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O (Desi) Canada

November 2007
O (Desi) Canada

Indian Canadians, who form the second-largest minority population in Canada, are in a sense the mirror image of Indian Americans, since we tend to share a lot with them. But there are also differences. How do our northern neighbors view their lives in Canada and our lives in the U.S.?

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

These rousing lines from the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada," which was introduced only in 1980, seem to capture the spirit of a multiethnic, multicultural nation that shares the world's longest undefended border with the United States. There are now over a million Indian Canadians, making them the second-largest minority group (the Chinese come first) in the country. Indians have been migrating to Canada since the 1890s, when Punjabi laborers began arriving in the Pacific Northwest in large numbers. Even though none of its cities has a Lady Liberty holding up her lamp, beckoning weary travelers filled with hope, Canada remains one of the most immigrant-friendly nations in the world.

While many immigrants from India agree that Canada has given them the space to grow and maintain both their Indian and Canadian identities, how do they view the desi community across the border? Do they think there are striking differences? Is the United States really a utopia for immigrants, or is that just a notion talked about in newspaper columns? Opinions are mixed. Take Trupti Shukla, who now lives in New Foundland with her husband and two sons. A successful entrepreneur, she runs two food franchises—Mr Submarine and The Extreme Pita—in St. John's and also maintains a blog on food and life. "After all these years, I am still an Indian at heart—still very, very proud of my roots," she says. "I am a Canadian, too, because this is now my home, the place that has given me some of the best opportunities and education."

Canada or the U.S.?

Trupti feels that there are no major differences between Indian Americans and Indian Canadians. When she meets other desis, she doesn't care whether they are from the U.S. or Canada. "What part of India are you from?" is the question she asks them. Trupti adds that shared experiences—and the quest for a better life—are what really bind them.

Others have a somewhat different take on it. "I think many Indians came to Canada for a better life, certainly, but better not just in terms of money," says Bageshree Paradkar, the editor of Desi Life magazine. "It's also better in terms of lifestyle, standard of living, health care, safety, etc. For money, people go to the U.S.; for a good life, they stay here." She moved to Toronto three years ago to be with her Canadian husband. Paradkar feels that Desi Life, which was launched by Toronto Star, is not just about Indian life or about reaching out to the Canadian desi population. She hopes that, ultimately, it will be a vehicle for integration.

Rosina Haque Kazi, lead singer of the group Lal, thinks that the Indian community in the U.S. and the U.K. is quite segregated—unlike in Canada. "Growing up in Toronto, this is something I never identified with; so it's quite different," she comments.

Not a few, however, feel that Punjabi culture tends to be the dominant South Asian culture in Canada. As a result, Rosina, who was surrounded by Punjabi children, felt a little isolated. "My parents raised us with Bengali culture and music, which was different than the white Canadian experience and also different than the dominant South Asian experience." But she points out that the Canadian desi community has become more diverse over the years. Padma Sastri, a successful teacher and an active member of the community, agrees. She remembers the times when Indian families got together for Indian food or just to listen to Indian songs. Her husband, Krishna, immigrated to Canada in the ‘60s. "When the Canadian Consul was visiting Madras, he called me because he knew my brother," he remembers. "I went to meet him, and he convinced me to come to Canada. I landed in Toronto on a cold and snowy day, wondering if I had made the right decision."

Many Indian Canadians believe that America propagates a melting pot assimilation model, while Canada prefers the mosaic/salad bowl model, which they think is more inclusive of their Indian identity. They also tend to think that, after 9/11, it has become tougher to live and work in the U.S.

Some even cast a more critical eye on the Indian Canadian immigrant experience. Rattan Mall, editor of The Indo-Canadian Voice, feels that the Indian American community seems to include more professionals. "The immigration policy and the Canadian professionals' refusal to recognize foreign degrees because of racism and insecurity is the main reason for the difference," he asserts. This view is shared by other Indian Canadians like Paradkar. "Unlike in the U.S., the perception of Indian Canadians has been dominated by Punjab. Indian Americans are seen as a more diverse group, even in stereotypes such as the Gujarati hotel owner, Sardar (Sikh) taxi driver, Telugu and Tamil software guy, and also the ubiquitous entrepreneur or the math brain."

Making Business Connections

Indian Americans and Indian Canadians, many think, have not been natural business partners, as they should be. Canada is trying to build those bridges by working with TiE but it's still in the nascent stages. Robin Hood, a mainstream Canadian company that's the largest supplier of atta (flour), produces the Golden Temple brand, which is exported to America. Rubicon, another mainstream Canadian company, is one of the largest companies dealing in processed foods and juices. Several other Indian Canadian grocery suppliers like Gelda Foods are also entering the growing market. Dr. Sen Gelda came from Rajasthan to the United States for his Ph.D., but then moved to Canada to work for Borden. After retiring, he started Gelda Foods, which has now branched into pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, research lab, and food manufacturing and distribution.

