The Corner


Canadian Politics and ‘Khalistanthusiasm’

(Mark Blinch/Reuters)

At first glance, you’d expect the Canadian and Indian governments to get along swimmingly. Both countries are polyglot democracies that pride themselves on their diversity and inclusiveness, and Canada is home to a large and growing South Asian population. Yet Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India proved to be, in the words of noted Indian journalist Barkha Dutt, “an absolute fiasco.” Part of the story is that the Indians felt slighted by the seemingly slapdash planning of Trudeau’s itinerary. A bigger part of it, though, is that the Canadians made a major faux pas when planning a dinner honoring their premier in Delhi — they invited an Indian-born British Columbian named Jaspal Atwal, who, it turns out, was once a notorious Sikh militant, and who was convicted for the attempted assassination of a senior Indian government official in the 1980s. As you can imagine, the Indian government wasn’t exactly thrilled by the news, and of course the Canadian government apologized profusely.

Though we’ve all had dinner party mix-ups, surely this one takes the cake. But is that all there is to be learned from the incident? Not according to J. J. McCullough, who offers a fascinating interpretation of what went wrong in the Washington Post. As he sees it, the Atwal imbroglio reflected the interplay of two factors: First, if you want to be the candidate of one of Canada’s major parties, you first need to win over fully paid-up party members in your riding. The upshot, as McCullough explains, is that “one of the most essential skills for any ambitious Canadian politico is an ability to sell large, but carefully targeted, numbers of party memberships to groups whose loyalty can be assured.” Second, Canadian Sikhs who dream of a sovereign homeland for the Sikh people have been particularly active and effective in the political arena.

As McCullough observes, Indo-Canadians represent 4 percent of the Canadian population, and Canadian Sikhs are roughly half of all Indo-Canadians. I’d add that most Canadian Sikhs aren’t chiefly motivated by a desire for an independent Khalistan. It’s fair to describe Khalistan true believers as a minority of a minority of a minority of the Canadian electorate. Yet their influence has definitely complicated Canada’s relationship with one of the world’s rising powers.

Why should the curious role of Khalistanthusiasm in Canadian politics be of interest to Americans? I see it as a good illustration of how immigrant replenishment might shape the future of North American politics.

Canada is widely praised for its selective, skills-based immigration system, which has made it easier for Canadians to accept very high immigrant admissions — considerably higher relative to population than U.S. admissions. One predictable consequence of high admissions is that Canada has many ethnic communities that are regularly replenished by new arrivals. And as the size of a given ethnic community increases, so too does in-group contact and interaction. This in turn strengthens in-group ethnic solidarity while reducing intermarriage. Contrast this with a scenario in which admissions are somewhat lower and the rate of replenishment is somewhat slower. In this scenario, ethnic communities would lose their distinctiveness and cohesiveness a bit more quickly. Both scenarios have political implications: The first implies the emergence of ethnic political blocs while the second implies the logic of linked fate would give way to cleavages based on class or social values. My guess is that it will be a mix of both, with some communities experiencing high rates of replenishment while others do not. We’ll find out soon enough.


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