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Canadian Media Aren’t Sure How to Handle a Non-White Party Leader Yet

On his first day, NDP’s Jagmeet Singh was asked to denounce Sikh terrorism and got misidentified by a national reporter.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

The Canadian Press 

It was a rough day yesterday for new NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Earlier in the morning, CBC reporter Susan Bonner mistook Liberal Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains for the new NDP leader and immediately got dragged for it on Twitter (and yes, also by us). Later that day, CBC correspondent Terry Milewski outed Singh for demanding his Power and Politics interview questions before taping (which is a media faux pas and hopefully just a green staffer). When taping did begin, Milewski then proceeded to grill Singh about illegal immigration in Quebec, and whether or not he would denounce posters of Air India bombing conspirator Talwinder Parmar occasionally appearing in Vaisaikhi parades.

It was a strange place to end an interview. Milewski's line of questioning about the Parmar posters appeared to be unprompted by any current events and totally out of any context save that he happened to be speaking with a Sikh man on national television.

Many viewers (including myself) found it more than a little jarring. So I sat down to figure out what was going on in the course of that very awkward two minute discussion.

Jagmeet Singh, of course, is no ordinary Sikh man. Singh actually got his start in politics after working with a group of Sikh activists who had protested the Canadian visit of Indian politician Kamal Nath in 2010. Nath is alleged to have been involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in and around Delhi that resulted in the murder of between 3,000 and 8,000 Sikhs (estimates of the casualties vary depending on the source). Many Sikhs consider this an instance of genocide, and it is largely thanks to Singh's work as an Ontario MPP that the province there recognizes it as such as well.

Read More: All the People Who Are Not Jagmeet Singh

For this and his other advocacy for Sikh rights in Canada, Singh was awarded "Sikh of the Year" in 2013 from the Punjab-based SEWA (Social Educational Welfare Association). He was unable to collect the award in person, however, as the Indian government had denied him a visa for his outspoken criticism of its human rights record.

Sikh politics—specifically, Sikh extremism—have also been part of Milewski's beat for some time. He covered the Air India bombings in 1985—which killed 329 people, including 268 Canadians—and has continued to follow its depressing aftermath. (Inderjit Singh Reyat was the only suspect convicted in the case; he spent time in prison for manslaughter. Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were acquitted of all charges in 2005 on grounds of insufficient evidence.)

In 2007, Milewski produced an investigation into the links between Sikh extremism and Canadian politicians, including allegations that the World Sikh Organization—which advocates for the peaceful establishment of an autonomous Sikh state called Khalistan in the Indian region of Punjab—was actually rife with terrorist sympathizers. The WSO sued CBC for defamation over the feature in 2007, but the lawsuit was abandoned in 2015.

(When pressed in the past about his stance on Khalistan, Jagmeet Singh has affirmed that "he supports the right to self-determination" and emphatically disavows violence.)

But one of the major focuses of Milewski's 2007 investigation was the way Talwinder Parmar is celebrated as a martyr by some Sikh nationalists. Parmar was a Khalistani militant and founder of terrorist organization Babbar Khalsa, and was heavily involved in both the Air India bombing and other surrounding events. He was killed by Indian security forces in 1992. Parmar was never indicted on charges related to the bombing, but the 2010 Commission of Inquiry into the bombing concluded that "it is now believed that [Parmar] was the leader of the conspiracy to bomb Air India flights."

There is a lot more background to all of these issues, but this the basic gist of what Milewski was grilling Singh about.

So, sure. It is definitely unfortunate that Singh did not outright denounce the celebration of Talwinder Parmar among some Sikhs. It's legitimate to ask someone who has worked as a Sikh cultural and political activist about their stance on Sikh politics—especially if that person now leads a national federal political party.

That said, Milewski's approach was not productive. Rather than provide any context or framing for those of us not embroiled in this particular cultural discourse or asking useful questions (e.g. "what is your position on Khalistan?" or "how might your work in Sikh advocacy impact diplomacy with India?" or even "what is your experience and/or stance on extreme ethno-nationalist elements in the Canadian Sikh community?"), Milewksi just immediately demanded Singh denounce religious extremism.

Yes, violent religious terrorism is bad; no one likes it. And yes, Parmar posters are definitely problematic. But why bring this up out of nowhere with minimal explanation? There is no recent event that would suggest this is an issue, and Vaisaikhi was six months ago. Obviously this has been a pressing pet cause for Terry Milewski but it's very hard to shake the impression that the only thing prompting it is that he happened to be talking to a newbie Sikh politician and wanted to spring a 'gotcha' moment on him using his ethnic background as a trap.

Honestly I'm not sure that knowing all the backstory makes the exchange any less off-putting. But, anyway, it's nice to see that Canada is handling its first non-white political leader swimmingly.

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