Jagmeet Singh is leader of the New Democratic Party
As a child, I remember noticing how my parents changed when certain topics of conversation came up: They became more quiet, uncomfortable, contemplative, but at the same time did not want to reminisce.
There was a pain I felt, but I didn’t understand it. My parents were loving, caring, generous and thoughtful. But they were also suffering.
It was only years later, when I learned about the history of Sikh persecution that I began to understand. I learned that in the not-so-distant past, my relatives, along with many who share the same spirituality, were systematically persecuted. They were targeted. They were attacked. Thousands were slaughtered simply because they were different. Every Sikh person I know – in Canada, and those I’ve met in other countries – lost family members or friends during those years.
I also learned that in 1984, the Golden Temple – the most revered Sikh place of prayer –was demolished. Those who had taken up arms to defend it, along with thousands of innocent civilians, were killed. Months later, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. As collective punishment, state elements targeted and murdered thousands of Sikhs, constituting a genocide. Tens of thousands more disappeared in the following months and years. The deaths and disappearances had a devastating effect on Sikhs in India and those forced to flee.
Many, including my parents, saw Canada as a beacon during these times. They saw what Canada offers – a place that accepts people who are at their most vulnerable, who have been turned away or chased away from other parts of the world, and which aims to give them a home. It aims to give them a chance to build a new life, contribute to a new community.
Sadly, the pain and trauma of violence cannot be left behind in the country of origin. It was brought with them to Canada, as it affected the victims to their core. That trauma is often passed down through generations.
In Canada’s history, there are also examples of creating this kind of pain, suffering and lasting trauma. The legacy of residential schools, the last of which were closed just two decades ago, continues to be felt in Canada today. The system of residential schools denied First Nations, Inuit and Métis children the love and nurturing of their own families and communities; the pride and self-esteem that comes from learning one’s heritage, language, culture and traditions.
Genocide and intergenerational trauma are complex issues. Our answer to them must be thoughtful and compassionate.
When I first learned what my parents and their loved ones suffered I reacted with both sadness and anger. But as I worked through those emotions and worked with others to find solutions, I chose to embrace my identity and work harder to stand up for human rights and to prevent the voices of the marginalized from being silenced.
Unfortunately, some who have experienced trauma in the past have chosen to respond with acts of rage, violence and terrorism. While I can understand the pain, I have never condoned those acts of violence.
I have been asked about terrorism many times, and each time I speak as clearly as I can. I condemned all acts of terrorism in every part of the world, regardless of who the perpetrators are or who the victims are. Terrorism is perpetrated by individuals and cannot be blamed on any one religion, be it Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Christianity. Terrorism should never be seen as a way to advance the cause of any one group. It only leads to more suffering, more pain and death.
Canadians have witnessed this several times in our past, including the 1985 Air India bombing, the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history. The pain and trauma of that violence lives on in the families of the victims. They will never forget and neither should we.
The public inquiry into the bombing was itself a painful process, not only for the families having to relive their losses, but also for Sikhs across Canada who felt they were being collectively blamed for the attack. While the Air India Inquiry did not result in convictions, its findings identified a man named Talwinder Singh Parmar as the mastermind of the attack. I accept those findings and condemn all responsible for the horror they inflicted.
Some in the Sikh community have not accepted the official record of events. While I can understand that pain, my approach has been different: I have always tried to give space to all voices so that we can move together toward peace and reconciliation.
I am proud of the work that I have done in the Sikh community and across Canada. For standing up for human rights and working towards peace and reconciliation. I cherish the idea that my parents had of Canada as a beacon.