Along with Indian American companies, they are also trying to start collaborations with companies in India. "India, China and Washington are the three key international markets that have been identified by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and we must continue to forge strong bonds with the communities," says Pradeep Sood, CEO of Outsource Process Inc. and Director of Board for Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC). He also chairs the Ontario India Business Forum, which was formed in late 2006 to develop a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by India's growth. In January 2007, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Confederation of Indian Industry, the largest business association in India.

Pradeep acknowledges that more has to be done to integrate the skilled immigrant labor force into the Canadian market. As the Director of OCC he says that they have undertaken a project which will help address the skills shortage affecting Canada. The shortage is expected to become more acute and immigrants are expected to make up 100 percent of the increase in the Canadian labor market by 2011.

Such a Long Journey

Unlike Indian Americans, the Indian Canadian community has made a big mark on the political scene. In the early ‘80s, they sent Moe Sihota to the state legislature as an elected MLA on the New Democratic Party ticket. Sihota later became a minister. Ujjal Dosanjh, who made the journey from Punjab to British Columbia via England, is a Member of Parliament. He was the premier of British Columbia in 2000 and Federal Minister of Health in 2004.

Ruby Dhalla is a Member of Parliament from the Liberal Party. She was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and first attracted international attention in 1984 when she was ten years old. After Operation Bluestar, when the Indian army stormed Punjab's Golden Temple to flush out the militants holed up there, Dhalla wrote a letter to then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, urging her to resolve the situation without further violence. Gandhi personally replied to Dhalla's letter. Other Indian Canadian politicians include Navdeep Bains from the Liberal Party, Sukh Dhaliwal and Herb Dhaliwal, also Members of Parliament from the Liberal Party, and Deepak Obhrai from the Conservative Party. In fact, in the 2000 election, there were 11 South Asians candidates in the fray in Ontario alone, including two of Pakistani origin and one Sri Lankan Tamil woman candidate.

The long history of Indians in Canada has had its share of racial strife. Indians first came to the Pacific Northwest to work, along with the Chinese, on the Canadian National Railroad. In the early 20th century, when Indian migrants were being driven out of California and Washington and other parts of the U.S., they started entering Canada and settling in and around British Columbia. This was a period of tensions and riots. In 1908, to curb this migration of Asian Indians, Canada passed a law denying entry to those who had not come by "continuous journey" from their homelands. It led to the infamous Komagata Moru incident in 1914, when a ship carrying Indians was turned away from Canada. However, the laws changed drastically in the later part of the 20th century. The Canadian government re-enfranchised the Indian Canadian community with the right to vote in 1947. And in1967 all immigration quotas based on specific ethnic groups were scrapped in Canada, around the same time as in the U.S. There are still large Sikh and Ismaili communities in British Columbia.

Now all major urban cities like Toronto have a vibrant Indian culture. Walk down Gerard Street in Toronto and you will see dozens of sari boutiques, gold jewelry shops, eateries, grocery stores and even paan shops! Blaring from the shops on Gerard Street are catchy Bollywood songs, Tamil melodies and Punjabi call-in shows. There are at least 30 South Asian ethnic publications, including 16 Punjabi newspapers. Apart from newspapers in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, there are six South Asian dailies in English. On Canadian Multicultural Radio, the station designated for ethnic communities has 30–40 South Asian radio programs.

But it wasn't always so vibrant and there weren't as many options for Indian Canadian families 30 years ago. There were far fewer Indian families, many of whom got together during the weekend to enjoy the company of another desis, eat Indian food and watch Hindi movies. "One of my fondest memories is 30 families crammed together in a townhouse one of the families owned, eating avial made with tinned drumsticks," says Padma Sastri, adding that there was just one Indian store on Gerard street and it only opened for a couple of hours every week. "If I missed the window, there was no dal for us to make sambar."

Indian immigrants had to work hard to give this Indian Canadian identity to their children. Sometimes the choices were tough. Kanchana Sundaram, a second generation Indian Canadian, is Padma and Krishna Sastri's daughter. She and her sister, Savithri, traveled more than an hour to learn Bharatnatyam or participate in bhajans and other Indian cultural programs. "As kids we hated that we were different. We hated that we had to do different activities at home?that we had to put oil in our hair. We just wanted to be like the rest of them," Savithri remarks, adding that she now appreciates those differences. She feels that she and her parents are traveling in opposite directions. "They are learning more about the Canadian experience and we are learning about ‘Indianness'," Kanchana notes. "And we meet somewhere in the middle."

Trupti similarly feels that her parents were always strict with her and her brother. "They were afraid of me turning out like ‘some other people' we had met—too phirangi, I guess," she says. And Trupti found that she has learned a lot about Indian culture through her interest in blogging. "I haven't been back to India in 17 years, but I have formed my own Indian community through my blog. It is a way of reflecting my Gujarati roots to others."

Beyond Bhangra

Music is an important outlet for desis who are keen on exploring and asserting their Indian Canadian identity. Riksha and Lal, both in Toronto, and the Mantraboys in Vancouver are just a few groups worth mentioning. Acclaimed ghazal artist Kiran Ahluwalia, who won a 2004 Juno Award in the Best World Music Album category for Beyond Boundaries, says that Canada is definitely more supportive of the arts, opening new avenues for gifted Indian Canadians.

