Parading Politicians Must Endeavour To Avoid Pitfalls


Parading politicians must endeavour to avoid pitfalls

By Manpreet Grewal, Special to the Sun - April 27, 2010

As the controversy around Surrey's Vaisakhi Parade on April 17 rages on, one has to acknowledge the parade has become an event of extreme significance -- for the Sikh community and for our elected officials.

Leaders of all different political stripes show up, many of them in ethnic finery, and reiterate their appreciation for, commitment to and affiliations with the vote-rich Sikh community. That is why these politicians end up in a conundrum. Sometimes they are ill-advised and other times just torn between principles and popularity.

Many applauded Premier Gordon Campbell for taking a strong stand. I thought it wasn't strong enough because what I was hearing was a request for an apology before he could participate. Mayor Dianne Watts, of course, showed up only to find at some point that it might not have been politically wise to hang out any longer.

Despite the parade's having all the usual festive fanfare, with rich colours and vibrant crowds, the organizers had violated two basic principles even before the parade started: one of the Sikh faith and the other of a peaceful Canadian society. For that reason it needed to be stopped.

Firstly, the Sikh faith is open and allows open visitation to its events and congregations. Gurdwaras, or temples, have four doors to symbolically reiterate that welcome. If the temple organizers are true to the faith, they cannot dictate who comes to the parade.

Secondly, as soon as an organizer of an event says that the safety of any individual may be compromised, they have shot down the event.

So why were tens of thousands of people still drawn to the parade, despite these violations and the politicians' pussyfooting around whether they were going to be able to attend?

Although the Vancouver and Surrey parades are somewhat split along moderate and fundamentalist lines, both draw people from each school of thought. Ordinary Sikhs visit both temples; many of my friends do.

Thousands of people from Abbotsford prefer to participate in the Surrey parade because of its proximity.

They look forward to the great collective socio-religious and community experience. Thousands walk the designated routes flanked by volunteers who are serving free food and drink and engaging people in the spirit of Vaisakhi. There is also a spectacular display of floats, religious singing and traditional martial arts.

Everyday Sikhs just want to enjoy the experience. They are tired of the contentiousness and wish the controversy away. There are those whose views are aligned with those of the organizers, but most feel they have the right to enjoy Vaisakhi and other religious events despite the underlying politics of temple managements and factions.

So they show up even when concerns are raised. Many people I know were aghast at the veiled threats against the two politicians but don't want irresponsible commentary by an organizer to deprive them of their experience.

So they went, because their relationship to the experience is not tied to the organizers but to the people and spirit around them. They want to take back their events and their religion, irrespective of who is running the show.

That is what leaves the politicians so undecided. Amid mixed advice, they stumble into pitfalls.

Both Premier Campbell and Mayor Watts needed to make a statement before the event that if it had the possibility of jeopardizing even one person's safety it shouldn't take place. Yes, there would have been a hue and cry and a lot of disappointment -- and accusations of discrimination from the organizers -- but the message would have been clear for subsequent years. If the event is important enough, the community would pressure their organizers to comply.

Private temples are welcome to worship whom they wish as martyrs, but as soon as they spill their ideology on to the streets and into the public domain, they have to respect the basic tenets of Sikhism and the peaceful laws of Canadian society.

Political competence among our leaders in handling diverse religions in the context of a peaceful, egalitarian, pluralistic society is absolutely critical.

Manpreet Grewal is a freelance writer based in Abbotsford.

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