ON the first week of  2012 September, the Indo-Canadian Workers Association (ICWA) of Canada organised a forum on the proposed new immigration policy of Canada. The purpose of the forum was to make people aware about how the proposed changes in the Canadian immigration policy by the Conservative government would adversely affect the immigrants, the Indo-Canadians in particular, in the coming days.The forum received wide coverage in print as well as electronic media. Some of the mainstream media organisations widely covered the news of the forum. These included the English language weekly newspaper, The Georgia Street, which is published from Vancouver and has one of the largest readerships.

 The Indo-Canadian Workers Association of Canada organised the forum in collaboration with Radio India.Speakers at the forum overwhelmingly rejected the Conservative government’s immigration policies.The event, held in a Sikh gurdwara in Surrey, was dedicated to Bhai Bhaag Singh, a leader of the South Asian community and a publisher who was shot dead in Vancouver by a British immigration agent called Bela Singh on September 5, 1914. This assassination took place less than two months after the Komagata Maru vessel, carrying more than 350 South Asians who were prevented from stepping down on Canadian soil, was forced to leave the Vancouver harbour.

ICWA leader Surinder Sangha told the assemblage of more than 300 people that Bhaag Singh died after fighting against the racist immigration policies, and that the South Asian community needed to revive its activism against the contemporary challenges posed by the Conservative government. He insisted that only strong activism against the establishment would be a fitting tribute to Bhaag Singh, which was why it was important to hold a “meaningful forum” to denounce the policies of the government rather than organise a symbolic memorial service.ICWA organiser Kulwant Dhesi said the government was taking recourse to excuses by baselessly accusing the South Asian community of indulging in immigration frauds. “Only a small percentage of people do illegal things,” Dhesi stated. “Why is the government is out to punish everyone in our community for this?” he asked.

 In fact, on the same day, the federal government had issued a news release alleging that nearly 11,000 people had been “potentially implicated in lying to apply for citizenship or maintain permanent resident status.”The citizenship and immigration minister of Canada, Jason Kenney, also announced in the same news release that the federal government would strip 3,100 Canadians of their citizenship as the punishment for fraud. “Canadian citizenship is not for sale,” Kenney declared. “We are taking action to strip citizenship and permanent residence status from people who don’t play by the rules and who lie or cheat to become a Canadian citizen,” he said

Most speakers at the forum criticised the delays in family reunification, tightening of visa rules, the new citizenship test, and the lack of recognition of foreign credentials. Some also shared their own stories. Among them was Paramjeet Sandhu who broke down in tears when talking about his Canada-born daughter who was married to a man in India. “Please help me,” Sandhu pleaded in a choked voice. “My son-in-law is not getting a visa, although it’s a genuine marriage.” The couple was refused a visa even though Sandhu’s daughter has become a mother. Anne Murphy, a UBC professor married to a man of Indian origin, was also in attendance. Although she did not speak, her husband recently faced difficulty in getting a visa to travel to Vancouver.

 Meanwhile, Manjeet Deol, a former teacher in India and a freelance Punjabi columnist, raised the question as to why foreign credentials were not being recognised in Canada. Irfan Malik, a leader of the local Pakistani community, alleged that his compatriots, as Muslims, were suffering doubly in the post-9/11 world because of racial profiling by the immigration authorities.Dhesi pointed out that though the forum was open to all political parties, New Democrats were the only ones to appear. NDP MPs Jinny Sims and Jasbir Sandhu and NDP MLA Harry Bains also spoke to the audience.

Activists of “No One is Illegal” waved and distributed flyers that were critical of the Conservative policies. Other prominent speakers included moderate Sikh leader Balwant Singh Gill, Surrey Hindu temple leader Vinay Sharma, Punjabi writer Sadhu Binning, and Vancouver Co-op Radio host and film-maker Imtiaz Popat.

Gurupreet Singh