10/18/2015 02:46 EDT | Updated 10/18/2015 06:59 EDT

Surrey-Newton: Claims Of 'Indian Politics' Fly In Tight B.C. Campaign Battle

"There is a lot of intimidation and bullying tactics that I don’t like," said the NDP incumbent. Her Tory opponent replied: “It never happened."

During this election campaign, The Huffington Post Canada has highlighted notable riding battles across the country from Halifax to Montreal to Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary. This is the last of our profiles from Ottawa bureau chief Althia Raj.

SURREY, B.C. — You can feel NDP incumbent Jinny Sims’ anxiety as she reminds some of her faithful supporters to get to the polls.

“We’re getting you to get out and vote. Have you voted yet?” she asks at the door of a home with a small "Re-elect Jinny Sims" sign on the lawn on 60a Avenue, a leafy cul-de-sac in poll she won in 2011.

“Isn’t it open at 12?” the young man who answered the door says.

“Ya,” Sims replies.

“I’m going to go at 12,” he reassures her.

“Take grandma?”

“Mom’s going to take grandma.”

“OK, son, pull out all the stops,” says the NDP candidate.

It’s the second day of advanced polls and the NDP volunteers — like the Liberals and the Conservatives — are trying to get their identified supporters out to vote.

Jinny Sims is the incumbent NDP in the redrawn Surrey-Newton riding.

Like many B.C. races, it’s a heated three-way contest in Surrey–Newton. In 2011, the riding, which used to be known as Newton–North Delta, elected an NDP MP with 33.4 per cent of the vote. The Liberal incumbent at the time, Sukh Dhaliwal, lost by 903 votes. He received 31.5 per cent of support , while the Conservative candidate, Mani Fallon, was just behind him, with 31.3 per cent.

Sims is facing off against Dhaliwal again. The Liberal MP from 2006 to 2011 wants his old seat back. They are both competing with a new Conservative challenger, Harpreet Singh, a journalist with his own radio and television programs.

Surrey is British Columbia’s fastest growing city, with some 800 new people arriving each month. The riding’s boundaries recently shifted to reflect the growing population, and the North Delta part is now gone.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, more than half the riding’s residents were born outside Canada, most of them in India. About two-thirds of the riding is South Asian, Sikhism is the dominant religion and Punjabi is spoken by about half the population.

When the federal election began on Aug. 2, the NDP was leading in the polls and Surrey–Newton appeared to be tilting orange. But polling aggregators now suggest it will likely be a Liberal win.

Sims is running an aggressive campaign. In radio and print ads, she highlights Dhaliwal’s past convictions under the tax act.

Last year, Dhaliwal and his wife, Roni, pleaded guilty to several charges of failing to compile tax returns for one of their companies, Genco Consultants Inc. She was fined $5,000 and he was fined $3,000, according to The Vancouver Sun, after police determined that their company had not filed fully completed corporate tax returns in six different years, starting in 2004.

When the charges first emerged in 2013, Dhaliwal withdrew his bid for a provincial Liberal seat. But last year, the federal party gave him the green light, and he won a competitive nomination race — the largest in the country with some 7,000 party members casting a ballot.

In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada, Dhaliwal shrugged off the attacks.

“It doesn’t matter at all. This shows that Jinny Sims is very desperate right now, because she was not able to deliver anything to the people of Surrey–Newton. Now, she is worried,” Dhaliwal said.

The former MP insisted that he had taken a “leadership role” in solving the issue. It wasn’t his personal income taxes, he said, but the taxes for a company of which he is a director. “This was just an administrative matter... I took responsibility, I corrected that, and it was the time to move forward... It was just a filing deadline that I couldn’t meet.”

What about the reminders sent month after month by the tax agency?

“It wasn’t in my hands,” Dhaliwal insisted. “If it was in my hands, I would have done it earlier.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, right, walks with Surrey-Newton candidate Sukh Dhaliwal, left, while attending the 20th Annual Mela Gadri Babian Da cultural festival in Surrey, B.C., on Aug. 2, 2015.

During an interview last Saturday, Sims accused her Liberal challenger of engaging in what she called “Indian politics.”

“Here in Surrey — and I’m sure it is true in Brampton and in other areas — a lot of Indian politics gets involved in our politics here. It’s about whether you’re from Malwa, [or] whether you are from Doaba … things that I had never heard of till the last election,” she said, referring to geographical regions of Punjab.

