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Oak Creek: We Should All Be Less Ignorant About Sikhs in Canada

08/06/2013 08:45 EDT | Updated 10/06/2013 05:12 EDT

About a year ago today tragedy befell the Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It claimed six lives and left others with emotional and physical scars.

Here in Canada, where we have a large Sikh community, there was a profound sense of loss. Not since the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi has there been such public consciousness of an attack against the Sikh community.

As I watched coverage on CNN, they eventually dragged out an "expert" to explain to those watching what a Sikh is. The explanation left much to be desired. CNN would go on to explain that Sikhs are Hindus. For those unfamiliar, this is sort of like saying Christians are Buddhists. They would also go on to say that Sikhs "...can easily be mistaken for Muslims or Taliban."

Oak Creek proved the American media knew very little about Sikhs, an argument that can likely be made about most Americans. Sikhs are a small community in the US; they don't show up in TV or movies.

To be fair, if you had asked me four years ago to explain to you what a Sikh was, I don't know what kind of answer I would have given you.

And you might ask yourself now if you can explain what a Sikh is. You might know that they wear turbans, and that their place of worship is called a Gurdwara. You might know more or you might know less. Are there Canadians who don't know what Sikhism is? I think the answer is "yes", but a more relevant question might be: is that a problem?

There has been a lot of talk over the years about how multicultural Canada is. It's often expounded as one of our virtues, but what we haven't always addressed is how little we know about each another.

In the aftermath of Oak Creek I chose to educate myself as best I could, so I could better understand not just Sikhism, but my Sikh friends, about whose religion I knew relatively little. I watched "Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath", a documentary on how Sikhs were targeted post 9/11 by misinformed Americans who thought Sikhs were involved in the World Trade Centre bombings.

The saddest story was of Balbir Singh Sodhi who was murdered by a man believing him to be a terrorist sympathizer just hours after Balbir had donated to a 9/11 victims fund.

If multiculturalism is a strength of Canada, we will only be stronger if every one of us seeks to understand our neighbours better. This is not to say that we are ever going to figure out how to permanently avoid future tragedy, but it is to say that we can choose understanding over ignorance.

At the vigils in Toronto and Brampton last year the Sikh community brought leaders from every faith to address the mourning crowds, and members of all political parties attended. Standing amongst them last year I decided that I would fix how little I knew; a year later I am reminded there is still a lot about one another we don't know.

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