Gurpreet Singh: Ujjal Dosanjh was a misunderstood politician in the South Asian community

When Elections Canada declared Conservative candidate Wai Young winner in the Vancouver South riding on the night of May 2, there was a big applause among Indo-Canadians gathered in Surrey.

They cheered the defeat of their compatriot, Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal MP and a former premier of the British Columbia.

The venue was the victory party of Sukh Dhaliwal, another Indo-Canadian Liberal MP, who represented Newton-North Delta. Their joy was short-lived as Dhaliwal also lost his riding to the NDP candidate that night.

In fact, all five Liberal MPs of Punjabi descent in the last parliament lost either because of the NDP’s orange crush or the surge in Conservative popularity.

But the loss of Dosanjh, who made history by becoming the first Indo-Canadian premier of B.C. in 2000, delighted them the most.

It was not surprising to see that kind of hypocritical reaction from many Punjabi Liberal supporters, who were disheartened by the defeat of the Liberals everywhere, but not in Vancouver South.

In particular, supporters of Khalistan, an imaginary separate Sikh homeland, were pleased with the results in that riding.

After all, they were annoyed with Dosanjh's continued attacks on extremism and violence. In 1985, he survived a physical assault for criticizing religious extremism within the Sikh community.

Being a true secularist and progressive politician, he has consistently opposed theocracy since then.

Dosanjh's maternal grandfather, Moola Singh Bahowal, was a towering Sikh leader, who participated in the struggle for freedom in India. Even though Dosanh's grandfather was in the forefront of the campaign to rid Sikh temples of corrupt priests, Dosanjh himself was frequently dubbed as "anti Sikh’".

Close to the May 2 federal election, a smear campaign was launched against him. His detractors did not want to miss an opportunity, as he had won against Young by a margin of only 20 votes in the previous election.

Yet, Dosanjh did not think of giving up even once, and stuck to his ground until the final day of campaigning, despite the impending failure.

The changing political landscape of the country finally brought an end to the political career of Dosanjh, who now wishes to spend more of his time with his grandchildren.

This was not the first time that Dosanjh was ridiculed as the "most hated" by fundamentalist Sikhs during an election campaign. Ever since he waded into Canadian politics, he has been a target of fierce criticism by fundamentalist groups.

Prior to the first time he was elected as an NDP MLA in 1991, he faced a challenge from Khalistanis during the nomination process. There were also attempts to stop him from becoming a minister in the provincial cabinet.

The NDP, which Dosanjh left after losing the 2001 provincial election, was told by the Khalistanis that it would lose the support of the Sikh community if it continued to associate itself with a person like him.

In 2010, Dosanjh received death threats and a criminal-defamation lawsuit was filed against him in India by a Sikh youth, who accused him of defaming the Sikh community.

The anger of Khalistanis toward Dosanjh is understandable. Any fundamentalist group will never appreciate liberal and secular views.

But Dosanjh also annoyed many leftists and progressive thinkers in the Indo-Canadian community. It is for this reason that some moderates were also reluctant to help him in the recent election.

Because he was, at times, an opportunistic politician, his secular critics felt that he was a political turncoat.

He began his political career as a communist activist and later joined the NDP, whom die-hard leftists consider to be a group of social democrats. From the NDP, he switched loyalties to become a federal Liberal.

This was a major shift for a person who previously described himself "a leftist''. He deserted the NDP after it was wiped out of power in the 2001 B.C. election—when the party needed him the most.

His critics also alleged that he took advantage of his position as attorney general to become NDP leader and premier by ousting Glen Clark, who found himself embroiled in a casino scandal.

And after becoming premier, he went to the Dashmesh Darbar Sikh temple in Surrey, whose management openly supports Khalistan.

This did not impress an important moderate Sikh leader, Balwant Singh Gill, who had helped him during the NDP leadership race. Gill felt deceived by Dosanjh, whom he felt took his support for granted and was trying to make new allies.

Some moderates have even cynically suggested that he has tried to whip up anti-Khalistan sentiments for political gain.

Obviously, Dosanjh isn’t an angel. He made compromises on many occasions and may have done many outrageous things, such as endorsing the use of the Taser as attorney general and then criticizing it several years later.

He agitated First Nations activists with his handling of the Gustafsen Lake standoff in 1995. It has also been said that he did not criticize mass murders of Sikhs and Muslims in India, in 1984 and 2002 respectively, as vehemently as he condemned crimes committed by Khalistani terrorists.

Others feel that he was a self-centered politician who ignored the interests of the Indo-Canadian community.

However, he was consistent in his criticism against religious fundamentalism within the Sikh community in Canada. If he deserves to be knocked for any shortcomings, he should also get his dues for speaking up against religious intolerance and hatred.

In addition, Dosanjh supported same-sex marriage, which remains a taboo within the Indo-Canadian community.

If he did so with an urge to attract mainstream support, those Indo-Canadian politicians who tried to polarize Sikh votes in the name of religion should also take some blame for promoting divisive politics.

