Like many immigrants, Amir Bajehkian felt a little bit lost after moving from Iran to study physics at the University of Victoria in 2005.
This sense of isolation and unfamiliarity with his new home wasn’t something he was eager to discuss at the time.
“I kept it to myself,” Bajehkian, president of Green Cedar Consulting, told the Straight by phone. “It took me a few years before I started getting involved in the affairs of the community.”
Two things happened on different sides of the world to turn Bajehkian from a bystander to a participant in public issues.
Back in Iran, then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was creating “no shortage of embarrassment and drama”, he said.
And here in Canada, the prime minister, Stephen Harper, was demonstrating “a lack of transparency and a total disregard for democracy”, according to Bajehkian.
In late 2008, Harper persuaded the governor general, Michaëlle Jean, to allow the prorogation of Parliament. That prevented the Liberals and NDP from forming a minority coalition government with the support of the Bloc Québécois on confidence votes.
Then in June 2009, Ahmadinejad won a tainted presidential election over his chief rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Supporters of Mousavi took to the streets, demanding the ouster of Ahmadinejad in the so-called Green Revolution.
“It was very inspiring for me,” Bajehkian said. “I could see people younger than my generation trying to hold the politicians accountable. They were ahead of whoever was trying to represent the progressive side in Iran.”
The state crushed the revolution. After graduating from UVic, Bajehkian enrolled in the aircraft-maintenance-engineer program at the B.C. Institute of Technology, going on to become a flight-data analyst.
He retained his passion for public affairs, helping John Horgan build bridges with the Farsi-speaking community after he became NDP leader in 2014. Bajehkian said that he offered to do this for other politicians before that, but Horgan was the first to take his offer seriously.
With Bajehkian’s involvement, the NDP won back North Vancouver–Lonsdale in 2017 for the first time in 26 years and retained a seat in Coquitlam—two areas with substantial Farsi-speaking communities. That helped enable Horgan to become premier even though the B.C. Liberals had won more seats.
After the 2017 election, the NDP government appointed Bajehkian to the provincial Multicultural Advisory Council.
Bajehkian described Canadian multiculturalism as “great in many ways”, but he doesn’t like the way some politicians like to place diverse communities in silos.
“When I got to know some of these cultures and these communities, I found that we had a lot of shared struggles and values,” he said. “A lot of things we can learn from them and they could learn from us. We could basically connect and team up, based on those mutual values.”
As an example, he cited the 10th guru of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh's 1705 letter to the Mughal emperor after the Battle of Chamkaur. This "Zafarnāma" written by a Punjabi-speaking religious leader was made up of 111 verses written in the Persian language.
"What’s fascinating is the historic ties that we forgot about between Sikh people and Punjabis and other communities," Bajehkian said.
This year, Nowruz is being celebrated on Sunday (March 20). It marks the New Year in Iran, Afghanistan, and other parts of Central Asia and the Middle East. Bajehkian pointed out that the spring equinox is also important in many Indigenous cultures, denoting a time of rebirth.
While Bajehkian embraces interculturalism, he’s no fan of the melting-pot concept, saying people need to remain proud of their individual identities.
He spoke to the Straight in advance of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which falls on Monday (March 21). The event commemorates the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when South African police opened fire on peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrators, killing 69 people.
In his interview, Bajehkian also expressed concern about a double standard in Canada when it comes to international crises.
While he's deeply sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainians who are bravely facing a Russian invasion, he pointed out that there was nowhere near as much public outrage when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last year.
Nor did the Canadian public get too worked up when the Iranian government viciously cracked down on protesters after the 2009 election.
"People were avoiding it because they didn’t want to be political," Bajehkian recalled. "Now, everyone is trying to be at the forefront of supporting Ukraine, which is great. It just shows that we’re not equal, to be honest. That shows that we have a lot of work to do."
This year, Bajehkian is seeking a nomination to run for the Vancouver park board with the Coalition of Progressive Electors.
If he wins a seat in the October election, he’ll become the first elected politician of Persian ancestry in Western Canada.
“I acknowledge that there are initiatives in our community facilities, community centres toward the immigrant population,” Bajehkian said. “But a lot of times they’re not communicated. We are waiting for them to come to us. We’ve got to go to those communities. And make sure they are our partners.”