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the brampton diaries

NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh says he has tried to tread carefully when mixing politics and religion: ‘I don’t want to overstep that boundary where I feel like I’m there just as a politician. I want to feel like I’m there as a member of the community.’Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series on how the diverse and growing city of Brampton, Ont., provides lessons for Canada's future.

Sukhi Vaid pines for the days when going to the gurdwara – the centre of religious and community life for Sikhs – was about spiritual enlightenment. As far as he's concerned, the ones near his home in Brampton have devolved into spaces for political glad-handing and not much else, so he no longer attends.

"Nowadays, politics prevail. And religion? It's secondary. That's what these gurdwaras are based on now," said Mr. Vaid, who manages a trucking company. "If I want to pray, I can pray at home."

In Mr. Vaid's city, four out of 10 residents are South Asian – a large portion of them Sikhs from the Indian state of Punjab. In the past two decades, they've had an enormous influence on the way politics are played in Brampton. As everyone from Mayor Susan Fennell to federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney knows, you don't stand a chance of winning in this city unless you've mastered the Sikh greeting Sat Sri Akaal ("God is the ultimate truth" in Punjabi).

Immigrants are making up a larger share of the country's population, particularly in suburban cities like Brampton, which now has more than half a million residents. They're valued for their votes, but also for their disposable incomes – they've become prime targets of fundraising campaigns. And so politicians are reaching them where they congregate: their places of worship.

Many political observers say Brampton is where the Conservatives won their majority in the last federal election. Locals took notice when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after launching the 2011 election campaign in Quebec City, was in Brampton the next day. He made another appearance in town less than two weeks later. Mr. Kenney was even more of a regular fixture at gurdwaras and local functions in the region and notably attended more than a dozen chai (tea) parties in one day.

Those efforts (along with the rise of the NDP) paid off. The Conservatives won all four federal ridings in Brampton in 2011, unseating two long-time Liberal incumbents and challenging the widely held belief that newcomers will blindly support the Liberals – the party of immigration reformer Pierre Trudeau – or their own.

"In the beginning when [Gurbax] Malhi became an MP, they were saying in the community, 'He's our man, let's vote [for] him,' " says Jagmohan Sahota, a local former Liberal campaigner, referring to the first turbaned MP, a Liberal, to be elected to the House of Commons and who represented Bramalea-Gore-Malton for 18 years before his defeat in 2011. "Not anymore."

But just as the tide changed from Liberal red to Tory blue in 2011, it may well turn in the next election in 2015. Immigration changes that have made it more difficult for residents to bring their parents from overseas permanently have cost the Conservatives some support in Brampton, according to ethnic media journalists and community leaders.

Mr. Kenney says his party faces a bigger challenge now from the NDP and Liberals in those ridings than it did during the last election.

"I am working around the GTA [Greater Toronto Area]," Mr. Kenney told The Globe and Mail. "[We] will have to work hard to retain these ridings."

Rookie New Democrat MPP Jagmeet Singh may be a sign of a new era in politics here. He was only 32 when elected to a seat in the Ontario legislature, backed by a very young base. In Brampton, the median age is 34.7, six years younger than the median in Canada.

Unlike many other candidates, who threw lavish open-bar fundraisers, Mr. Singh took a different approach: his events were meat-free, booze-free and were designed to attract many children and women.

The way he tied his religion to the race was unprecedented, says Jagdish Grewal, editor of the Brampton daily Punjabi Post.

In 2011, when Mr. Singh ran for a federal seat, he hosted a kirtan – an afternoon of Sikh devotional singing – in which he encouraged attendees to bring their chequebooks to donate to his campaign. Though he lost in that election, he came a close second, helping Conservative Bal Gosal unseat veteran Liberal MP Gurbax Malhi.

"His style was totally different from other people's," Mr. Grewal says. "It's the first time we heard he was doing a kirtan … to raise the funds."

When it comes to mixing politics and religion, Mr. Singh says he has tried to tread carefully. "I don't want to overstep that boundary where I feel like I'm there just as a politician. I want to feel like I'm there as a member of the community," he said.

The Ontario Khalsa Darbar (known as the Dixie Gurdwara) draws the largest crowds of any gurdwara in the region (it's in neighbouring Mississauga but counts many Bramptonians in its congregation) and has a reputation as having a Liberal leaning.

Navdeep Bains, a three-term Liberal MP who lost his seat in the last election, learned Punjabi at Dixie, and his uncle is its vice-president. But Jasjit Bhullar, Dixie's president, says his gurdwara does not have partisan leanings. Whenever candidates of any party ask to address the congregation in the Divine Hall after prayers, they're given the same time as others, he says.

"We are open for everybody. We don't do one party," he said.

From campaigners to gurdwara executives like Mr. Bhullar, political watchers in the Punjabi community said their peers are drifting away from rigid party lines.

"It'll be very very competitive in this region. I don't think any party can say they have this region locked up," said Mr. Bains, who plans to seek nomination as a Liberal candidate in the next election.

While it's too early to predict outcomes or even candidates in coming elections here, there's one thing the parties are sure of: They'll fund their campaigns with ease. In 2011, Mr. Bains exceeded the limit and wasn't able to spend all the money his campaign received.

Tithing is common in many religions, but in Sikhism, the practice of donating 10 per cent of one's earnings extends beyond religious organizations to apply to any kind of charity. And for Sikhs here, writing cheques to political parties falls under that umbrella.

Mr.  Sahota, the former Liberal campaigner, says political candidates see the many owners of small- and medium-sized businesses in Brampton as sources of funds as well. It's an easy pitch: If those business owners can write off their contributions on their tax returns, those $500-a-plate fundraisers are all the more accessible.

Despite her long history of leaning Liberal, Pawandeep Garewal says she recently wrote Mr. Singh a cheque for $400.

"We need the young people, people who can speak, who can stand for the community," she said. "I'm going to go with the candidate. I'm not going to go with the party any more."

With a report from Ajit Jain