Yesterday, The Vancouver Sun's Kim Bolan reported on a weekend Vancouver demonstration by around 300 Sikhs who claimed the Indian government has arrested and tortured 2,000 to 3,000 innocents within the last few weeks. According to Ms. Bolan "many in the crowd were former members of the International Sikh Youth Federation, a terrorist group banned in Canada that supported the creation of an independent Sikh nation called Khalistan." But Sikh separatists weren't the only ones in attendance: "Bill Cunningham, a senior adviser to the federal cabinet, also addressed the protest." That news has raised some eyebrows among British Columbia's chattering classes. So Public Eye telephoned the well-known Martini shaker to ask why he was at the event. The following is an edited transcript of that interview and a copy of the invite Mr. Cunningham received.
Public Eye As you may be aware, you were mentioned in Kim Bolan's article as having been at the rally. And I'm just wondering why you were there?
Mr. Cunningham Oh. I can tell you. It's pretty simple. The group - who I have no previous knowledge or affiliation with - was looking to present a petition or some kind of declaration to a federal rep. And they had basically hit up most of the local MPs - all of which, not by design, weren't around. So I was there to receive their - I didn't know whether it was a petition, proclamation, manifesto or whatever it was. So it was only in that capacity.
Public Eye So you were on hand to receive this proclamation?
Mr. Cunningham I can tell you what it was. It was a letter to the minister of foreign affairs from - they call themselves the United Sikh Organizations of BC. And the gist of the letter is making claims about all sorts of human rights violations in Punjab. And, in their letter, they outline a few examples. And they're saying there's also similar rallies in Washington and across Canada - blah, blah, blah. And we ask the government of Canada to live up to its international morale obligations to take a stand on this issue.
Public Eye How did the request (to attend the event) come to you? Did it go through the food chain?
Mr. Cunningham Yeah. There's probably a couple ways it floated back to me. There would have been a request to go sent to the PM. There would have been a request sent to Emerson. And I'm guessing they probably hit up all the BC caucus. And, not unusually, these kind of things get booted back to me.
Public Eye So you were assigned by what office to go?
Mr. Cunningham No. I wasn't assigned by anyone to go. One of the reasons I wanted to go was because I heard about it four or five different times from four or five different people. So what I wanted was, if there was going to be 300 or 400 Sikhs in downtown Vancouver, that there was somebody there hearing what they had to say rather than them descending upon a member of parliament’s constituency offices or something else. So it was more to ensure the peace was going to be kept....(Although) I had no reason to believe it wouldn't have been. I'm fodder for this kind of thing. I'm not, despite my best efforts, an elected politician.
Public Eye So, just so my understanding is clear, you took it upon yourself to attend this event, yes? And was that approved by anyone in particular or did this just begin and end with the minister's regional office - which you're responsible for?
Mr. Cunningham Exactly.
Public Eye Now Kim made mention of the fact that you addressed the crowd. What did you say?
Mr. Cunningham By addressing the crowd - (I said) I'm here. I received your letter. It will be forwarded to Pierre Pettigrew. You're asking for Canada to respect its obligations and stand up for human rights. And we'll make sure this gets sent to the right people.
Public Eye And that was basically the entire contents of the address?
Mr. Cunningham That's right.
Public Eye Did you prepare any speaking notes for this?
Mr. Cunningham No.
Public Eye I would imagine you can handle a couple sentences without speaking notes.
Mr. Cunningham I sure hope so. Nor was I aware that the event was going to be - I wasn't sure whether they just wanted someone there so they could say someone was there: whether I was - as I know now - a bit of a show for them.
Public Eye Did you have any concerns about that in retrospect?
Mr. Cunningham Not terribly. It's one thing I do is to make sure groups that have concerns feel that someone is at least willing to hear them. That doesn't mean I support them or agree with them.
Public Eye So you didn't have any concerns about some members of the crowd who have had certain allegations (of terrorist links) made against them in the past?
Mr. Cunningham No. In fact, Kim brought it up afterwards. She said, "Do you know who was here?" And I said, "No, I don't."
Public Eye Had you known that those people and those groups would be there would that have changed your decision to attend the event?
Mr. Cunningham It may have. It may have. I mean, I know the notice had gone out to several temples. There was in excess of 250 or 300 people. So if there were a couple of these organizers that do bad things or associate with bad things - well, they had almost 300 people there.
From: Sukhpreet Singh Heir [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, July 04, 2005 9:02 AM
To: Cunningham, Bill
Subject: your assistance
Over the past two weeks over one thousand Sikhs have been imprisoned with false charges and are being tortured and denied all civil rights in Indian prisons. Sikhs who have voiced opposition to such arrests, exercising their right to free speech, have also been arrested and are being held in harsh conditions in India's jails.
In response to such human rights violations, the Sikh community has united to lobby to the Canadian Government, being a savior of human rights, to intervene, and help put an end to human rights abuses against minorities in India.
The rally is taking place this Saturday July 9th at 3pm at the Vancouver Public Library. It is going to be a peaceful rally in which we would like to hand over a memorandum from the Sikhs of BC to Canadian officals. We urgently require your assistance in getting an Honourable Minister to represent the Canadian Government at the event so that we may send our message to Ottawa. Similar rallies are being held in Calgary and Ontario with Canadian officials attending those events as well. Officials from Amnesty International will also be on hand and participating in the event.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Mr. Cunningham later noted he saw no Amensty International officials at the event.