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Spill the Chai: On racism in elections

By Aymen Sherwani, October 4 2019—

Elections are probably the only time of the year when you get to see the true colours of the people around you. The 2019 Alberta General election — held last April — not only brought back a right-wing majority to the Legislative Assembly but also the return of alt-right, anti-immigrant sentiment to the province. This was the case last March when a member of the National Citizen’s Alliance (NCA) verbally harassed people of colour at the Genesis Centre, located in one of the most culturally diverse areas in the city, blaming the government for turning Alberta into a “UN refugee camp.” 

To add fuel to the fire, for a lot of people here, the Trudeau blackface incident hits home. A lot of South Asian students at the University of Calgary who have already ruled out the Conservative Party from their votes because of UCP tuition slashes, are now questioning whether the Liberal Party is a better option after a photo of their party leader mocking the colour of their skin resurfaced. Many students claim that they don’t plan on voting at all. 

When it comes down to actually running for office, minority candidates in elections experience a significant level of scrutiny in comparison to white male candidates, and not just for their portfolios and platforms. In the light of the upcoming Canadian federal election, the anti-immigrant sentiment in Calgary has become such a rampant issue to the point that Gurinder Singh Gill, NDP candidate for Calgary Skyview, has had his campaign boards vandalised with racist rhetoric like “Go Back, MF,” targeting the fact that he is a Sikh man who wears a turban. This degree of systemic racism is a phenomenon exclusive to people of colour. People never claim to hate a white candidate because he happens to be Irish in the same way they do for candidates who have darker skin and are unapologetic about showcasing their culture.  

The Gauntlet spoke with Gill about the incident, his decision to run for office and the importance of people of colour to be involved in local politics, despite the odds being against them. Here’s what the Calgary Skyview candidate had to say.

The Gauntlet: What were your initial reactions to finding out that your campaign boards had been vandalised? 

Gurinder Singh Gill: People had told me that my signs would get vandalized before I had even made up my mind to run for office. I expected it to happen and for my boards to be taken down, but I didn’t know that it would go to that extent of the full-on racist comments. We were joking around about what’s the worst that anyone could do, like draw a moustache on my face? Because that’s what I’ve seen before, but this just took it to a whole new level.  

G: How has this impacted your work and how you interact with your constituents? 

GSG: I’m a pretty open person, and I understand that we’re talking about a small group of people who’ve done this, so I can’t take it to heart and I can’t let it put me down. I have had so much support and so many people messaging me on Instagram, so many emails, so many phone calls as well just saying “Hey I’m sorry that someone did this to you,” but really there’s nothing to be sorry about. It’s unfortunate that there are still people who feel that way and are reacting like this. There is a lot of love and support from everyone.”

G: We have seen a lot of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from our highest elected officials in this province and country. It’s unfortunate that you’ve received similar pushback on your campaign trail. Do you think the UCP are creating an unwelcoming environment for people of colour, regardless of whether they are an electoral candidate?

GSG: People are starting to think that it’s okay to make these comments based on recent events. I think individuals have started expressing themselves a bit more freely, in regards to topics like this, from what I’ve seen. They’re not taking into consideration how it really affects the individual. It opens up a dark past for individuals who have really struggled with racism, and it reminds them of what used to happen to them like if they used to be bullied in grade two because of the way they looked because they wore a turban or a hijab. We just have to reassure everyone that we are not going to let individuals like this take us down. We are going to stand up to racism.

G: Due to the recent attacks on your identity, do you feel the pressure of being a trailblazer now? 

GSG: I want to send the message to younger people that they can do this as well, and I hope it motivates and pushes them to move forward despite it all. I used to think I couldn’t do a lot of things because of my identity, but growing up I used to read about news like the first Sikh in the RCMP, and it’s stuff like that which is building the foundation for future generations.

G: As someone who graduated from university just three years ago themselves, what advice do you have for young South Asian students looking to get involved with politics and/or running for office someday? 

GSG: Getting into politics alone? You have to have thick skin because, beyond racism, there’s a lot of other personal attacks people make on you. Other political candidates are going to take shots at you based on who you are as a person, so you have to have thick skin and you have to be able to take it all in. But at the same time, you have to be able to stand up for what’s right, too.

Calgary Skyview federal NDP candidate, Gurinder Singh Gill, might have had his campaign boards defaced with black spray paint, but he has made it clear that he is going to stand strong in the face of hatred and bigotry. The Canadian federal election is on Oct. 21, and it’s time for students to choose candidates that don’t want to remove the caps on their tuition and don’t take fake stances on supporting diversity in an effort to get a little clout. 

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