(Moe Sihota was elected to the Legislature of British Columbia in 1986. This made him the first Indo-Canadian, who was elected to a legislature or the parliament in Canada. He was able to win his seat in the next two legislative elections in British Columbia held in 1991 and 1996. During the period of 1991-2001, he served as a cabinet minister in NDP governments led by Mike Harcourt, Glenn Clark and Dan Miller. This interview was done with him on May 11, 1998 in the legislature building in Victoria. While talking about his childhood, university days and his political carrier, he touches upon a number of significant aspects of social history of Indo-Canadians in Canada.-Sukhwant Hundal)
In order to listen to this interview in English please click on the following picture.
Photo: Gurmail Rai
In order to read the translation of this interview in Punjabi, click here.
The transcription of the interview is given below.
Question: Were you born in India or Canada?
Answer: I was born in Duncan and grew up in Lake Cowichan in British Columbia. Born in February 1955, February 18th to be precise. And the world was a different place then, of course, than it is now. Many of the pioneers, were living in the Cowichan Valley at the time. I guess it was around the … central in 1920s when the – when the Indo-Canadian community started coming to Victoria. (1) And in those days, you know, the prevailing attitude of the white people was that, you know, let’s send them – you know, out of sight out of mind. So Lake Cowichan was a place that was seen to be well away from Victoria. It was about 35 miles away from Victoria and the interior of the island.
Most of the people that were living people, in fact all the people living there at the time were involved in the sawmill industry. And my grandfather come here in the 1920s and my father shortly after that in 1930s. My father-in-law, same in 1930s. And they were working at the old sawmill at Mesachie Lake at what we call Hillcrest. There used to be a Hillcrest Lumber company there. On Mesachie Lake, I can remember as a child looking forward to going to Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) and going at – at Hillcrest. I used to go to Hillcrest Gurdwara and used to sit right next to the burners at the Gurdwara, Mesachie Lake, at the sawmill at Mesachie Lake. It was just a wonderful place to go as a kid because, you know – Gurdwaras are very social settings. You go around, you could – you could talk to all of the families, run around and meet the kids that you hadn’t seen all week long. And it was a real tremendous sense of community, because everybody used to get together on Saturday and Sunday.
And at the Gurdwara, like you sat on one side of this beehive burner. It always amazed me that this wooden Gurdwara never burnt down. And it was linked, to the cookhouse, as you went out, by wooden sidewalks that went to the cookhouse and that was connected to all of the bunkhouses where the men used to stay. And I can remember, you know, in the afternoons after church a lot of the men would have a Langer (in the) bunkhouses and kids used to running to the bunkhouses and play because there was these old potbelly stoves and one or two beds in there, and the men would sit there and play cards, and it seemed in those days that under every pillow there was a bottle of scotch, and your job as a kid was when they told you, or yelled at you to go pick up another bottle of Johnny Walker you’d lift up a pillow and there it was.
It was a hard life though. People worked very, very hard. The men did highly physical work, like, my father, when they left the green chain to bundle up pieces of wood and – as did my father-in-law. And I think what kept the community together was the fact that the woodlot was there. I remember as a kid, you know, it was physical. We used to get up in the morning and our first chore was to get out of bed. It was cold, it would be raining, you’d get out and you’d have to go to the – there was a shed outside the house where you had to go get sawdust. You got the dry sawdust, put it in the burner and get the house warm in the morning.
So it was very physical. People used to have their own gardens and grow their own chickens and so on. And I think what kept the community going was the fact that ( gurdwaras) at Paldi and at the Hillcrest were there. And there’s enormous sense of pride in the culture, in the religion. And I think, you know, if I look back at my life, I think that a lot of my own sense of values (come) from our religion and from those experiences as a child.
I think, you know, the community was so strong in those days. When I went to school, when I went to kindergarten in Lake Cowichan, I couldn’t speak English. Couldn’t speak a word of English, same with my sister. I remember, for example, my sister, in kindergarten, I had to go down there because by that time I was in grade four, I believe, and help her through her first couple of days because she was crying and all upset with the school.
The community was very strong because we were very together. It was a very small community, everybody knew everybody, and it was very isolated, and very seldom did you leave Lake Cowichan. It was a big trip to go to Duncan, and twice a year you used to go to Victoria. In Victoria you went to get your Christmas presents because they had an Eaton’s store and everybody wanted to come to Easton’s downtown to get your gifts. And the other reason why you would come to Victoria was because of Vaisakhi. And Vaisakhi in those days used to be, you know, a gathering for the community in Victoria. And you used to walk around with your parents feeling very proud of who you were, very proud of your culture because everybody would meet one another with a hug and a smile because people from all over British Columbia would come to Vaisakhi in Victoria. It was a big gathering.
And so I guess it was about a year without seeing each other, you know, there’s a lot of piyar, a lot of affection in the community, and I think, you know, my affinity for the community comes from those days because I saw what it was like and how much piyar, there really was within the community. So we usually only come to Victoria twice a year, and often – think it was funny, the things you remember as a kid – often we’d come in a pickup truck that was loaded, you know, with men and women and children, and when you were trying to get up the Malahat you know where I mean by – where the Malahat Highway is, on here on Vancouver Island. After you leave Duncan, you started going up the steep hill, and the truck could never make it with all the people on it. And so what would happen is all the men would be taken to the top, the women and the children left off at Bamberton Park, and then they’d come down and pick up them and then the truck would make it up. And every time I go to Bamberton Park, even today, I remember that. You know, I had my paraunthe there with my mom when the truck went off and dropped everybody off and you had your lunch and then they’d come pick you up and they’d take you to the top.
And I remember, you know, going to Victoria for Vaisakhi, apart from the sports, you know, the weight lifting, the kabaddi, field hockey, soccer, the other thing that always stuck on my mind, and I guess this goes again to the sense of community, was you never stayed in a hotel. People slept around floors, around someone’s chesterfield, three kids, four kids for every bed. And it was a very strong sense of who we were came out in those days.
You know, when I look back at the decision that I made in introducing Punjabi into the schools in British Columbia, you know, it’s rooted in that experience. You know, because I realized looking back on my life, the value of protecting the culture, because if you lose your language, you lose all of your traditions and your values and their significance and I would not want my kids to one day look in a mirror and wonder who they were and where they came from. Even to this day, you know, I speak to my kids as hard as it is in Punjabi at home. And you know, it’s very important you don’t forget where you came from.
So that’s what it was like then. I just wanted to explain that because my memories as a child are very much a part of the celebration of what we were as Punjabi Sikhs.
The other event that I always remember as a child, and I was talking to somebody about it over the weekend, because we were in a helicopter and I made him fly over it, there used to be a Jor Mela every year in Paldi. And you go there today, it’s so sad to see the town essentially deserted, and – because for those of us who grew up there, you still hear the voices, you know. You know what it was like when the cookhouse was full and the Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) was packed and hot because it was usually in the summer. You know what it was like with all the games going on outside, and again that sense of brotherly love was – the team from Williams Lake played Volleyball there, the team against Lake Cowichan. But it was – we went from Lake Cowichan, we went from Williams Lake, where Sikhs gathering in and reinforcing ourselves in a sense of tradition and values.
Certainly before I leave politics, I want (to do) something to commemorate what used to be Paldi because more so than the Gurudwara at Mesachie Lake in Hillcrest, Paldi was really the focal point of the Gurudwara, we just tended to go more to the Hillcrest Gurudwara. But I think most of the kids that grew up in that era remember the Paldi Gurudwara with as much affection as I do the Hillcrest one. It was very much a symbol of our community in those days and where we could gather.
It was also a reflection of the community’s financial strength. Because the Meo family … they hired a lot of the men that came. They had the town, of course, named after their village in India because the word Meo got mixed up with Mayo, Yukon. So a lot of mail from India would end up in the Yukon and sent back down. And so you know, and so there’s a lot of stories about Paldi, a lot of famous names, you know. Oppal, as in Wally Oppal. I remember Wally, the judge, delivering milk to our house, you know, when we were kids. Doman, Herb Doman, and the contributions he made to Paldi we talk of now. He still talks fondly of Paldi, and of course Mayo.
So a lot of the people who succeeded in our community as the generations went on came from Paldi. So I think government has to – certainly (it will) be my objective before I leave politics to ensure that we have some commemorative there to commemorate what that town meant to our community.
So you know, I look back at my experiences as a child and they’re very much a part of our community, although to answer your question, I wasn’t born in India, I was born here. But in some ways you never know the difference, and I think that’s a reflection of what the community was like. My wife, married 13 years ago and you know, her family lived at Three Mile House, which is three miles outside of Lake Cowichan. A whole bunch of houses that we used to call Three Mile House, you know, so we come from the same community, I think we’ve taken the same values.
Question: What else was happening in the community at that time?
Answer: Well, it’s funny. Well, there’s the usual weddings and that kind of things. And the one other social event I always looked forward to as a kid, and people will laugh at this one I think. Once, maybe a month, maybe every three weeks, this man would show up in Lake Cowichan and he would rent out the movie theatre and he’d bring the latest black and white movies from India that he could get his hands on. And the whole community, I don’t know how many hundreds of us, would be there at the Lake Theatre in Lake Cowichan. And we’d go to watch Hindi or Punjabi films. I remember the black and white films and everybody would go. (It was) no more different than concerts today, you know. A few people had a little bit too much to drink, there might be the odd fight, but mostly it was a lot of fun. You know, people meeting people.
And so as a child you’re introduced to that side of our, of our experience. And I remember the first time I went to India I was four – maybe it was the second time, I was 12. That was 19 – what would that be, 1967, 68, and we’re going to India and I remember lining up with my cousin to go see a movie in India, and watching the lineups outside and realizing what a popular form of entertainment, and why it was, because it was the only form of entertainment. And I remember making that connection back to the Lake Theatre, and then it became apparent to me why it was that everybody used to go to Lake Theatre. It was the only form of entertainment that we used to have.
That and the old clay records, the 78, you know, they used to run at 78 speed, used to get those and listen to Punjabi or Indian music all the time, and I remember that really vividly.
So you know, I mean, I think it was a, for lack of a better word, cross-cultural type of upbringing. You know, all my fond moments are part of the Punjabi experience. But that’s not to say that we were isolated. I mean, you know, like every other kid growing up in Canada I did things that I still love to do with my kids today. You know, I played baseball. You know, I was in little league starting in grade 2 in Lake Cowichan, much like I take my kids to little league now. I played road hockey just like everybody else and pretended I was the greatest hockey player that was there, just as I watch my son and my daughter when they play hockey now. You know, I followed sports. I was in Boy Scouts. I even once went go Sunday school.
