Jason Kenney scans the dense crowd of roughly 20,000 Sikh Canadians in traditional dress and multicoloured turbans here to mark Vaisakhi—the annual celebration commemorating the foundation of this community originally from India’s northeast. Sitting cross-legged on the thin grey carpeting covering the enormous stage, the minister is inwardly cringing.
He doesn’t like what he sees. In front of him, a dozen yellow and blue Khalistan flags are splitting the crowd near the podium, held by men fighting the hot early May sun in T-shirts. The man at the mic, speaking Punjabi, suddenly speeds up and radicalizes his tone. He speaks of genocide, of violent clashes and of the independence of Khalistan—a country that a faction of Sikh nationalists would like to carve from India. It’s too much. Kenney, who’s picked up some Punjabi since becoming minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism in 2008, stands mid-sentence, crosses the room and exits as three baffled Conservative MPs look on, unsure whether or not they should follow.
At the bottom of the steps, Kenney puts his shoes back on and raises his hand as if to rip off the orange bandana that all visitors wear inside Rexdale’s Sikh Spiritual Centre. He takes a deep breath, and restrains himself. A Sikh organizer approaches, looking contrite. “You are trying to exploit my presence here,” Kenney shouts, his stare fixed on the man in a white turban. “This is not a civilized way to behave. I warned you, and you did it anyway. I am aware that you would like to entertain the Prime Minister next year. You can forget it. He won’t be coming.” The minister makes his way to the exit, the Sikh organizer fast on his heels, apologizing profusely.
It had all started so well 25 minutes earlier. The party was in full swing. People sang and danced in all corners to a traditional Indian beat. Hundreds of children played in inflatable games erected along the four-lane street. Smells of spices and roast chicken tickled the nostrils.
Kenney took the stage with compliments reserved for a guest of honour. At the microphone he shouted a well-timed greeting: “Bole sonai hai? Sat siri akal!” Thousands of people responded: “Sat siri akal!” (The Sikh greeting roughly translates to: “Who stands up for truth?,” to which the crowd responds, “We stand up for truth, God is the ultimate truth!”)
The minister had bragged of the government’s achievements, including the creation, at the heart of the ministry of Foreign Affairs, of an office of religious freedoms to promote and defend all faiths. He highlighted that Vaisakhi is now a Canadian tradition because it is celebrated every year on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It was after his speech, once he was seated, that the Khalistan flags suddenly appeared.
At the entrance, several long minutes pass before the minister’s driver pulls up in his black Nissan SUV. As we sit down, Kenney turns to me. “I am so sorry,” he says in French.
He finally pulls off his bandana and explains that Sikh nationalists are now waging their war in Canada. They hope to convince the roughly 450,000 Canadians of Sikh origin, the majority of whom live in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, to put pressure on their families still in India, but also on the Canadian government, to support their demands. They want Ottawa to recognize a genocide in which Sikhs were victims, in 1984 in India.
“It was an extremist speech,” he says. “I had to leave the room, otherwise the community would think I endorse such a campaign. Certain groups have sometimes tried to wield my prominence to advance their cause. I have to be vigilant at all times. They shouldn’t be encouraged to reproduce, in Canada, the tensions of their homelands.” It’s a message he reiterates to new immigrants from China and Tibet, Greece and Turkey, Israel and Iran.
He glances out the window and sighs. “Welcome to my world.”