Massacre at Milwaukee-area Sikh temple resonates in Canada’s Sikh community

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The massacre of Sikhs in a Wisconsin temple Sunday has shocked members of Canada's Sikh community, which itself is no stranger to violence.

Wade Michael Page, who was kicked out of the U.S. Army a decade ago and apparently belonged to a white-supremacist skinhead group, shot six people to death and wounded two others at the Sikh gurdwara in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek before before dying in a gunfight with police.

[Related: Sikh temple gunman was on feds' radar]

Now almost 400,000 Canadian Sikhs are trying to make sense of the attack inside a house of worship.

"You come here to connect with God, to seek peace," Prabhjot Sethi told CTV News at a Sikh temple in Ottawa. "This is the last place one can ever think of an act like that."

Jasbeer Singh of the Sikh Federation of Edmonton also struggled with the defilement of the Oak Creek temple.

"Using the power of weapons against absolutely helpless worshippers who have come to pray doesn't make any sense at all," he said. "If people can't feel safe when they come to pray in the house of God, where can they find safety?"

Most of Canada's Sikhs live in Metro Vancouver and Metro Toronto, with smaller communities in other Canadian cities.

Teenager Stanam Saprai, who moved with her family to Calgary from India 10 years ago, said she's familiar with such attacks.

"I really feel bad because I understand their situation because this had happened in India and I've experienced it before too," she told CBC News.

With Page dead, authorities and the media have been left to speculate on his motive. Members of the U.S. Sikh community, which is smaller than its Canadian counterpart, have told news outlets they've suffered increased violence since the 9/11 terror attacks, possibly because attackers think they're Muslim.

"I don't think it should be an excuse to bully someone just because they're wearing a turban," Saprai said. "Lots of people hate our culture I guess."

The head of the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, the largest gurdwara in North America, told the Toronto Star the Wisconsin massacre was an attack on the whole Sikh community.

"We lost members of our extended family," said Jasjit Bhullar, president of the Mississauga temple, which has 25,000 members. "We were shocked that this happened in a place of worship."

[ Related: Children who spotted shooter seen as heroes at Sikh temple ]

Bhullar recalled that Sikh temples were targeted for vandalism after 9/11 because some thought they were Muslim mosques. It's a shame people might again be scared to enter a gurdwara, he told the Star.

"We keep our doors open seven days a week to welcome every single person, to feed everyone," he said.

Sikh temples offer a free communal meal called langar, which represents the open and inclusive nature of the Sikh faith.

"Sikhs are very visible targets for these types of attacks," said Ripsodhak Grewal, principal of the Brampton Khalsa School, which was hit with racist graffiti last month.
"Unfortunately, because of our turbans and beards, we can be easy targets for people looking for anyone they think is different."

The Sikh community itself has had to deal with deep rifts over the Khalistan movement, whose goal was to carve out an independent Sikh nation from India's Punjab state.

Violence peaked in the 1980s when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhism's holiest shrine, in 1984, because authorities said it harboured armed militants.

Hundreds died and the backlash included the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and the 1985 Air India bombings, which originated in Canada and killed 331 people.

A young lawyer named Ujjal Dosanjh, who would go on to become B.C. premier and a federal Liberal cabinet minister, was hospitalized from a severe beating for speaking out against Khalistan militants.

And outspoken moderate Tara Singh Hayer of Surrey, B.C., who published the Indo-Canadian Times, was murdered in 1998 after surviving a 1988 attack that left him in a wheelchair.

Although the violence has subsided, splits remain within the Sikh community, where some view separatists killed by Indian authorities as martyrs while others see them as terrorists.