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Attacks On Rising Leaders With Visible Minority Backgrounds A Disturbing Trend

By Herman Thind

A racial slur against a former Vancouver Park Board commissioner with a South Asian background is creating a social media furor.

Meanwhile, a protest group is championing an online petition calling for the firing of British Columbia’s only deputy minister of colour.

To many, these are disturbing signs that racism is on the rise in British Columbia – just one week after the Hands Against Racism campaign launched its second year.

Niki Sharma

In a recent incident, Niki Sharma, who is running to be a director of the Vancity Credit Union and previously served on the park board, received an offensive tweet saying “you people are taking over our country.”

Meanwhile, a digital map tracking anti-Muslim incidents in Canada shows that British Columbia is on track for 2016 to be twice as bad a year as 2015.

Fazil Mihlar

Fazil Mihlar is the subject of the online petition campaign. He is a prominent South Asian intellectual with a long track record in public life.

Mr. Mihlar, according to his LinkedIn profile, came to the civil service relatively late in his career after many years in charge of the opinion pages of the largest-circulating Canadian newspaper west of Toronto, the Vancouver Sun. Before that he worked for RBC Economics and spent several years with a think tank widely known for its conservative views, the Fraser Institute.

Ms. Sharma is a lawyer who represents residential school survivors, works closely with First Nation governments and has been connected with many progressive causes. Her affiliation with Vision Vancouver suggests she and Mr. Mihlar would not agree on everything. Yet in both cases they are high achievers with visible minority backgrounds and both are under attack for reasons that have nothing to do with their performance.

When Mr. Mihlar was appointed to an assistant deputy minister role a couple years ago, his successor as editorial pages editor of Vancouver Sun had this to say: “The smartest guy in the room is now the smartest guy in government.”

Newspaper colleagues of Mr. Mihlar say that one of his jobs was to run the newspaper’s editorial board, which is where politicians, business tycoons and policymakers come for their ideas and records to be put to the test. “There were groups who feared coming to an editorial board run by Fazil, because his questions were so tough,” recalls one former colleague. “It didn’t matter who they represented – everyone got the same treatment. On his watch, coming unprepared was not a good option.”

Apparently LeadNow has launched its petition because it thinks that Mr. Mihlar’s time with the Fraser Institute should cause him to be stripped of employment as the deputy minister responsible for climate change policy.

There is no sign that LeadNow has any particular policy grievance with Mr. Mihlar’s handling of a particular issue, and they are not questioning his competence. They just don’t like him.

To be skewered for being bright is a problem some people might love to have. But is it actually dangerous to have intelligent people leading our civil service and seeking elected positions?

In both incidents, other motives appear to be at work.

One view attributed to him in a speech he gave at the University of Northern B.C. before leaving journalism is that the “ban everything crowd” is quick to critique and oppose B.C.’s resource extraction industries, but slow to provide solid alternatives for economic development. It’s hardly a radical position, even though some people would probably disagree with it. So you have to wonder why LeadNow is hellbent on damaging Mr. Mihlar’s character rather than trying to explain why it has a better idea.

Mr. Mihlar has origins in Sri Lanka, a country that has had some rough times yet remains a place of rare co-operation. It’s widely known that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians live there in peace today because of a determination to hear and respect a whole range of viewpoints, however trying that can be at times. Canada thinks of itself highly in this area too, but actions like LeadNow’s seem to test our reputation for tolerance.

In a democracy like India, the world’s largest democracy, a vast range of noisy viewpoints compete for voter attention. This is what many South Asian immigrants are used to. The idea that “winning” a debate by snuffing out the other viewpoint is, quite clearly, foreign to the Indian perspective.

Will these disturbing acts of intolerance drive out the next generation of leaders of colour? Let’s hope not.

Ms. Sharma has refused to delete the offensive comment, a decision she explained in this Huffington Post column.

If Mr. Mihlar is fired for being “too smart,” that would be a sad statement on who we are as a society. And it will send a clear message to visible minorities that they are not welcome in the upper echelon of leadership.

Only time will tell if the LeadNow people get enough signatures to force the casting aside of Mr. Mihlar’s legendary abilities.

Herman Thind was born and raised across small-town Saskatchewan and Alberta.  Outspoken as a human rights advocate, he organized protests against racist political views during the 1993 federal election at the University of Regina, was the first speaker in favour of the Liberal Party of Canada’s same-sex marriage resolution at its 2005 policy convention, and most recently served as the Communications Chair of the Liberal Party of Canada (BC) through the Trudeau leadership and recent federal election.  He is currently the Communications Director of the human rights non-profit Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation.

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