October 11, 2016 – Presidents Luncheon – Arbutus Club. Speaker: Ujjal Dosanjh

Ujjal Dosanjh


Arbutus Club

Tuesday October 11, 2016 – open to members only

Speaker: Ujjal Dosanjh

My Journey After Midnight. 

Ujjal Dosanjh is a lawyer, social activist and parliamentarian who has devoted his life to public service. He became Attorney General of British Columbia in 1995 and served as the province’s thirty-third premier before entering federal politics. He was a Liberal Party of Canada Member of Parliament from 2004 to 2011, including a period as minister of health. Throughout his life, he has remained a vocal human rights advocate and an outspoken critic of violence and extremism. In 2015, he was honoured with the inaugural Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award.

Mr. Dosanjh noted that he would focus on his recent memoir Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the Road Beyond, which chronicles his unlikely journey from Dosanjh Kalan, Punjab, India to some of the highest political offices in Canada. “The journey is what actually makes you. It’s not when you were born, or how you were born, or to whom you were born or how much money you had. It is the journey that takes you to places and takes you into areas that you never thought you would ever go.”

He recalled his early years spent on his lower middle class family’s five-acre acre plot of land in his home village. “We worked the farm in the mornings, then ran to school, then came back and worked the farm and then did our homework at night with kerosene oil lamps,” noting electricity only came to his village in 1959.

He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1964, working in various jobs, including a stint as assistant editor at a Punjabi language newspaper. He became disenchanted with life in Britain, however. For one, he was unable to meet university admission requirements including certain history courses. “I looked at British history and I couldn’t tell one King George from another or one Queen Elizabeth from another and I decided this was kind of beyond me.” Additionally, the rising anti-immigration sentiment expressed by politicians such as Enoch Powell, who proposed a mass-deportation of Commonwealth immigrants, convinced him that his future lay elsewhere.

He happened upon the Canadian High Commission by chance and applied for immigration on a whim. When he arrived in Canada in 1968, he took a job in a lumber mill for three dollars per hour. He noted that, at that time, the Indian community was relatively small and well-integrated with the larger population. “We used to talk to our neighbours who were not Indian, over the fence and we would pass chicken curry to them and they would pass shepherd’s pie or whatever else they were making over to us. We would exchange gifts and greetings at various times and that kind of made me who I am.”

His co-workers encouraged him to attend university. “They kept saying, ‘Go back to school. You can make your money all your life. Go back to school if you can. They don’t do that now when immigrants come. They basically say, ‘Go find a job and make some money.’” He eventually obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Law degree.

In the meantime he became involved in politics. This was a natural vocation for him, considering his family’s history of activism in the Indian independence movement. He volunteered on provincial NDP campaigns beginning with a South Vancouver by-election in 1968 and then the general elections in 1972 and 1975. He ran twice for the BC NDP in the 1979 and 1983 elections before finally being elected in 1991. He was not content, however, to sit as a backbench MLA. He informed then-Premier Michael Harcourt he would not seek re-election in 1996 unless he was appointed to cabinet before that date. “I’m not an elitist,” he explained. “Some people believe they are God’s gift to the world. I never believed that, but I didn’t want to be sitting there not doing anything.” Harcourt obliged his request and assigned him the portfolios for government services, sports, multiculturalism, human rights and immigration.

He was named Attorney General days before the Gustafsen Lake standoff between the Secwepemc and 400 RCMP officers, the largest police operation in Canadian history. “I was on television night after night arguing, cajoling, asking the people to surrender peacefully. There were calls for us to take quick action. The RCMP waited. I’m happy that we waited because we didn’t kill anybody. We were able to have the people surrender peacefully.”

In 1999, the RCMP launched a criminal investigation into then-Premier Glen Cark following allegations he accepted home renovations from a businessman in exchange for government approval of his casino application. It was Mr. Dosanjh’s duty to ask the Premier to resign. “In our system of government, if a Minister is under a criminal investigation, the Premier can tell him or her to go. There had never been a case where someone needed to tell a Premier under investigation to go.”

Dosanjh concluded with an anecdote about a young man who approached him at a Surrey library and asked him how he kept “reasonably clean” as a politician. He credits his experience as Attorney General, which required a steadfast commitment to the rule of law and transparency, as well as his own family history. “So we weren’t a very rich family. But my father had this expression. It sounds much better in Punjabi, but I’ll translate it for you to English. He used to say, ‘You may walk fewer steps, but you must walk with dignity.’ That helped guide me through my life.”

