Until 1993, no Member of Parliament in North America had donned any form of head covering while in office. That changed when Gurbax Singh Malhi, a turban-wearing Sikh, was elected to represent the Liberal Party in the Bramalea-Gore-Malton region of Ontario, at Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
“This milestone change was the result of our political landscape accommodating the changing dynamics in Canada’s cultural mosaic and symbolically represented the coming of age of Canadian politics,” said Malhi.
Malhi recalls one of the many stories of racism and hardship in Canada as he canvassed his first election campaign in 1993. “They would call me ‘Paki’,” said Malhi. “I was verbally abused and stigmatized as a lesser class of immigrant peoples. My goal was to eliminate this bias and politics was the means to achieve that.”
Malhi’s objective as a politician was to fight for inclusion of all people that call Canada home, and to be reflective of the diverse ethnic backgrounds that co-exist in Canada. Most people embraced Malhi as a representative of their community, and he served as an MP in Ottawa from 1993 until 2011.
Malhi was born in a small village in Punjab, India in 1949. He had a simple childhood with many responsibilities, including the caring of his older sister and helping with the family business; due to the fact his father passed away when Gurbax was five (5) years old. Fifteen years later, he lost his mother to complications with asthma. By the time he was 26 years old, he had completed his studies in political science, history and English at Panjab University and took two years of law courses. Soon after, Malhi married his wife, Devinder. They arrived in Canada in 1975 and worked at minimum-wage, labour-intensive jobs until Malhi obtained his real estate license in 1985.
“When I ran for the first time, I was told that I wouldn’t win for another 50 years because of the turban,” Malhi said. “When I first came here, I only had eight dollars in my pocket and a million-dollar ambition. I always believed that he could succeed – and I did.”
At the end of his 1993 campaign, Malhi pushed for policy change, which allowed MPs to wear turbans in the House of Commons.
“This momentous occasion in Canada’s political landscape paved the way for ethnic harmonization and the fact that there are now five MPs who wear turbans, and a total of sixteen MPs across Canada,” said Malhi. “But accommodation is a two-way street. We must embrace the practices and beliefs of minorities while also teaching newcomers about the Canadian way of life.”
Malhi believes there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of fighting racial inequality, especially in light of the ongoing tensions within and between communities and religions.
“There is significant literature for the deliberate separation of church and state, and one can draw their own conclusion on this matter,” he said.
Malhi has hope for a brighter future and a better, more inclusive Canada. His daughter, Harinder Malhi, is a Member of Provincial Parliament in the Ontario Legislature, in Brampton-Springdale. She is following in her father’s footsteps, working to foster harmonious relations between all Canadians.
The launching of the Canada Post stamp celebrating the 300th birthday of Sikh nation, Khanda Sahib, in April 1999. Malhi is with Canada Post Chairman, Jean Chretien, and the Minister of Fisheries.
Malhi's first time speaking in the House of Commons, January 1994
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Malhi's wife, Devinder, and Malhi at Rideau Hall.
Gurbax Malhi and Hilary Clinton at a fundraising dinner in New York.