“It’s very much a male-dominated politics,” she responded when asked to explain. “I learned a lot living in Surrey on how politics are done. And I’ll leave it at that.

“I’ll tell you, I didn’t want to go there, but Mr. Dhaliwal uses a lot of intimidation tactics. There is a lot of intimidation and bullying tactics that I don’t like.”

Dhaliwal denied bullying Sims.

“It never happened. I have always come respectful of her and respectful of any candidates that have come forward,” he said.

The Liberal suggested it was Sims, and not he, who engages in “Indian-style politics” — an allegation that the Conservative candidate also levied against Sims.

“She can make lies, she can misrepresent whatever information. In fact, she is doing Indian style," said Dhaliwal.

Both he and Singh suggested Sims was being aided by people from India and from the U.S. who were making calls on her behalf and encouraging people to vote.

Sims' campaign manager Lori Winstanley said she was not aware of such people working to support the NDP candidate. Under the Canada Elections Act, it is illegal for a foreigner to try to influence Canadians to vote.

Elections Canada returning officer for Surrey–Newton Madurai Rajoo told HuffPost that her office has not received any official complaints. Is this just the campaigns snipping at each other? “That it is exactly what it is and I kept myself out of it,” Rajoo answered.

'Political opportunity'

Sims is feisty. She can also be warm. But like many candidates, she tends to gloss over certain facts. During our visit, she appeared to suffer from a severe case of selective memory.

Last Saturday morning, Sims told her campaign staff she’d had a restful nine hours of sleep. Then she told HuffPost, she was out late attending a Pakistani cultural event but didn’t want to worry her staff. Later, while door-knocking, Sims was caught off guard when a couple asked her why she had missed a wedding reception she had been expected to attend that previous evening. She told them she had to stay home with her 90-year-old mother who was grieving the recent death of her two uncles.

When questioned about the inconsistencies, Winstanley said Sims had been working 10 to 14 hours non-stop for 60 or 70 days, so the days were blurring into one another. “Not sure why this is a big deal,” she wrote, “pretty expected actually.”

Surrey-Newton candidate Jinny Sims poses with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair at a rally in Surrey, B.C. on Oct. 6.

As a former educator and head of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, Sims told HuffPost she’s running again because she wants to leave a better country for her children, grandchildren, and her former students.

Her opponents like to point out that Sims decided to run federally in Surrey — "took a political opportunity," says Dhaliwal — only after losing an NDP provincial nomination in the riding of Vancouver–Kensington.

But Sims insisted that she decided to run in Surrey because she wanted to be a role model for young South Asian women.

“I had no intention of running in politics, but when I did decide, I said to Jack [Layton], you’ve convinced me, but now I want to run where I can be … a mentor to young women and to young people from the diverse community to show them that we can live in politics, do politics the Canadian way and we can win,” she responded.

“For me, being an MP is not that important — it’s not as important as getting my Canada back,” Sims said. “I don’t recognize the Canada that I moved to, sometimes now.”

Sims was raised in England and came to Canada in 1975. She left Britain because Margaret Thatcher had devastated the public education system, she said. It was supposed to be a two-year stint, but she and her husband liked it so much that they stayed.

Now, she worries that her grandkids won’t have the same opportunities she had: a stable job with decent pay and the ability to buy a house.

“I’ve never been a passive person,” she said, “I’m a person who fights for my principles.”

Sims proudly noted that she is one of Parliament’s top interveners.

In Ottawa, Sims said, she has been standing up against combined Conservative and Liberal cuts to health-care transfers, immigration “quotas” that resulted in long wait times, the anti-terrorism bill C-51, and the ‘Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.’ She has also called for an additional 100 RCMP officers for Surrey — it’s what the city asked for and which the federal government promised to provide.

A busy Surrey mall was the scene of a deadly targeted shooting In April 2013.

Crime is a big problem in Surrey. Gang shootings have killed bystanders. Bullets have been fired near an elementary school in broad daylight. Most, if not all, the shootings are related to the drug trade, columnist Frank Bucholtz wrote in the Surrey Leader.

This spring, B.C. NDP MLA Harry Bains’ 22-year-old nephew was shot dead. Bains, who is campaigning with Sims, told HuffPost that his nephew’s error was hanging out with kids he didn’t really know.

The RCMP’s own statistics show violent crime has gone up by 33 per cent in Surrey–Newton for 2015 compared with the previous year. There were 16 attempted murders in the riding in the first six months of the year, along with 105 robberies, 65 sexual assaults, 572 assaults and 15 abductions.