And if the "progressive" critics feel that Dosanjh’s criticism of Khalistan was opportunistic, then they should break the silence and challenge the fanaticism themselves or simply stop whining.

He was the lone moderate Sikh voice in Parliament, but moderates in his riding did not support him unanimously. While some also voted Conservative, others supported the NDP.

Dosanjh can be best described as a sly politician. But he cannot be dubbed as anti-Sikh, as the Khalistanis claim. They do not represent the entire Sikh community. After all, Dosanjh also opposed the Quebec National Assembly's decision to ban the kirpan, a ceremonial sword worn by baptized Sikhs.

One can disagree with Dosanjh's politics, but his qualifications and experience made him an outstanding Indo-Canadian politician. He was attorney general, premier, and was later appointed as federal health minister by then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. Historians may be harsh on him, but they won't be able to ignore the important role he played in Canadian politics.

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.

Comments (20) Add New Comment
Juan Luna Ibarrizto
I am not surprised that many from his own community dislike Mr. Ujjal Dosanjh. He represents the assimilated Canadian from Asia. He has become a successful lawyer and had tried to be a model of a successful immigrant. Anyone can see why many from his own community dislike him and are jealous of him, for various reasons i.e. a successful career, and his criticism of extremism in his community, which made him many powerful, rich and sinister enemies who will not hesitate to harm him physically. It has happened to him before, it still can happen, because of old world politics, and the very lenient democratic society we live in.
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Tara Singh
A lame defense of a turncoat and one of the most unprincipled politician in Canada, who will do any thing and everything for his selfish political and personal motives. While he has been ranting about the dangers of so called "imaginary Khalistanis" in Canada, he has been full of praise of genocidal Indian government and its minions during his many visits to New Delhi. I hope that he now plays around with grand children and never opens his mouth to defame Sikhs in Canada.
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kathyg
Thanks for writing this column. I share Dosanjh's values against violence and religious extremism. The Liberals perhaps took a few hits for this stand, including Ignatieff's wariness of doing anything which might support Tamil Tiger's extremism while the NDP had no such reluctance and the Conservatives worked both sides, putting forward a candidate who had shown such extremism in the past. I hope the CPC and NDP wins in this regard were just part of the so-called waves, and not actually extremist groups rewarding any party.
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prabhujeet singh
I am so happy to see this turncoat loose. He had no values. 10 thousand sikhs were butchered in the national capital of India. Most of them burnt alive, women raped and kids not spared. This is just a fraction of Sikhs killed between 1984 and 2000 in India. Sikhs have been peacefully struggling to get heard in International quarters. A joker called Ujjal Desonjah seemed to be paid by Indian government and tried to suppress a genuine cause on one pretext or the other.
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A Singh
" It has also been said that he did not criticize mass murders of Sikhs and Muslims in India, in 1984 and 2002 respectively, as vehemently as he condemned crimes committed by Khalistani terrorists." I think this comment truly somes up the anger of the Sikhs.

I'm a Sikh who believes that Sikhs should have their own homeland, but I'm not an extremist or terrorist as these dumb Canadian journalists, make us out to be. Screw these Sikh traitors - whether it's Ujjal or Gurpreet "Singh" !


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Sharon Letcher
When one chooses to become Canadian, then they should become good Canadians. if you want to keep extremist views then stay in extremist counties. Leave the wars away from here. I am one of Canada's First people and I like most people I have met whom have immigrated to my Country. But please leave your extremist's view's out. This has been a place of peace since the Indian wars on our soil. Peace is rare and we are blessed to have it here. Us First Nations peoples don't want your wars on our land.
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JSingh
once a commie, always a commie!
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Guruka Singh
SADI JIND SADI JAAN KHALISTAN. isn't funny how this newspaper writer comments on sikhs pain for a homeland when he doesn't bother thinking about innocent loss of life i think he should research into operation shudi karan. If he has any sort of decency he will think it was wrong. if he doesn't he will continue to laugh and not care about the massacre of sikhs. please do not refer to yourself as Singh because Guru Gobind Singh ji wrote in the dasam granth ji that for any religion to survive soveriegnty is vital ! RAJ KAREGA KHALSA
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Fan'o Truth
This is a much more balanced account of Ujjal Dosanjh's political career than the hysterical Crawford Killian puff piece which appeared in The Tyee a few days before the election.


Personally, I cannot figure out why Dosanjh chose to run again after the Conservatives had chopped his margin from 9000 down to just 20. His marketability for various government assignment gigs would have been far greater if he had quit politics when Parliament was dissolved and started doing some kind of elder statesman schtick. Adding a federal defeat to his 2001 provincial rubout, in which he also lost personally, tends to make him look like a forcibly retired warhorse.

