Sikh Canadians frustrated by allegations of extremism

Jaspreet Bal was eating lunch with friends in rural Ontario when she says a “kind, well-intentioned” white man approached them to chat. He asked about her background, and she replied she was Sikh.

“Oh yeah, Air India,” he said, recognition flashing in his eyes.

Bal was born in 1985, the same year that Sikh militants bombed Air India Flight 182, killing all 329 on board. It was, apparently, the man’s only point of reference for her religion.

“It’s really frustrating,” she said. “It’s something that wasn’t OK that it happened, but it will haunt us forever. Nobody stops to make the distinction that it wasn’t representative of the entire community.”

The 32-year-old Humber College instructor is among those Sikh Canadians who are dismayed by the narrative that emerged during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent trip to India as Canada was accused of harbouring Sikh extremists.

The problem, said several outspoken and politically active Sikh Canadians, is that there is no hard evidence of rising radicalism in the community. Incidents such as Air India and the murder of Indo-Canadian journalist Tara Singh Hayer happened decades ago, and those who support an independent nation known as Khalistan today do not advocate violence, they say.

There are roughly 500,000 Sikhs in Canada. Some fled violence in India in the 1970s and ‘80s. After prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack in 1984 on the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, prompting anti-Sikh riots that have since been labelled a genocide by Ontario’s legislature.

Every Sikh has their own views on a sovereign homeland, but there’s no violent movement at this time, said Mukhbir Singh, president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, which describes itself as a human rights and Sikh advocacy group.

“Our concern is that Canadian Sikhs speaking out on human rights is being mislabelled or made equivalent to extremism,” he said.