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Canada: Punjabis Have a Passion for Politics

Per the election results announced on January 24, 2006, although the Conservatives won 36% of the seats to the national parliament, Dosanjh (B.C.), Malhi (Ontario), Bains (Ontario), and Dhalla (Ontario) were all re-elected on Liberal tickets. Obhrai (Alberta) and Nina Grewal (B.C.) were re-elected on Conservative tickets. Sukh Dhaliwal (Liberal, B.C.) was elected on a Liberal ticket. Raminder Gill (Conservative, Ontario) ran but lost his seat. Gurmant Grewal (Conservative, Alberta) did not defend his seat.

The Toronto Star, Jan. 21, 2006

Photo: (L to R) Navdeep Bains, Deepak Obhrai, Ujjal Dosanjh, Paul Martin, Ruby Dhalla, Gurbax Malhi and Manmohan Singh

The good news for Liberal incumbent Colleen Beaumier is that her Brampton West riding, Liberal red for decades, could be won with the Punjabi-Canadian vote. The problem: this time, her Conservative opponent, like the other three incumbents in Brampton, is Punjabi.

Punjabi power is flourishing across burgeoning Brampton, where the South Asian population has grown to about 85,000 people - about 21 per cent of the city's residents. By deploying political strategies that appeal to recent immigrants, Punjabi Canadians have emerged to form an almost impenetrable political monopoly across a ring of ridings north of Mississauga.

Drafting friends and family to win nominations, launching platforms that highlight immigrant concerns and utilizing a huge volunteer network to pull the vote gives Punjabi Canadian candidates distinct advantages.

'In these ridings it's impossible for a non-ethnic candidate to win a nomination now, much less a campaign,' says Brampton's Sam Basra, a Fijian of Punjabi descent who arrived in Toronto 20 years ago and ran federally for the Conservatives during the '90s in Etobicoke North.

Basra says that in such a tight-knit community, the nomination process works in favour of Punjabi-Canadians with political aspirations. 'They sign up as many friends and family as they need to take out memberships, pay the fee so they can vote, and then they win the nominations.'

Some, Basra claims, don't even care which party they're nominated for.

His implication that Punjabi-Canadians are now able to hijack the vote gets a perhaps unexpected rebuttal from Andrew Kania, a non-Punjabi lawyer who was on his way to getting the Liberal nod for Brampton-Springdale in 2004 - only to see Prime Minister Paul Martin parachute in Punjabi-Canadian Ruby Dhalla. She proceeded to win the riding handily.

'The Punjabi community is looking for good, qualified candidates who will be able to help the riding and the community,' Kania insists. 'They are not looking at the colour of people's skin. I know many Punjabis who will refuse to support a Punjabi candidate if they are not qualified.'

Kania says the Punjabi community works within the rules of the nomination process, and if they are able to sign up enough members to get a candidate nominated, that is simply a sign of political deftness.

His disappointment over Dhalla's appointment in 2004 left him upset with the Martin camp, not the Punjabi community, he says.

Often, Basra says, the hardest race for a Punjabi candidate to win isn't the election but the nomination, when competing with other Punjabi hopefuls. 'The one who wins the Liberal nomination in the Brampton ridings now wins the election.'

Such was the case for Navdeep Bains (Mississauga-Brampton South), a political newcomer when he secured the nomination for the newly created riding in 2004. He did it by defeating three political veterans who fought over the votes of the same clutch of party members.

'I was able to obtain new young members, professionals,' Bains explains. 'There was an infusion of new people.'

It didn't hurt that Bains was also a well-known member of the community who'd attended Punjabi language lessons at the Dixie Gurdwara as a child. Situated on the edge of his riding, at Derry and Dixie Rds., the Sikh temple is the largest in North America, and Bains still regularly attends services there, some of which draw 30,000 congregants over a weekend.

But he insists that his support transcends the Punjabi community. Having graduated from York University and the University of Windsor - and worked as an analyst at Ford - Bains says he's part of a new, second-generation professional class with ties to many community and business organizations.

He won in a landslide in 2004, with a margin of more than 14,000 votes over Conservative Parvinder Sandhu. Up against relatively unknown rivals this time - Conservative Arnjeet Sangha and the N.D.P.'s Nirvan Balkissoon - he may be among the few Liberals who manage to widen the gap on Monday.

The popularity of Punjabi media also gives candidates such as Bains, Dhalla and Brampton's other Liberal incumbent, Gurbax S. Malhi (Bramalea-Gore-Malton), tremendous exposure. 'They have each been on the show, I would say, about 10 times this year, on special occasions or to give a message,' says Joginder Bassi, who has been on Punjabi radio in Toronto for 24 years. Bassi hosts Gaunda Punjab on C.I.R.V. (88.9 F.M.), which draws 150,000 listeners. Its 40 hours of programming a week give fans a constant fill of their favourite topic: politics.

Bassi says most will vote on a single set of issues key to them.

'Listeners are behind candidates who help them sponsor parents and family from India. Helping with the backlog of visa applications. Speeding up the application process. Getting seniors who have immigrated here pensions at age 65.

'Immigration-related issues are the most important thing for Punjabi voters.'

More important, in the long run, than the issue of same-sex marriage, despite the community's social conservatism and the stir the issue created when the Liberals pushed it into law - with a divided response among the Brampton M.P.s.

It's not surprising to see what dominates the parliamentary records of those M.P.s: Measures to get better recognition of foreign professionals' credentials; bringing passport offices to their ridings; pressuring Ottawa to speed up visa applications.

Another factor in the rise of Punjabi-power in Peel Region was described in recent research by Ryerson University's Andrew Matheson: Brampton's huge growth prompted a redrawing of riding boundaries, meaning that newcomers like Bains haven't had to topple strong incumbents.

Inside Ruby Dhalla's campaign headquarters on Kennedy Rd. near Springdale - an area often dubbed 'Singhdale' - 40 volunteers buzz around the incumbent, who is being challenged in this election by Conservative Sam Hundal and N.D.P. candidate Anna Mather.

Some serve tea and samosas to visitors, while others are on the phones reminding supporters about the advance polls. About 300 are out knocking on doors, Dhalla says. In the office, most are speaking Punjabi.

But, like Malhi and Bains, Dhalla is keen to point out that she's not in politics to represent only one group.

'As a representative I'm here to represent each and every individual in my riding, regardless of race or ethnicity,' she says.

A visit to Colleen Beaumier's website suggests she would love the same type of support from the Punjabi community her colleagues receive. Up top, she mentions her visits to Punjab to witness the conditions there, in order to better connect with her Punjabi constituents.

It's a bond that comes more naturally to her opponents in Brampton West (Conservative Baljit Gosal and N.D.P. candidate Jagtar Shergill), and clearly comes easily to colleague Malhi.

Malhi won in 2004 by a margin of 19 points over his Tory rival. His challengers this time, Conservative John Sprovieri and Cesar Martello of the N.D.P., have a long way to go to find the community support he enjoys.

'I attend 25 weddings a month,' Malhi says, sitting in his constituency office, around the corner from a fast-growing Punjabi commercial strip on Airport Rd. Hanging there is a large photo of Malhi shaking hands with Pierre Trudeau.

'There are between 700 and 2,000 people who attend each wedding,' he says. 'I can't say no - that's our culture. I attend over 500 events altogether each year in the community.'

When it comes to votes, you can do the math.