So you were growing up simultaneously in these two cultures in a very small community, Lake Cowichan a population of 2,000 people. And you would spend your summers camping and fishing and that kind of stuff. And so the beauty of that experience is that you were able to extract the best of both worlds and make them a part of your personality. And Lake Cowichan is very much small town Canada in the non-Indian sense, but very much like a village in India in the Indian sense. And so you had this wonderful blend of cultures and you’re raised in them.
We stayed there from 1955 right through to 1965.
Question: Who were the other ethnic communities living at Lake Cowichan at that time?
Answer: In Paldi there were a lot of Japanese and Chinese and some Swedes. And I remember the Chinese because they used to work in the cookhouse, you know, after we had langar they would do a lot of the cleaning and so on. And every once in a while still to this day I run across the odd person, the odd Chinese person who still speaks Punjabi. Yeah. And because, you know, they learned how to speak Punjabi in those days in Gurdwara in Victoria, some of them did. Not too many of them left now. The Japanese were there and the Swedes were also there.
But at the same time, you know, I look back at it, you know, the politics was always there too. I mean, you know, I can remember, you know, being in the bunkhouses or at home or at Vaisakhi, there was always talk about the IWA (International Woodworkers of America). You know, always talk about the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). And I think as far back as I can remember there was never any doubt about which political party had been supportive of our community, and you know, and over and over again you heard these stories. When they paid us 10 cents an hour less to work in the sawmill, it was the union and the CCF and the NDP that fought that. When it came to right to vote it was the CCF and the NDP that said it had to happen. It was the Liberals and the Conservatives that opposed it. And the value of trade unions, and the value of political party that was socially conscious. And our people, our culture is political. And people care, passionately, about their politics.
And you know, we have this picture, which my mom would never part with, where Tommy Douglas is at our house in Lake Cowichan. And he’s there with my father and a number of other Indo-Canadian gentlemen. It’s an old black and white picture and I’m sitting on Tommy Douglas’s lap, and he has the most uncomfortable look on his face. And every time I look at that picture I think I must have peed on him or something, because he looks very uncomfortable.
But you know, the – that shows you the fact that – Lake Cowichan today, overwhelmingly 85 percent votes NDP, and there’s deep political roots, as is our community. You know, people argue about it. But from a political point of view, you know, provincially we enjoy enormous support. And I think enormous because of that history, and because Harry (Lalli), Ujjal (Dosanjh) and myself have made it a point not to allow people to forget that history, plus we have made it a point to show our respect to the community by introducing programs like Punjabi in the schools which, I think, serves as a reminder of really who’s on whose side. Talk is cheap. Action is very hard. And you know, and I’m quite happy about, you know, if I look back on my experience as a politician, certainly the thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction as a Punjabi Sikh is that decision to introduce Punjabi in the schools. Probably the most emotional – probably the only Indo-Canadian press that came out that day, because they didn’t appreciate the significance of the event, was Parmod Puri, from the Link. You should talk to him. Because I had tears in my eyes when I made that announcement. And yet, you know, very few people were there because they didn’t appreciate what we were about to do as the government.
Question: So what were the other issues that people discussed at that time? Political issues?
Answer:Well, I can’t remember. You know, it was very early in my age. I can’t really remember much more than – I remember you couldn’t own land in Vancouver, certain parts of Vancouver. Because as I said to you, we lived in Vancouver – sorry in Lake Cowichan from 1955 to 1965. And then in the – in the summer of ’65 my dad told me to go write an exam. You did what your father told you to do. Some days I wish it was still like that. And I went and wrote this exam and the next thing I knew we were moving to Vancouver, all because –
Question: Were your father started working in Vancover at time?
Answer: No, my father was working in the interior at that time in a furniture store. But my mother and my sister moved because unbeknownst to me I had written that exam so well that I had secured a scholarship to go to private school. It was a big change in one’s life to go from, you know, a small community like Lake Cowichan to a big city like Vancouver, with your mom who can’t speak English, your sister is too small to look after herself. Your father is not there. So I had to do everything. You know, and we found a place to live, an apartment near Granville and 13th. And I had to figure out the bus routes and how to get to my school at Dunbar and 29th, and look after groceries and all that kind of stuff until my mom got sort of, you know, familiar with the setup there.
But I remember, to answer your question, I remember we … we went to look for a house sometime in the fall of 1965 and we went up to the British properties, and houses were for sale. We went to look at it. I remember sort of getting the impression that we really shouldn’t be there, and my father tried to put a bid in, an offer for it. Did. And the realtor told him to come back. We came back a few hours later and low and behold there was no sign outside that house. We looked at it and we were thinking, what happened here? There was a sign up. We got familiar with the landscape and the surroundings. … And then (later) my mom and my dad told me the story, really couldn’t own around there. But he was going to try anyways. That’s something I never forgot, you know.
And – but it was, you know, it was a life of firsts. You know, the first I found myself in 1965 being the first Indo-Canadian, pupil of Indian heritage ever to go to private school. Right? I went to a private school and them not knowing how to deal with me. (A) I was from Lake Cowichan, a small town, (B) I wasn’t Anglican. The school was Anglican. The first day I went to school they had – you had to go to church. I didn’t know what anything was, why they had these things for you to kneel down, why it was you couldn’t talk in church. I was used to Gurudwara, you could talk to everybody.
And I remember I had teachers, you know, clearly discounting my skills. And fair enough. And I remember that this of all the awards from school I’ve ever kept, the only one I ever kept was in that first semester, from September to December I won the award for effort, which was sort of the brightest, most capable student. I always kept that. It still sits on my mom’s mantle. I’ve won a lot of things in my life but I always kept that, because I proved – and this is sort of the other lesson you learn in life, if you’re – in those days, and I think it’s still true – if you’re a person of our background you have to prove to everybody that you’re one step better. I learned that lesson very early on in life. It stayed with me. Stayed with me today. I’m not writing my obituary here, I’m telling a story.
Question: And can you tell me about your years in school in Lake Cowichan?-
Answer: Well you know, I think they were of a typical Canadian school, small school. You know, so you knew everybody you went to school with. You know, this is a grade 1, 2, 3, and 4, you know, all my friends, my best friends were Indo-Canadians. But we played baseball together, hockey together, skated together, played football together, cheered for the BC Lions together. You know, that kind of an existence. A very Canadian existence in very Indian roles. You know, how I did in school, I suspect I did reasonably well. My mother tells me, well, you know – but there wasn’t anything untoward in that experience.
One year my dad decided to move to Winnipeg and we moved there and all it took was one winter for us to move back. You know. I remember snow taller than me.
But it was a great experience, you know. You grew up in a very small town where everybody knew everybody. You spent summers down at the lake swimming and in that sense it – it still is today. It’s a very typical, you know, Canadian town.
I remember, 2,000 people lived there. And obviously there’s more than 2,000 people there now. And two years ago, when I was minister of environment, they had the Lake Cowichan’s 50th anniversary. So I went. You know, took my kids, put them in the van and told them, I said, look, you know, you guys, I want to take you to Lake Cowichan, I want to show you where your dad grew up, you know. And I went there and I told my staff for the day I left, I said, do we as the government own any land around the lake? Because all around, a lot of crown land near the lake. Oh yeah, we own some Crown Land down the lake, said my bureaucrats. Good, I said. I’m going to Lake Cowichan tomorrow morning and announcing we’re going to give the city as a park.
And I showed up there and, here’s a town that had 2,000 people living in it when I was there, and still the same amount of people there. There must have been 6,000 people at the pancake breakfast. You know. And it shows you what kind of affinity people have to that town. And older people were coming up saying, oh, I knew your father, I know your father-in-law, I knew your mother, I know your mother-in-law, oh you got married to so-and-so. You know, they remember that. Oh, I was your coach – don’t remember my coach – I was your coach when you did this. And there was just a true, you know, a real sense of community in that town. And I was proud. I stood up and said, look you guys I’m here today, I’m here to tell you that we’re going to give you a park, you know, announce the park. It was sort of, you know, the son coming back to the city. Like going back to your Pind (village) in India.
And then I took the kids up the road, three miles past Lake Cowichan, the Mill town?. And it’s tragic, you know? There’s just the barbed wire fence. If you didn’t know you wouldn’t know that there was a mill there, you know, one day. And if you didn’t know, you didn’t know that there was a Gurdwara there. Maybe three or four bunkhouses. They were there for a church group. I recognized the old bunkhouses, and the lake was there and you know, the campgrounds – there’s campgrounds up where the Gurudwara was, past the lake, very scenic spot. And so I’m glad you’re here. Because I don’t think that we – that our community- for some reason record history as we should. Maybe we’re too young here in Canada to record it. Maybe it’s only now we’re beginning to think about the value of recording it.
But I remember standing there on that sunny day with my kids, you know, telling them what it was like. How much life there was on that land?
You know, I … took them camping there last year. I always take them back. Very important in my mind that you don’t forget where you came from, your roots. And it’s too bad that there’s nothing that reminds me of what was once there. Just the memories in your skull.
Question: And what kind of goals did you have at that time?
Answer: As a kid?
Question: Oh, I was going to be the best hockey player that there was. You know, I was going to go play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, you know, and if the that didn’t work I was going to go pitch for the New York Yankees. You know. It was, you know, you’re kid. Sports is your life. You know. I didn’t think I was going to be a politician, or a lawyer. I was going to be a goal-scoring forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs or a pitcher for the New York Yankees. We played a lot of sports. Still play a lot of sports. I love sports. And that was sort of, you know, the dream.
I think, you know, the other thing is when I left in grade 5, a lot of my friends had a different dream than I did. And in a funny sort of way it was a good thing that I left, I think. Because I remember when I was in grade 10 one day – I don’t know why I did this – but I hitchhiked back to Lake Cowichan. I caught the ferry to Victoria, I hitchhiked back. And I remember it raining and I was wet and drenched, but I wanted to see some of my old friends. I went over, stayed at my uncle’s place there. I went and visited all my friends. Well they had a dream too. Most of them wanted to work in the mill. Most of them realized when you got to grade 10 you were 16, you didn’t have to go to school. You could work.
And you know, I never had that dream. I moved out of Lake Cowichan and went to Vancouver and you know, university is where I wanted to be. And I’m not trying to sound elitist, but I’m trying to make a point that you always came home if you’re into politics. And I saw these guys and they were, you know, they were young and about 16, 17, working, fishing and forestry. I came back to see them a few years later, and the early ’80s were a very tough town for Lake Cowichan. It was almost closed down, because the logging industry was basically shut down.
And, I saw that these guys had a wife and kids very early in life, a boat and a car because well, you make enough money. Then they were out of work. And they had no skills. And … and you know, like, I guess I considered myself lucky, because I avoided that, sort of doing the life. But again, sort of, you never forget where you came from. When I became environment minister I went out and talked about the need to sustain a forest so that the companies could never log and leave as they did where I grew up.
