“They are validating that we have a place in society here”
BY RATTAN MALL
OCTOBER 1986: Moe Sihota becomes the first South Asian / Sikh MLA in Canadian history.
And 34 years later, just hours before a record nine South Asian MLAs were to be sworn in on Tuesday, Sihota, choking with emotion, spoke to the VOICE about what that means to him and the community.
The MLAs: re-elected Raj Chouhan (Burnaby-Edmonds), Ravi Kahlon (Delta North), Jagrup Brar (Surrey-Fleetwood), Rachna Singh (Surrey-Green Timbers), Harry Bains (Surrey-Newton), and Jinny Sims (Surrey-Newton); and newly elected Aman Singh (Richmond-Queensborough), who is the first turbaned Sikh MLA, Niki Sharma (Vancouver-Hastings) and Harwinder Sandhu (Vernon-Monashee).
Sihota, who held a raft of portfolios as the first South Asian cabinet minister in the 1990s, recounted how his interest in politics was sparked as a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the seventies and how he ended up being elected MLA in the riding of Esquimalt-Port Renfrew in 1986. (You can read the details below).
He said: “But that was 34 years ago. So I look back at it now and I, in some ways, am brought to tears and in other ways, I am overjoyed by the fact that nine South Asians, particularly in my political party, will take a seat in the legislature.”
He added: “So it caused me over the past few days to reflect on it all.”
Sihota noted: “First of all, I didn’t understand what a role model was. I didn’t see myself as a role model; I just saw myself as someone who stood for office and got elected.
“I am stunned to this day how many people stop me from our community and say ‘I saw you on television when you were in office and it told me that anybody in society can make it here in Canada.’”
He said he didn’t realize how significant the role model aspect was.
Sihota said: “But now I am still sitting here and saying, ‘My gosh, there are now nine role models here!’
“And in particular for young males who have no idea who I am … but they can look at a Ravi Kahlon and say ‘Look, I can take my place in society!’
“Young women can look at a Jinny Sims or a Niki Sharma and say the same thing.
“And I think that what’s encouraging about these nine is that there is a new generation of role models.”
Sihota added: “And the second thing that is kind of related, but equally important, is the fact that each one of them – I guess in my case, myself as well, we validated – and they are validating that we have a place in society here, that it just legitimizes our place in Canadian society.
“And again, you know I didn’t fully appreciate that when I first ran, but now that I reflect on the last 34 years and look at these nine, I see that.”
FACE OF B.C. REFLECTED IN HOUSE
Sihota then pointed out: “And then kind of related to that, the other thing I see is that the face of British Columbia is reflected in the Legislature now. That wasn’t the case when I ran. But surely a Legislature should mirror a province.
“And so, whether it’s Ravi Kahlon or Bowinn Ma, or Harry Bains or George Chow, or Jinny Sims or Katrina Chen, and so on down the list – by my count there are probably 15 or 16 members of our caucus that come from ethnically diverse backgrounds – but the fact is now, 34 years later, I can see the face of British Columbia, Indigenous and ethnic, is very much represented in our Parliament.
“So what does that say? That says we’ve come a long way.”
I asked Sihota what advice would he give to the nine South Asian MLAs in the overall context of inspiring visible minorities to take up more positive roles.
He replied: “I would say, foremost, govern in the best interest of British Columbia. Don’t forget where you came from and then try and demonstrate your pride in your own ethnicity.”
I pointed out to Sihota that that’s a difficult role because when you do take up some issues, you always have people shouting ‘racism!’ – and when you don’t, then you have the other group shouting ‘oh, you’ve forgotten your roots!’ So it is a challenging role for sure.
Sihota responded: “But you need to blend all those things.”
He spoke of the various portfolios he held as a cabinet minister and added: “The point is that you govern in the best interest of the Province and when people see you doing that, … because of your ethnicity, you lift your own ethnic community. So that’s where the blend comes in.”
Sihota said: “So I just think that 34 years (later) … it’s worthy of me reflecting on my own journey and tying in with the (present situation).”
He added: “It’s a very celebratory day for our community!”
TRAILBLAZING POLITICAL CAREER
Sihota was a trailblazer, indeed.
In UBC in the 1970s, he was on student council where his job was to be the liaison with the provincial government on issues such as tuition fees, student housing and costs of education.
He explained: “The provincial government of the day was a Social Credit government and they weren’t receptive to some of the things that we were advocating – we were youngsters, we were idealistic, we didn’t think there should be any tuition at all or the interest rates (on student loans) should be decreased, there should be more accessibility to post-secondary education because it was a great equalizer in society. The government wasn’t receptive to what we were saying and we were deemed as student radicals.”
At the time, there were a number of Indo-Canadians on student council, including Herb Dhaliwal, who became the first South Asian / Sikh federal minister in Canadian history when Jean Chretien was prime minister, and Gurmail Gill who became a judge at the provincial level.
Sihota recounted: “We all were friends in university and we were all motivated by these issues and so we decided to put together a group that would run that included people from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. But in particular, in historic terms, it included Herb who was the Director of Finance, and me who was the Director of External Relations (1973-76).”
Back then there was for the first time a growing number of Indo-Canadian students attending UBC. Their parents came to Canada mostly in the late forties, had children in the early fifties and didn’t go to university because they were out making an income, but they encouraged their children to get an education.
Sihota elaborated: “And so we started to socialize together because of our common ethnic bond. We all hung together, we all did well in life … we were all active and because all of us arrived together, in political terms, we set a voting base of about 500 students to whom you could always say ‘here’s a person to vote for’ because our ethnic community tended to support our ethnic candidates provided they were capable. So out of that Herb and I got elected. And out of that process, I replaced Svend Robinson on the University Board of Governors, which is the highest position a student can hold on a campus.”
SIHOTA said that the late NDP premier Dave Barrett (he was premier for three years between 1972 and 1975) was one who would often to go to university campuses to recruit for potential candidates. He added: “And I was frustrated the Social Credit wasn’t listening to what we were saying and Dave kind of took me under his wings and encouraged me to get involved provincially to a point that I became president of the Young New Democrats around 1979 which also corresponded with the time that I moved to Victoria to go to law school.”
Sihota said: “By 1983, after we lost the 1983 election, I was encouraged by Dave and the NDP to seek a seat as a young up and comer along with Glen Clark [who was premier from 1996 to 1999] and Dan Miller [who was premier for six months from August 1999 to February 2000, following Clark’s resignation] because they felt that the party needed younger blood.
“And so I was by that time, in 1984, a councillor in Esquimalt – a lawyer practicing in Esquimalt – and the incumbent MLA was retiring. There were a lot of people – not surprisingly – in our party who did not think an Indo-Canadian could win in a Caucasian seat called Esquimalt and Dave was under some pressure to see if there was a more suitable seat for me. But I had roots in Esquimalt, I was married in 1985 and so I was going to run in Esquimalt – and I did and I won.”
In 1986, Sihota became the first South Asian / Sikh MLA to be elected to any federal or provincial riding in Canada.
In 1991, he became the first cabinet minister of Indian origin ever in any jurisdiction of Canada in Premier Mike Harcourt’s government. Sihota was appointed Minister of Labour and Consumer Services as well as Minister Responsible for Constitutional Affairs.
According to Wikipedia, Sihota continued to serve in several cabinet posts under the Harcourt as well as under the subsequent governments of Glen Clark and Dan Miller. During his career, he created 200 new Provincial Parks, extended Workers Compensation Coverage to farmworkers and changed BC logging practices.
Indeed, people still refer to him as the best environment minister BC has ever had.
Sihota was NDP President from 2009-2011 and again from 2011-2013.