Shelter for Afghani refugees, justice for 1984 Sikh Genocide, protection of children among many human rights issues that concerned Canadian Sikh statesman
Alberta, Canada: Nov. 25, 2015 — “Manmeet Singh left us while he was doing what he loved more than anything — helping someone else,” said the family of Manmeet Singh Bhullar after the 35-year-old Sikh member of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly was struck and killed by a semi-truck while attempting to provide roadside assistance to a driver in distress.
Bhullar was one of two people who stopped to assist another driver that had lost control of their vehicle, crashed into the median, and rolled over on a snowy Alberta highway in the early afternoon of Nov. 23. He was rushing to help when a semi-truck also lost control and crashed into him. Transported to the hospital by ambulance, he soon died there of his injuries, but his heroic death is inspiring many to regard it as the concluding act of a life animated by human compassion.
In the wake of his sudden death, the young Canadian Sikh statesman leaves a legacy of passionate advocacy for the less fortunate, whether refugees from violence in Afghanistan, victims of the 1984 Sikh Genocide, children in state foster care, survivors of domestic violence, or simply those caught in unhealthy relationships. The day of his Nov. 23 death, for instance, Bhullar gave a presentation for the Alberta Men’s Survey, a project to “help men have healthy and positive relationships where there is no violence or abuse.”
Born in Calgary, Alberta in 1980, Bhullar devoted his life to public service and community engagement at an early age by founding Inspire Youth Development Society, campaigning against hunger, and raising money for healthcare before running for public office.
As the youngest member when he was first elected to the Alberta Legislative Assembly in 2008 at the age of 28, Bhullar persistently channeled his youthful energy into speaking for human rights in South Asia. One of many non-Canadians mourning Bhullar’s death is Bhajan Singh, who reflects, “I met him over coffee in his hometown in August and had a great conversation about how he wanted to bring Sikhs and minorities from various political parties to form a coalition to address issues of caste discrimination, poverty, and human rights in India and to examine how Canadian policies can empower oppressed classes in India.”
In the final month of his life, Bhullar twice appealed to the Legislative Assembly to recognize and remember human rights conditions in South Asia.
“We need light in India,” he said at an Oct. 28 Diwali celebration in the rotunda of the Alberta Legislature Building. “Diwali,” he explained, “is a time where we not only celebrate the triumph of the light over darkness, but we reflect upon the darkness that we see in our world today so that, over the next year, we can try to challenge that darkness.” Noting that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Sikh human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, he praised Khalra for challenging the darkness. Paraphrasing Khalra’s 1995 statement to the Canadian parliament, Bhullar declared: “I do not have the power to create light throughout the world, but I can sure as heck promise one thing — that around me, there shall be light.”
Just a few days later, Bhullar spoke on Nov. 2 on the Assembly floor to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the 1984 Sikh Genocide, calling it “an event which still haunts the international Sikh community.” Denouncing “anti-Sikh genocidal violence” in India, he said, “Official reports claim 3,000 Sikhs were murdered, while unofficial reports cite the number as being upwards of 8,000.” Yet he warned: “Justice has not been served and senior figures complicit in the attacks need to be brought to justice.”
Bhullar, who was reportedly writing a biography of Khalra, concluded: “Unfortunately, 1984 was not the end of the hardship for Sikhs in India. Over the following decades, thousands more Sikhs were abducted, tortured, and murdered by the State. One such person was human rights activist, Jaswant Singh Khalra, a member of a research team investigating the plight of people who ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the State in the 1980s and early 90s.”
If people remember Manmeet Singh Bhullar for one thing, it seems to be that his life was worth emulating.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi describes Bhullar as “a public servant, a true warrior for fairness and justice, a big man with a giant heart, a friend.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley expressed deep sadness over his death, stating: “Manmeet was always successful and very authentic, very committed, and very capable.” Fr. Joshua Lickter, a Christian priest who works with Indian minority communities to challenge persecution, comments, “Learning about Manmeet’s life upon news of his death reminds me of Jesus, who said that no greater love has a man than this, to lay down his life for a friend.”
