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Politicians boycott parade with Sikh 'martyr' float

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

When Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts looked around at the Vaisakhi Parade on the weekend she didn't see the usual array of political dignitaries, who in the past have shown up at the increasingly controversial event to honour the Sikh community and perhaps win some votes.

But what she did see upset her even more. Wending its way through a sea of people was a float celebrating Sikh martyrs - including founders of separatist groups in India that the Canadian government considers to be terrorist organizations.

"We were assured that float would not be part of the parade. When I saw it, I left," said Ms. Watts yesterday.

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She said in the wake of the colourful parade, which typically draws a crowd of more than 100,000 to the streets in Surrey, the city will reconsider its support for the event.

"We need to re-evaluate this," she said. "It is a community event and is supposed to be inclusive. But we didn't issue a licence for a political protest."

Ms. Watts said she can't imagine Surrey without an annual Vaisakhi Parade, but she and other politicians feel the not-so-subtle political subtext being pushed by some organizers can no longer be tolerated.

"First and foremost we will always have a Vaisakhi celebration. But we need to determine what form it takes in the future," she said. "The event is not offensive, but that float is certainly divisive."

Concerns about the appearance of the controversial float came after British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had already issued statements calling for parade organizers to apologize for apparently threatening comments.

Last week, Inderjit Singh Bains, a parade organizer, said on a Punjabi radio station that Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh and B.C. MLA Dave Hayer weren't welcome at the event, and if they showed up they would be responsible for their own safety.

Both Mr. Dosanjh and Mr. Hayer have been critical of those who support violence to create a separate Sikh homeland in India, called Khalistan. Mr. Campbell did not show up for the parade, after saying Friday he'd find it difficult to attend unless organizers apologized.

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On Saturday Mr. Ignatieff issued a statement.

"We must unequivocally condemn all threats of violence and extremism in Canadian communities," said Mr. Ignatieff. "No public official, no matter what their political affiliation, should ever be excluded or require security at a public event such as this."

Mr. Dosanjh said he is glad other politicians are speaking out.

"There is an increased level of awareness … about [the unacceptability of]this kind of stuff," he said. "Whereas in previous years people may have felt there was hope of bringing these people back into the political mainstream of action and thought, I think now people realize that may not be possible."

Mr. Dosanjh said if political leaders turn a blind eye to the "glorification of violence" embraced by some organizers of the parade, young Canadians will be indoctrinated with a message of hate.

"If you have the kind of diversity we have in this country and you allow different communities to become almost militarized and engage in the glorification of violence … that's bound to have a very serious, grave impact on the fabric of society, ultimately. That's what I'm worried about," he said.

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Parade organizers could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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