Getting to Know the Three Remarkable Immigrants in the Canadian Cabinet

The cabinet of new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been heralded and celebrated worldwide as “a cabinet that looks like Canada.”

Indeed, Trudeau has attempted to reflect the diversity of Canada by ensuring gender balance and including representation from the wide range of geographic, cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious communities that compose the country. However, Justin Trudeau has captured a further critical component of Canadian society by inviting three Canadian immigrants to be part of his cabinet: Maryam Monsef, Amarjeet Sohi and Harjit Sajjan. The success of Canada has been largely built, sustained and defined by the efforts of immigrants over four centuries from across the globe, and this reality has been recognized and reflected in the composition of the new Canadian government. Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to include three Canadian immigrants in his cabinet acknowledges the importance of past, present and future immigrants to Canada.

Let’s get to know Maryam Monsef, Amarjeet Sohi and Harjit Sajjan, three individuals who will contribute their skills, knowledge and experience while representing immigrants to Canada in cabinet.

Maryam Monsef
maryamMinister of Democratic Institutions

Maryam Monsef, representing the riding of Peterborough-Kawartha, is the new Minister of Democratic Institutions. At 30 years old, she is the youngest member of the Trudeau cabinet. Born in Afghanistan, Monsef came to Canada with her mother and sisters as a refugee in 1996. Monsef was raised in western Afghanistan near the Iranian border, and she experienced regional trauma and violence firsthand throughout her early life. When Monsef was a toddler, her father was caught and killed in a crossfire between the border of Iran and Afghanistan. A few years prior, her uncle disappeared from his dorm room at Kabul University after making anti-communist remarks in public. When the Taliban came to power during the mid-1990s, the Monsef family fled to Iran as illegal refugees to escape the instability of Afghanistan, where they faced ethnic abuse and the constant threat of deportation.

In 1996 when Monsef was eleven, her mother made the choice to uproot and re-establish the family in Canada, where Monsef’s uncle lived. By donkey, camel and airplane, the Monsef family arrived in Canada through Iran, Pakistan and Jordan, where they were able to claim refugee status. They relocated to Peterborough, Ontario, the city that Monsef now represents in parliament. Monsef initially found adjusting to English and Canadian culture difficult, but the welcome that her family received and the work of organizations like the Salvation Army, the New Canadians Centre, Casa Maria Refugee Homes and the YWCA helped her find a home in Canadian society. She still volunteers at Casa Maria and the Y.

As Minister of Democratic Institutions, Monsef will be responsible for managing and maintaining the political and electoral processes that sustain Canadian democracy. She will take the lead on major parts of the Liberal platform, including senate and electoral reform.

Amarjeet Sohi

Feature 3Minister of Infrastructure and Communities

Amarjeet Sohi, a former Edmonton City Councillor now representing the riding of Edmonton Mill Woods, is the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. Though Sohi emigrated successfully to Canada from Punjab province, India, in 1981, his life was threatened and altered forever by the violence surrounding the Khalistan Movement and Punjab Insurgency in his native India. The Khalistan Movement intensified throughout the 1980s after the Indian Army’s 1984 assault on the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the tragic bombing of Air India Flight 1982, inspiring tremendous waves of fundamentalism across the Canadian Sikh diaspora. When Sohi returned to India in 1988 to study theatre, he was unable to escape association with fundamentalist Sikh terrorists according to the Indian government, even though he was anti-fundamentalist and non-religious. Shortly after his return to India, Sohi was charged with terrorism due to his Sikh background and Punjabi origins.

Immediately after his arrest, Sohi was taken to a police station where he was continually interrogated and tortured for a week with beatings, sleep deprivation and threats against his family. Since Sohi had kept his Indian citizenship, he was denied access to Canadian diplomatic officers. Eventually, state authorities falsely accused Sohi of being a trained Khalistan fundamentalist who was part of an international terrorist network. Following his court appearance, Sohi was transferred to solitary confinement where he was held for 18 months in a small cell with no bed. Over the next year, Indian and Canadian journalists and activists picked up Sohi’s story and the Canadian intelligence service informed the Indian government that Sohi posed no threat. Regional authorities continued to claim that Sohi had terroristic links to Khalistan, Pakistan and the Tamil Tigers, but after a 1990 change in government, Sohi was released and returned to Edmonton. He had spent 21 months in prison.

In 2007, Sohi entered politics at the municipal level by winning a seat on the Edmonton City Council. He served on Council until launching his campaign for federal MP with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Sohi was elected to parliament on October 19, winning his riding by a narrow margin of 92 votes. Now the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, Sohi will primarily oversee the massive increases in infrastructure funding promised by Trudeau during the recent election.

Harjit Sajjan

harj 2Minister of National Defence

Harjit Singh Sajjan, born in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India, and representing the riding of Vancouver South, is the Minister of National Defence under Justin Trudeau. Sajjan emigrated to Canada with his family when he was five years old, and throughout his life he has made significant contributions to Canadian law enforcement and peacekeeping efforts as an 11-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department and officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

In 1989 at 19 years old, Sajjan joined the Canadian Armed Forces and eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. During his career with the military, Sajjan completed a deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina and three tours of duty in Afghanistan. In 2011, Sajjan made history as the first Sikh to command a Canadian Army regiment when he was named commander of the British Columbia Regiment. Sajjan has received many decorations in recognition of his service to the Canada, including the Meritorious Service Medal, Canadian Peacekeeping Award and Order of Military Merit Award.

Though Sajjan did not have any parliamentary experience prior to the 2015 election, his experience and unimpeachable reputation within the Canadian Armed Forces prompted Justin Trudeau to appoint him Minister of National Defence in the new Liberal government. Sajjan will be responsible for protecting Canadians from internal and external threats and managing Canadian peacekeeping operations around the globe.

The cabinet of Justin Trudeau has been designed to reflect a measure of the diversity and experiences that make Canada such an exceptional country. While the cabinet has been defined by gender balance and geographic, cultural and linguistic representation, our new government also includes Maryam Monsef, Amarjeet Sohi and Harjit Sajjan, three individuals who represent the critical importance of immigration to Canada. The success of Canada has been dependent for centuries on the contributions of immigrants from around the world, and this reality is emphatically acknowledged in the composition of our new cabinet.

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