Question: Why was it that you decided to go and study instead of working at the sawmill?
Answer: Very simple. My parents. You know, like I said earlier on. You didn’t question what they told you, you just did it. And it was very clear to me, you know, I was forced into getting an education that I loved, and the expectation was that I would go on to university. And I did. And I ended up getting a degree in social work while I was there and meeting many of the people that I work with today. There’s a consequence to that. I think my parents instilled in me the importance of securing a proper education, just like my wife and I instill that in our children today. It’s your passport to success. And again, you know, you don’t forget these things.
Question: So when you were growing up, were you taking part in any kind of community politics or taking part in politics when you were a student?
Answer: Yeah, oh no, university. But before that, no. I mean while I was at high school, you know, I wasn’t on the student council, I did not get involved in politics. And when I was in grade 8, around 1968, ’69, you know, I watched the world unfold. I remember, I have this great story, are you ready?
Question: Oh sure.
Answer: I was doing very well at school. At the beginning of grade 8, I started hanging around with a bunch of guys and school didn’t seem to be that important. So in that first semester, September to December, my marks crashed. You know, I was always scoring somewhere in the mid-80s right? And they crashed to, like, the mid-60s. I came home one day with my report card, and showed it to my father. The next day the cable vision was disconnected, there was no stereo in the house. My uncle picked me up, took me school, dropped me off, picked me up after, took me back home. I had to do – take extra courses on the weekends in math and in English. And I was told I could read only McLean’s magazine, or Time. And that’s what I could do in my spare time. I wasn’t allowed to play baseball, hockey, none of that stuff.
So I started to look at the world, and I started to read about Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. And I started to pick up marks. It was just one of those aberrations in life, you know. And I started to watch that stuff on TV. And you know, it reminded me a little bit of what I’d heard when I was a kid about the equality of people. About justice. The Viet Nam war was going on. About peace. And these things, you know, in a very impressionable age at that time, grade 8, at a time when many of us at that age sort of tend to want to watch TV, and I started to sort of pay attention to what was going on in the world.
Now, look, I never said much about it. I just sort of absorbed it. And I started to do school projects on people like Gandhi, you know, when other kids were sort of more interested in Robert Redford, you know. I started to read about Martin Luther King rather than, you know, Yogi Berra who was a catcher for the New York Yankees. I started to pay attention to what was going on in the world. And I think when I look back at it now, you know, they were obviously left of centre, and that caught my eye.
But I didn’t do much, other than just maybe plant some seeds. So I wasn’t involved in community politics at all. The only thing I did was in ’66, ’67, something like that – no, I maybe got the year wrong. But whatever year the Ross Street Temple opened.
Question: I think it was in 1972.
Answer:Seventy-two. It must have been ’72 then. I thought I was younger than that. I can’t remember what year it was right? But I remember going there and speaking, when the young people were up there to give a speech, but I never get involved in the politics. I got involved in community affairs and in politics when I got to university.
Question: Did you experience any kind of racism in school?
Answer: Oh yeah. like I said, you know, I moved to Vancouver and realized we couldn’t live in the British properties. I know the teachers tested me in my first year there. And I know one of them, a guy from Australia, clearly looking back on it now, was racist. He’d pick on me in class more than he’d pick on anybody else. But you know, very simple. You don’t let any of that stuff get to you. You just prove to them that you’re smarter and better than they think you are. And in the long run you succeed.
I’ve never walked through my life with a chip on my shoulder, and I get racist male today. I mean I just stuck my nose in something a couple of months ago, couple of weeks ago. You should see the mail I got. It was all racist, right? You know, racism is a fact of life. It’s an ugly fact of life. It’s not something I don’t accept, I don’t particularly tolerate – I don’t like it. But you know, how you deal with it, I think, is the measure of the man. And I’d rather deal with it in a way, well look, you know, watch me. You know, you think I’m inferior? Watch me.
And I think, you know, the one thing that our culture teaches us is a sense of self-confidence about who we are as a people. And the fact that we never take a back seat to anybody. We believe in justice. These are important attributes of our religion. And particularly justice and the equality of people. So you know, I always find, I go back to those values when someone tests me. And then out of those values I find a solution. I don’t call myself a religious man. I don’t think I’m particularly religious. I don’t know, but I believe in the values that come from our teachings. Very much so. And I think that’s a little bit of my mother’s experience – sort of, because my father couldn’t care less, you know.
So yeah, I wouldn’t say there’s too much racism. If there was, there’s nothing that I got too worried about. Like, I was the only one around, and I knew what I had to prove. You know, racism works in different ways. I remember one time when I went to St. George’s school in Vancouver, the first time all of us kids were together in grade 5 we had to pick a soccer team, you know? And then pick two boys from grade 4 who’d been there there beforehand, and so they knew who to pick. And so when it came to picking the rest of us, because we hadn’t been there, there were still about 10 or 12 of us there, and right away, I remember very vividly, the captain of the team saying, well we’ll take that guy over there, pointing at me, because he’s coloured and he’s probably good. And they figured I could run better or play soccer better than anybody else. Well, you know, these things happen. Nothing that I got too worked up about. You know.
Question:When was the first time you got interested in politics?
Answer:Well what happened was that in 1974 – I’ll tell you two stories in one, how’s that?
Question:Two for one. Sure.
Answer: It’s really one story, right? But you’ll see why I tell you the second story in a minute. In 1974, I went to see a student ombudsman. The guy was never there. You know? And I needed some help with a student loan because I was having some trouble with my student loan. Never there. So you know, I complained about that. You know, we used to sit around a lot about – you know, the guys would sit around in the library and joke around and do those things in college that you’re supposed to be doing anyways, right? And I’d complain about it. And you know, I played a lot of sports, and knew a lot of the guys that played sports with at UBC. And I complained to them. I said, geez, I went to see this guy, never there, I went again, he’s never there, went again, he’s never there, finally someone said, well why don’t you just run for his job, right?
Okay, why not? Like, what’s wrong with that? Let’s give it a try, right? And then I remember giving my first speech on why I should be ombudsman, at a kind of gathering of all of the students in the student union building at UBC. And I remember my knees shaking. The only time in my life I could actually say my knees shook when I spoke, right? And they were shaking, and I gave my speech, I explained it, I went to all the first and second year classes because they’re the biggest ones. Explained that. Went to every person who was of Indian origin at the university and made sure they voted for me. That’s how I won. Because they all did. They all knew me, they all came out and voted for me. Right? One of our guys, let’s vote for him, right?
So we ended up winning. And basically, you know, I knew people on the arts side of the buildings, you know, and knew a lot of people there. I didn’t know anybody in the commerce side of the world. So I figured, okay, I’d better go to the commerce side and put up my posters, maybe some students would be in to vote for me, right?
I’m walking to the commerce building and I’m putting up this poster, and as I would like to say, a funny-looking guy walks up to me and says, “oh, you’re Moe Sihota.” “Yeah.” “I saw your posters all over the place.” He says, “I really think people from our community should get involved in politics here at the campus.” I didn’t know this guy. And he says, “you know, I would like to help you. You know? So can I help you? I’ll put up your posters for you, I’ll talk to people in in the commerce faculty. I’ll ask people in my faculty to vote for you, because I think it’s just great, someone from the community is – is running. ”
And that’s when I first met the Best Man at my wedding and my best friend today, Herb Dhaliwal. Right? That’s the beginning of a long relationship.
Of course he’s a Liberal, I’m a New Democrat. We often talked about that, still do. But yeah, it’s funny how politics and friendships intermingle.
So I got elected, by a good margin, and I got elected largely because the Indo-Canadian students there voted en bloc. And I wasn’t associated with any political party.
And then I got involved in issues like student loan, student employment, and that kind of stuff. And in 1975 I was elected as the vice president of the student society responsible for external affairs, which meant relations with government. So in 1975 there had been a provincial election, the NDP had just lost, and there were issues that were important to me like student housing, tuition fees, you know, the student loans and grants, student employment, that kind of stuff. And I thought, well, you know, government isn’t doing enough. In fact, I still believe, and believed in those days, tuition fees for post-secondary education should be for free.
But anyway, government was not doing enough around these issues of housing and loans and employment, and government, the new government had come in and they’d made some further cuts to post-secondary education around student loans, and you had to actually get out and get your loans down to get access to university. And I thought, well you know, the government just doesn’t understand the students life and I thought, like, if I just went and met with the minister of education, advanced education, I explain to him the predicaments kids are in, I’m sure he’d realize the value in making education a little bit more accessible for people. And I knew the son of the minister of advanced education who at the time was Pat McGeer. And Rick McGeer had gone through the same posh, private school that I’d been to in Vancouver.
So I put on my suit and came here to see Pat McGeer. What a jerk. The guy couldn’t care less about the position that I was taking. And had no empathy for the concerns and the realities of student life. And I wasn’t impressed.
So I went back to the university, made a statement to the university newspaper, so on and so forth, and about a week later, in an event that he forgets, but it was memorable and unforgetting in my mind, there’s a knock on my door and in walks Dave Barrett with Dennis Cocke, who was the education critic at the time. So we had gone over to Victoria to see Mr. McGeer, I said I didn’t get a good reception. He says to me, “tell me what the position you were taking was. Tell me what you know about student loans.”
And I’ll never forget. He had a piece of paper like this, a pad like this one, except it was yellow, and he asked me for a pencil. Him and Dennis sat there and wrote down everything I said, went back to the legislature a few days later, made a speech and sent me a copy of it based on what I had said.
Now look, I had had this bias towards the NDP because of my childhood, but you know, I’d also been at a private school so sort of starting to see the world from that perspective. And Barrett got me to join the NDP by that act of showing some respect to me. Usually I look up to these guys, Dave Barrett, premiere of the province just a few months earlier. Walked into my office and talked to me, you could see I was impressed.
And that also started the beginning of another life-long friendship, and Dave lives in Esquimalt, my community. I’ve been his MLA, he’s been my MP. His son, in all the years, the moment I became a cabinet minister, was my assistant. Like, even before I got in the cabinet he was my assistant.
So then that started a relationship with the NDP. I was then elected in 1976 – as always with large majorty, and always with a good support from the Indo-Canadian students – to the university board of governors, with Svend Robinson. And that developed another relationship. And Svend left and ran federally – sorry, in ’75 he ran federally, so he’s left when I got on the board and replaced him, but I helped him in his 1975 election campaign.
Now in 1975 there were two simultaneous elections. The provincial and federal elections were being held – sorry, I got my years wrong, ’79, excuse me. Seventy-six I got elected to the university board, ’79 there’s simultaneous elections. By this time I’d developed a relationship with Fred. I’ll get back to Dave and the others in a few minutes. Just telling about the story which leads to yet another story, but you’ll see how this all fits.
