Jenny Kwan, MP

Member of Parliament, Vancouver East

Jenny Kwan on Sikh Heritage Month

I am proud to stand in this House to offer my support for Bill C-376, an act to designate the month of April as Sikh heritage month. It is important to note that this bill is likely the first bill to recognize Sikh heritage at a federal level in the world and is the second such bill in Canada. During his time as the NDP MPP for Brampton-Gore-Malton in Ontario, the now NDP leader Jagmeet Singh tabled Bill 52, an act to proclaim the month of April as Sikh heritage month. That bill received royal assent on December 12, 2013.

As a proud member of Canada's first federal party to have a leader of Sikh heritage and a leader who has previously tabled and received unanimous consent for a similar piece of legislation at a different level of government, there is no doubt that the NDP strongly support this bill.

Each province and territory throughout Canada has been touched by the influence and contributions of Sikh Canadians. I believe it is very important for us to recognize the social, economic and cultural contributions of the Sikh community to the multicultural mosaic of Canada by declaring April as Sikh heritage month.

April is an important month for individuals of the Sikh faith not just in Canada but throughout the world. Each year, April marks the celebration of Vaisakhi, also known as Khalsa Day. Vaisakhi marks the Sikh new year, and commemorates the formation of the Khalsa panth of warriors under Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. It is also a spring harvest festival. Sikh places of worship, the gurdwaras, throughout Canada will hold kirtans, which are the devotional singing of scriptures and legends.

The harvest festival is filled with music, dancing and fairs known as melas. In Canada, some of the biggest Vaisakhi celebrations occur in B.C. The biggest of them occurs in Surrey. This year marked Surrey's 20th annual Vaisakhi parade. The RCMP estimated that over 500,000 people attended.

According to Statistics Canada, there are nearly 470,000 Canadian Sikhs. That makes Canada likely home to the largest Sikh diaspora community in the world. Passing the bill before us today would provide Canadians from all walks of life the opportunity to learn more about the contributions, celebrations and culture of their Sikh neighbours and community members. It is something I encourage all Canadians to take advantage of.

My riding of Vancouver East is home to the Akali Singh Sikh Society. I have had the pleasure of working with the society on obtaining visas and permits for visiting religious workers. This has provided me the wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Sikh community in my riding and also for members of the society to share their knowledge with the rest of the community. The society started in 1952 and began construction on its current gurdwara in 1981. In addition to religious services, the society regularly hosts community meals, offers Punjabi language classes, runs youth camps and offers free tax filing services for seniors and low-income families. These valuable community roles stem directly from the Sikh faith's emphasis on selfless service, justice and equality.

Passing this bill would also allow Canadians to learn from past injustices that Canada has perpetrated against the Sikh community.

As members are aware, the Komagata Maru marks a dark chapter in Canadian history. Nearly 400 passengers, mostly Sikhs, were refused entry into Canada at Burrard Inlet because of a discriminatory law. The passengers were sent back to India where 19 of them were killed. During the 2015 election campaign, the now Prime Minister made the promise to officially apologize for the Komagata Maru incident in the House of Commons within the first 90 days of his mandate. That, as we know, did not happen in that timeline.

On February 3, 2016, I put on notice Motion No. 35, which called on the Liberal government to officially apologize for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident as a reminder of the Prime Minister's election promise. By so doing, I was also carrying on the hard work of former NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu, the hon. Jinny Sims, who is the current B.C. Minister for Citizens' Services, and the tireless efforts of the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation which initiated the call for justice in 2012.

In working with the community, together we were able to pressure the Prime Minister to do the right thing. On May 18, 2016, the Prime Minister finally formally apologized in the House of Commons for the actions taken by the Canadian government and the irreparable harm the decision caused in this dark chapter of Canada's history.

It would be worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on that discriminatory law that cost the lives of 19 people. The Government of Canada had put in place a law that prohibited passengers from disembarking in Canada if the vessel they were on had stopped at any point during its journey here.

Then in 1939, under the unofficial policy of “none is too many”, Canada would refuse refuge for another ship searching for safe haven, the MS St. Louis. On it were 900 Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany. The ship was forced to leave and it is believed a quarter of those passengers were killed in Nazi death camps during World War II.

The Prime Minister's description of the laws that prevented Komagata Maru passengers from disembarking immediately and those on the MS St. Louis reminded me of the current influx of asylum seekers to Canada. The safe third country agreement aims to prevent people seeking asylum from entering Canada if they stopped in the United States during their journey here.

It appears that we have still not learned from the mistakes of the past. We are continuing to turn people away, not on the basis of their claim but on the basis of the path they took to arrive here as they search for safety and a better life.

I hope that the government reflects on the Prime Minister's apology to the Sikh community for their mistreatment under the laws of Canada at that time and what it means to truly make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. I hope the government keeps this in mind when my New Democratic colleagues and I continue our call for the suspension of the safe third country agreement upon our recognition that the United States is not a safe country for asylum seekers at this time.

I am proud to support the bill. It gives Canadians a chance to learn more about the Sikh community and Canada's past, including the not so bright moments. That is what gives us the motivation and ability to do better, to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

As noted, I encourage Canadians who have questions about the Sikh faith or just about the day-to-day life of Canadian Sikhs to simply ask them. The World Sikh Organization is constantly engaged on Twitter through #AskCanadianSikhs. They are happy to answer anyone's questions and help Canadians better understand their Sikh neighbours. We can all learn from each other. We need to celebrate with each other about who we are no matter where we come from. That is part of our multicultural mosaic that speaks to who we are as Canadians.

My New Democratic Party colleagues and I wholeheartedly support the bill. As mentioned, our leader, Jagmeet Singh, has paved the way in the Ontario legislature with his bill and now for the House of Commons to do the same is something which we very much welcome.

I thank the member for tabling the bill and supporting the initiatives that my former colleague in the NDP tabled previously.