In 1973, years before he became a cabinet minister, Ujjal Dosanjh put down his legal textbooks during the winter holidays and picked up Gandhi's autobiography. Though born in India, the young law student had never read the seminal work of his country's revered pacifist, and those evenings by the fireplace became a turning point in his political thinking.
The rejection of violence as a political tool has been a key feature of Mr. Dosanjh's career, which included stints as premier of British Columbia and federal health minister, and is a central idea in a new documentary about his life.
The film, Travelling Light: A Journey with Ujjal Dosanjh, will premiere in New Delhi on Thursday during a visit by Mr. Dosanjh to his native country. Filmmaker Meera Dewan said the 46-minute production was inspired by the Canadian politician's willingness to stand against extremism in his own community of Sikhs. "What struck me about him when I lived briefly in Vancouver is his courage," Ms. Dewan said. "His has been the lone voice of sanity, speaking up against Sikh violence still brewing there."
Mr. Dosanjh acknowledges that "there was a time when I was younger that I did believe violence could bring about lasting political change." In fact, after immigrating to Canada during his student years, he hung around for a time with Marxist-Leninists. But it was their espousal of violence that ultimately led him to take a different path.
Many disagree with Mr. Dosanjh. In 1985, a man smashed his head with an iron bar after he criticized the notion of an independent Sikh homeland. He received death threats earlier this year after giving an interview to The Globe and Mail in which he lamented the "politically correct" regime of multiculturalism that allows radicalism to fester in Canada's immigrant groups.
His critics have also included moderate Sikhs, who argue that he's simply wrong about his perception of rising extremism in Canada. They suggest that his traumatic brushes with the fringes of opinion in their community have distorted his views.
But it has been decades since Mr. Dosanjh was attacked, and his opinions have only grown stronger. He now applies his experiences with Sikh extremists to others who refuse to disavow violence, such as Tamil Tigers and Islamist radicals.
He continues to seek out new issues, as well, looking into the Maoist insurgency in India and the plight of the stateless Roma people in Europe - while holding a day job as the Liberal MP for Vancouver South.
"I'm 63 years old," he says. "I sort of want to disturb some shit. I know that party discipline sometimes creates problems, but you know what? Life is too short."
Why do you think the issue of a Sikh homeland gets more attention in Canada than it does here in India?
Sikhs never felt like a minority in India. They don't feel they're a minority, so you couldn't have long-term religious violence.
That's an interesting idea, that religious violence cannot continue with a group that's not treated differently.
In Canada, because some pursue this identity politics to the nth degree, we continue to think of ourselves as a minority. … Imagine if there was complete political integration, in terms of the political culture, you wouldn't have to pander. Because ultimately for my child or my grandchild it's the same future. You wouldn't have to pander about the skin colour or the religious denomination or anything else.
So do you think, say, a Muslim child born to a doctor in Montreal has the same chances as a white boy?
I think in Canada there is, in fact, a significant degree of equality of opportunity. Whether each and every child can partake of it, obviously not. We're not yet a perfect society.
But this equality of opportunity hasn't prevented a few extremists in our minority communities from taking up arms.
Obviously. But it's not just equality of opportunity to be a doctor or a professor or a politician. It's about political integration, in terms of the values and mores of the political culture you aspire to. It's not just about equality of opportunity, that my child can get ahead as much as your child. That's important, too. But more important, what very few people have talked about, is political culture. We talk about multiculturalism and diversity, but the implication has been that you can't maintain your political culture. But we have not spelled it out, and I think we need to spell it out.
Spell it out, then. What do you mean by failure of integration?
The failure of integration is in terms of the values we teach in various communities. Some of us may teach that Khalistan [a Sikh homeland]is the ultimate objective. Some of us may teach that jihad is the ultimate objective. That is the political culture. And there, you can't legislate anything, but we have to make more of an effort. … Some of us as Canadians become too apologetic, because we are such decent people and we want to make a place for differences, no matter what they are sometimes. I think some differences, we shouldn't make a place for.
But if we can't legislate against other political cultures, is there anything we can do?
Yes, we can. We can be a lot more cognizant as public leaders, and talk about it. And in fact that should be the conversation Canada should be having, rather than simply about multiculturalism.
In other words, we can be multicultural while still trying to achieve unity of political culture?
This interview has been edited and condensed.