Canadian media have a blind spot when it comes to so-called ethnic issues

Many reporters often ignore or are too timid to address the ways immigrant backgrounds inform and influence political positions. The fact is, journalists should be asking politicians like Jagmeet Singh about issues such as the 1985 Air India bombing.

Many reporters ignore or are too timid to address the ways immigrant backgrounds inform political positions

The fact is, journalists should be asking politicians like Jagmeet Singh about issues such as the 1985 Air India bombing. (CBC)

Much of the mainstream media is simply out of its depth when it comes to how to cover "ethnic" leaders, often ignoring or being too timid to address the ways their backgrounds inform and influence their political positions. It's an obvious blind spot.

An exception was the face-off between new NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and senior correspondent Terry Milewski on Power and Politics earlier this month, when Milewski asked Singh about his views on Canada's worst aviation-related terror attack: the downing of an Air India flight 182, in 1985.

Critics decried Milewski's line of questioning as unfair — even racist — asking if non-Punjabi leaders would've been subjected to the same treatment. But the questions were absolutely necessary — an attempt to bridge the gap between ethnic and mainstream media — and a way to bring an issue of great importance in the Sikh community to the attention of a wider audience.

Grappling with Punjabi politics

This is the first time in our history that a person of colour is on the shortlist to become Canada's prime minister. Unusually for a federal leader this past half-century, Singh also carries the weight of his immigrant heritage, more specifically his parents' roots in Punjab – the state in north India from where the bulk of our sub-continental immigrants hail.

The turbaned Sikh joins the ranks of other Punjabis in Canada who have been phenomenally successful in politics at all levels of government, including Herb Dhaliwal, Ujjal Dosanjh and Ruby Dhalla, and more recently, Harjit Sajjan, Navdeep Bains and Amarjeet Sohi.

None of them has had to grapple with Punjabi politics the way the new NDP leader has had to, although Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was labelled a "Khalistani sympathizer" on a recent visit to this Indian state. (In the run-up to Sajjan's visit, the Punjab chief minister characterized five members of the Trudeau cabinet as "Khalistan sympathizers.") This Khalistan movement, a bloody insurrection in Punjab that dates back to the 1970s, was responsible for the 1985 Air India bombing.

This tragedy in the skies mid-way between the two nations linked Canada and India like never before, perhaps forever. It is unique in Canadian history because it brings together international terrorism (in both countries), global diaspora politics and bilateral relations between a G7 nation and an emerging superpower that is India.

Jagmeet Singh's views on issues relating to his heritage and the Air India bombing perhaps would not have been relevant if he had stayed clear of Punjabi and Indian politics. But he has taken positions – positions that he will have to defend in the public square.

For example, when he was a member of the Ontario legislature, he sponsored a motion to "formally recognize the November 1984 state organized violence perpetrated against Sikhs throughout India as genocide." Indian newspapers have drawn a straight line between the NDP leader's support for self-determination in Catalonia and Quebec and the quest for a separate Sikh homeland in India.

Rallying cry for Canadian Sikhs

While the separatist movement may be all but forgotten in the land of its birth, it remains a rallying cry for sections of the Punjabi Sikh community in Canada. Just as there are Canadians who demand a separate Sikh homeland carved out of India, there are others who have either abandoned the cause or just don't care either way. Where exactly Singh fits within this spectrum is an unknown, and it is because of this ambiguity that further questions are warranted.

This sort of journalism is well suited to a new, multicultural age: one where reporters can act as translator between Canada's various cultural communities. Indeed, a Canadian reporter's role when interviewing a leader who wears his heritage on his sleeve is obvious: to ask him about it.

I would expect the same kind of hardball questions to be asked of a leader of Irish heritage if she had taken sides in the Troubles, or someone of Arab origins if he had articulated public positions on the Palestinian question. In these instances, the journalist takes on the role of a cultural interpreter (albeit, an imperfect one).

'Now the work begins'

6 years ago
Duration 8:22
Jagmeet Singh, new leader of the federal NDP, sits down with Terry Milewski on his first day on the job

Unlike most other reporters on Parliament Hill, Milewski has spent years covering the Indian diaspora community in Canada, especially in the context of the Air India bombing. Milewski – like the Vancouver Sun's Kim Bolan – has stayed with the story for decades, and helped sear the tragedy into Canadian consciousness.

Readers will recall that the bombing was initially dismissed as an entirely Indian problem – remember the call Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made to his Indian counterpart mourning the deaths? We have belatedly come to accept most of the 329 victims as our very own. Rightfully so, as most of them were Canadian.

Here's a safe bet: I expect other mainstream-ethnic issues to surface over time, especially as they relate to political religion, meaning when religion is used in the pursuit of political goals.

The Air India tragedy continues to be a test case for Canada, and Singh shouldn't expect to get a free pass on questions about it either as NDP leader, or as the prime minister of Canada.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


George Abraham is founder and publisher of New Canadian Media. He began his journalism career at The Times of India.