Everyone complains that there are not enough cops, she said, and people feel unsafe.

“What we hear on the doorstep now is that people are too scared to go out,” Sims said. “When you have 30 plus shootings in a matter of months, you can imagine why, especially in the South Asian community…. You’re scared when your kids go out.”

Two blocks from her campaign office on King George Boulevard, Sims said, there was a shooting one night while staff worked late.

RCMP Chief Supt. Bill Fordy, left, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, centre, and Asst. Comm. Dan Malo are seen at a news conference in April addressing 22 gang-related shootings in two months.

Both Dhaliwal, the Liberal, and Singh, the Tory, say Sims talks tough in Surrey but she toes the NDP’s party line in Ottawa when it comes to voting on tougher criminal penalties.

“Of the 60 bills that were passed over there, most of them were rejected by the NDP, and Jinny Sims voted against them,” Singh said. “In the Parliament, she says nothing is happening over here, but when some tough-on-crime bill is passed, why is it that the NDP opposes it?

“In Surrey–Newton, crime is going up, whereas all across Canada it is going down.”

Tough on crime

Singh said residents concerned with safety and security issues should vote for him. “We are the party that [will] be tough on crime.”

Conservatives want more police officers and more mandatory minimum sentences, he said. He believes Canada should have tougher laws like the United States to discourage drug rings.

“Here, there are so many cases where 100-times repeat offenders are moving around in the streets,” he told HuffPost. When drug dealers are caught, the police can only bring them before a judge, Singh said, and after a few days the judge releases them. “People are fed up with it!”

It’s not just the South Asian gangs, Singh added. “We have the Somali gangs, the Vietnamese gangs, we have the Caucasian gangs, there are a lot of gangs over here. This is why I said integration is a major issue.”

Singh believes many of the misconceptions people have of one another can be addressed by bringing people together. He has pledged to hold open town hall meetings every two months.

“People are great. Unfortunately, the power brokers in our communities think they are the ones who control the vote banks,” he said. “I don’t think so. It’s the people [who] are hard-working, honest, good people. And you go and listen to them, and they love you so much.”

Harpreet Singh had a radio talk show and one-hour daily TV program before running for the Tories.

Singh also believes that the South Asian community needs to look inwards and that more resources should be devoted to educating parents on how to talk to their kids.

“No parents want their kids to go into this lifestyle,” he said. “The children need to be told the end is going to be disastrous for you. You’re not going to be anything. That machoism, that so called money and glorification and everything that is shown to you, it is not going to mean anything.”

Indian parents tend to shelter their kids and exclude them from family decision-making, Singh said. They turn a blind eye to potential signs, he continued, such as how their kids can afford expensive BMWs and Mercedes. Often parents are just struggling to pay the bills on $15 and $20 an hour wages and aren’t around much to be able to keep tabs on their teenagers and young adults, he added.

The Indo-Canadian community, he said, could learn from their mostly Caucasian neighbours.

“[In] Indian homes, the general thinking is: We always shun our child, we don’t involve them in decision making. Look at the mainstream people, they always involve them,” he said. Children who are always told no, Singh said, will more easily fall into a drug culture, “machoism,” and the allure of money than they would otherwise if their self esteem was high.

“It’s not high-level gangsters who are doing all this,” he said of the shootings, it’s just young adults trying to show off.

“Our culture we always protect the child… but when it goes out of hand, we cry and we say ‘Oh.’

Pulse of the people

As a journalist — Singh had a radio talk show and one-hour daily TV program highlighting the contributions of South Asians — the Conservative candidate said he has the “pulse” of the people.

“From the countries we come, we always [complain about] the politicians and their crap and that they are not approachable.” Singh, who has been living in the riding since he arrived in Canada 12 years ago, said he is working to change that. His campaign is focused on “honesty and integrity.”

So far, he’s knocked on 19,000 doors and gone through four pairs of shoes, he said. When he started campaigning in April, the Tories had slightly more than 300 identified supporters in the riding. Now, there are more than 18,000, he said.

Singh said he knows he won’t change Stephen Harper’s mind on anything but he wants to be a “hands on” local politician who is focused on changing things “at the bottom.”

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has a moment with Surrey-Newton candidate Harpreet Singh in September. (Photo: Facebook)

As we door-knock from the well-to-do mostly white retiree neighbourhoods and $800,000 homes with beautifully manicured lawns, to the mostly Punjabi neighbourhood where the homes are nearly as large but the lots are smaller and the yards unkempt, Singh talked about his plan for the riding.

