The Inside Agenda Blog

Sikh-Canadians: A Political Success Story

by Mark Brosens Friday November 23, 2012

The Nishan Sahib, a flag used to mark Sikh gurdwaras.

Thursday night, Harinder Takhar announced his candidacy for the Ontario Liberal leadership. He'll officially launch his campaign on Saturday. Takhar is the MPP for Mississauga-Erindale, now the former Minister of Government Services, and he is a Sikh

Earlier this week, Adam Radwanski, columnist with The Globe and Mail, wrote that Takhar’s candidacy may be designed to mobilize Ontario’s Sikhs to become delegates at the Liberal leadership convention:

For decades, Sikh voters – many of whom are highly engaged and easily mobilized because of strong social networks – have wielded strong influence in leadership campaigns. But it has often been a fairly quiet one, with politicians or community leaders marshalling supporters behind non-Sikh candidates. 

Despite their “quiet” influence, Sikhs are surprisingly well-represented in Canadian politics, given their population in Canada. 

I made the below chart using information from the 2001 Census (the 2011 Census religion results will be released in 2013) and the World Sikh Organization of Canada’s list of elected Sikh politicians.  

 

Number of Sikhs (2001)

Percentage of Jurisdiction’s Population

Number of Seats in Legislature

Percentage of Seats in Legislature

Ontario

104,785

0.93

4

3.7

British Columbia

135,310

3.5

6

7.6

Alberta

23,470

0.8

3

3.6

Canada (House of Commons) 

278,410

0.94

6

1.9

This raises two questions: Who are the Sikhs? And why are they so involved in politics?

What is Sikhism?

Sikhism is a relatively young and small religion that originated in India with Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who was born a Hindu in what is today near Lahore, the capital of Punjab, in Pakistan. At the time, there was much conflict between Hindus and Muslims, which was very apparent in the Punjab area. Nanak founded the monotheistic religion after Akal Purakh (translated as “God”) gave him a message of tolerance: there is no difference between Hindus and Muslims. He travelled widely, preaching that divisions based on religion, caste, and gender were irrelevant.

Doris R. Jakobsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo and the author of the book, Sikhism (an accessible introduction to the faith). She is not Sikh, but Sikhs and Sikhism have been the subject of her research. Jakobsh described Sikhism saying, “The Sikh gurus stood for every individual being able to achieve enlightenment, whether high or low. That was the bottom line for them.”

Some Sikhs are highly visible in Canada, because they practice "The Five Ks." The five symbols of the faith are: Kesh (having uncut hair that is worn in a turban); Kangha (using a wooden comb twice a day); Kara (wearing a metal bracelet); Kachera or Kachh (wearing special cotton underwear); and Kirpan (wearing a short dagger). However, not all Sikhs practice "The Five Ks." For instance, look at the difference between the parliamentary photos of Jagmeet Singh, NDP MPP for Bramalea-Gore-Malton, and Takhar.  

A Theology of Public Service

Sikh theology provides some explanations of why its adherents are so involved in politics.

There were nine other gurus after the death of Guru Nanak, but the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, is important for understanding Sikh political involvement. Guru Harobind created state-like institutions that were associated with the Sikh faith, such as an infantry and a temporal seat of power. He developed the Sikh concept of "miri piri" (“miri” being political authority and "piri" being spiritual authority). Guru Hargobind said he controlled both of these. Jakobsh explains miri piri as, "you don’t separate public life, political life, and spiritual life. It’s very much a whole."

Balpreet Singh, a spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, described another important aspect of his religion this way:

At [Guru Nanak’s time], spirituality was considered to be something you do by separating yourself from the world. Whereas, the Sikh approach to spirituality is this: God created the world and God resides within creation. If you want to be spiritual, there’s a personal side to it, for sure, which includes meditation, but serving the world, serving others, is part of your worship, because that’s serving God as well, because God resides in all persons and all creation. 

Guru Nanak confronted ascetics, telling them they were selfish for not helping needy people.  

"There’s a real emphasis on service. The emphasis for the most part tends to be service to the gurdwara [a Sikh house of worship] … but it is expanding." Jakobsh says, noting that many gurdwaras host blood drives and contribute to food banks.  

In Sikhism, this idea is referred to as "seva" (translated as "service"). It’s not difficult to imagine that many Sikhs would see political involvement as a valuable exercise of "seva." 

The Practicalities of Religion

However, many other religions have commandments to help others and have also blurred political and divine power without their adherents committing to public life the way Sikhs have. 

Singh thinks socio-political factors also contribute to the Sikhs’ political involvement. 

"The Sikh community is a minority everywhere," Singh says. "Something the Sikh community has really done to make sure that our interests are not ignored, as a minority, is to mobilize politically. And that’s really deeply engrained in the Sikh psyche."

Singh points to the 77 per cent voter turnout in the January 2012 Punjab election as evidence of this.

Furthermore, Jakobsh notes that every gurdwara is run by a democratically-elected council. Although there are devotional readers, a kind of clergy, all the practical decisions are made by the elected council. "There is a sort of inbuilt democracy," Jakobsh says. According to Jakobsh, sometimes there are fiercely-fought campaigns for the control of particular councils (there is a real clash of ideas and interests).

Singh thinks gurdwaras contribute to Sikhs' political involvement. He says gurdwaras aren’t just places of worship for Sikhs; they’re also community centres. They’re places where people gather for a meal and where children go to play. "The Sikh community really has institutions built into the faith," Singh says. "Where political mobilization, and political discussions can take place."

Finally, Navdeep Bains, the former Liberal MP for Mississauga-Brampton South, was interviewed on The Agenda in 2011 and he argued that Sikhs are involved in politics because Sikh values are the same as Canadian values.

What This Means for Canada

Many Canadians worry about the underrepresentation of visible minorities in elected politics. The Sikhs certainly break that trend, so what can we learn from their experience? 

Factors that seem to contribute to Sikh political involvement include: a religious tradition that places value on serving others; a cultural history that emphasizes political participation; institutions that embrace the democratic process and can also be a venue for mobilizing people; and a group that feels its values are reflected in the public discourse.

Sikh politics in Canada are by no means perfect. The experience of Ujjal Dosanjh, former premier of British Columbia and former federal cabinet minister, who faced threats against his life after speaking out against extremist elements in his own community, shows this. But I wonder if other groups could replicate Sikhism’s winning conditions for high political engagement.

Photo Credit: Sikh Archives.