Questions and Answers

Question: I would like your take on the legal aspects of the Air India bombing in 1985. The man that was extradited from Britain. The fact that there never really seemed to be any final resolution for the families of the people who died on that day. Also, the state of extremism or Khalistan separatism and their impacts today.

Answer: Rami and I and our three sons almost took that flight. We were booked on that flight and we canceled a couple of weeks earlier because my brother and my wife got on my case and said, “Why would you take your sons to such hate in June and July in Punjab?” That’s why we stayed back from the flight.

I think the reason was the government of the day, the political leaders of the day, didn’t really think extremism was a problem in the community. I had been assaulted, a poet friend of mine had been assaulted, another poet friend of mine had his home fire bombed, but the government and public leaders didn’t pay any attention. And then Air India happened and the police were totally ill equipped. They didn’t have any informants and they didn’t have an intelligence network. And CSIS had just come into being at that time. There was a turf war between the RCMP and CSIS and CSIS had discontinued its surveillance after the explosion on the island where extremists tested the bomb. I don’t know why they would do that unless they thought the Indians were there for some kind of smoke ceremony.

And, honestly, I have said this and not to be angry at anybody, but the fact is, it wasn’t a plane full of white men and women at that time. Today, the reaction might be different. At that time most of the people in authority thought, “all of these brown guys some with turbans, some without turbans are fighting with each other. It isn’t hurting us. Why bother?” In fact, the Province was very upset at me because I was saying the police should be more proactive. The Province took a stab at me in one of their editorials at the time.

The authorities hadn’t been able to infiltrate the ranks of the extremists. They didn’t get the evidence. Then in fact, in a very sad situation, the judge who tried the accused in Air India did not believe a single witness. They didn’t even believe a woman who was in protection at that time who had direct evidence. I think that’s partly a failure of the justice system to really understand the cultural nuances that exist in different communities.

Now, in terms of the situation today, I think there are still Sikh separatists in Canada. There are more Sikh separatists in Canada, the UK and the US than there are in India. I was in India a couple of weeks ago doing a launch of the Indian edition of my book and there was no sign. But here you go to various temples and separatism still survives.

It’s partly because of a sense of isolation. These guys think they are in a jihad with their own. It gives them a sense of purpose. They are isolated from the rest of society. Some of their spokespeople are now second or third generation Canadians who were born and raised here and haven’t been to India at all and don’t understand that the country there has moved on.

Since the ‘80s in India, we’ve had a Sikh Prime Minister and Sikh Joint Chiefs of Staff. There’s not a position or office in India, politically, that a Sikh hasn’t held and Sikhs are only two percent of the population.

This is a problem for Canada, not for India. It’s a problem for Canada because Canadian politicians aren’t able to confront these guys and say, “Get on with it. Get into the real world. Get into today.” This is because Canadian politicians are happy to just go to temples and get votes and not say what needs to be said.

Question: A couple of years ago Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne had implied that anybody who emphasized security in processing refugees may be using security as a cover for racism. Am I correct?

Answer: Yes, she had implied that anybody who talks about security and doing more checks might be using security as a cover for racism. I think what her words were, “We shouldn’t allow security to mask racism.” And I had been talking about more and more robust checks of anyone that is coming into the country. And why not? We have a right to do that. We have an obligation to do that. So I kind of felt that I was being swept up by the implication of her remarks and I did a piece titled, Premier Wynne, did you just call me a racist? And it went viral. I think it had about 16,000 hits in a couple of days. And then I had done one more. I was also ridiculed, including by the CBC, for arguing that we are too polite in Canada and that political correctness was getting the best of us. And of course, I didn’t have Trump in mind by the way. So I was hounded by everyone everywhere. I felt that I could say some of these things that needed to be said that others may not and if I wouldn’t, who else would? I’ve done that my whole life, including when I was arguing with the extremists.

Question: You alluded to the fact that many immigrants coming to Canada today are not necessarily integrating. Do you have any ideas on how we could end up with more integration instead of this segregation?

Answer: Well, I have some ideas but they are not necessarily popular with people. I was speaking at a BC Humanist gathering the other day. Someone was arguing we should screen immigrants after showing them a movie about gays and lesbians or things of that nature. And I said I am actually against that kind of screening, but I am for, as I’ve argued since the ‘70s, not only asking them to learn English or French, but also asking them to take a crash course in “political culture values” on issues like freedom, democracy, being able to disagree with each other in peace and being able to argue with each other and not kill each other. Basic democracy is not understood or practiced in a number of the countries immigrants come from. My view is once you have the political culture right everything else will follow, because ultimately political culture teaches us equality, egalitarianism, gender equality, gay and lesbian equality, being open to differences with respect and not to be fanatics. Because at the core of democracy is the idea that you can’t be a fanatic, you have to have an open mind. So my view is that if we make a crash course in political culture mandatory for new immigrants, we would be in a better place than we are today.