He said he’s confident he’ll get more votes than his opponents from women — “especially the Indian women” — because he’s been talking to them about marijuana. “No parent wants, you know, corner shops where marijuana is openly sold, and we are the only party which is against that.”

Singh calls marijuana a gateway drug that will lead to cocaine and heroin. When his assertion is disputed, he falls back on the argument that this is what he believes.

“We [Sikhs] are against drugs,” he said. “Even in our scriptures… there is a story that says that even the horse of the Lord did not go through that field where opium was growing.That is what resonates with us. How can we support a party which talks about legalization of marijuana?

“I find children’s eyes red when they open the doors. I find parents crying for help that do something. ‘Save our children. We don’t want this kind of life. Why did we come to Canada?’” he said. “I believe that by regulating all this it will create more problems instead of solving it.

“When you start with marijuana, you end up joining gangs, and that will create chaos. It’s not fear mongering, it’s what I believe.”

Two blocks from Singh’s campaign office, the advance poll is open at Newton Elementary.

Nitesh Singh, 24, told HuffPost he voted for the first time because he thinks the Liberals are going to “change something” and “cut taxes for the average family.” Avtar Dhaliwal (no relation to Sukh) said he liked the Liberals’ platform and was voting “for Mr. Trudeau.”

All the constituents HuffPost spoke with said they planned to vote Liberal. This polling station went Liberal in the 2011 election, but the advance poll area also included pockets of NDP and some Conservative strength.

Kishan Chanh, an immigrant who arrived in Canada in 2003 and obtained his citizenship four years later, said he was voting Liberal for several reasons, none of which had to do with the Liberal candidate.

“Stephen Harper, I think … he is anti-immigrant, number one. Number two, he is for the rich people, not for the middle class. Number three, he’s not creating any jobs…. Liberals will create middle-class jobs, so we support Liberal. It doesn’t matter who it is, whether it is Mr. Sukh Dhaliwal or A, B, C, D, whoever. I don’t vote for the person, I vote for the party,” he said.

Chanh worries about Bill C-24, a new law that allows the citizenship minister to strip citizens convicted of terrorist activity, espionage or other serious crimes of their Canadian citizenship and deport them back to the country of their birth or of their their parents’ birth if they were born in Canada.

Across the country, the Liberals advertised that C-24 created two classes of citizenship and suggested citizenship could be stripped without explanation. Many naturalized Canadians such as Chanh told HuffPost they feared their citizenship could be revoked even if they did not engage in any criminal activity.

Sukh Dhaliwal, right, appears at a community event in August with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, centre, and former Vancouver South MP Herb Dhaliwal, left.

Trudeau’s national campaign appears to have significantly boosted the Liberal fortunes in Surrey–Newton.

The mood at Dhaliwal’s campaign office is pretty optimistic. Unlike the other candidates’ headquarters, this one is plastered with large posters of the party leader. There is even a life-sized cutout of Trudeau.

The Liberal candidate said he has always been a loyal foot-soldier but that he feels particularly “proud” to run with Trudeau. From sitting beside him in the House of Commons, Dhaliwal said, he knows his leader is passionate about making people’s lives better, so he is “very proud to have his picture all over the place.”

Dhaliwal told HuffPost he is not worried that the Liberals’ policy on marijuana will hurt him. He was recently in a high school, he said, and the kids there told him that it’s far easier to get marijuana than alcohol or tobacco.

Liberals want to regulate marijuana to ensure it is not easily accessible to “our young people” and plan to use the revenue from taxation to invest in anti-drug education programs, Dhaliwal said. Unlike the Conservative or NDP plan, he said, the Liberals’ will ensure that the “criminal element” is taken out of the equation.

“Mr. Harper and his party are just playing scare tactics all the time. They have nothing positive to offer the people of Surrey–Newton or Canadians in generally,” Dhaliwal said.

“People are fed up with Harper right now, that is clear,” he added. “So the question is: Who will provide the alternative?”

Dhaliwal suggested that he is the only true community representative.

“Jinny Sims took a political opportunity. She lost the nomination in Vancouver and she moved to Surrey. Compared to Sukh Dhaliwal, who has been in this riding for the last 20 years. This is where I raised my family, built my businesses, my elderly parents lived with me, to me this community is like a family.”

