Dr. Suresh Kurl
It did not take me much thinking to accept the responsibility as a Co-Chair of Chrétien’s Richmond campaign team. My responsibilities as Co-Chair brought me in close contact with several established liberals, but the two, who played a significant role, were Mr. Ross Fitzpatrick and Mr. Herb Dhaliwal, two businessmen, who later became a Senator and a Cabinet Minister respectively, in Chrétien’s administration.
I remembered Herb well. Meeting him was a pleasant surprise. He used to be my student at the University of British Columbia. However, this time when we met we greeted each other as two campaigners. Since our university day he was married to Amrit, was a father three children and had been running a limousine and building maintenance business in Richmond.
Amrit and Tripta became friends and I an uncle to his children, instantly though his children did not seem short of uncles in their own families. As a matter of fact, between the families of Herb and Amrit they had so many relatives in the Lower Mainland they could have formed a political party of their own and named it, “The Dhaliwal Coalition.”
The upside of Herb having so many relatives, friends and business associates was that he was easily able to sign up new members and help the riding, which starved of membership growth. I knew this drive would be a piece of cake for him than for me, as I had only three relatives out of India — my two daughters and my wife. Actually, my younger daughter was not even old enough to become a party member.
On March 5, 1990, Richmond Riding members gathered at the Kwantlen College to elect delegates to go to the Leadership Convention to be held in Calgary to elect the party leader. Each delegate was judged on the basis of his or her two minute speech. Of the ten delegates my daughter Aparna and I were elected as delegates to vote for Jean Chrétien as the party leadership and the next Prime Minister of Canada.
Since our 1972 surprise encounter with Hon. Ron Basford, I had been feeling encouraged to become involved in Indian politics. Those were the days when I was not feeling sure that I would stay out of my motherland for too long. So, I had written to my eldest brother to seek his opinion about me running for a public office in India.
His response was brotherly but blunt. He wrote, “Don’t even dream of it. You lack three basic qualifications Indian politicians have: Our family does not belong to freedom fighters; neither do we have money to invest on votes and nor do we have skills to recover that investment. As a politician you will never make it in India.” His response was like a bucket of freezing ice water, but honest. Nevertheless, it fired me to look at politics from inside the tent, up close.
Until we arrived in Calgary and voted for the next leader, the rest of the four leadership candidates– Paul Martin, John Nunziata, Sheila Copps and Tom Wappel – continued to pressure the Chrétien delegates to switch their vote in their favour and the Chrétien-campaign managers continued to keep their delegates closely guarded to keep their votes. Chrétien-campaign paid off. His delegates elected him on the first ballot, meaning we did not have to stand in lines again and again to cast our votes.
By the end of the leadership convention, I had not only developed a taste for politics but some insight as well. I decided to run for the office of Communications Chair for the Liberal Party. I let people know of my interest in the position, collected the required number of signatures on nomination papers and ran a low-key campaign.
Once elected, I edited a Quarterly Magazine, promoting Liberal Party, its agenda and enjoyed writing on my reflections on the inter-cultural issues in politics. The job gave me an outlet to speak my mind. I used my position as a vehicle to keep the government in waiting reminded about the 1985 Air India tragedy, which likes an arrow, was stuck in my heart.
The day Chrétien was elected leader, the Liberal Party started planning for the next general election and I began to think of the ways I could make a contribution to his campaign. I called Herb. We met in an East Indian restaurant to review the Calgary Leadership Convention, what was to follow and to feel him out if he had any ambitions to run for a public office. I told him I would be happy to assist him if he ever decided to run for a seat in the House of Commons. Herb listened and said he hadn’t thought of it, which I had hard time believing, but if he ever thought he would let me know.
About a month later, Herb and I got together again; this time at his invitation. He told me that he had been talking to his friends about my idea of throwing his hat in the ring. He said that his friends thought it would be great if he contested, but would require planning, fund raising and campaigning.
I listened and decided to share with him that I was not a rich man. As a civil servant I did not earn big salaries, but I would always be available to assist him with my time and energies. Herb thanked me for the offer and started talking about the next step, which was to organise Richmond riding to generate funds and energy supportive his candidacy.
Believe me, it was not easy. What I found was that it was not only difficult but divisive as well. It exposed me to something I was not ready for. Nevertheless, it was educationally rewarding.