Sikh MP Lives on Both Sides of Ethno-political Divide

Back in 2005, when Liberal MP Navdeep Bains outraged many of his fellow Sikhs by voting for same-sex marriage, his grandmother decided to get to the bottom of his controversial stand.

Sikh MP Lives on Both Sides of Ethno-political Divide

Back in 2005, when Liberal MP Navdeep Bains outraged many of his fellow Sikhs by voting for same-sex marriage, his grandmother decided to get to the bottom of his controversial stand. Just who, she wanted to know, was this Carter fellow she kept hearing about, and why was Carter so important to her grandson that he was going to such extremes to defend him? "Carter? There's no Carter, Grandma," Bains had to explain. "I'm defending the Charter, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

It was one of the few times that straddling two worlds, the Sikh community and mainstream Canadian politics, provided Bains with a punchline. More often, nobody's laughing. There was nothing lighthearted about insider griping after the Liberal leadership race about the way he delivered a block of Sikh delegates to Stéphane DION, a convention-floor coup seen by some as old-school ethnic politics at its worst. And there was no levity in Prime Minister Stephen HARPER's recent bid in the House to link Bains to Sikh extremism.

Bains, 29, emerges from it all as one of the most closely watched MPs. In his signature red turban and full black beard, he's hard to miss. First elected in 2004 in suburban Toronto, he's part of a group of young Ontario MPs who form an influential club in Dion's caucus. He first made his mark by weathering a Sikh community backlash over same-sex marriage, after the courts ruled its prohibition violated the Charter, which he reveres as central to his Liberalism.

If that stand proved that Bains was no captive of his Sikh constituency, in backing Gerard Kennedy's run for Liberal leader he seemed to fall into the familiar role of ethnic power broker. But top Kennedy campaigners contend there was nothing unseemly, or unique, about the way Sikh delegates followed Bains. About 90 per cent of Kennedy's delegates did the same when he swung to Dion, they point out, including far less visible blocks, like university students.

Still, the episode turned Bains into a tempting target. Any doubt about that was put to rest late last month when Harper tried to read into the House record a Vancouver Sun story that said Bains's father-in-law was on an RCMP list of possible witnesses for so-called investigative hearings into the 1985 Air India bombing. Harper was shouted down by Liberal MPs. But his charge came through loud and clear: protecting Bains's family was the real reason Liberals were about to vote to let the investigative-hearing power lapse, in a mandatory review of the post-9/11 Anti-Terrorism Act.

Bains denies the linkage. For the record, he says he passed an RCMP security check when he was sworn in as a privy councillor under Paul Martin. As for his father-in-law, Toronto taxi driver Darshan Singh Saini, Bains says he has never heard him talk up Sikh separatism. He says Saini co-operated fully when he was questioned by the RCMP "many moons ago," adding that so were "thousands" of other Sikhs.

Bains stresses that he just a kid back in the 1980s, when Sikh militancy was on the boil, particularly after the Indian army's 1984 assault on the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine. It was the following year that Air India Flight 182 was bombed, almost certainly by Sikh terrorists, killing 329, most of the victims Canadians.

Bains says those events didn't figure much in his typical Canadian upbringing - Saturday morning pancakes and maple syrup, after-school street hockey. But he says the Liberals and other mainstream parties should not necessarily deny membership to older Sikhs who did, back in the eighties, join groups that have since been discredited or banned for links to terror. "It was 20 years ago," he says. "There are so many what-ifs here. Was this person convicted or charged? Did you know somebody? Did you know somebody who knew somebody? I'm not there to judge."

Asked by Maclean's if he favours carving an independent Sikh state out of India, he says it's the first time this basic question has ever been put to him. Then he sidesteps it. "It's the politics of another country, with another people, that they have to decide about."

His core positions - that India is far away and the most heated days in Canadian-Sikh politics are long past - are undeniably true. But that won't satisfy critics, silence Tories, or make him a typical MP. Before politics, he earned an M.B.A. and worked as a financial analyst for Nike and Ford. Dion has made him his trade critic, and Bains says he wishes he was occasionally asked about his policy file. But he mentions that as a fond, faint hope, sounding resigned to the unlikelihood of such an uncontroversial topic being raised with him anytime soon.

See also SIKHISM.

Maclean's March 19, 2007