harvinder Singh. “They cut immigration fees,” he says, referring to the right of landing fee, which the Tories reduced in 2006 to $490 from $975.
“I did volunteer work for two elections with the Liberals. I wanted to participate in Canadian politics,” says Singh, who lives in the Castlemore neighbourhood in the Brampton-Springdale riding, where he says most of his neighbours also trace their roots to Punjab. He’s volunteering again, but this time for the Conservatives.
“The Liberals are like the Akali Dal in Punjab,” he says of an Indian party once viewed as a strong voice for Sikh ambitions. “They say they work for the Sikhs, but they don’t anymore. They took our votes for granted.”
The Conservatives, eyeing vulnerable ridings like Brampton-Springdale, have made capturing the Sikh vote a priority. More than one-third of the riding’s residents are South Asian, mostly Punjabi.
The strategy, part of a plan to woo ethnic votes across the country, is to ride a growing strength among such voters to a win across the 905 regions — and to a majority government.
Liberal incumbent Ruby Dhalla won the riding over Conservative Parm Gill in 2008 by a little over 700 votes. Both are Sikh.
“I am a firm believer that no political party should use any ethnic community simply for the purpose of votes,” Dhalla says, critiquing her rivals. “We have seen the Conservative propaganda machine has been using gimmicks to try and literally buy votes.” The use of the words “very ethnic” in leaked party strategy communications prior to the election, Dhalla says, “was insulting to people of various ethnic communities because they are all very proud Canadians.”
She says the Conservatives are deliberately trying to “ghettoize” ethnic communities: “They’re using an approach of divisive politics. The Liberal party is always speaking about Canadians.”
Gill, her opponent, has the luxury this time of Harper’s seemingly constant presence in Brampton, where Sikhs remain impressed by his visit to their holiest place, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, during a brief trip to India a year and a half ago.
That kind of effort to build relationships is now paying dividends, says Puneet Kohli, a partner with one of Brampton’s largest law firms. “The Conservatives are really speaking to many of the concerns of the community. They’re providing the community the opportunity to develop a brand-new relationship with their party after a lot of baggage had developed with the Liberals.”
That “baggage” includes Paul Martin’s decision to parachute Dhalla into the riding in 2004, against the wishes of many in the Liberal riding association; the leadership struggle that installed Michael Ignatieff after other leaders had worked hard for years on ties with the Sikh community; and the failure of Liberals, while in power, to implement an effective program for recognizing foreign credentials.
But Kohli, who considers himself in the middle of the political spectrum, says it’s more about what the Conservatives have been able to do.
“While there’s a general perception that Sikhs were taken for granted by the Liberals for their ‘notes and votes’ and ignored thereafter, the Conservatives have spoken to some issues that they’re more in line with Sikhs on.”
He mentions conservative social and family values, the Sikh community’s work ethic and the focus on foreign credentials, but gives credit to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who Kohli says has directly engaged Sikhs on issues such as marriage fraud. “Mr. Kenney met with representatives from the Punjabi community across the country on that issue.”
But also on Kenney’s watch, the number of immigrants being accepted into Canada under family reunification policies has been reduced drastically. And although the minister recently announced his intent to boost family admissions, the issue remains a hot topic in the Sikh community.Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/canada/35089-brampton-springdale-sikh-sympathies-turning-blue.htmlReference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=35089
Dhalla says experts “are saying it’s going to take 13 years to reunite families” under current policies.
“There is worry,” Kohli acknowledges of the Conservative policy on family reunification. “I hope they would address that concern.” Kohli says the party’s follow-up will be a test of its commitment to the community.
“It depends on the quality of these Conservative candidates running in the area for election and their ability to bring those concerns forward.” http://www.thestar.com/federalelecti...s-turning-blue