But anyways, in 1979 elections were simultaneous. The NDP had a chance of winning the Little Mountain seat. Grace McCarthy was the sitting MLA there. It was a two-member seat and there was Grace McCarthy and Evan (Maurice Wolfe from the Social Credit party). And I went to work for the NDP candidates in Little Mountain. (One of those candidates was) an alderman by the name of Mike Harcourt. So I worked for Mike in the ’79 provincial election, who lost just by a whisker. And we wrapped up that, and so I’d developed a friendship with Mike, because we got to know each other a little bit during that campaign, and then I went over to work in Burnaby with Svend Robinson, and his riding included Simon Fraser. And so I worked there and I got to know, ever so briefly, a young kid from Simon Fraser who was involved in Simon Fraser student politics as I was involved in UBC in those days, called Glenn Clark.
So all of a sudden these friendships started to develop around 1979. And we’re all involved in these issues, but in 1977 I had graduated with a degree in social work from the University of British Columbia, and I had been the ombudsman, I had been the vice president external affairs, I had been the board of governors and then I left campus life and went to work in Montreal for a while as a social worker, only to come back in ’79 and work on these elections campaign.
Now why did I work on those election campaigns? Well part was because of Barrett constantly coming back to the campus in those years where I was the vice president of external affairs, and I was on the board of governors, always encouraging me to become involved in the NDP. I never joined. But in ’79 – ’77 – ’78, when I left and went to Montreal, I missed the political life. You know, I had been doing stuff at campus, I went back, worked in social work, found it awfully boring, plus a little awkward to be working in Montreal.
So I came back, got a job in White Rock and joined the Young NDP in ’79. Worked on this campaign, joined the NDP at Barrett’s insistence in ’79 even though the NDP lost the election. And I felt terrible the NDP had lost the election in 1979. I didn’t think I’d done enough to help them. And I was starting to develop these friendships. So I became president of the Young New Democrats in 1979, the youth wing of the NDP. Because I’d missed politics. You know, I’d been out of it for a year at the campus level, this election happened, we had lost. I felt like I should do some more.
As a result of that I was automatically on the provincial council for the NDP, which is sort of the governing body of the NDP, because the Young New Democrat president always has a seat on the council. And the young provincial council representative from Burnaby – From Vancouver East was Glenn (Clark). Right? And so we started off because of age, because of friendship, because we thought alike, we started to sort of become very active in the NDP. And in 1979 I had decided that I would drop out of being a social worker because I got tired of sitting back in a courtroom watching my young people that I had to deal with, you know, end up in jail and so on. So I ended up, decided to go to law school.
So I moved back here to Victoria in ’79 and by this time, you know, the Esquimalt riding association was happy to have the president of the Young New Democrats living in their constituency. So they invited me onto their executive. And so I had this world in Vancouver and now people like Glenn and Svend and Mike, and I had this world in Victoria were I was involved actively in the riding. And that was Tommy Douglas’s old seat. But, remember we had this small time period, probably remember when the (Joe) Clark government fell, and Tommy Douglas had lost his seat when the Clark government won, by a very narrow margin to a conservative. And then the Clark government fell nine months later, early 1980 and because I was going to university, I volunteered in 1980 to manage the NDP’s federal campaign in my constituency.
And we ran a marvelous campaign. On election night they were predicting that the Tories were winning our seat again. I ran the campaign on the fact that the Conservative MP that was elected never had gotten a chance to speak in parliament. So I said, to voters you want to send a voice to Ottawa, send the NDP voice. Tommy Douglas chose not to run in that election, Jim Manley was our candidate. I ran Jim’s campaign and I knew how to run campaigns, I’d learned from the Harcourt and my own experience with UBC, and I knew you had to get every possible voter out there. We knocked on every doorstep three times in my riding. Everybody that said they were going to vote for NDP, you know, we got out to the doorstep, 100 percent. And the statistics are only 70 percent vote, so when, you know, when the computers looked at it they thought would lose. But I got every one of my voters to the ballot box, so we won by 15 hundred votes.
And right away I developed a relationship with the people here in Esquimalt who saw me as, you know, someone who was prepared to dedicate himself to getting us elected, and I’d masterminded this campaign, which I think is the proper word to use, because that’s the way they describe it, in 1980. The only thing was, I didn’t go to class for about two months because I was running a federal campaign for 60 days. And I used to have one of my friends, who’s now a lawyer in Victoria, you know – photocopy the lecture notes, drop them off every night at the campaign office, I’d read them and see what I had to learn, and then I’d go back to need to run this campaign.
But I survived. I went and finished law school and ran the campaign. So then I sort of went, finished law school and started to article in a company here in Victoria 1982. But I was always involved in the NDP.
In 1983 there was a provincial election. And Frank Mitchell, was my MLA . Once I got here I used to come here to legislature all the time and I would do all of Frank’s background work. You know, I’d help him write his speeches, I’d help him do his pamphlets for his constituency, help him stay in touch with his voters. I was on his riding executive. So I was building a reputation with the NDP around here, particularly with my predecessor MLA Frank Mitchell. And Frank, you know, he saw a good thing when he got it. He had a young guy who, you know, wasn’t married or anything like that, who was quite happy to dedicate a lot of time to the NDP and work with him. So I used to come here all the time, work with Barrett, everybody who was around here, I used to work with them.
So in ’83 there was an election. Frank says, well, he says, look, you did well in the last one, I want you to run this one. Right? And Esquimalt in those days was a swing seat. From ’52 to ’72 it had been Social Credit, ’72 we won by a narrow margin, ’75 we lost by a narrow margin, ’79 we won by a narrow margin, so here we were in 1983 knowing we were in a very competitive seat.
And we won by 8,000 votes, and I got a lot of credit for that because I ran that campaign. Simple thing. Yeah, recruit enough people, knock on everybody’s door three times, make sure you identify who’s going to vote for you, get them out to vote.
So, in 1983 after the election, what happened was the NDP had lost again, and a lot of the people that were part of our caucus were old. Barbara Wallace from Cowichan in particular, Frank Mitchell from Esquimalt, both came to me after the ’83 election. In ’84 there was a federal election. I ran that campaign in ’84 for that federal seat. And we won that again, you know, increased my reputation as someone who knew how to run an election.
So shortly after that federal election 1984, Barbara Wallace, who’s the MLA for Cowichan, came to me. She said, “Moe, I’m not going to run in the next election. I want you to move back to Lake Cowichan. You’re from there, you grew up there, everybody knows you there. I want you to set up a law practice there and I want you to run in 1986 for us. But you have to set up a law practice (there).” And I was kind of intrigued by that because, you know, it was quite an offer. All very quiet because she didn’t want anybody else to know that she wasn’t going to run again.
And then about two days later Frank Mitchell came to me and said, “Moe, I’m not going to run again, and we’ve got to have a new generation in 1986.” I will win the next election and he said, “I want you to quit working for the firm in downtown Victoria and set up a law practice in Esquimalt and I’ll get you elected onto Esquimalt council.” There was an election that year, in 1984. “You become an alderman.” He said, “I’ll work my butt off to make sure you get elected as a councillor. You’ve got all the skills, you go up there, you make a reputation for yourself in Esquimalt, and then come the next election, I’ll work as hard as I can as if I was running to make sure that you get elected.” He said, “it was very important. You know, it’s my responsibility as a member of this party that when I give up my seat that it goes on to somebody who can run as fast as I can with that baton in their hand, and understands their roots and their heritage and the values of the party. And you’ve got all those skills.” I was really impressed with what Frank said.
Now, I made the decision to stay in Esquimalt, (A) because I’d worked more in that end of the riding, (B) the young woman who I was dating at that time, who’s my wife now, wanted to stay in Victoria. It was an important factor. And so I moved my law practice to Esquimalt, set up my own practice. I Did very well at it for someone who didn’t know anybody. You know, everybody who was in the NDP came to see me, so I had a natural constituency. No East Indians in the riding. I don’t think it is more even today, no more than six or eight, you know, members of our community in the constituency.
So in 1984 I came in second as an alderman among 33 positions. So I got in. I give Frank a lot of credit. He went out, got all the NDPers to come out and vote for me, really worked hard for me. Another NDPer came in first, I came in second. And I think, you know, it was an open secret by that time that Frank wanted me to run, because on council they’d always ridicule me, you know, because, oh, you’re setting yourself up to be (a MLA) – you’re not concerned about the community, you want to be an MLA. And I always said, well I’m concerned about the community, why not be an MLA?
So I worked really hard on council to create a reputation in Esquimalt that went beyond the NDP. I worked with broader community groups and so on. And when in 1986, the election was called, and Frank – to his word, he had never told anybody that he was going to quit- on the day the writ was dropped announced to the party that he was about to quit. And the party had no choice but to have a nomination within two or three days. Which made it very easy for me to get a nomination. Right? Not that it was uncontested. It was contested, but there’s no contest. I won 250 votes to 50 against the guy who had beaten me out as an alderman.
But you know, I worked hard within the party and so on and – and the people knew me well enough and Frank gave me his blessings, which meant a lot. I owe a lot to Frank, to this day I still stay in touch with him. And so he made it possible for me to get my name on a lawn sign in 1986.
But you know, the 1986 was a very tough campaign for us. Bill Vander Zalm was on a roll, and Bob Skelly was stumbling, you know, he got nervous, couldn’t speak. And even in Esquimalt which we had won by a large margin in the previous election, people were openly putting up Social Credit signs where there had been NDP signs. But I knew. I had been the campaign manager, I knew where our lawn signs went up. And there’s this enormous sense of betrayal when you would go to major intersections in the riding and you knew that they’d have NDP signs up and they had a Social Credit sign up. You know, and Vander Zalm was making a profound impact right around the province and we were in trouble.
And I remember Frank, you know, sitting down about halfway through that campaign looking at the numbers that were coming in, and he could see as well as I could see, and I’d run enough companies, you know, to know we weren’t going to win. And I remember, Jerry Scott, from the NDP central headquarters, phoned me. He said, “Moe, you know, we just finished doing this poll.” This was about 10, 12 days into the 28 day campaign. He said, “we just finished doing this poll. We’re in so much trouble, we’re only going to win eight seats, and you’re number nine.” Oh my God, what am I going to do now, right? And Frank being the veteran that he was, he sat down and he wrote a letter, because we’d always kept the names on a database, to everybody that voted for him in 1983, everybody who had, you know, between ’83 and ’86 because he knew I was going to run again, he always made sure that he wrote them regularly once – I used to do the letters, you know, I would sit here and do the letters. He’d sign them and send them off to his voters, right? And he’d always talk about his young Esquimalt councillor is doing well, and that was part of the reason to get me in the letter.
