With Canada's shifting demographics, Sikh politician’s rise may be glimpse of future

How many American journalists, including the dwindling number of staff religion reporters, are capable of accurately writing about the Sikh faith without first needing to resort to a quick Goggle search? Very few, I'd bet.

I'd also wager that Canadian journalists are similarly challenged. This could change, however, now that our northern neighbor has just witnessed the first Sikh being voted head of one of Canada’s major political parties.

That would be Jagmeet Singh, the son of Indian immigrants, who is now the national leader of the liberal New Democratic Party. NDP is Canada’s third largest party, though it was number two for a spell earlier this decade. (Remember, Canada operates within a parliamentary system, unlike the United States where just two parties dominate).

Singh, a provincial parliament member from Ontario, is also the first non-white to head a major Canadian party. Click here for The New York Times story on Singh’s election. Click here for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation profile of the man.

Note that Singh wears a turban and other symbols of the Sikh religion. I'd call that a bold move for a national politician in a country with a majority white Christian population.

Imagine if Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who was born into a Sikh family that lived in Canada prior to moving to South Carolina, had not converted to Protestant Christianity and still wore traditional Sikh garb.

Would her boss, President Donald Trump, have nominated her for the UN post? Would her earlier successes in South Carolina politics -- she was governor -- have happened? (And despite the risk of comparing apples and oranges, let's also remember the uproar among Democrats that kept Keith Ellison from becoming the first Muslim to lead the party apparatus.)

Singh’s election strikes me as a good time for journalists to learn a bit more about Sikhs and the Sikh religion. Because the men wear turbans and uncut beards, Sikhs are often assumed to be Muslims by those ignorant of their faith.

That rarely ends well when the ignorant have a beef against all Muslims. Just recently, Singh himself was subjected to such treatment.

If you clicked on the Times link above, you probably noticed that Singh listed among his policy goals “to make sure that no Canadian is stopped by the police because of his skin color.”

(An aside: Soon after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the taking of 52 Americans hostage, I covered a street brawl in Los Angeles instigated by far right members of the Jewish Defense League who attacked a group of Sikhs they mistook for Iranian Muslims.)

So who are the Sikhs and what do they believe? Let’s begin with some numbers.

Did you know that Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest faith with some 30 million adherents? Or that more than 500,000 live in the U.S., and just short of another half-million reside in Canada, where they constitute about 1.4 percent of the population, according to online sources.

Sikhism, which originated in the Punjabi region of what are now Pakistan and India, considers itself a monotheistic faith (see the next paragraph for more on this) that, as Sikhs like to point out, started as a progressive reform movement in response to some Muslim and Hindu traditions that its 15th century founder, Guru Nanak,  deemed antithetical to communal and spiritual development.

Click here for a readable overview of Sikh history with some of the faith’s religious tenets included. Click here for a more in depth look at those tenets, including an explanation of how Sikh monotheism differs from the Abrahamic religions’ understanding of the term.

As noted above, Singh is the first of his religion (and non-white race) to rise to national political prominence in Canada. As Canada’s demographics change, I expect we’ll see many more such firsts.

The big question, of course, is how white Canadians, a steadily shrinking segment of the population, will react. Moreover, its relevance to the political tensions over race and religion boiling over in the U.S. and Europe seems obvious.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto earlier this year ran this in-depth story on Canada’s shifting demographics, one of a series of pieces it published based on a national 2016 census.

The following section -- its a bit wordy but key to understanding the issue -- lays out Canada’s probable future.

A growing share of immigrants means Canada will be more diverse, with more visible minorities, more non-Christian religions and more people who speak languages other than English and French as a mother tongue, Statscan [the government agency Statistics Canada] demographer Jean-Dominique Morency said in an interview.
"In the largest cities, like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, it's already very diverse -- but they will be more and more diverse in the next 25 years," he said. This is the case "not only in the large cities but also in all parts of the country … in all provinces, the proportion of immigrants in the population would increase."
The immigrant population will still be concentrated in Canada's largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Toronto will see the country's highest share of immigrants in its population, at between 46 per cent and 52.8 per cent.
The composition of the immigrant population will also shift. More than half of immigrants in Canada would be Asian-born by 2036, if recent trends continue, from 44.8 per cent in 2011. At the same time, the share of European immigrants will decline by about half, to about 16 per cent.
More people will belong to a visible-minority group. In the next two decades, the share of the working-age population (aged 15 to 64) who are members of a visible minority will reach up to 40 per cent, from 19.6 per cent in 2011. This share will grow in all parts of the country, the [census] paper said, adding that South Asians will remain the group with the most people, followed by Chinese.
In some cities -- Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg, visible minorities could become the majority.

These are big changes that are bound to unsettle at least some white Canadians. Elsewhere in the Globe and Mail story, Yasmeen Abu-Laban, a political-science professor at the University of Alberta who studies migration and multiculturalism, addressed this.

... Dr. Abu-Laban warned against becoming complacent, noting that the wave of xenophobia that was washed over the United States and much of Europe came suddenly.
"I worry about those trends because I think no one is immune to them," she said.

I'd say she got that right -- which means it's a major Canadian story that bears close watching.

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