"The mainstream media has opened up to Indians simply because they are sharp, talented young people that are highly qualified for the job," Ahluwalia says. "I think the reason that I have been able to tour successfully is because even if people don't understand the languages that I sing in—Urdu and Punjabi—it is the music, the pattern of notes, and the rhythm that people connect with."

"There are so many bright second generation South Asians who are choosing non-traditional—not just traditional—paths as career options," Kanchana adds. "There also is a great entrepreneurial spirit that exists here."

Then, of course, there are the internationally recognized big names that Canada has embraced and lionized. Director Deepa Mehta's widely seen films range from serious dramas like Fire and Earth to the comedy Bollywood/Hollywood. Her latest, Water, opened at the Toronto Film Festival to critical acclaim. Bombay-born Rohinton Mistry, who lives near Toronto, received the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book of the Year for Such a Long Journey, his debut novel, and the prestigious Giller Prize for A Fine Balance, besides many other awards. Kenya-born and Tanzania-raised M.G. Vassanji, who came to Canada in 1978, is the author of five acclaimed novels, including The Gunny Sack, which won a regional Commonwealth Prize, The Book of Secrets, the winner of the very first Giller Prize, and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which also won the Giller Prize.

Among other Indian Canadian figures, Lisa Ray and Ruby Bhatia have made it big in the Indian entertainment and film industry; in fact Bhatia was one of the first VJs for Channel V. Ashwin Sood and Raghav Mathur are prominent Canadian musicians. Sood, a drummer in Sarah McLachlan's band, is also married to her. DJ Raghav is well known for his remixes and is big with Bollywood songs, especially Angel Eyes. Russell Peters and Shaun Majumder, who played Kumar's brother in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, are widely known comedians. Notable television hosts include Monica Deol and Sarika Sehgal, a former CBC journalist and anchor who now co-hosts a current affairs show called Toronto Tonight on Toronto 1. Sarika, who is of Punjabi heritage, believes that ethnic background is irrelevant in terms of career and how things work in Canada. "It is not like I am of this color and that's why they need me. I think of myself as Canadian," she told mybindi.com. On the other hand, the Asian Television Network, owned by Shaan Chandrashekar, is representative of the much-needed counterbalance that ethnic media in general, and Indian Canadian media in particular, provide to mainstream coverage.

Striking a Fine Balance

Rattan Mall was special correspondent for The Times of India, when he immigrated to Canada for, as he puts it, "the fun of it." Now, as the editor of a leading weekly newspaper, he feels connected to both the desi and mainstream communities. "I am proud to be both Canadian and of Indian origin, because of the wealth of culture and experience from India which I wouldn't trade for all the wealth in the world," he declares. "At the same time, having grown up in a Westernized home in India (I am Christian with one Muslim, two Hindu and three Christian first cousins!) I fit into Canadian society with ease." He calls his mother and relatives in India once a week and uses the Internet to stay connected with his friends and Indian news. "But as an editor of a Canadian weekly my priority is Canada and Canadian news," Mall adds.

Many Indian Canadians mention that the pride they feel in their heritage is something they would like to pass on to the next generation. Trupti realizes that her two sons, being of the third generation, are far removed from India. "I would like them to have exposure to the best of both worlds, just like me; even more so than me," she says. And she is making sure that she does her part in that education. "I play the santoor each night while putting them to bed. They already know who Pt. Shivkumar Sharma and Rahul Sharma are. They watch Hindi movies, read Indian comics like Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha, and participate in cultural activities. I take them to the Hindu temple every chance I get."

Now based in Michigan, Kanchana, who is married to an Indian American, mirrors her sister's thoughts. "It's all the things I did as a kid—keeping in touch with India through food, music, religion and language. I hated them before, but now understand the importance and want to pass it on to the next generation."

Looking back on her arrival in Canada almost 30years ago, Padma Sastri says, "Who would have thought that the woman landing in Toronto in a Lilac saree and puttu on her forehead on a snowy morning would become a successful teacher and a comfort for future immigrants." As a school teacher she has taught generations of immigrants and has also been active in the Indian Canadian community. She feels that the plane journey from India to Canada was the best step she undertook, because it enabled her to fulfill her family's dreams, allowing her children to reach their full potential. With evident pride in her daughters and her life, she says simply, "Canada has been good to us."

By Mandira Banerjee

Prominent Indian Canadians


Deepa Mehta

Lisa Ray

Sugith Varughese

Nilesh C. Patel

Ashwin Sood

DJ Raghav

Russell Peters

Shaun Majumder

Jazzy B

Harbhajan Singh Mann

Nira Arora

Sarika Sehgal

Monica Deol

Kiran Ahluwalia


Nina Grewal

Gurmant Grewal

Harry Bains

Navdeep Bains

Hardial Bainds

Ruby Dhalla

Herb Dhaliwal

Raj Chouhan

Vic Dhillon

Raj Pannu

Raminder Gill

Ujjal Dosanijh

Moe Sihota


Anita Rau Badami

Shauna Singh Baldwin

Rohinton Mistry

M. G. Vassanji

Priscilla Uppal

Ajmer Rode

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