Gurpreet Singh: Jack Layton was a humanist politician who stood up for South Asians
The death of the New Democratis Party leader Jack Layton has saddened the South Asian community.
As the news of his passing was announced Monday morning, condolences from across the minority South Asian community began pouring in to local Punjabi radio stations. After all, Layton was a humanist politician who stood for the visible minorities.
When Layton announced a few weeks ago that he was battling cancer, many callers to open-line shows at Punjabi radio stations wished for his well-being and longer life. Nobody expected him to pass away so soon.
The news therefore came as shock to many. Callers to our radio station said that his death was not only a loss to Canadian politics but, to the South Asian community. Most of them said that Layton was unlike those right-wing politicians who often whip up anti-immigration sentiments to plunder the majority vote bank for political survival. Rather, true to his political convictions, he stood for the minorities.
Indeed, Layton was a real social democrat and progressive at heart. In the words of Jinny Sims, an NDP MP of South Asian descent, "Layton did not try to make bridges with the minorities just at a symbolic level. Unlike many Caucasian politicians who often wear South Asian costumes and eat Indian food as an obligation to please the visible minorities, he actually tried to understand the issues in our community."
Layton, who believed in inclusivity, had two Punjabi MPs, including Sims in his caucus. He also gave representation to the South Asian community on his staff.
Layton was married to Olivia Chow, an MP of Asian descent who strongly supported recognizing credentials of foreign-trained professionals so they could integrate into Canadian society instead of doing odd jobs. Layton also supported the demand for equal old-age benefits for the South Asian seniors.
Often the Indo Canadian community complains discrimination against seniors who have to wait for 10 years to get old-age benefits, as compared to those who migrate from the European countries.
Layton once announced that he would give Punjabi language due recognition if elected prime minister. He also had his team use Punjabi during the federal election campaigns in British Columbia.
In addition, he forced the former Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin, to order a review that resulted in an Air India public inquiry. That was while Martin was heading a minority government. Layton had threatened to pull the support if this didn't occur. As a result, Bob Rae was appointed to look into the possibility of a full Air India inquiry.
This review finally led to the full inquiry under the current Conservative government. In 1985, an Air India jet was bombed, killing all 329 people aboard. This was a worst incident in the history of aviation terrorism before 9/11.
There was a feeling that the Air India investigation was mishandled as the victims were mostly Indians. The crime was blamed on the Sikh separatists seeking revenge for the ugly political events of 1984, including anti-Sikh pogrom in India following the assassination of the then-Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards.
Layton also showed his solidarity to the victims of the anti Sikh-pogrom and was the only national leader who refused to attend a dinner with a visiting Indian minister, Kamal Nath, who had a controversial role in the anti-Sikh violence.
Recently, Layton also sought the intervention of the Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help a Sikh separatist, Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, who is facing death sentence in India. Bhullar's wife is a Canadian citizen.
On the Afghan war issue, Layton had demanded an end to the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan. I had a chance to interview him several times on my radio program. When I asked him whether he and his MP wife would sign a petition, he had said, "Our names are there."
He was such a humble person that he once apologized to me for no fault of his own. I had an appointment with him for a pre-recorded phone interview regarding his stand on the Air India inquiry issue.
That day, I was supposed to receive a call from him, but somebody from the NDP head office phoned me and said that he was not available. The person suggested that I interview another NDP MP. I declined.
In the meantime, Layton called me as per the scheduled appointment. I was obviously shocked. Since I had given up hope of interviewing him I did not have my question line ready. When I told him that I was not expecting his phone call, he apologized.
I then requested him to phone me back as I would need some time to prepare my questions. He happily agreed and called me later.
On one occasion when he came to our studio to do a live interview with me, I remarked, "You remind us of Lenin." He scratched his chin and did not say anything.
One may disagree with some of his ideas or positions, but Layton was a humanist politician who consistently thought about others. The way the NDP surged under his command speaks about the confidence he enjoyed among the Canadian people.
He was one of those rare major-party leaders who help to build a humane society. Punjabis who benefited from the policies of Layton should also stand up for his progressive values. Layton's life should help the Punjabi community understand the strength of such values.
Gatekeepers in the Punjabi community should shed social conservatism and learn to support the rights of women and homosexuals. They should also be passionate toward aboriginal and homeless people.
And much as Layton vehemently opposed racism, the Punjabi community should also oppose caste-based discrimination and religious extremism within their community.
It's sad that there were only a handful Punjabis present at the candlelight vigil held on Monday night outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Barring a few prominent Punjabis, the community's representation was very negligible at the event.
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.