Bhullar’s life of public service earned him an especially warm place in the hearts of Sikhs throughout North America. “We lost a great leader,” says Manjit Singh Uppal, a committee-member and former president of California’s Stockton Gurdwara (the oldest Sikh institution in the United States). “Manmeet was an amazing role model. May God bless his soul.” Tej Maan, a former city councillor for Yuba City, CA (home to one of the state’s largest Sikh communities), calls Bhullar “a great man,” remarking: “His death is a tremendous loss to justice-seeking and peaceful people.” Balbir Singh Dhillon, president of the influential West Sacramento Gurdwara, says, “We were privileged to experience the life of Manmeet, who was an inspirational example to people around the world of how to practice human compassion. A true Sikh, he modeled the life of a saint-soldier. This generation must preserve and build upon his legacy.”
“I’ve been working in east Calgary for 10 years now, working with young people at risk, working on issues that affect people’s lives there,” said Bhullar after his first election to the legislature. After his 2013 appointment as Minister of Human Services, he focused on overhauling Alberta’s child welfare system. His first action was to abolish a controversial policy of secrecy of the total number and the names of children who died in state foster care. “For those that feel they have been wronged and their child has died as a result, they have an inherent right to speak up about that,” said Bhullar, who then worked to ensure children taken into state custody are placed with family or loved ones as regularly as possible.
“He was brave and unrelenting in his role, particularly when it came to forcefully advocating for children in care – the least powerful people in our society,” says Mayor Nenshi.
Encouraging strong families and healthy relationships was a constant theme in his life. A week before his death, he reported in a Nov. 15 Facebook post that he’d just come from a meeting with the Punjabi Community Health Services agency, stating: “Issues like child sexual abuse, addictions, mental health and domestic violence cannot remain in the shadows. We must discuss and bring to the forefront in order to eliminate the stigma attached to these issues so people can heal!”
Also deeply concerned about stewarding public monies, Bhullar worried that profligate government spending caused a “severe financial crisis.” In September, he proposed a motion in the Assembly to “ban all international travel and all non-essential travel in Canada for all MLAs and bureaucrats,” warning: “We need to do everything we can to save taxpayer dollars.” He was proud of helping reverse a 7.25% pay increase for legislators, saying, “Such a pay increase is completely unjustified.” In an Oct 27 Facebook post, he explained that Alberta’s 2015 budget marks the “first time since 1993 that we have had to borrow money for the operating expenses of the government, borrowing to pay for our everyday expenses.”
Bhullar leaves unfinished a project to fast-track refugee status for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan. “Since the NATO withdrawal in December 2014, extremists have made it very difficult for minorities to live in Afghanistan,” he said in September. “Sikh children have been unable to attend school for over seven years. Some families can’t even leave their gurdwara. Additionally, militants threaten Afghans who help or interact with Sikhs.”
“There’s a large number of minorities in Afghanistan that don’t even have the means to escape the country,” he explained in an appeal to the Canadian government to waive a requirement for people to apply for refugee status from outside their home country. “Please do what is right and allow refugees directly from Afghanistan to come to Canada under the private sponsorship program.” He again raised the issue during his Diwali speech, stating: “We need light to make sure that our brothers and sisters, Sikhs and Hindus living in Afghanistan today — under threat by warlords, Taliban, and ISIS — have a way to get out of Afghanistan. We need light for that.”
Frequently using his Facebook account to report on his video chats with Sikhs and Hindus still trapped in Afghanistan, he travelled to India this year to meet personally with Afghani Sikhs, to Brussels to meet with European Union officials to discuss the international refugee crisis, and also met with United Nations officials in Canada.
“What we have as Canadians is a privilege that very few in this world actually get to enjoy yet far too often we Canadians take it for granted,” said Bhullar on Oct. 7 after meeting with Afghani families. Suggesting the nation has a responsibility to use its privilege to demonstrate compassion to others, he later concluded: “We have tremendous things to be thankful for,” he said. “Canada is the nation of great light. It’s like the divine light of the world has shined upon Canada and given us all so much. Dear God, let Canada’s light shine upon the world.”
Manmeet Singh Bhullar is survived by his wife, Namrita.