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Troubled baggage.

On 23 June 1985, Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto exploded in midair off the coast of Ireland. All 329 people aboard, most of them Canadians, were killed. About an hour earlier, two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita airport died when a suitcase bomb on its way to a Bangkok-bound Air India flight blew up.

The RCMP was certain that the two bombs were the work of Sikh militants based in Canada. Sikh extremists have been locked in a bloody war with the Indian government: they want a piece of the mostly Sikh state of Punjab, Khalistan, to call their own.

The struggle for Khalistan is ancient, but in 1985 tensions mounted. A year earlier, the Indian army stormed the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, which had been taken over by heavily armed extremists. All Sikhs were enraged by the bloody attack that killed hundreds of their compatriots. Then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. That triggered Hindu riots which left 3,000 more Sikhs dead.

The Canadian government issued 17,682 immigrant visas and 23,423 visitor visas to Indians in 1996. About 40% of Indian immigrants to Canada are from Punjab state.

That has caused problems, particularly in British Columbia, which has the largest Sikh community in Canada and one of the largest outside India. B.C. was the scene of bombings, terrorism, and attacks among Sikh moderates and militants in the late 1980s.

More recently, in January 1997, violence erupted again at the province's largest Sikh temple, the Guru Nanak. Reports described it as the worst outbreak of violence in several years among the 110,000 Sikhs living in B.C.

The dispute started over the scheduled introduction of tables and chairs in an area where traditionally diners ate seated on the floor as a sign of equality. Adherents of a fundamentalist faction that previously ran the temple, occupied a dining hall in the building the morning of the clash. They opposed the moderates decision to use the tables and chairs.

The RCMP had three dozen officers at the doors and in the crowd watching for weapons, but they were stunned when some militants produced swords and began slashing at moderates carrying chairs into the area.

Ceremonial swords, the crescent-shaped blades meant to signify God's power and justice, were drawn. Others took out their kirpans, the daggers carried by many Sikhs. At least four people were stabbed and slashed in the conflict. It took 150 police officers to quell the bloody swordplay that involved nearly 1,000 Sikhs.

As one reporter pointed out there's no denying that Sikh life includes a martial component. It's the result of centuries of attacks in India from Mughals, Afghans, and, according to many of today's Sikhs, the Indian government. Many male Sikhs in fact see themselves as "saint-soldiers," who can plow the land and also wield a sword in the cause of religious freedom. An anthropologist in Kalamazoo says: "It's okay (under the Sikh religion) to draw the sword if you are doing it in a just cause."

What bothers the majority of Sikhs is that these violent events do not paint a true picture of their world. They say most temples are filled with people who spend their time raising funds for hospitals, caring for the elderly, and living by the principles of peace.

Meanwhile, Canada has spent tens of millions of dollars investigating the damaging violence of the more militant members of Sikh society.

In the past two years, there also have been bloody clashes among Tamil gangs which have left a dozen people wounded in and around Metropolitan Toronto. Police say that rival gangs compete for lucrative criminal enterprises that include credit card fraud, narcotics and weapons sales, robberies, burglaries, and extortion.

The gangs -- the VVT and AK Kannan -- originated in Sri Lanka. A civil war for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives, and the VVT in particular is said to maintain close links there.

Some observers in the Tamil community, and the police, think what they're seeing is a spillover of the violent subculture that has been nurtured in the civil war which began in the early 1980s.

Tamil groups here insist the money they send to Sri Lanka is used to fund orphanages and other social welfare projects, not to buy arms for rebel groups back home.

Police say they have noticed a disturbing escalation in crime within the Tamil community but they also say it is difficult to know whether the increase is motivated by political or personal differences.

Another source of concern are kidnappings and home invasions by Chinese and Vietnamese gangs. Gang members target both middle-class Canadians and recent immigrants, many of whom borrowed money from loan sharks in their home countries to pay for their passage to Canada.

Immigrants who cannot pay back loans, or small-business people who refuse to cooperate in extortion rackets operating in large centres in Canada, have been subjected to kidnapping, torture, and murder. Asian-crime experts in Canada say they are alarmed by the growing level of violence and brutality against women and children who are victims of home invasions by Chinese and Vietnamese gangs.

Victims are usually small business people in the Asian community who bring home their cash receipts at the end of the day. It's not uncommon for them to have tens of thousands of dollars in cash, law-enforcement officials say, because they don't trust banks. Small cafe and restaurant owners who refuse to pay "protection money" to local gang lords also have been victims of home invasions.

Vancouver is increasingly targeted by gangs trying to extort small fortunes from students from Hong Kong and China. In recent months, several students have been threatened with violence, even death, unless they pay gangs as much as $100,000. Police even started offering seminars to local Vietnamese and Chinese small business people in Toronto on how to protect themselves against this type of crime.

The gangs are difficult to track down because they don't use names and they're spread out all over North America. The victims are easy prey: banks are not the only institutions they distrust. They don't trust police in their home countries, so they don't call them in right away when they have a problem here either.


1. Some Sikhs say their right to freedom of religion is violated if they are not allowed to wear their ceremonial daggers, known as kirpans, in public places. The kirpan is a symbol of a Sikh's readiness to defend the religion and signifies their freedom from tyranny. Sikh members of the RCMP recently won the right to wear turbans and other religious articles as part of their uniforms. Should this extend to kirpans? Some parts of the country allow Sikh students and teachers to wear them in school. Should the practice be allowed across the nation? Should all the religious and cultural practices of immigrants be accepted in Canada? Discuss.

2. Some right-wing thinkers might say the best way to handle violence within ethnic communities is to restrict immigration. Others argue that these communities are made up largely of peaceful, hard-working-people who should not suffer because of a handful of law-breakers. Set up a debate to argue both sides.

3. In 1996, Globe and Mail columnist Michael Valpy wrote about what he sees as the "tragedy, trouble and triumph of Canada as perhaps the world's most urban multicultural society." The tragedy was that of Ali Henry, a 21-year-old Toronto athlete whose family came from Antigua. Mr. Henry was killed on the night his mostly Jamaican basketball team played against a team whose members were predominantly of Somali origin. Police said it was a cultural clash between Jamaican and Somali youths in a violence-racked area of the city. But Mr. Valpy thinks the trouble was brewing partly as a result of "the social problems created by the unexpected arrival of thousands of people of a distinct minority culture -- Muslim Somali refugees and their families -- in one relatively small area within a three-year period." What should have been done to prepare the community for the new arrivals? Research government programs that already exist for refugees and discuss how they could be improved.
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Title Annotation:violence in ethnic communities in Canada
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Parents honour heritage.
Next Article:A road less travelled.

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