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Sikh Heritage Month Bill

Third Reading

Honourable senators, it is my privilege to rise today to speak at third reading in support of Bill C-376, the Sikh heritage month act.

To date, this legislation has received support from all parties in both the House of Commons and the Senate. In particular, I wish to acknowledge and express thanks for the efforts of Mr. Sukh Dhaliwal, Member of Parliament, who has led the effort to initiate the bill. I would also like to thank the members of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology for their unanimous support.

April has already been established as Sikh Heritage Month by parliaments in Ontario in 2013, B.C. in 2017, Alberta in 2017, and Manitoba in 2019. These actions have received widespread support among citizens, community organizations and local governments.

A proclamation of Sikh heritage month in Canada would be a continuation of this journey. The Sikh Canadian story is a story of pioneers and settlers of over a century ago, of soldiers who fought alongside Canadians in two world wars, of fighting for equality and justice — to the eventual engagement in all walks of life. It also celebrates the social, economic, political and cultural contributions that Sikh Canadians have made to Canada. It is, in fact, a story of Canada.

As a bit of background on the journey of Sikh settlement in Canada, the earliest Sikh settlers came here over a century ago, in 1897, when Sikh soldiers arrived as members of the British Army. It is not well known that Sikh soldiers served in the Canadian Army in World War I — all volunteers that served a country that denied them the rights of citizenship.

The natural hardships faced by early settlers in Canada were compounded by other barriers — political, immigration, citizenship and others. In the face of isolation and financial hardship, the early Sikh settlers proceeded to build institutions that would serve the fledgling community, beginning with the Khalsa Diwan Society in 1907.

Most remarkable was the resolve of many of those early settlers — mainly farmers and labourers — to resolutely work within the framework of Canadian law. They pressed for changes in law for half a century — changes that eventually lifted restrictions against South Asian settlers, even those born in Canada and who had fought under the Canadian flag.

It is fitting that this bill is being studied in the Senate during the month of April, a month that is meaningful to the Sikh community around the world. The month of April has a cultural significance in the region, loosely described as “greater Punjab,” the former homeland of the great majority of Sikhs. It is the month of Vaisakhi, a harvest festival celebrated by all people of the region, akin to Thanksgiving.

For the Sikhs, it has added meaning, as it also commemorates the birth of the Khalsa order in 1699, the final stage in the evolution of the Sikh faith, one that emphasizes the values of equality, selfless service and social justice, and a milestone celebrated by the Sikhs the world over.

Overall, Vaisakhi — and the month of April — is a festive occasion, celebrated by the Sikhs in many ways — with parades, a tradition observed by Sikh communities worldwide. These have been accompanied by art exhibitions, film festivals, academic lectures and symposia on various aspects of their history, culture and faith. Academic institutions have attracted Sikh students and scholars, and initiatives are under way in the community to sponsor academic programs and Sikh studies in prominent universities. A national proclamation will spur greater community engagement to fund other such initiatives.

The proclamation of a heritage month is more than a celebration of a community’s history; it offers an opportunity to reach out to its neighbours and to educate the broader public.

In her support of Bill S-232, Jewish heritage month, Senator Frum so eloquently said:

. . . this official embrace of the Jewish people and the Jewish culture . . . can only help promote the values of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion.

The same sentiments apply to this bill.

The value of recognizing people’s heritage is subtle, yet profound. Such recognition is a step towards understanding, which is a necessary condition for integration. It is an essential element of a civil society, and it makes for a more cohesive nation. As a country, we celebrate a number of communities, ethnicities and religions in the form of heritage months. This gives us, as a nation, the opportunity to celebrate the unique cultures and values of these communities.

The Sikh community has a particularly unique position with visible principles of faith. As a result, as with other minority communities, they sometimes face prejudice and racism. Such responses have much to do with lack of knowledge of the community. Information and familiarity with the history of the community and its core values will go a long way to alleviate misunderstanding.

When Mr. Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, appeared before the Human Rights Committee last year in support of Jewish heritage month, he said:

The concept of heritage months offer a proactive approach to peeling back the ignorance that really serves as the engine . . . of the kind of intolerance that all of us would wish to see diminish. . . . It is in this context that . . . they play an important role in helping other Canadians appreciate the shared values of specific communities. . . . They bring down that sense of suspicion and hostility that is born from a sense of ignorance about other faith communities.

He went on to say that by establishing heritage months:

. . . we are signalling to these communities that we value what they bring to Canada . . . in a context that strengthens . . . Canadian values and enriches the lives of . . . Canadians and Canadian society.

I couldn’t agree with him more.

This is why Sikh heritage month is so important, as it will create one more platform to shed light, and dispel misunderstandings and fallacies that stem from lack of knowledge. It will also give us the opportunity to celebrate the engagement and contributions that Sikh Canadians have made in every aspect of public life in Canada — in the fields of medicine and law, science and engineering, information technology, and finance, to say nothing of their presence in the Armed Forces and in the political life of this country.

It will encourage us to talk and learn more about their beliefs and values, and to educate future generations of Canadians about the important and valuable role they have played in communities across this country.

Although Senator Ataullahjan is referred to as the critic of this bill, her eloquent words of endorsement during a second reading speech were particularly moving. She closed her comments by quoting MP Sukh Dhaliwal:

The history of Sikhs in Canada is a story of compassion, hard work, persistence and giving back.

She added:

. . . I support this bill and ask that you do as well.

In closing, I am very appreciative that this bill has received unanimous support thus far, and I look forward to your continued support. Thank you.

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