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kiddaa magazine
Look calling any group of poeple terrorists or extremists is wrong. Sikhs have done exceptional things in Canada and continue to feed the poor including whites.
After 9-11 alot of brown people including Sikhs have been rounded up in the fear drive by racist whites and far right groups.
The word terror is now used against brown people even many who dont support violence, or want freedom for Palestine or even Khalistan.
They use the word terrorist if you dont believe in war or believe in secularism.
A true secularlst would never call a whole community a extreme community.
The Vaisakhi day parade in Surrey is welcome to all and a great spectacle.
The Conservative who are mostly white and far right and even some evanglicals are xenophobic.
We in Canada are vibrant, multicultural and no person should be able to say blanket statements about any community.
In a sense it could be considered hate speech. I will say maybe in the past Dosanjh has done good things but fear mongering an entire community is wrong.
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kiddaa magazine
The assimilated Punjabi in Canada. He is the only one give mea break. There are many in Canada who are Punjabi that are so called assimilated. What does that mean you have to act white, give up your culture thats not assimilation. Most Punjabis know english. So what is your point, nothing?
True diversity is respect for other cultures regardless of how they look or if they are different. You want assimilation you can always go south. White racists are as much of a threat to this great country than other things too. I still remember the elderly Punjabi Sikh who was killed by a white supremacist a few years back. I never forgot this murder. Did they catch the culprit?
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CDN Born
I'm an Indo-Canadian and a Sikh and I find it amazing how many Indo-Canadian's and Sikhs say such things against Ujjal. He never once said all Sikhs were terrorists, but spoke out only against the extremists. And he's right for doing it. The "Khalistan" struggle or fight is not a Canadian one, yet the "movement" is brought up again and again in this country. If members of the Sikh community are passionate about Khalistan, they need to go to India and not BC. I'm not saying I'm for or against Khalistan, I'm only saying that Canada is not the correct venue for it.
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kiddaa magazine
Bottom line is Dosanjh is bringing up something that many have forgot in 1984. If we really want to get to justice why not apprehend some of the people who killed Sikhs in 1984 riots? Many Sikhs who are born in Canada are outraged that the people behind the riots have not been put in jail.
The fact is that labeling entire religions or groups as extremists by Indo Canadian politicians, plays in the hands of white racists, far right groups and xenophobes. We are only strong because of our numbers, but racists are still around.
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R U Kiddingme
Gurpreet, thanks for bringing the Khalistani element of the readership the bucket of cold water that they need. You might also want to have a look at Simranjit Singh Mann's new blog post on the AKD(A) site. It's incoherent of course but quite interesting, he was very celebratory of the defeat of the Sikh Canadians who dare to not be for Khalistan.
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kaur
I take great issue with the statement: "Dosanjh can be best described as a sly politician" and I find this article so problematic that I don't know where to begin. In my heart & mind, Dosanjh can be best described as a person of high standing integrity, character and morality because of the choices and actions he made in his career and he leaves politics with these valuable qualities intact. I applaud the opportunities he took in his life and he has been an inspirational role model for me.

Thank you Ujjal Dosanjh for your exceptional public service and I especially appreciate and respect your courage and conviction in standing up to the radical elements within your own community and riding and doing what was right but not always popular.

To all the people who continue to make comments here about past Sikh massacres in Punjab and the Khalistani cause, I think you should go to India and deal with your issues there. Perhaps it's time to question if Canada is the right place for you if your hearts, minds and loyalties are elsewhere. The fact that you're in Canada and dispensing so much hot air about issues half a world away shows that you don't have the courage and conviction to act on them. Perhaps you could take some lessons from Ujjal on this matter - I heard he has some more free time on his hands now...
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K Singh
Indian government's dirty politics. Indian governments neglect of its minorities gave rise to separtism. After indepence thousands of Sikhs, Muslim and Chrisitain murdered by government direction or by its organize mob. Here terrorist is Indian government.
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kaur
@K Singh, after reading my last post, I'm assuming that you wrote your comments while living in India. I think that you should concentrate your efforts in writing to the Indian media instead of wasting your time with Canadian outlets because I doubt that the Indian gov't is reading it (no offence to the Georgia Straight).

Unless of course, you don't want any solutions and you are trying to provoke emotional Canadian Sikhs with past issues for some gain. I hope that's not the case because that would be shameful.

I'm just trying to help you to save yourself some hot air....
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K Singh
Kaur . I reside in Victoria. I grew up in Canada. I am disappointed and Indian back ground politicians. They are fighting imaginary Kahlistanis and giving bad image to entire Sikh Community. Mr Dosanjh is one of them. I don't think he has done anything outstanding for Canadian public. He is an ordinary politician. Who jumped party just for personal gains. This show he does not have any personal stand on any issue. I
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kaur
Ujjal Dosanjh is a blessing to Indo-Canadians and he gave our community a much needed image boost.

It's Sikh terrorist groups and people who make inflammatory remarks in the Canadian media about issues relating to the past in far-away India who we should be disappointed with and who give a bad image to the 'entire Sikh community'.

It's time to think and act with our heads instead of letting our big hearts lead us astray by dubious people with dubious intentions. This hasn't been good for our image.
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K Singh
India has erased so called back list. It was made of all vocal Sikh, who gave Sikhs label of Terrorsit. This show these people were planted by Indian intellegence. Now all of them are welcome to to visit India. They have done their job.
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