And he wrote this very heart-felt letter to about 13,000 people, about 7,000 households, saying that, you know, he was leaving, but in a neutral way – not that it was neutral at all – but in a neutral way he felt that he had an obligation to the voters to tell them who he thought had the best skills to represent Esquimalt regardless of party affiliation. And he said, you know, the person for the future in this constituency is Moe Sihota. And that letter was sent out around day 12, started the doorsteps around day 15, and by about day 20 in the 28 day campaign we saw a shift. A pronounced, major shift.
See, there’s a real sense of community in Esquimalt. You know, in those days, it wasn’t as urban as it is now, and there were small little communities, View Royal and Colwood and Langford and Metchosin and Port Renfrew, small communities where it meant a lot what the local MLA had to say.
And so Frank’s letter was a defining moment. Plus Vander Zahn started to stumble a bit, Skelly started to pick up, so we were also benefiting good from the provincial thing. But basically it was Frank. And Frank got us through that election. I won 13,000 votes to about 10,000. And we lost Cowichan. So I obviously made the right decision in terms of where I ran.
But I just want to tell you one more story. So there I was in 1986 on the night of the election, and very nervous. It’s different when you’re a candidate as opposed to when you’re a campaign manager. And I knew one thing as a campaign manager: trend lines are established very early. You know how TV, they can predict right away. You get seven polls in, this is the way it’s – statistics work. So, I knew, you look at the first 10 results as they come in and that will tell you whether you’re going to win or lose.
So I went home. I have a cousin, very close to me, he lives in Burnaby and his name is Sukh. And I said to him, “okay, you know, the votes come into the central NDP office in Esquimalt. I want you to phone me in the results. I can talk to you if I’m not happy.” I went home. My wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with our first daughter. And I went home and I went upstairs to our bedroom and had a bottle of Crown Royal and 7-Up. The TV was on and the phone rings. First poll in. I lost it. Second poll in. I lost it. And I was a campaign manager, I knew a trend line when it was established. Out of the 10 polls, the first 10 polls that came in, eight of them I had lost.
Well, I started to work on that bottle of Crown Royal pretty fast, and I was saying to myself, “well, you know, I guess this is life. You know? You win some, you lose some.” In that election, in the whole riding, I only lost 12 polls. It just happened to be that I lost eight out of the first 10. And my instincts as a campaign manager caused me to believe that I had lost. And, but sure enough, as the rest of the night went on there were about a 120 polls in the riding, and as the night went on the margin grew and grew and grew and I won.
So I went downstairs, and my mother was sitting there in the living room, and I said “ma tera munda MLA ban giya (mother, you son has become a MLA).” This is on my way to the victory celebration. And she said to me, she looked up, well she can’t speak English very well. She said “theek a put tainu kadi cheta nahin bhulana chahida toon kitho ayian. (Ok son, you should not forget, where you come from.)” Right? If there’s a theme to my life, it’s that, you know, it’s that message. I picked it up all my life. That’s all she said. That’s all she said.
And you know, and yet it was, you know, from an uneducated woman who had come from India. It was a very profound thing to say.
So I went down to the victory hall, and it was here at the Esquimalt rec centre. It was Packed. I mean I’m telling you, I’ve been through a lot of elections, but because I had built up, I think, a relationship with so many of my workers, we had worked with them in the ’70s, ’80 campaign, you know, they all knew me, ’84 campaign, they all knew me. There was a real sense of jubilation. And I walked in and I remember the TV cameras in my eyes, maybe a little effect of the rye as well, you know, I couldn’t see that clearly. People picking me up on their shoulders, taking me in, and I had a speech in my pocket that I wanted to give. And the place was nuts. You know, it really – even if we had lost the election, we had won Esquimalt. We won with a good margin, we had had that generational change, you know. Frank was excited, right? And he goes up and he introduces me and I go up to the podium to give my speech and there’s one microphone there and no podium. No place to put my notes down to give my speech. So I had to give my speech as I felt, as opposed to how I had written it the day before.
So I’m up there and this crowd is cheering. And I’m standing there, you know, telling them to calm down, and they’re cheering and they’re cheering, and I started to look around the contours of this huge hall. Big hall, like I’m telling you, you should go see it. It’s a big hall. I mean 500 people there is what filled it when they’re standing. And it is packed, right? And I started looking along the walls, like this, and they’re all older Indian men. People who I recognized from when I was a kid and lived in Victoria. People I saw when I went to Vaisakhi, people who I saw at the Jor Melas people who had clearly come up from Duncan. Who had come up here from Victoria. We had an old, old community here in Victoria.
And I could see, while I was waiting for the crowd to calm down, that they were seeing something that they never thought in their life that they would see. Up until then I had never thought about being the first Indo-Canadian, you know – I was born here – ever to be elected to a legislature. But I could see from the look – because they weren’t clapping; they were watching. And I could see – you know, you learn over the years as a politician to read a crowd and I could see what was in their mind.
And I gave a speech that night, which you know, I’d like to see a tape of, because I don’t particularly remember it. I remember the crowd being loud. I remember the lights being in my face. I remember having – probably a good thing- having a little effect of rye in my body, because it really made me talk from the heart. I remember crying. I remember other people crying, like, tears, all over that place, right. And I really don’t remember. I remember my campaign manager, a lady, she was absolutely in tears. Right? And you know me, I mean well you should know me. I mean I never give a speech anyways. I usually just speak the way I want to feel. And I don’t remember the speech, but from what people – you know, from what I’ve been told about it, it was a good speech. It had a real effect and it was really – it touched the hearts of those people that were standing along the walls.
Question: When you decided to run, were there any doubts in your mind that you belong to a minority community….
Answer: I knew I was an Indo-Canadian. And I knew a lot of Indo-Canadian have run in Ottawa. And – and I knew that during the campaign there were some people in the riding who said they’d never vote for an East Indian. But that’s not typical of my riding. Be it all white, which is what it is, it’s very, very – it was very much embracing of myself. It has been in every election that I run. So I knew these things. I knew that there was kind of a high rate of failure, a total rate of failure, and that kind of bothered me because sometimes I thought, you know, in the quiet of a ballot box you never really know. And the result could have restored faith in the people that I now know in my riding as well as I know them, but there was never an issue in their mind. You know, they based it on skill and capabilities. I could see that.
Then – I’ve been asked that question a hundred times in interviews over the years and I’ve never really known how to answer it. Like …like I think, you know, like I look back at it now and I realize it was a moment in history, and I had the privilege of being the first one. First MLA, first cabinet minister and so on. I know it was a moment in history, and I know, you know, I remember – and like, I look back at it now and it means far more to me now than it did then. I don’t think I really appreciated it then. And my feeling is it will mean far more to me when I leave. You know. Because I think sometimes you take for granted in life those things that you’ve accomplished. You don’t really sort of see yourself as someone who broke barriers.
But I think that when you get older and you’ve left this game, and when you talk to your kids, you know, then I think there’s a moment of pride in it. But right now… you know, I can’t – I can’t say that – I don’t know what it meant. But I know this: I know that as time’s gone on, it’s meant a lot to a lot of other people. You know, like I – like today, just even today, and this happens every day in here, the kids, you know, the school groups come to watch the legislature, and every Indo-Canadian kid sits there and I know they’re looking at me. Like, I know that. They all recognize me. You know, they all – if I wave they all wave. Right?
I know they kind of told a little white lie to their friends, say, well I know Moe. Because every one of them whenever I see them walking through in the tour I always make a point, I talk to them and you can see the look of relief on their face because they kind of, oh yeah, I know Moe, I know Moe. You know, they also know the truth, but I pretend I don’t know the truth and that I’ve known them all my life.
I look at my mail and I see the letters that I get. I go to functions and people come up to me and say things, and I can see that it’s a – it’s a source of pride, you know. It’s funny, you know. Like, in a funny sort of way I – somehow something happened that was right, because – like, I don’t think that – maybe it’s the delusions of a politician. You always like to think you’re popular. But I don’t think my popularity in the Indo-Canadian community has wavered. Like, I’ve always got the sense that for some reason I get treated a little bit differently than everybody else. You know, usually they can always find a reason not to like a politician. And always there’s jealousies in our community. I used the word piyar (love) early on, right? Everywhere I go I get a lot of piyar from our community.
Now I know, I’ve been in politics long enough, I know the difference between people saying, “oh, you know, MLA aunda, minister aunda (MLA is coming, minister is coming).” Right? And sort of pretending that they’re interested in you, versus something that’s heartfelt. And I consider myself a very, very fortunate guy, because it comes across to me as being very sincere. People are genuinely proud of me, and they’ll tolerate a lot with me. You know, they’ll stand behind me, they’ll defend me. If you don’t believe in somebody that won’t happen. I have no fear with the Indo-Canadian community that someone’s going to say, oh, you know, he’s no good.
When I go to Vancouver and I have to go somewhere to an Indo-Canadian event, I always take my daughter. I always want to take my daughter, I can’t always take her. But I always want to take her because I want her to see how people treat me, because I think it means a lot more for her to observe it than it does to me. And I want her to have some sense of pride in her father.
So again, when you say that, you know, what does it mean to me, I don’t know what it means to me. But I know I want my daughter to feel good about who I am. Right? And – so I think it shows itself in different ways.
So I don’t remember any of them. Someone must have come up to me and said something, but it was such a blur, the night was a long night, you know, those are just the things you remember now about it.
But like I said earlier on, I imagine it meant a lot to them and I would imagine that one day it will mean a lot to me.
Question: So what kind of support did you get from your family and the community?
Answer:Well, you know, in that election –
Question: In your whole political life, generally
Answer: Well, first of all, just in the UBC days without the support of people in our community I wouldn’t have gotten elected. I mean they were good friends, you know, now they offered me all sorts of support.
So you know, so those guys supported me a lot in the UBC days. And then … you know, I guess it was a lot of things. I mean from the first election on in 1986, financial I’ve always gotten good support from the community people. Come out to any fund raisers, now a lot easier than when I first ran because these people had seen people run and not win. But you know, I’ve always had good financial support. I’ve always had good support in terms of picking up the phone and talking to people in the community. If I want an idea or what they think about certain government policies.
I’ve always had good participation from the community in terms of appointments, you know, I phone up people and say, look, you know, we’re looking at this appointment, what do you think of that.
I’ve taken the view that … you know, I’m not just the MLA from Esquimalt. I’m an MLA that represents the community, and particularly when I was the only one. You know, they shared my successes and felt for me when I went through rough times. And there’s a bond there. And I feel that bond right across the country. I remember the constitutional talks, when I was minister responsible for constitutional affairs. You were travelling around across the country doing the constitutional negotiations. And people of Indian heritage would stop me in Toronto or in Montreal or in Halifax, St. John, and I’d get a very, very warm reaction from them, because they felt a point of pride in seeing someone of Indian heritage in the middle of those very heated and tough constitutional negotiations. But they felt that they had a voice.
