Ujjal Dosanjh, the poor boy from Punjab, made history yesterday, and will soon be the first Indo-Canadian premier in Canada.
But his victory in the leadership race for British Columbia's New Democratic Party comes as the party struggles to regain public support after two troubled terms in government.
The soft-spoken Vancouver lawyer, with his wife, Raminder, and three grown sons at his side, yesterday urged the party to unite to make their "collective dreams come true" and secure a third term for the scandal-scarred government.
"We must heal ourselves," Mr. Dosanjh told more than 1,000 delegates in Vancouver after he won 58 per cent of the votes on the first ballot. The weekend convention started as a four-way race but ended as a battle between the 52-year-old Attorney-General and Agriculture Minister Corky Evans after the other candidates dropped off the ballot.
The NDP is hoping Mr. Dosanjh's success story will rub off on the beleaguered government before the next election, which must be called by June, 2001. The party now has 40 of the province's 75 seats in the legislature.
The NDP is sitting low in the polls behind the opposition Liberals and has come under repeated attack over the past 3½ years over high deficits, so-called "fudge-it" budgets and overspending on megaprojects, including the $400-million fast ferry, which cost twice as much as initially projected and has been plagued by problems.
In his first move, Mr. Dosanjh promised to bring in legislation to ensure financial transparency and accountability as the NDP prepares to table its budget next month. The government has not introduced a balanced budget during its nine years in office.
Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell wasted no time calling on the new leader to test his popularity in an election.
He said Mr. Dosanjh has no mandate to govern the province. "The only credible way for him and his party to obtain that mandate and regain legitimacy is to earn it through an immediate election."
Mr. Dosanjh ruled out a quick election yesterday, saying he wanted time to show voters that the NDP, under his leadership, can do a better job running the province.
It was a solid win for Mr. Dosanjh who won 769 of the 1,318 delegates' votes, while Mr. Evans captured 549 votes.
Mr. Evans, whose eyes glistened with tears, hugged Mr. Dosanjh. "I didn't do this for any other reason than for this party and unity," he said.
Gordon Wilson, who was running third in the six-month leadership race, dropped off the ballot yesterday to support Mr. Evans. The distant fourth-place candidate, Len Werden, dropped out to support Mr. Evans on Saturday.
But Mr. Evans, the 51-year-old Nelson MLA whose folksy charm made him a crowd-pleaser, could not overcome Mr. Dosanjh's substantial lead in the contest to replace former premier Glen Clark.
Mr. Clark quit as premier in August after it was revealed he was under criminal investigation in connection with a casino application involving a friend. No charges have been laid but a cloud has hung over the government since television cameras captured an RCMP raid of Mr. Clark's house almost a year ago.
"We want to cool down the hot politics in British Columbia," Mr. Dosanjh told reporters at a news conference yesterday.
The journey Mr. Dosanjh must embark on to revive the NDP will be as dramatic as his personal journey that started 52 years ago in the small Indian village of Dosanjh Kallan. Mr. Dosanjh emigrated to Canada in 1968 and broke his back in a lumber-mill accident before he went to school to become a lawyer and well-known social-justice activist.
After law school, he posed as a berry picker to uncover mistreatment of B.C. farm workers, later forming a legal service to help them. In 1995, he was viciously beaten with an iron bar in a parking lot outside his law office after speaking out against Sikhs using violence to achieve an independent homeland. He required 80 stitches to his head.
A long-time NDP member, he was first elected in 1991 in Vancouver-Kensington.
But his campaign was overshadowed by allegations of membership fraud that have dogged Mr. Dosanjh since the party revealed irregularities involving 1,400 new members, mostly Indo-Canadians in the Lower Mainland.
Mr. Dosanjh, who will be sworn in as the province's 33rd premier on Thursday, promised to change party membership rules to prevent the signing up of new members within six months of a leadership convention.
Indo-Canadians in B.C. and across Canada cheered for Mr. Dosanjh's victory yesterday.
For the country's estimated 400,000 Indo-Canadians, mostly concentrated in B.C. and Ontario, yesterday was as much a moment of mann -- a Punjabi word meaning pride -- as it was about choosing a new premier.
"You can't imagine that," said an overwhelmed Darshan Gill, who hugged Mr. Dosanjh as he was led to the stage on the convention floor moments after the results were read in the Pacific Coliseum. Delegates carrying orange balloons marked with U! cheered and chanted "Ujjal, Ujjal."
"I'm just so proud," said Mr. Gill, a Sikh from Surrey, as he wiped away tears and caught his breath.
Mr. Gill, who came to Canada 30 years ago, wore a T-shirt with a picture of Mr. Dosanjh and the words: Making History Day -- Feb. 20, 2000.
He was among hundreds of Indo-Canadians in British Columbia supporting Mr. Dosanjh's bid to become premier. Other Indo-Canadians across the country raised funds for his leadership bid.
"It tells you how far our society in Canada and B.C. has come," Mr. Dosanjh's 53-year-old wife said. "It's a time in history for all Canadians to be proud, not just Indo-Canadians."
Mr. Wilson said he dropped off the ballot and threw his support behind Mr. Evans because he said he was too new to the party to get the support he needed.
"There were hundreds of people who wanted to support me," he told reporters after he dropped out of the race at the 11th-hour.
"I don't begrudge anything," said Mr. Wilson, the former B.C. Liberal leader and leader of the Progressive Democratic Alliance, who joined the NDP cabinet a year ago. "I have no doubt we'll unite behind the leader."
HOW THEY VOTED
Ujjal Dosanjh 769 votes Corky Evans 549 votes