Growing up in the south-central Ontario town of Orangeville, Prabmeet Sarkaria remembers being the only student in his school who wore a turban. His parents, who immigrated to Canada from India, ran an inn where Mr. Sarkaria worked throughout his childhood, shovelling snow and taking room reservations for the family business.
Now, the 32-year-old first-term politician, who represents the Peel Region riding of Brampton South, is one of the most powerful players in Premier Doug Ford’s government, recently elevated to president of the Treasury Board as part of last month’s wide-ranging cabinet shuffle.
“I think I really bring a different perspective, not only to the cabinet table, but to Queen’s Park,” Mr. Sarkaria said recently, over a lunch of paneer and garlic naan at an Indian restaurant in Brampton.
“Being a visible minority – I think that gives me a different perspective as well on decision-making at a bit more senior level, which I think I can really contribute to.”
A corporate lawyer who briefly worked in investment banking, Mr. Sarkaria’s rise to one of the province’s biggest economic portfolios has cemented his status as the new face of the Progressive Conservatives. It’s one that the party is banking on to make gains in Brampton and in the vote-rich ridings of the Greater Toronto Area during next spring’s provincial election.
But he was promoted on the heels of his tenure as the associate minister of small business and red tape reduction – one of the most heated files for the Ford government during the pandemic. Lengthy lockdowns in Toronto and Peel prompted significant outcry from the small-business community, who accused the government of favouring big-box stores and punishing independent retailers. At the same time, Brampton became the epicentre of the province’s COVID-19 pandemic, with the government facing accusations that it didn’t do enough to protect essential workers, even as it touted plans for a new inpatient hospital building in Peel.
Mr. Sarkaria said his government listened to health experts throughout the pandemic, and the ban on in-person shopping at small businesses was meant to reduce mobility at a time when case counts were rising.
“It’s very difficult to please everybody. But I think when we look back at it – were mistakes made? I would say we’ve all admitted that of course mistakes have been made. But we learned from them,” said Mr. Sarkaria.
Those who have dealt with Mr. Sarkaria say he stays calm and amiable, even amid conflict. Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said that even when his organization was “savaging” the government for its lockdown measures, Mr. Sarkaria was always professional, friendly and willing to talk. But Mr. Kelly said Ontario did not do nearly enough to support small business during the pandemic.
“I have to give him high marks for his diplomacy skills,” Mr. Kelly said of Mr. Sarkaria. “But look, he was in an incredibly awkward position. ... There’s no government in Canada that did more to directly harm its small-business community, threw small-business owners under the bus, the way that the Ford government did.”
As for whether there will be lasting political consequences for the PC government among small-business owners, Mr. Sarkaria said: “I’m confident that we can win them back with our pro-job growth agenda. And the Premier is one of the biggest champions of small business.”
It’s a world Mr. Sarkaria knows well: His parents worked two jobs apiece after arriving in Canada in the early 1980s, before pooling their savings to buy a small inn near the close-knit community of Orangeville. Although he was among the few visible minorities in town, Mr. Sarkaria said he always felt welcome, with a large group of friends and playing a variety of sports – although his family couldn’t always afford the pricey hockey equipment.
“One of the things that really drove me into politics was making sure we still had those opportunities,” said Mr. Sarkaria, the father of a 14-month-old girl.
After he graduated from high school, his family moved to Brampton, which has a large Sikh population. Mr. Sarkaria, who later served as Ontario vice-president of the World Sikh Organization, said he chose to run for the PC party because of the values of entrepreneurship and business competitiveness. After many years of mostly-Liberal domination, the city elected three New Democrats and two PC MPPs in the 2018 campaign. Mr. Sarkaria chose his lunch spot in the riding of the NDP’s Sara Singh, who only won her seat by 89 votes in the last election.
“I definitely think every riding is in play here,” Mr. Sarkaria said.
Jaskaran Singh Sandhu, a senior consultant at Crestview Strategy who ran Mr. Sarkaria’s 2018 provincial campaign, said Mr. Sarkaria has built a solid reputation in Brampton and will likely play a significant role for the PC party in the next election.
“Brampton will be a battleground city,” Mr. Sandhu said. ”All three parties sincerely believe they have a shot to grow.”
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