Between 85,000 and 100,000 revellers lined Toronto’s streets on Sunday, marching to City Hall in tribute to the Sikh new year – outdone in numbers only by Surrey, B.C., where upwards of 200,000 people turned out – all to celebrate Khalsa Day.
The Toronto partiers came out in waves of orange and saffron-coloured clothing, among them dignitaries from the city’s Mayor Rob Ford to federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Khalsa Day, also known as Vaisakhi, celebrates the establishment of the Sikh community in 1699.
A vibrant, noisy procession made its way along Lakeshore Avenue, which was lined with tables and trucks serving up samosas, pizza, snacks and steaming cauldrons of tea to the crowds watching colourful floats, martial arts demonstrations and live music.
Yet underneath all the exuberance, this year’s event had an “undercurrent,” as Mr. Trudeau put it, coming just days after police began investigating troubling flyers distributed in Brampton, Ont. that disparaged Sikhs. Political leaders called the flyers unacceptable and lauded the Khalsa Day celebration a repudiation of the message being spread by the group that distributed them, Immigration Watch Canada.
The flyers show a photo of a group of white people, captioned “From this...” then a group of Sikhs captioned “To this...,” and says, “Is This Really What You Want?”
“They don’t understand why diversity is our strength,” said Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, who has debated the Immigration Watch group in the past. “And I hope that kind of sentiment gets snuffed out immediately.”
Mr. Trudeau had spoken with many celebrants who found the “hateful, discriminatory, unacceptable flyers” upsetting, but he said the attempt to “try and say that somehow these people are not good Canadians actually demonstrates that whoever wrote that flyer is not a very good Canadian, because this is what Canada is.”
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Ms. Wynne said the flyers have “a hateful aspect” and “cannot be tolerated,” but she will leave it to police to determine the right response. She called Khalsa Day “an expression of us at our best – people who come from so many different backgrounds living together.”
Mr. Ford also appeared at the City Hall festivities for the first time since he was elected in 2010, reading a short proclamation and posing for countless photos as he waded through the crowds.
“I love the Sikh community: They’re hard-working, family-oriented people, and that’s right down my lines,” he told reporters.
Attendance at the Toronto celebration, now in its 29th year and organized by the Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council, was just 2,000 people when it was first held in 1986.
And despite minor snags caused by the morning closing of the Gardiner Expressway, event co-ordinator Manjit Parmar felt the parade went “very well.”
“It is growing, we can see, with the youth, the children, the families,” he said. “When everybody comes together like that, that proves that we are here, we are thriving.”