Why hard-fought election at North America’s largest Sikh temple could be bad news for Liberals in next federal vote

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When North America’s largest Sikh temple elects a new board of directors, it doesn’t fool around.

Candidates have campaign managers, cold-call voters and go door-knocking in the race for leadership of the Ontario Khalsa Darbar (OKD), a Toronto-area institution that functions as a place of worship, a community centre — and a nexus of political influence.

The Liberals have long been linked to the OKD, and arguably benefited from its status among the province’s Sikhs. But the election that wrapped up there early Monday morning may not bode well for the party.

A Grit-associated slate promoted by the fathers of Navdeep Bains, a star in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, and MP Ruby Sahota was roundly defeated, and a controversial government report that suggested Sikh terrorism still poses a threat here may have played a role, say observers and campaign organizers.

That could have ramifications for Liberal support in several swing seats in and around Brampton, Ont., most of which flipped to the party from the Conservatives in the 2015 election.

“These local ridings will be affected by it,” said Balraj Deol, a Punjabi-language journalist in the area. “That is an advantage for Conservatives, and the NDP also. It’s a loss for the Liberals and it will be a gain for the other two.”

“This may be a sign,” said Jaspal Bal, campaign manager for the victorious side.

It’s a loss for the Liberals and it will be a gain for the other two

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was dragged into the race, with the winning group alleging his visit to the area last week was designed to bolster support for the other side.

But not everyone sees broader implications in the temple vote, no matter how intense the campaign became. Avtar Badyal, the losing presidential candidate, said Trudeau’s visit and Liberal policies had nothing to do with his team’s loss. The election was simply about which group voters believed could best manage an important spiritual institution, he said.

“This is not a political thing, it’s a religious thing,” said Badyal. “I don’t know why they are making this into something that is not.”


Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Singh Bains responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Monday April 1, 2019 in Ottawa.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Another local journalist said he also doubts that broader politics played a role in the temple election, or will be affected by its outcome.

“Not at all,” said Yudhvir Jaswal, who hosts popular radio and TV shows on the local Y-Channel. “I think they are oversimplifying things.”

Regardless, when the ballots were finally all counted at about 3:30 a.m. Monday, the entire “Panthak Alliance” slate backed by the fathers of MPs Bains and Sahota had been defeated, every one of their 11 opponents elected by healthy margins.

To the winners goes control of a temple — or gurdwara — that boasts 3,700 members and a sprawling, 70-acre site near Toronto’s Pearson airport.

Underscoring the high stakes in such elections, a court battle between directors that began in 2006 forced a nine-year delay in voting and reportedly generated $5 million in legal bills.

Sikh temples are community focal points as well as religious institutions, and OKD includes 15 halls that are booked solid with weddings.

It also provides a potential platform for politicians eager to reach the region’s powerful Sikh voting bloc, said Deol, hosting gatherings that can attract tens of thousands of people.

“That gurdwara is the prime hub for everything,” said an organizer on the winning side Sunday, who asked not to be named. “It’s very influential.”

Liberals like Bains, the economic development minister, used to have ready access to the OKD stage, the person said. “That’s not going to happen any more, so that’s a big blow to them.”

Bains was among several Liberals of Sikh background who captured Brampton and Mississauga ridings in 2015, a key part of the Greater Toronto Area battleground that is itself to crucial to winning federal elections.

But the community’s support for the party took a serious hit with the release in December of a Public Safety Canada report on terrorism that suggested “Sikh (Khalistani) extremism” remained a threat.

Sikh groups reacted with outrage, saying that using violence to support Punjabi independence was rejected long ago in Canada. The so-called Khalistani movement is entirely peaceful today, they argue.

Local MPs are expected to face a grilling this Sunday at a town-hall meeting about the report.

Many of the temple members who voted for the winning slate in Sunday’s gurdwara election did so to express their opposition to the terrorism statement, equating the other slate with the government, said Bal.

In fact, when a candidate on the opposing side promised to honour the four Sikh-Canadian ministers in the Trudeau cabinet at the gurdwara, the eventual winning slate gained more support, he said.

“People put aside their bickering and differences and said this is one of the issues that is uniting us to support these 11,” said Bal. “Because they have said they will not sit idle and wait with a garland to welcome the leaders who have declared us a terrorist threat.”

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