And I’ve always felt therefore that I have to give them that voice, have to make them feel proud of the kind of representation that I can provide to them, much in the same way as I would for a constituent. So although I get no votes from the Indo-Canadian community, I get everything else a politician would want.
Question: And after you got elected, what kind of expectations or demands were made on you from the Indo-Canadian community?
Answer: When I first got elected the community made no expectations or demands on me. I think there was sort of a watch and see attitude. How does this guy do? And hopefully he’ll do well because there’s a lot at stake and here’s a reputation of the community if someone gets in initially and doesn’t do well.
And then I think, you know, we were- Glenn and myself and Dan Miller and Dale Lovick were so aggressive in opposition with the Vander Zahn government, you know, I could see that over time the community started to say, hey, this is great. You know, he’s one of our guys, behaves like a true jatt, he’s up there, you know, going after the government. And I could see that as time went on the expectations – I don’t think really increased, but I think the point of pride did. I don’t think they’ve ever had – I don’t think I’ve ever could say the community has these expectations, but I can always see that there’s a point of pride.
Certainly when I was sworn into cabinet in 1991 becoming the first Indo-Canadian ever to be in the cabinet, I think that was another moment of pride. I know the Vancouver Sun printed a picture of myself going up and shaking hands with Mike Harcourt as I was sworn in, and I got a lot of mail from the Indo-Canadian community saying – right across the country – saying what that – because they must have run the picture across the country – saying what that picture meant to them.
But it wasn’t expectations. Again it was point of pride. As you know, any portfolio I go into, I always go into the portfolio, the government’s in trouble. You know, I’ve to go and solve the problem. And I like doing that, you know. And I think, you know, every time I’ve gone into a portfolio I think there’s been always been a little hesitation, say, well gee, I hope he does well here. And I like to think that I’ve done well in any portfolio I’ve had the privilege to serve, and generally speaking the community … you know, you get this pride that shows up again.
Expectations, it’s not as people pick up the phone and say to me, oh, you know, my brother needs a job, can you do something about it. Those kinds of expectations aren’t there. They know when they have a broader community issue, they can come and see me. And I’ll go to bat for them. I’ll never say no. Whether it was a million dollars for the Gurudwara on Ross Street or in Surrey, whether it was the Punjabi in the schools, or whether it was this taxi dispute, I go on with a list. I think any time communities come to me they know that I always make a sincere effort to try to attend to their wishes.
And I think, you know, that’s the kind of relationship I’ve tried to foster. And I think that’s worked well for everybody. You know, they’ll say, oh, Moe, if you get involved, this will happen and I will say, look, there isn’t any guarantee except the guarantee I’ll try my best. And people have always come to respect that.
You know, in a funny sort of way, because my Punjabi isn’t very good and people see me struggling with my Punjabi at times when I’m standing in front of a Gurudwara – I don’t know if you’ve ever watched me in that setting, but, giving a speech, they can see that I’m trying my best. But I think because they know that I’m not particularly fluent, I think they tend to listen a lot more carefully because you know, you’re always wanting to hear what the guy’s going to say, and hopefully he doesn’t screw up. And I think in a funny sort of way it makes it easier for me – it’s an advantage, because people listen to what you’re saying because they’re watching you struggle, they feel for you when you’re up there.
So I think that’s always helped me. But you know, and I try to communicate with the community from time to time, you know, in terms of the newspapers and the press. But I don’t live in Vancouver. So I can’t and won’t go to every function. You know, you get invited to everything. And I think if I lived in Vancouver I think the expectations would be totally different. People know that you’re just down the street so why is it that you can’t come. And I think if you lived in Vancouver I think people would be more inclined to show up at your doorstep asking you to do something for them that you really can’t do. Whereas living in Victoria and representing Victoria area Sikhs, I think that that helps me sort of keep some distance, which is always a good thing.
Question: You said that you feel that you’re representing the Indo-Canadian community as well as your constituents. How do you balance that? Are there people in your constituency, who say that you are giving too much attention to the Indo-Canadian community ……
Answer: No. My constituents know that they get the first attention. And I have the good fortune of representing a seat here in Victoria. So I can be in my constituency all day long and everybody will see me there, you know, that I come across. And because I live there, the kids go to school there, you know, and because it’s right here in Victoria you can see your constituents on a regular basis, unlike most MLAs, you know, like here at the legislature I’ll have my constituents come see me every day. Well if you’re from Comox or the Kootenays you can’t do that. I have them coming in all the time, right? And so I – you know, they see a lot of me.
So if one weekend I’m in Vancouver doing something, no one really notices. I’ve never, ever, ever received any criticism from the constituency saying, why are you there and why are you not at home? In fact, I think the constituency understands my background, understands that I also have to play that role, and more importantly supports me in that. Look I got more votes than any other NDP candidate in the last election. If that was a problem it would show up at the ballot box.
Question: So how has the politics of time affected you? For example like if it was 1960s and you were running at that time instead of 1986, would that have made a difference?
Answer: Oh yeah. I think attitudes have changed. I think people – regrettably scorn and disrespect politicians, whereas back in the ’60s there was far more respect for politicians. Now, you know, I mean obviously the person on the other side would say, well respect is something you earn. But it’s a general attitude, you know, all Politicians are corrupt. But they all like their own individual politician, you know? It’s a general attitude towards politics, I think. But more importantly in the ’60s and still today in my mind, people got involved then in politics because they thought they could make a difference. Why am I here? Because I believe that I can make a difference.
I believe that government is something, it’s an instrument that you can use to shape the economic and social fabric of society. Change society for the better for people. Maintain those ideals of people like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Robert Kennedy. The government is a powerful force in the lives of people that can be worked through the state to improve the quality of their lives.
Dominant view today is that government is something that gets in the way. If only we had less government, if only government wasn’t there, if we only had fewer politicians. So when I say disrespect I mean it in that context. People have lost sight of what government can do in a positive way to improve the quality of life of people.
You know, to me politics is not particularly difficult if you think of your children. You know, it’s not ideological. If you just think of the kind of environment you want your children to live in, the kind of education system you want them to have access to, the kind of economy you want them to be successful in, the kind of health care system you want them to have access to, then it’s pretty easy to make the decisions that have to be made.
Now, you know, leadership requires going forward and making decisions, and sometimes if I can criticize politicians they were lucky to make decisions. You have to take risks. I mean every portfolio I’ve been in, it’s always generated a lot of news and noise because I’ll go out, I’ll state a vision then I’ll go out and try to fulfil it. But the vision isn’t predicated on a great sense of ideology except you think about your kids and you think about what kind of world you want them to inherit and you go out and you try to build it for them.
So I think, you know, I haven’t lost any of the idealism of the ’60s in terms of government. I think society has, and I think that’s tragic.
Question:As an Indo-Canadian if you had run in 1960 would you have won at that time?
Answer:Has society changed from that perspective?
Answer:Well, I like to think I would have won. You know, I’d like to think that people would have made decisions on the basis of merit, not on the basis of colour. I believe that society at that time was sufficiently tolerant to be able to do it. I just think that for some reason no one was at the right place at the right time, and it just turned out that in October of 1986, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. But I don’t think there would have been much difference, you know, given the right dynamics, in 1966.
Question:Was there any effort from your party NDP, to encourage visible minorities to seek nominations?
Answer: Oh yeah. Remember? We have this beautiful history as a party. I mean remember in the 1948 election in Mission we had an Indo-Canadian who ran and almost succeeded in securing the seat. So you know, the NDP’s desire to have Indo-Canadians succeed in public office goes back, when Ujjal (Dosanjh) ran in ’79 I think it was, and didn’t succeed, but again, but it was within our political party.
So you know, I mean I think that the party always had that desire, sees all the benefit of it.
Question:Was the support from the Indo-Canadian community for you same in all elections?
Answer: The same in 1991 and 1996 election. In 1986 it was only slightly less because people didn’t know me. But only slightly less. You know, around Vancouver was fine, in lower mainland it was fine. However in the interior, like in Williams Lake, people didn’t know me that well. So that’s where the difference was between 1986 and 1991 and 1996, but apart from that, no, I’ve always had really good support. Same people who donated to my campaign in 1986, you know, donated in 1996. Some of them didn’t like some of the policies I brought in. But it was felt important that they… you know, maybe they see me as someone who will fight for them.
Question: And how big factor was the support from the Indo-Canadian community in your election, the first time?
Answer: Well not much of a factor in the sense that, there were only five or six families in my riding. From that perspective it wasn’t much of a factor. From a financial point of view, and you know, elections cost money, it was a factor, and a big one. Because you know, we certainly didn’t have any trouble raising cash for the campaigns.
Question: Has your relationship changed with the Indo-Canadian community before you got elected and after?
Answer: Oh yeah, clearly it changed. I mean, they didn’t know me in ’86. I like to think they all know me now. I think that the sense of expectation and pride changed. … So, you know, it’s changed, to answer the question, but in the ways I’ve already described. …
I feel today I have more support from the community than I did at any other previous time. Now I don’t know why that is, but you know, as a politician, you know, you develop an elbow. I can see that. I can see that, you know. When I walk through Main Street, I can’t shop. I can’t shop, you know? And three years ago I could. People would come up and talk, it’s not like they ignored me. It’s that at least you could still make your way through. Now I find it impossible. I took my daughter there to buy Lehanga for some of her dance thing. I couldn’t get into the store. People just kept on talking to me, kids wanting autographs, people wanting pictures, others just wanting to talk, others want to thank me for something that we had done as a government.
It’s change. I don’t know why.
Question:Is there a relationship change from your point of view? Have you started spending more time and participating more in the community than you did before?
Answer:Well obviously I participate more because of the reality of being an MLA. But only in that sense. I don’t think I’ve changed in anything. I think the the way the world looks at you changes.
Question:I’m asking this question, because there is a study on ethnic candidates and according to that study, link weakens after a visible, ethinic minority candidate get elected. Has that happened in your case?
Answer: Well first remember, I got elected in a constituency that has virtually no visible minorities. Literally, virtually no visible minorities. So there’s no link in that sense. Right?
Secondly, as I said earlier on, I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know why it is, I honestly don’t know, but I can see that I get treated a little bit differently. I see it as – again I’m not trying to be foolishly, you know, a politician can delude themselves and think they’re very popular. I don’t think I’m doing that. There’s a bond there. There’s a different kind of a bond, you know? I notice it. And I don’t know why it’s there. I think, like, I’m very proud of who I am, very proud of my ethnic background, very proud of my culture, very proud of my religion, and I show it. And I tell people that. And I think, you know, if they see me being proud of who I am, it makes them realize that they should be proud of who they are.
