Jinny Sims and Ujjal Dosanjh promote secular politics to bind a diverse society
Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh will never forget the morning of June 23, 1985, when he heard that an Air India plane had exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 passengers and crew members.
“We listened to the radio and television, and realized that Canada had become home, at least until then, to the largest aviation terrorism event in the history of human beings,” Dosanjh said in a speech at a recent launch of Georgia Straight contributor Gurpreet Singh’s new book, Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims’ Families (Chetna Parkashan). The event took place on July 21 at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Surrey campus.
Dosanjh, also a former Liberal MP, noted that prior to the bombing, many people had been raising concerns about religious extremists in the local Sikh community. He recalled writing one such letter in April 1985 to the prime minister, the premier, and the attorney general.
He said he felt at the time that his message wasn’t getting through because Canadian political leaders felt that “these guys—some brown guys, some with turbans, some not with turbans—were fighting each other and they weren’t Canadian, and it didn’t matter to Canada as long as nobody else got hurt.
“I believe things have changed for the better,” Dosanjh added. “But I am saddened that it has taken the likes of the Air India disaster and 27 years to make those changes that are still incomplete. I don’t believe one political party or one government of a particular stripe was responsible for this. I think this goes beyond politics. It goes beyond partisanship. It’s how the politicians of all political parties—perhaps with some exceptions—view ethnic minorities, visible minorities, in this country.”
He cited the Air India bombing as an example of why he thinks the Canadian public and politicians must make greater efforts to promote secularism. He pointed out that if something terrible occurred in the West End of Vancouver, government officials and the police wouldn’t think of running to the nearest church to find out what was happening in the community. However, he said, when an event of a similar magnitude occurs within a particular visible-minority community, officials often react by going straight to the nearest gurdwara, mosque, or temple.
“That is the double standard,” Dosanjh maintained. “The double standard existed back in 1985, and that double standard exists today. That is the issue that goes to the heart of the question as to whether we, as Canadians, have the will and the determination to protect our secular space—our secular public space—where we can have a conversation and a dialogue as completely equal citizens, regardless of what our faiths or our identities might be.”
Dosanjh said he has no problem with people practising their religions. He also emphasized that he believes faith leaders have a right and an obligation to comment on public issues such as equality and poverty. “But I don’t believe that faith leaders, no matter what their faith is, have a right to dictate to Canadian society how politics should be run in this country, and what the basic politics should be, how we need to dress, how we need to walk, and how we need to talk,” he said. “That is the prerogative of the secular space.”
The former premier noted that he comes from India, which is a country with numerous religions and ethnicities that has attracted migrants from around the world. But he said that there is an even greater percentage of minorities in Canada. “So if you have minorities coming out of your ears—countless minorities—you have to have some fundamental values and principles if you want to continue to live and prosper as a peaceful society,” he said.
Newton–North Delta MP Jinny Sims delivered a speech along similar lines at the book launch. “I grew up in a household where it was a fundamental belief that in a country where you have many religions and many cultures, there is only one way, one way for all of us to work together,” she stated. “That is to defend secularism. When the voices of secularism go silent, it’s not only a few who will suffer. I believe our whole society suffers at that stage, because when the voices of secularism go quiet, the voices of extremism rise to the top.”
Like Dosanjh, Sims added that by promoting secularism, she’s not diminishing people’s right to cherish their religious beliefs. Both pointed out that when societies become as diverse as Canada’s, it becomes even more important to keep politics secular.
“I always make a point of saying I’m a Canadian,” Sims said. “I’m absolutely proud of my Indian heritage. I was born in India, grew up in England, and here I am, an MP in Canada. But I am Canadian, and I don’t want another word attached to it as a qualifier.”
To illustrate this, she said that she never hears people identified as German Canadian or Swiss Canadian or English Canadian. “So in the same way, we’re all Canadians, and this is the country we have chosen to be our home.”
Another speaker, B.C. Liberal MLA Dave Hayer (Surrey-Tynehead), chastised unnamed politicians who hobnob with religious extremists. He also said that “sadly” there are few politicians who speak out against the fanatics, citing Dosanjh as one example.
The author of the book, Singh, told the audience that the families of Air India bombing victims have “shamed” those full of racial hatred and religious prejudice by performing acts of charity, founding health and educational projects in India and sponsoring scholarships for kids in Ireland. “Over 80 kids died in the bombing,” Singh added. “They were all heading to India for summer vacation without realizing they would never return.”
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