As a teacher-librarian in one of Canada’s most diverse school districts, Sandip Sodhi has an intimate knowledge of what inclusion looks like, and she’s trying to spread the word.
In 2020, she published Ms. Chievus in the Classroom, a picture book centred on stories from her teaching career, which includes a mutlicultural cast of characters.
“When I read aloud to the children, they love it when they can hear an ethnic name,” said Sodi, 52.
“It also solidifies my own story…. I feel comfortable and confident sharing my experiences with others.”
Born in Coventry, England, after her parents emigrated from India, Sodhi says the family moved to Vancouver’s eastside in 1971. There, she says, her father encouraged the family to embrace Canadian culture — including the country’s politics.
But while the author and educator remembers her dad voting for the Liberals, who he credited with opening up Canada’s borders, she says her voting strategy is more nuanced.
“I think if we’re voting for people or we’re voting for ideas, it should be based on the value systems … versus ‘I’m South Asian I need to vote this way,’ ‘I’m European I need to vote this way.'” said Sodhi.
Echoing this idea are South Asian political scientists and community leaders, who say that while India-specific issues, such as the farmers’ protests, the ban on flights, delays in family reunification and recent calls to assist Sikhs and Hindus trapped in Afghanistan, are top of mind for some South Asian voters, the community’s priorities are largely in line with other Canadians.
“People are not voting as a block, but there’s still pride in South Asians running … in feeling that this person can represent them in Ottawa,” said Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
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Recent increases in South Asian representation
That sense of pride has produced increased South Asian representation in recent years.
In 2016, Justin Trudeau joked that he had “more Sikhs in his cabinet than Modi” after he appointed four of them to his cabinet, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, MP for Vancouver South.
Three years later, nearly 25 South Asians were elected to Parliament across Canada; 18 of whom, including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, were of Punjabi Sikh heritage.
“The parties cannot ignore this fact: they need to be diverse,” said Burnaby-based radio broadcaster Gurpreet Singh. South Asians are the second largest population of visible minorities in Greater Vancouver, according to the 2016 Census.
“They can always find people closer to their ideology and that’s what’s happening…. It’s not a situation where one apna [of our own] is fighting against all the white candidates.”
Gurpreet Singh says that, because of the increased inclusion, South Asian voters are increasingly focused on the issues.
“Everybody’s concerned about the economy with the COVID situation … everybody’s concerned about climate change … everybody’s concerned about health care,” he said.
“Of course there are some issues which are very community specific.”
Farmers’ protests, flight bans still on-going
In particular, the call-in show host, who is married to Surrey-Green Timbers MLA Rachna Singh, says the farmers’ protests remain top of mind in the community.
Since November, tens of thousands of farmers have left their land to camp out along the highways near New Delhi, to protest against three laws passed by India’s parliament last year.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says the laws are necessary to modernize agriculture, but farmers say they will leave them poorer and at the mercy of big corporations.
Singh says Canadian activists hope to build international pressure, by calling on candidates and their parties to do more for the farmers.
“This is the time when they can really force our candidates and political parties to make some kind of commitment,” he said. “They will not let this issue go away.”
Political scientist Bains, too, identifies the protests as a main concern for the community, along with the flight bans and the push for Canadian schools to accept international students.
In April, the Canadian government banned direct flights from India and Pakistan to help control the spread of coronavirus variants. That ban has been extended until September 21.
“Canada is not an easy community to come to,” said Bains, “but it is certainly number one in terms of the regions that people come to from India.”
India-specific issues absent from major platforms
Still, Canada’s major parties have said little about India-specific issues thus far.
The platforms for all three major parties make no mention of farmers’ protests, flight bans, repatriation or help for those in Afghanistan.
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Polling companies Angus Reid and Insights West, too, tell CBC that, as of publishing, they have not gathered any data on India-specific issues.
Back in Surrey, meanwhile, author Sodhi says her focus is the issues here at home.
“I have empathy for what’s happening in India,” she said.
“But that should not justify how I’m voting for my leader here in Canada.”