Maybe because I spent so much time, you know, delivering that kind of a message, maybe people that end up reacting to you in a different way. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think the link has diminished and maybe I just defied the study, so it’s a good thing.
Question: What kind of things you have done for the Indo-Canadian community?
Answer: Well, remember I brought in the changes to the Human Rights code, right? To deal with discrimination, and also to deal with discrimination in the press. The Doug Collins kind of cases. So I brought in some fundamental changes to the Human Rights Code.
And then followed that by giving grants to the Gurudwaras. Followed that by bringing in a multicultural policy that ordered every ministry and every Crown Corporation to give a report on what it’s doing to the hiring practices. It goes to cabinet for approval and if they don’t meet the targets then they have to keep on moving. I brought up Punjabi in the schools, probably the thing I’m most proud of, right? And then, you know, like I brought in the – like, I you know, the other things I think that stick out in people’s minds, like when the community was under attack for turbans in the RCMP, right? I took no hesitation to argue with those people publicly, and it was seen to be defending the community. We, as a government, brought that in, right? In terms of the policy for the police officers, there is no controversy within our political party.
Farm workers, you know, didn’t have protection when I first came in as minister of labour. They weren’t covered under the WCB. You know, I brought in that policy, very proud of it because they’re the most vulnerable in society, and I ended up making those changes of the provisions of the Workers Compensation Act. I have appointed literally dozens, if not hundreds of Indo-Canadians to different boards that I have. Appointed with a lot of pride, and I try to make people that are capable, right? Herb Dhaliwal to the board of BC Hydro. I appointed Gurmail Gill as judge. Not only I appointed him as a judge, I put him in charge of the Royal Commission on the Workers Compensation Board.
Whenever I see that there’s an opportunity for our people to show their skills, and I’m trying to put in people who’ve got the skills, so that there’s no failure, you know, I’ve done that for them.
So the list goes on and on. But those are just things,you know, when there’s a moment when the community feels let down I try to speak up for them. The taxi dispute last month. There was a lot of feedback saying, where are the politicians. Well then I stepped in and represented them. You know, when we brought forward the exemption for bicycle helmets. You know, Sikhs didn’t have to wear a bicycle helmet, you know, so the list goes on. I mean I’m pretty proud of it. There’s no way nobody else can match that kind of record.
Now why is that record? That record isn’t there because of Moe Sihota. Obviously I’ll speak to that record, right? And I’m very proud of that record. But you know, it goes back to your roots. If you understand who you are, if you understand the kinds of things that make your community proud, it’s not particularly difficult, then, to identify the things that are important to them to deliver for them. And I think again, if you keep that perspective you’ll – you know, you’ll do fine.
Question: In 1986, you got elected first time, and that is a time when there was a lot of politics, lots of divisions in the Indo-Canadian community regarding the Punjab situation. In what way that situation affected you? How did you deal with that.
Answer: You know, it’s a funny thing, you know, again. I had both sides come to me all the time and say, look, you stay out of this. We’ll handle it. Right? You’re different. You know, you have to look after things in Victoria. You’re the MLA. Everybody, you know, supports you. Those are the kinds of comments I would get, so I stayed right out of it. That was the advice that I got over and over again. I didn’t feel any real need to get involved in it. When I went to Punjab in 1991, and I met with a representative of the government I told them what I thought about these issues. But I didn’t broadcast them. I didn’t think it was necessary to do that, make my case to people, you know.
But I’ve never got drawn into that issue in the way that others have, and there was every pressure on me from the community not to do it. Like, I had people on both sides of that fence come to me within minutes of each other in one day, and say, Moe, you know, you should stay out of this. Let us handle this one. You’re different. That’s always the word. You’re different. You don’t need to get involved in this. It’s was a funny kind of situation.
Question: What is important to you in BC, in Canada. What is the most important thing for you?
Answer: Well I think the answer’s sort of obvious because it picks up on the theme, and I’ll give you some policies as well.
First and foremost, you know, you don’t forget where you came from. Right? You be proud. I’ve preached this to our community over and over again. Be proud of who you are, proud of your culture, your values, and your traditions. Very, very important. Because it defines you as a human being.
From a policy point of view, I think the most difficult issues for society today that I don’t think get talked about often enough, is the environment. I have a real passion toward protecting the integrity of our environment. Whatever I do I spend a lot of time now because I’m taking this break from cabinet, working with environmental technology companies, trying to assist them in getting their foothold into India. You know, because you can’t go to the Punjab and drink the water out of a tap anymore. It’s nuts.
I think the way in which that we are damaging the shell of the Earth is something that I never would have thought much about, but ever since I’ve been in the environment portfolio, that had a real profound impact on me. We’re just taking the Earth for granted and we shouldn’t be.
And I think secondly from a social point of view, is the future of our health care system. The population’s getting older, making more demands on health care. It’s going to be very, very hard for government to be able to maintain a high quality system with all the pressures of deficits and debts. And I think that’s going to be the biggest public policy challenge for government in the years ahead.
Question: Anything specific to Indo-Canadian community? What is the most important thing for you for the Indo-Canadian community at this time?
Answer: As I said, never forget where you came from. Never forget who you are. Take pride in what you are. I remember one day, Dave Barrett and I were driving down the Oak Avenue, right? And we got to Oak and 41st and in those days there used to be an old Jewish home, care – for elderly care- at the corner of Oak and 41st. I don’t know if it’s still there or not. And he said, “can we pull over for a second?” Sure. He said, “I’ll go visit my mother.” His mother was still in there.
He went in there, visited his mother. I stayed in the car, he comes back out, we started talking. And he says, you know, it’s funny what’s happened with the Jewish community. He says they would always vote NDP, but he says, you know, he still speaks to his mother in Hebrew. And he says, you see these other ethnic communities. He said, Moe, it’s going to happen to yours one day too. You know, they lose their language, they lose their culture. They begin to mix so much into society, everything’s becomes diluted. And he says, it’ll happen to yours as well, just like it’s happened to the Italians and the Jewish community. And I remember thinking to myself, no it won’t. No it won’t.
I don’t know how I got to that story.
Answer:Why? Because it’s too important. It’s not going to happen. If I’m around in government to try to do anything that we can to preserve it, then I’m going to do my best. Anything I can do as a father to my children, right? I’m going to try to do my best to do it. If I’m on a stage talking, people are forced to listen because I’m up there, I’m going to do my best to deliver that kind of message. I don’t know why. I know this has been a theme that we talked about all day, but roots run deep in me.
Question:So what do you most like about your job?
Answer: People. I love meeting people. I love talking to people. So every day I do a two or three hour interview. I like doing it. I love talking to people about what’s happening to them. Here I am, the oldest member of this legislature, the longest-serving member here in Victoria, right? And a guy who enjoys the largest majority of anybody in my political party. And what do I do every Tuesday night? I go door to door in my constituency. Right?
Now why do I do that? Because I love interacting with people. I love talking to my own people and seeing what’s going on in their minds, what they’re thinking, what they want government to do, what their expectations are, why they’re angry, why they’re happy. You know? I want to go around – I love meeting people. I get a kick out of it. And that’s the best part of politics is the people you meet.
Question: What kind of relationship do you have with other members of your party, your caucus, non-visible minority members?
Answer: Great. Fantastic. I’ll tell you, I’m a lucky guy. I know these people, I’ve known them for a long time. Like, whether it was Mike Harcourt or Glen Clark I’d never hesitate to walk into their office, never hesitate, I don’t care what they’re doing. Sit down, tell them what I think. Right? And you know, it’s reciprocated. They never hesitate to open the door when it’s me and say, hey, come on in. Right? You know, what do you think? Let’s talk about it. You know? Let’s kick the tires together.
I have a remarkable relationship with cabinet and the caucus. I enjoy working with them, they enjoy me. They know I’ve got an opinion on everything, and they know that I’ll walk in there and tell them exactly how to run their portfolio, give them some ideas. And I like to think that I give them enough good ideas that they value their relationship. The hardest thing in politics is sometimes to have that kind of relationship, because it’s an egotistical business. People can stab you in the back. I’ve seen that happen. But I have to say, I enjoy remarkable standpoint from members of our government, and I think the reason for that is that the friendships are life-long.
You know, I met Dan Miller, 1983, first met each other on provincial council. I met Clark ’79, Harcourt ’79, you know, Dale Lovick ’79. The most of us, you know, who work together have known each other for a long time. And so it transcends anything. It’s just deep rooted friendships. It’s great. I’m in here every day cracking jokes with somebody. And they’re here every day telling me how much they missed the fact that I’m not in cabinet, and I tell them they’re full of shit.
Question: Okay. Did you ever feel a fear of being stereotyped as an ethnic politician when you’re raising issues regarding the Indo-Canadian community?
Answer: No. No. I never felt that. Remember, my constituency base prevents that. I represent a non-ethnic riding, right? So pretty hard to stereotype me, and it’s not as if the only issues that I raise are ones that are important to the community. You know, exclusivity in terms of raising issues will generate stereotyping.
I talk about issues all the time. So the public sees me talking about a broad range of issues. So it’s very easy to avoid being stereotyped. I mean they’ll hear me one day on environment, one day on fish, one day on forests, one day on job creation, the next day on health care and the next day on why in RCMP (people) be allowed to wear turbans. So it really prevents stereotyping because I think I’ve had the good luck of being in so many different portfolios, people seeing so many different facets of my personality that it’s very hard to get stereotyped – if I get stereotyped for anything it’s as an ideological left wing NDP, you know … elected official. That’s how I get stereotyped. But I don’t get stereotyped because I’m Indo-Canadian.
Question: According to some studies, party discipline sometimes hinders people from ethnic minorities to raise their own issues. Is that happen in your case?
Answer:Not for me, man. It’s the other way around, right? I mean, yeah, look. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, I’m not trying to overstate the case, right? But you know over the years you make friends. You start to have a lot of influence within the party. And so you become the party. And so your opinions can become opinions of the party. Now it takes time to get that kind of respect and develop that kind of friendship. So you know, for me, you know, there’s no handicap. I’m in there with everybody else. You know, I’m always in the centre of either the storm or the decision that’s to be made. And because I’m right there in the centre, I impact the thinking at that level.
And the party doesn’t look to me to avoid those issues, they ask me to raise those issues, to give them some of the benefit of some insight around those issues. And if I feel the issues are strong, they know damned well I’m going to go out there and talk about them anyways. So they might as well figure out how we’re going to work a box around it, right?
So I think it’s a function of personality. There can be all kinds of studies on party discipline; you are the party. And the party’s very, very flexible. And when I speak I speak for the party. And I’ve never detected any hesitancy. Sometimes I detected some fear because they don’t know what I’m going to say next, but they’ve always come back and said, well just hang on, before you say it, explain it to us. But I have never had Mike or Glenn ever say to me, look Moe, don’t say that, or don’t go in that direction. Nothing but support.
