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TORONTO: The Punjabi community in Canada made history on Wednesday when two turbaned Sikhs were sworn as cabinet ministers as 42-year-old Justin Trudeau took oath as the country’s 23rd prime minister at a grand public ceremony in Ottawa.
While 42-year-old Indo-Canadian Harjit Sajjan was appointed Canada’s defence minister, 38-year-old Navdeep Bains got the portfolio of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Both Sajjan and Bains are baptised Sikhs.
Another Sikh Amarjeet Sohi, who is not turbaned, was appointed minister for infrastructure. A former bus driver, Sohi was jailed in India for two years in the 1980s.
Young Sikh woman Bardish Jhagger, who is the first-time MP, has been sworn in as minister for small business and tourism.
Navdeep Bains, who played a key role in Trudeau’s election as the Liberal Party leader in 2013, has been awarded with an important cabinet berth.
Bains, who became the MP for the third time last ,month by winning from Mississauga-Brampton, has previously served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister in 2005 when he was the MP from 2004 till 2011 when he lost.
Considered very suave, Bains has been a distinguished visiting professor at Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto till now.
Indian-born first-time Sikh MP Harjit Sajjan is Canada’s new defence minister.
A decorated police and army official, Sajjan has been the first Sikh to command a Canadian regiment – called the Duke of Connaught’s Own which is a reserve regiment based in British Columbia province.
Sajjan has served in Afghanistan and Bosnia and been twice a special adviser on Afghanistan. He was given the Meritorious Service Medal in March 2013.
A father of two, 45-year-old, Sajjan was with the Vancouver Police Department for 11years and served as a detective for the gang crime unit.
However, Sajjan’s nomination as the Liberal Party candidate from Vancouver South last year attracted controversy when many Sikh leaders resigned from the Liberal Party, alleging that the party leadership has been `manipulated’ by hardliner Sikhs of the World Sikh Organization.
Harjit Sajjan’s father Kundan Sajjan is a board member of the WSO which is alleged to have hardline sympathies.
But Sajjan told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last year, “I am not a member of the WSO…I’ve had no negative vibes from anybody.”
Harjit was five when his father moved to Canada from Punjab. His wife Kuljit Kaur is a family doctor.
In the outgoing government, Tim Uppal was a turbaned Sikh. But he was only the minister of state. Uppal by defeated by Amarjeet Sohi by a margin of just 95 votes. For this victory, Sohi has been rewarded with a berth in the cabinet as minister for infrastructure.
Sohi, 51, who came to Canada in 1981, has an interesting life story. He was arrested in India at the peak of Punjab militancy in 1988 when he went back to work with famous Punjabi playwright Gursharan Singh who was known for raising his voice against social injustice.
Sohi’s arrest happened in Bihar where he and other theatre activists had gone to join local villagers seeking land reform. But the night before their rally, police arrested him and others, Sohi said in an interview to an Edmonton daily earlier this year.
Sohi said, “When they saw me, a Sikh, there from Punjab and from Canada, they said, ‘We must have a terrorist here.’”
He alleges that he was beaten and forced to go sleepless as the police threatened to kill his family. He says he was lucky as the female district magistrate “believed my story” and freed him.
Going back in time, Herb Dhaliwal was the first Sikh to become a full cabinet minister in Canada in 1997, followed by Ujjal Dosanjh in 2004. Dhaliwal held the revenue portfolio while Dosanjh held the very important portfolio of health.
Justin Trudeau, the 42-year-old son of the charismatic former prime minister Pierre Trudeau who is credited with opening Canada to new immigrants in the 1970s, led the Liberal Party to win 184 seats in the 338-member House of Commons.
Trudeau is the second youngest prime minister of Canada.