April 04, 2020
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BC's New Man For The Millennium

Clean ways, and a huge Indian diaspora, make Ujjal Dosanjh Canada's first provincial premier

BC's New Man For The Millennium

A bright-eyed Punjabi immigrant left his gulli danda and India behind to work in a Canadian sawmill in British Columbia (BC) in 1968. And just a little over 30 years later, Ujjal Dosanjh holds the highest job in the province, that of premier.

Turbaned Sikhs broke into spontaneous bhangra to dholak rhythms at the formal political convention in Vancouver, minutes after Dosanjh was declared victorious in the seven-month leadership battle in the western province of British Columbia. The exultant dancers were celebrating not only their Punjabi brother’s achievement but also the fact that he is the very first Indo-Canadian ever to have become a province premier, equivalent to a chief minister in India.

The celebrations were echoed at the other end of the world, in the new premier’s native village of Dosanjh Kalan in Punjab. "We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the new millennium," says Surinder Singh, a cousin. "Ujjal has done his village, parental state and country of birth proud."

The western province Dosanjh represents is home to four million Canadians, though one out of four is an immigrant. So it seems somehow appropriate that a Jat Sikh born in the faraway village of Dosanjh Kalan has become the provincial leader.

The entry of the soft-spoken, brown-skinned new BC premier marks a radical break in Canadian politics for people of Indian origin. "I’m going to currently be occupied with cooling down the politics in BC, reconnecting with BC families, and doing some work to show the people of this province that we can run the government differently," says the 52-year-old Dosanjh. One of the major tasks he faces is to convince a public which has become increasingly sceptical of the ruling NDP, whose term ends in June 2001.

Since 1996, BC residents have become either dissatisfied with or apathetic to a government accused of having become complacent. The NDP’s placed under 20 per cent in popularity polls but recently the ratings rose to 39 per cent among citizens who said that if Dosanjh led the party they were willing to support it again.

Dosanjh has always been a social activist, working as a lawyer all through the 1980s. Some of that zeal is a rub-off from his parents. Giani Prem Singh, a retired schoolmaster, and his wife Surjit Kaur belong to a clan of freedom fighters and social workers. Dosanjh’s inherent activism stayed dormant till he broke his back at the sawmill while loading carts with cedar. The injury and subsequent surgery meant that heavy work was no longer a career option. This motivated him to enrol for a course in political science at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He followed this with a law degree from the University of British Columbia. Soon, he was also involved in communist demonstrations and also in protesting against racist attacks against Vancouver’s large Sikh community.

Later in 1984 and then in 1985, he demonstrated a "moderate" voice in Sikh politics by speaking out against Khalistan-related violence and the Air-India bombing. For this, he was severely beaten up with an iron rod and left for dead. A firebombing of his office late last year-in which no one was injured-ensured that Dosanjh is among the most heavily guarded leader in Canada.

About his own politics, Dosanjh says: "I was inspired by what I heard about Nehru and Gandhi from my father and relatives and then what I’ve read about James Woodworth (a ‘30s socialist) and Tommy Douglas (an NDP founder)."

Dosanjh-who’s also been BC’s attorney general and minister for multiculturalism, human rights and immigration-was helped to office by his impeccable reputation and prudent ways. What has been an undeniable aid too is the fact that 350 of the 1,400 NDP delegates choosing the new premier were Indo-Canadians determined to see "apna" candidate on the premier’s chair. And the orange placards and balloons with a "U" being frantically waved while chants of "Ujjal! Ujjal!" broke out every so often in the hall were indicative of the overwhelming support Dosanjh had garnered.

For Indo-Canadians, his triumph marks a crumbling of the last barrier the likes of which had prevented Indians on the Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship, from arriving in Vancouver back in 1914. Canadian officials who then had a pretty blatantly racist approach to Asian immigrants had ordered the ship to turn back. It’s been a long haul since. Says Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Vancouver and an NDP delegate: "We only got voting rights in 1947 and now Dosanjh is the first Indo-Canadian premier elected in the country. A new chapter in history is being written today and we are very proud of it."

Journalist Pramod Puri, who edits Link, an Indo-Canadian community newspaper, and has known Dosanjh for 20 years, says: "Indo-Canadians expect something more from him because he has won with their support but he has not made any promises so far to the community specifically."

Expectations are also high-if unrealistic-back home in Punjab. Says septuagenarian Pritam Kaur, who says she looked after Dosanjh as a child: "I am sure that when he now comes and visits his village, its roads would be repaired and the village itself will get a facelift." Though Dosanjh hasn’t come calling since 1997, a "big, special welcome" has been planned as and when "Ujjal can make it to share the glorious moment with us", says his cousin Surinder.

But there are enough people-and factors-to rain on Dosanjh’s parade. For instance, he faces opponents like Liberal Party leader Gordon Campbell, who made a token gesture of congratulations to his arch rival but added that he had no mandate to govern until he called for new elections. Conservative leader Bill Vander Zalm, a former premier from the Reform Party, was more biting: "Let’s face it, he did play the race card in order to get the votes and that’s going to work against him when he gets out there among the populace."

Clearly, Ujjal Dosanjh faces challenges on all fronts, including a huge Cn $1.2-billion budget deficit, a faltering economy, a fractured party and high expectations from supporters like the Indo-Canadians. And from the folks back home.

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