But I think it’s because we support each other, we develop friendships, we’re candid with one another, you know, and you earn respect with one another. So. It might be a problem for other guys, but it ain’t a problem for me.
Question: You discussed bloc voting at UBC.
Question: And now lots of people are saying that ethnic minorities are abusing the system, by packing the nomination meeting by bloc voting. What are your views on that?
Answer: Well, first of all, I don’t think that’s a danger in our political system. But I do think this – I’ll tell you what bothers me is moving from one party to another. You don’t forget where you came from. And one thing that I am at times very fearful of is a community who forget the historical relationship between it and the NDP. We have talked about that. From the time that I was first interested in politics to Punjabi in the schools, from the right to vote to Punjabi in the schools, I mean this government and this party has shown itself as being onside with this community over and over and over again. And you know, you don’t walk away from the house that loves you. Right?
It’s not that we’re perfect as a government, but you know, politics is a little bit like marriage: you don’t always agree with everything that you do, but you stick it out. Well why is that? Because generally speaking this government will always come down in support of our community. Even when it means taking some political risks to do it. That’s always been the history with them, is the right to vote or to say that Sikhs are exempt from the bicycle helmet bylaw. Right? We’ve always prepared to take some of the risks that go along with taking those positions.
And so that’s my biggest fear is the next generation forgets. They ought not to forget. I saw what life was like in the ’50s and the ’60s particularly. And you know, like I say, it’s important to me to pass that value on to my children. So I don’t mind them bloc voting, but do it only at NDP nominations.
Question: Do you have any opinion why people do that? Why people are moving away from NDP?
Answer:Well fortunately they’re not doing it provincial. I mean we were fearful of that going into the last election. But we noticed that the Indo-Canadian community, gave the NDP its victory in the last election. We won three seats in Surrey, the Indo-Canadian community came through. Quesnel, the Indo-Canadian community came through. Williams Lake. Kamloops it came through.
These are all seats where the government could have lost or won. We identified seven or eight seats that went around the province, spent more time with Indo-Canadian community in the last election than I did in my own riding. But the Indo-Canadian community delivered big for the NDP in the last election. Why? Because I think they saw that people – that our team, myself, Ujjal (Dosanjh) and Harry (Lalli), we’re on their side. We’re delivering for them. They had faith in us. You could never betray that faith. You have to continually work at it.
I don’t think that’s happening at the provincial level. It’s clearly happened at the federal level. I guess that’s helped Herb out. But you know, it hasn’t happened at the provincial level and that’s where my focus has been. And I’ll tell you, to the day I die, probably the last thing I’ll ever say, the last words I’ll ever utter is you don’t forget where you came from. I mean that in a cultural way and I also mean that in a political way.
Question: All of us have some turning points in life. If you look back, are there any turning points in your life that really made a difference in your life?
Answer: You know, I think it was in 1965 when I wrote that exam. The one at St. George’s. It gave me a different life experience than I would not have had if I stayed in Lake Cowichan. That’s probably it. Later on, I think when we gave birth to – my wife gave birth to our daughter, first child. You know, it tends to make you reflect on things, and I would say that changed my thinking a lot. Made you really realize what your purpose really is.
Question: Have you encountered any failures in your political life –
Answer: Politically no.
Question:In whold life?
Answer:Not really. You know, my attitude, like, I left cabinet once because I made a big mistake, I deserved to leave cabinet. At the time I just got mad at them. But I don’t consider that to be a failure.
My attitude basically is the world’s my oyster and I’m having a great time. I really am, you know? Like, I’m very comfortable with what I’m doing, I have some of the best friends in the world, I’m travelling. Put it this way, I was 31 when I was elected. And I’m not 43 years of age, right? At my age most people don’t get the kind of experiences that I’ve had. I’m a very, very lucky guy. I owe a lot to people who gave me this chance, people in my constituency. You know, I owe a lot to them, because they’ve given me a life experience that most people never get to have. And I’m a very wealthy person because of that.
When you look at it that way, you know, it’s pretty hard not to feel good all the time. And that’s exactly the way I feel. I’m always upbeat, I always feel good.
No I honestly can’t say failure. I can’t say that. I’m just very lucky to be doing what I’m doing. Very, very lucky.
Question:Tell me the names of people who have influenced you in politics.
Answer: Well Dave Barrett obviously. I spent a lot of time with Dave and learned a lot from Dave, number one. Number two would be a surprise, shock you when I say the name, it is Joe Clark. I spent time with Joe on the constitutional negotiations and I learned a lot from working with Joe. A lot of respect for him. I think he’s one of the most underrated politicians in Canada. So I would say probably those two probably had the greatest influence on me, and I respect Frank Mitchell, my predecessor, very much. A guy you probably never heard of. But you know, I learned a lot from him about how you look after the people that put you here and that’s very, very important. So I would say those three.
Question:And in what ways they had influenced you? Can you give some examples?
Answer: Barrett, I think, inspired me, from an ideological and philosophical point of view. From a practical point of view he persuaded me of the value of great oratorical skills. The ability to go up there and be able to speak and motivate a crowd. And speech after speech, I watched Barrett – I’ll never be as good as he is. Never. But you know, I imitate a lot of what he does. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched me speak, but you know, I never work off notes, I know what I’m going to say, I go up there and say it. Just captivated by the way Barrett did and I learned a lot from him.
(Joe) Clark, from a purely negotiation and administrative point of view. How it is you bring together diverse groups in the practical sense, in the heat of sitting in a room and trying to work around issues. And I took a lot of what I learned from Clark around negotiations and used it to my advantage when I was environment minister and when I was labour minister, I used a lot of that in that way.
And then Frank, in the context of you don’t forget where you came from. Frank, you know, the loyalty you show back to the people that vote for you. The way you treat them like gold, the way you look after their concerns, their concerns are your concerns. You take them home with you. You work for them, you work for their interests. Succeed or fail, doesn’t matter. They’ve got to see you are going to bat for them. And I’ve seen that same approach with the Indo-Canadian community.
So I think, you know all three of them brought out different kind of aspects of my personality.
Question: And who has influenced you from your family most?
Answer: My wife has influenced me a lot. You know, she is a remarkable person in terms of perseverance and tenacity and you know, in terms of just staying with matters. My mom in terms of values and compassion for people.
Question:When you started in politics you had certain aims and desires. Have you achieved those aims at this point?
Answer: No, I would quit, if that was the case. No, my work isn’t done, but I think the work is nearing an end. I think that I’m probably going to run again, but I doubt if I’ll run after that. I mean if you haven’t made your mark in politics after, you know, two or three attempts at it then you’re never going to make it. And I believe, I could quit today and I could leave a remarkable legacy behind. I’ve created over 200 parks, right? I brought in a labour code that gave remarkable stability to labour relationships in British Columbia. Introduced Punjabi in the schools. Brought in policy to cover farm workers under the Workers Compensation Board. Changed the way that we manage our forests, so new forest practices. Brought in initial piece of legislation that was required to save our salmon resources in British Columbia. Negotiated a constitutional outcome which I still think was very good.
I mean, I could leave today and talk about a legacy, not only in a provincial way but also in terms of my constituency and also to the Indo-Canadian community. So I find that, I’m at that position now where I don’t have much to prove to anybody, but I can do a lot because I think I’ve earned a lot of respect with the people that I work with. You know, if I go into Glenn’s office and I say, hey Glenn, I’ve got an idea in terms of what I think we should do with the Indo-Canadian community. I know he’ll listen. I know he’ll take it very seriously, and I know that if we both agree it’s something that we should do, it’ll get done. So I’m in a position where I can continue to make a difference.
I will leave politics when either I just feel that I can’t make a difference anymore, or when I believe as a human being, enough’s enough in terms of the work that you have to do.
When I say enough is enough, you understand, politics takes an enormous toll on people. You have to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Politics comes first, family comes second. That’s not consistent with my outlook on life. You know, I’m the one minister that’s known around here who brings his kids to the legislature all the time. They’re in my office when I’m having meetings. Right? I leave at five. You know, I show up at nine only after I’ve dropped off my kids at school. You know, every other weekend I refuse to do anything except spend time with my kids and my wife.
But even then, you know, it’s tough in politics because the demands on you as a human being are enormous. And there are days when physically I get tired. But I see what this does physically to people. You know, and the way you age and the way you develop disease and, you know, it’s a very, very stressful, demanding job.
And so, you know, some days I say I should listen to my body. And actually, that’s why I’m taking a break right now, quite frankly, it’s one of the biggest reasons. But then, you know, the fire’s still there. I take a break and then I go on legislature and I hear somebody sort of criticize the government and I want to get up and have my say, you know? And so the fire’s still there. As long as the fire’s there, as long as I can believe I can make a difference.
I sat down in this very room over at that table with the premiere on Wednesday morning for breakfast and I said, look, you know, I’m going to stay with this as long as I believe I can make a difference.
Question:And in what ways has your culture, religion, heritage helped you to stay in politics or do things?
Answer:Well look, culture, heritage give me focus. You know, values have given me a foundation. Language has given me a tradition that I want to speak about. I am who I am. And I am a Punjabi Sikh. And I’m proud of that. And I feel privileged that I’ve had the opportunity to be able to represent that community in a unique way here in British Columbia. It gives me a sense of satisfaction.
So, without the benefit of that heritage, you don’t have a beacon. You have no way to guide yourself. You don’t have a compass. And it’s given me a sense of identity and strength.
Question: And what are your long term plans? Are you going to run again?
Answer:Oh, I’ll run again. But you know, look, I am trying to figure how best to put this, but …my kids mean everything to me. You know. I mean I want to be known as someone who raised, with my wife, two gifted children who can contribute back to society in a meaningful and profound way. I will give them everything that I possibly can to help them succeed. And I will make whatever sacrifices I have for them. And I mean that. And I’ll do that because I will want to be known for what I’ve passed on to them more so than what I left as a political legacy. Right? It’s very, very important to me. You know, very, very important to me. It’s everything.
Question:You want to say anything that I missed or I didn’t ask.
Answer: No, I was a little bit shorter since we’re down here because I’ve got some pressure for time. But no. No, I’ll let you figure out how you’re going to work it all.
Question: Yeah. Well thanks very much.
- The tape recording of this interview is not clear at this point. Therefore, his thoughts about the beginning of the settlement of Indo-Canadians in Victoria are not captured in full. The date mentioned by him does not appear to be correct, because first sikh temple was established in Victoria in 1912. According to the Khalsa Diwan Society of Victoria’s website – http://infoasr.wixsite.com/topaz/history- the Sikhs started to live in Victoria in 1904- Sukhwant Hundal.