An inside view of Canadian Sikhism

April 9, 2018

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

Who are Canada’s Sikhs? That question has arisen this year following political controversies involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in India and New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Canadian journalists have been reporting on how Trudeau and his entourage, including Sikh MPs, invited a convicted Sikh terrorist to diplomatic galas in India, and how early videos have been uncovered linking the NDP leader to Sikh activists and militants pressing for a separate homeland in India called Khalistan.

The Canadian news media have, in the midst of the commotion, sometimes been accused by activists of stereotyping the country’s roughly 500,000 Sikhs, “by portraying all Sikhs as violent extremists.” Sensitivity has been exacerbated by U.S. cases, following the 2001 terrorist attacks, where some turban-wearing Sikh Americans have been attacked, even killed, after being mistaken for Muslims.

In Canada, which has not witnessed such extreme levels of bigotry, the charge that the media have been stereotyping Sikhs has been made despite most journalists proving to be accurate, fair, diverse and balanced in their coverage, and frequently emphasizing that pro-Khalistan militants make up a small minority of Sikhs in Canada.

However, as Sikh activists urge Canadians to find out more about what Sikhs think, there is one source we have not heard from: Professional psychotherapists of Punjabi Sikh origin. Such insiders work on the front lines with the country’s eclectic Sikhs, especially when they’re distressed.

Sikh psychotherapists generally find that community members face challenges and opportunities immigrating from the Punjab region of India (home to most of the world’s 25 million Sikhs), including difficulties finding work, but overall success in children’s education, all while navigating strains between elders’ collective approach and young Sikhs individualistic inclinations.

Some of these psychotherapists have written scholarly papers about the way emotional difficulties are handled by Western Sikhs as a result of coming from a largely rural culture, in which many stressed stoicism, philosophy and have been uninterested in talking about feelings.

B.C. therapist Gurjit Thandi says Punjabi Sikhs, like members of most ethnic minorities, “do not respond well to traditional Western (therapeutic) interventions and prevention methods.” Scholar Kamala Nayer writes that, because of the deep-seated cultural norm of “saving face,” many Sikhs are reluctant to open up about personal problems.

These psychotherapists recognize Sikhs’ complex culture in Canada, which is as diverse as that of any ethnic group, is often characterized by entrepreneurship, pragmatism, land ownership, community engagement (especially in politics) and many children’s strong accomplishments in higher education. But they have also focused on difficulties that can emerge for some — including those associated with alcohol, masculinity, arranged marriages, intimate-partner violence and youthful aggression.

Surrey-based Jaswinder Singh Sandhu is one of the Sikh psychotherapists in Canada, Britain and the U.S. who have published journal articles that aim to help counsellors work with Sikhs. Such therapists often remark on Sikhs’ relatively high rate of religiosity, noting distressed Sikhs can find it helpful to re-embrace their 450-year-old spiritual tradition.

When Sikhs are undergoing emotional troubles, B.C. psychologists Robinder Bedi and Amritpal Shergill say, some can exhibit helplessness and defeatism, since they “draw upon the concepts of karma and kismet, or fate based on past deeds and destiny.” The psychotherapists recommend directing Sikh clients to explore “religious scriptures that provide guidance on how to undo bad karma.”

Bedi and Shergill, who offer counselling in Surrey, have written in B.C. Psychologist magazine that more individualistic young Sikhs often come to them needing assistance handling their parents’ demands. When a Sikh is in therapy, Bedi and Shergill say, time often needs to “be devoted to strategizing how to defy familial wishes in the most respectful manner possible.”

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