Dr. Ruby Dhalla is one of the most prominent Canadians of East Indian descent. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Punjabi Sikh immigrant parents, Dhalla entered the country’s House of Commons in 2004 as a Liberal lawmaker, serving for seven years as MP for Brampton-Springdale, a district in Ontario outside Toronto.
During her terms as an MP, Dhalla, now 39, advocated for the rights of immigrants in Canada and also raised money for charities to help victims of natural disasters in Asia, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
International Business Times spoke with Dhalla about a number of topics, including Canadian politics, immigration and her future plans.
IB TIMES: When you served in the House of Commons from 2004 until 2011, did you face any racialism and or sexism from your colleagues, the media or the public?
DHALLA: Whenever you’re breaking new ground, there are always challenges, struggles and sacrifices, and there have been many in my journey. The women that have come before me paved the way for me. and hopefully my journey will help make it easier for others.
There is a certain perception as to what politicians should look like, and since I didn't fit that description everyone had their own opinions. However, everyone that told me it couldn’t be done actually inspired me to work harder to prove them wrong. Results are always the greatest reward. I believe that persistence, determination, passion and focus are vital to achieve goals and growth.
IB TIMES: You and Conservative MP from British Columbia Nina Grewal were the first Sikh women to serve in the House of Commons in Canada, but I think there has so far been only one person of South Asian descent to ever serve as a provincial premier (Ujal Dusanji of British Columbia). Why have South Asians yet to make a bigger splash in national politics in Canada?
DHALLA: Through hard work and determination, the Indo-Canadians have succeeded and achieved in almost every facet of life. Indians have made great strides in the political arena in Canada. Indo-Canadians have played vital roles at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels [of government]. Being elected to one office is one facet, but there are also hundreds of Indo-Canadians and young people involved behind the scenes.
From the time in 1914 when the 376 Indian passengers aboard the Komgata Maru ship were not allowed to enter Canada or a Chinese head tax was imposed, Canada has progressed to a point where Canadians of Indian origin have made significant inroads into the worlds of business, politics, media and health care.
When my mother immigrated to Canada almost 40 years ago, I don’t think she ever would have thought that her daughter would one day serve as a MP in Canada’s Parliament. This speaks to the type of great country Canada is.
IB TIMES: In the United States, the two most prominent Indian politicians are Govs. Nikki Haley [of South Carolina] and Bobby Jindal [of Louisiana], both of whom are members of the Republican (U.S. conservative) party. They are frequently mentioned as future vice-presidential or presidential candidates. How do you view each of them? Have you ever met them?
DHALLA: Unfortunately, I haven't met them, however it’s a proud moment whenever anyone of Indian origin achieves and succeeds. Regardless of where we live in the world or which political party one is elected to, as persons of Indian origin we must support each other.
In 2011, I co-founded a World Punjabi Parliamentarian Forum, bringing together all persons of Indian origin elected to political office across the world. It’s a great opportunity for advocacy, information-sharing, and resource collaboration.
IB TIMES: In Canada, the three largest parties appear to be the Conservatives, the New Democratic Party and the Liberals. Which party do most South Asian voters support? Or do they support all three in equal measure?
DHALLA: The political dynamics of Canada are dramatically changing as the needs and aspirations of the [Indian] Diaspora change.
IB TIMES: Do you expect to see a South Asian prime minister in Canada in our lifetime?
DHALLA: Yes, definitely, especially when we look at the progress the diaspora has made -- the sky is the limit.
IB TIMES: What have you been doing since you lost the 2011 federal election? Do you plan to run again for high political office?
DHALLA: For me, politics has always been about people. So title or not, I’ve still been helping people who are struggling to be heard. It’s been a busy time since 2011. I’ve used the opportunity to pursue all the items pending on my to-do list!
After the 2011 elections I was fortunate to campaign in Punjab [India] for their state elections. It was a rewarding, exciting and incredible learning experience to campaign in villages, towns and cities of an emerging economy where the needs and style of campaigning are different from a country like Canada.
I remember one day after addressing three rallies I had spoken to more people than lived in my entire constituency [in Canada]!
I’ve also worked to help launch the first of its type charity in the world, Dreams For You, as a brand ambassador. Dreams For You is focused on empowering, helping and supporting women who have been victimized and cheated by the issue of fraud marriage -- an issue I advocated for while elected.
I’ve also signed a book deal and am in the process of writing about my journey as a young woman in politics. Hopefully it will inspire more young people to get involved.
IB TIMES: Do you keep in close touch with the Sikh/Punjabi community in India and with the Indian community in the U.S.?
DHALLA: Yes, very much so! I have endeavored to bring forward issues concerning the NRI [Non-Resident Indian] diaspora to the prime minister of India, and various central and chief ministers and businesses in India. I strongly believe the strongest ambassadors that India has are the global diaspora of Indians, hence bringing forward their concerns and ensuring they are addressed is vital.
The government of Punjab, as an example, has been progressive in implementing solutions to address some of those issues. As a result of the advocacy, the government has created a NRI Police Wing along with eight separate police stations dedicated to addressing the issues impacting the NRIs.
In addition, I try and make an effort to attend community events throughout the globe. I recently just spoke at an event in Las Vegas which honored the global diaspora of Indians who had achieved success in different fields. We must work together and support each other as there are many more mountains to be climbed and milestones to be achieved.
IB TIMES: During your political career, do you think you were unfairly criticized for your past experiences as a Bollywood actress and beauty pageant contestant?
DHALLA: Criticism for following your dreams and taking risks is best ignored. After winning three elections, even the critics were forced into silence! As a society we should embrace all women who epitomize “beauty and brains.”
IB TIMES: South Asians are generally regarded as having a very conservative, traditional culture – but do you think that young South Asians in Canada are adopting more liberal attitudes towards such topics as same-sex marriage, abortion, etc.?
DHALLA: Championing equality, human rights, the rights of women, and gender equality are not about whether someone is conservative or liberal -- but rather about standing up for humanity.
IB TIMES: How would you characterize Canada’s immigration policies versus those of the U.S.?
DHALLA: Canada is a blessed country built on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of immigrants. Immigrants are vital to the prosperity, productivity, and progress of both the U.S. and Canada. Immigration policies which promote productivity and growth are vital for the success and growth of both nations.