COLUMN: Mayor shows courage over Vaisakhi response
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts showed both restraint and courage in refusing to play a formal role at the Vaisakhi parade last Saturday.
Her actions are particularly noteworthy, as this is an election year and the votes of the Sikh community in Surrey can be crucial to the success or failure of many candidates at the polls.
Watts did not boycott the event, organized by the Dasmesh Darbar Temple, a conservative Sikh temple that has on occasion been at odds with Sikhs from other temples, particularly the large and well-established Guru Nanak Sikh Temple.
She was there to “meet and greet” residents. It was an important place to be – an estimated 130,000 people attended the event, which marks the anniversary of the birth of Khalsa, a key element of the Sikh religion.
The mayor ensured that she was not in any way associated with floats or displays of Sikh “martyrs,” a political issue that came up at last year’s parade when Talwinder Singh Parmar’s photo was displayed on at least one float. Parmar is the alleged mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing (an allegation that cannot be proven, as he is dead).
Politicians who appeared in last year’s parade were displeased about being associated with Parmar, and the issue became an international one when the government of India expressed its displeasure. Watts did not want a repeat of the problem, and asked parade organizers to give assurances that there wouldn’t be a repeat. They did not do so.
So she said she would not be part of the parade or formal events. Also taking such a stance were Surrey-North MP Penny Priddy and Surrey-Cloverdale MLA Kevin Falcon.
Priddy, who has been a longtime friend and supporter of the Sikh community, withdrew from formal participation, but was also on hand to meet and greet friends and constituents.
Many politicians were on hand Saturday, but only Newton-North Delta MP Sukh Dhaliwal took to the stage.
From a political perspective, Watts, Priddy and Falcon have lost very little, and have gained a great deal of credibility among many of their constituents – including many Sikhs. The majority of Sikhs in Surrey do not support violence, either in Surrey or in India. They do not support bombings, such as that which brought down the Air India flight.
What they do support and celebrate is Vaisakhi. It is a time to gather together as a community and celebrate with fellow Sikhs.
It is a time for dressing up, for great food, for renewing friendships and taking justifiable pride in their religion, which virtually all Sikhs agree has made them stronger as people.
Yes, there are a few Sikhs who have difficulty in renouncing violence. They are a minority, and their views do not belong in a community parade. If they wish to get together and mutter against the Indian government, they have every right to do so.
The Sikh community is a very vital part of Surrey. As the recent census results showed, 46 per cent of Surrey residents are a “visible minority.” Most of those are of Indian descent, and the vast majority of those people are Sikhs.
They have brought a great deal to Surrey.
While the change in Surrey’s neighbourhoods has at times been more rapid than longtime residents are able to digest, the influx of Sikhs has helped Surrey to become a multicultural, diverse and dynamic city.
Mayor Watts and other politicians are supportive of the Sikh religion and of the Sikhs who call Surrey home.
At the same time, they drew an important line in the sand that more politicians at all level need to respect.
Organizers of the parade need to ponder which is more important – displaying photos of “martyrs” or taking a stronger leadership role in the Surrey community.