(Photo: F B/Flickr)

At the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, the Sikh temple in the riding, Dhaliwal is treated like family. Old men fold their playing cards, smile and stand as he walks towards them at a seniors centre, their hands clasped together. Outside, there are men sitting around talking. Dhaliwal says hello to each. He called them the “consensus makers.”

On this Sunday, it is busy and crowded at the temple. On the first level, people are lining up for food. Women and children sit on the floor and eat slowly on one side of the room, while the men are on the other. Towards the back, seniors are getting their blood pressure checked. Dhaliwal greets all of them. The cooks come out of the kitchen to say hello.

The young and the old line up to hug him. Big bear hugs. Women, dressed in colourful salwar kameezes (traditional South Asian clothing) rush from one end of the temple to the other just to say hi. The affection is genuine and palpable.

One man told HuffPost; “We have 22 votes in our family. We’ll go today.” Another woman, proudly displays her two hands, fingers apart: 10 votes in her family, she gestures.

Liberal candidate Sukh Dhaliwal greets community leaders in August.

Dhaliwal isn’t the only candidate who has come to speak. Liberal Judy Higginbotham from South Surrey–White Rock is here, as is the NDP candidate for Fleetwood–Port Kells, a former RCMP officer named Garry Begg.

Dhaliwal gets a bit emotional before he addresses the crowd upstairs. He brings his hands to his face. Two weeks earlier, his father’s last prayers were said in this temple. The death has generated some sympathy, perhaps, but his message — of inclusion, of larger child benefits, of infrastructure spending and job creation — also resonates. So does the Indo-Canadian community’s affection for Pierre Elliott Trudeau — whom he mentions twice during his speech.

Rajinder Dhaliwal (no relation), the president of the Sikh temple, predicts that this election will be an easy win for the Liberals.

“This time, more people are voting for Sukh Dhaliwal,” he told HuffPost. “He goes to all the events, family weddings, funerals, goes to everybody’s house. I’m not seeing any [other candidates going to] anybody else’s house. So he is more aggressive,” he added, laughing.

Gurmail Gill, a taxi driver who lives in Surrey–Newton, is not quite as certain.

“Three people, all Indian. The decision is very hard,” he told HuffPost. Like many South Asians, he speaks fondly of the senior Trudeau who was prime minister when Gill arrived in Canada in 1983.

He thinks Dhaliwal is a “good man.” “His town [in Punjab] is very close to my town,” he noted.

In 2011, Gill voted for the NDP.

“Who is going to win?” he said. “[The polls are] up and down, up and down. Nobody knows.”


Dhaliwal is pretty certain that, this time, he’s not going to get crushed by the orange wave.

The Grits have “a great leader, a great plan and a great campaign,” said the former B.C. MP. He has more than 500 volunteers, including hundreds of young people who are coming out to help him win, he said.

The Liberals will make a difference right away, with more investments in jobs and infrastructure, suggested Dhaliwal. Public transit is especially important in Surrey, where traffic in and out of Vancouver is a pain — all three parties have pledged more money for light rail transit during the campaign.

Dhaliwal told HuffPost that he was, and will be again be, a more present MP than Sims.

When Conservative minister Jason Kenney was bringing in “regressive” policies on immigration and making it much harder for businesses to hire temporary foreign workers, Dhaliwal said, Sims wasn’t doing her job of holding the government to account.

“I didn’t play Ottawa politics,” he said of his time as an MP. “I didn’t want to just look good on the television like Jinny Sims. I was here serving them and their needs, and raising their voice in the House of Commons, and making sure that I was able to make a difference in their lives.”

NDP incumbent Jinny Sims rises during Question Period in the House of Commons May 1, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sims thinks the suggestion that she has accomplished little in the House as an opposition MP is ridiculous.

“I keep thinking, do I go on TV to sing and dance? I have never sought out a TV thing; I’m on TV to do the work,” she told HuffPost.

Sims said that she hopes people don’t look at the polls and get caught up with the idea of voting strategically.

“Strategic voting is Pablum,” she said. “People have sacrificed a lot to give us the right to vote, both women and minorities, and I think that we need to exercise our vote and make it an informed vote, and we should be voting for the principals and people we believe in."

Dhaliwal thinks many Surrey–Newton residents will be voting with the idea of kicking Harper out of office and said he is increasingly hearing great support at the doors he knocks on.

He is confident “Mr. Harper is not going to have his way” and that “it’s going to be Trudeau’s way…[and] Sukh Dhaliwal’s way.”

But as the experience in 2011 showed him, he can’t and won’t take anything for granted.

“Every vote counts,” he said.

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