Brampton student says college dismissed anti-Sikh remarks made to him as 'historical fact'

·3 min read

A Brampton college student is accusing his school of mishandling his complaint about a fellow student after it dismissed anti-Sikh comments the man made to him during an online class, referring to the statements simply as "historical fact."

Prabhjot Singh, 25, says he was making a presentation via Zoom to his immigration class at CDI College in Mississauga in October when he was interrupted by another student.

"He jumped into my presentation and he said all the people from Punjab are frauds," Singh told CBC News from his Brampton home.

Singh says the student then referred to the killing of thousands of Sikhs in India 36 years ago following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

"'I know you are Sikh, you are from Punjab. Did you forget how you guys were slaughtered in 1984?"' Singh quotes the student as saying. He says the remarks were all the more hurtful because some of his relatives were killed in the violence.

'Nobody can forget what happened'

"Nobody can forget what happened," Singh explained during the interview with CBC News. "Family members ... seeing a person burned alive."

Singh says he felt threatened, and that the instructor in the class made no attempt to intervene and stop the verbal attack.

"I was feeling ashamed, I was feeling ... a victim of harassment," he said.

But when Singh lodged a formal complaint with CDI College, he says he received a call from the school's educational manager, Mary Liideman, who said that the student was making comments about a "historical fact."

Singh also filed complaints about the student's remarks with Peel Regional Police and with the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO).

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AFP via Getty Images

The WSO says it wrote to the college explaining the significance of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, "and the serious nature of the threats made against Prabhjot Singh."

CDI, a private, for-profit career college with 23 campus locations across Canada, replied that an internal investigation "determined that although culturally insensitive remarks were made, there were no direct threats" to Singh.

The WSO's vice president for Ontario, Sharanjeet Kaur, calls what happened to Singh outrageous,"however it is equally shocking that CDI College would dismiss threats that reference the 1984 Sikh Genocide as 'historical fact' and merely 'culturally insensitive.'"

1984 attacks called a 'genocide'

The sectarian bloodshed started after the Indian Army launched an attack on Sikh militants in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a site sacred to Sikhs. Gandhi's subsequent murder led to a wave of bloody reprisals.

India has said fewer than 3,000 people died in the attacks against Sikhs, but some Sikh leaders say the number is closer to 10,000.

In Canada, Crown lawyers at the Air India bombing trial stemming from the 1985 attack that killed 329 people on a flight from Montreal to New Delhi, alleged it was the work of Sikh militants who were seeking revenge for the temple attack and the post-assassination violence.

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In 2018, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on Canada to declare the killings a genocide — saying there is clear evidence the 1984 attacks on Sikhs by Hindus were not spontaneous, but rather organized by the government.

College reopening investigation

After CBC News contacted CDI about Singh's story, the college said in a statement it's reopening its investigation.

"Upon reflection it is clear that this did not properly address Mr. [Prabhjot] Singh's concerns," wrote Rodney D'Souza, the associate regional director of operations for CDI in central Canada.

The student who made the remarks was sent a warning letter, the college says. He and Singh have since graduated from the Mississauga campus, but the college says it nonetheless "will be following up with staff disciplinary action for lack of appropriate action and sensitivity when the incident occurred."

D'Souza added that while what happened was an isolated incident, regular mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all staff will also be instituted.

"We feel it is extremely important for all staff and instructors to be aware of how they can best support their students and fellow colleagues through any distressing or inappropriate situations that may arise."