Question: For the last few years I’ve been obsessed with traffic in Vancouver. The NDP did a wonderful thing years ago. They bought speed cameras for the city and elsewhere. You may have been with the NDP at that time. How did that happen? It was a wonderful thing and then our last Premier sold them. It drives me crazy that we had the cameras and then sold them. I just wondered who was the person responsible for buying those.

Answer: I think the cameras came in when I was kind of Attorney General. I was there for four and a half years. It may have been my predecessor, Colin Gabelmann, who brought them in. By the time I was no longer A.G., they were in total disrepute because of what Mr. Campbell was doing at that time as leader of the opposition.

I was listening to radio this morning and somebody said something so wonderful and I can’t remember the exact words were, but they were something to the effect of, “Politics is not always about giving people what they want.” What has happened to politics today and for some time is that political leaders are having a race to the bottom, where each of them says to the public, “I will give you more of what your want,” and so on and so on.

What people always want isn’t necessarily the best thing. Nobody wants to pay taxes. Not a single person wants to pay taxes but the fact is sometimes you have to pay more taxes. They should be equitably imposed but sometimes you have to pay more taxes. But no politician would argue for more taxes generally speaking, right? So I think that’s the problem and that was the problem then. People hated the cameras and you had Doug McCallum the Mayor of Surrey threaten to interfere with any camera vans in his jurisdiction. So, my staff basically said to the police, “Don’t ask anyone. You are the law enforcers. Do what you have to do.” So, the cop with the van made a statement to the public, “I will arrest Mayor McCallum if my van is interfered with.” So that was the end of that, because you can’t have a checkerboard across the province with some municipalities saying, “We won’t enforce this law or that law.” If you don’t like the government throw them out. And they did!

Question: In an earlier question, you touched on politics and understanding the philosophy around it. What’s your view on changes to our electoral system? Do you think the current system works well or is there room for improvement?

Answer: I’m biased on that, in the sense that I’ve lived with the system we have and I know where you have proportional representation or mixed member representation you have pizza parliaments, where you would have more difficulty creating coalition governments and having governments defeated because one party disagrees with the rest of the coalition. My sense is that this system has served us well. It has given us, by and large, stable government and we shouldn’t interfere with it without a referendum. And these elitists who continue to argue that people don’t understand referendums are just arrogant elitists. It’s like saying, “I voted but my vote didn’t count.” Well your vote counted but sorry your vote lost! In my old days I’m becoming more blunt.

Question: When you went to Ottawa, you changed parties. Is that because there really is no difference between the NDP and the Liberal Party?

Answer: I always thought the federal Liberals were essentially the reflection of provincial New Democrats under Harcourt for instance. The other thing is there is a huge crossover. A vast majority of federal Liberal voters in British Columbia always vote for the provincial NDP and vice-versa and I felt at that time, when Paul Martin came asking, that I didn’t want to say no to the prime minister of the country. I knew he needed to shore up his presence and when I joined the federal Liberals they were at 35 percent in the polls on the day I joined. I didn’t join at 60 percent. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t split the progressive vote so we could have a progressive government. Jack Layton was different. Mulcair essentially campaigned to the right of Stephen Harper on fiscal issues and Trudeau who campaigned to the left of Jack Layton. Ultimately I didn’t see any ideological problem. I was never active in the federal Liberals. I was always active provincially. Although with the NDP, if you become member at one level, you are automatically a member at the other. I had no ideological qualms. It was wonderful.

Having sat around the cabinet table federally I now know that our federation is a lot more fragile than we believe it is. Because there is always, no matter whether it’s healthcare, environment, whatever issue, an elephant in the room: Quebec. I’m glad I was there for a year and a half around that cabinet table and another five and a half years as an MP. I used to say, “If Quebec wants to go let them go”. But I realized that Quebec being there brings its share of difficulties and challenges, but also brings its share of new thinking and contributions. Sometimes it has policies that we as the rest of Canadians need to adopt and vice-versa. Having that diversity around the cabinet table, having that difficulty that always challenges all of us I think makes us a better country.

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