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Inflammatory float may impact next year's Sikh parade

British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, left, greets people while attending the Vaisakhi parade in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday April 10, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, still steamed about the inclusion of a parade float at Saturday's annual spring Sikh festival that she viewed as politically inflammatory, has warned that she might look for new organizers next year.

"Let me put it this way: This will not happen again," Ms. Watts said of the appearance of a controversial float that bore the faces of Sikh martyrs. The mayor said she wants an explanation from organizers as to why they allowed the float.

One repercussion? The city might look for another temple to organize next year's spring festival. For years, the Dasmesh Darbar Sikh temple in Surrey has done the job.

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The mayor said she's fed up with the Vaisakhi parade controversies. The festival celebrates the birth of the Sikh religion and attracts tens of thousands of people, many of them families.

This year, the parade was marred even before it began when one organizer told a Vancouver radio station that two politicians - Liberal MLA David Hayer and Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh - weren't welcome. Both politicians have expressed moderate Sikh views. The comment prompted Premier Gordon Campbell to boycott the parade.

And three years ago, the parade made headlines when the photo of alleged Air India bombing mastermind Talwinder Parmar was hoisted on a float. Mr. Parmar fled Canada in 1988 and was killed by Indian police in 1992. Mr. Parmar was a founder of the Babbar Khalsa, which advocates for a separate Sikh state often called Khalistan, and is listed as a terrorist organization in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Ms. Watts said some parade organizers continue to politicize the event.

"It becomes really divisive," Ms. Watts said. "And that's not what we're about. It tarnishes the community. It tarnishes the South Asian people and it tarnishes the city. And it's unacceptable."

However, parade organizers have fought back, arguing that the float passed all the city guidelines and was even inspected Saturday morning by police and city officials before the parade began. Both groups gave it the thumbs up.

Pary Dulai, a director at the temple, said the float bore photos of Sikh heroes, but included no one who has ever been convicted of violent crimes or terrorism. He demanded that Ms. Watts explain which pictures were offensive and why.

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"The mayor has to be more specific," Mr. Dulai said. The float celebrates human rights - not terrorism, he added.

Mr. Dulai also claimed that the float of Sikh heroes was in last year's parade, although Ms. Watts said this wasn't the case.

Mr. Dulai said city guidelines instructed organizers to refrain from naming any banned or terrorist organization and they were prohibited from showing violent or graphic photos.

Those guidelines were agreed to after the 2007 parade in which photos of Mr. Parmar were shown.

"After that, nothing like that, of that nature, has ever been put in again," Mr. Dulai said.

Still, Ms. Watts said next year's Vaisakhi parade will be different. "Given what has occurred this year and in previous years, a whole re-evaluation is going to be taking place."

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Ms. Watts said she attended the parade Saturday but when she heard that the pro-Khalistan float was included she left.

She said organizers knew the float was inflammatory. They "know full well the controversy surrounding it," she said. "They know full well what the city position is. And they choose to disregard it anyway.

"We have given them a number of chances in terms of making sure that we don't have this controversy, of making sure this event is inclusive of everyone in the community."

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