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This article was published 18/9/2018 (453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Mayor Brian Bowman may find himself in hot water with segments of Winnipeg’s Hindu community after a questionable photo from a local Sikh event held in the city surfaced this weekend.
On Sunday, Bowman attended a gathering at the Sikh Society of Manitoba, where he was photographed around a table with members of the local Sikh community.
Hanging on the wall behind Bowman was a framed portrait of a controversial Sikh leader and separatist, considered a martyr to some and a terrorist to others.
The portrait was of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a man denounced as a terrorist by the Indian government. He’s been accused of fomenting communalist violence in the country in the 1980s in an effort to forge an independent religious state.
On Monday, Bowman said he was unaware of the portrait in the room when the photo was taken and only learned about Bhindranwale the next day.
"I am aware of this historical figure and how polarizing and divisive he is. Let’s keep in mind I was asked to meet with Winnipeggers, not the individual in the portrait," Bowman said. "The short answer is I wasn’t aware of the portrait behind me and no one raised it."
Bhindranwale’s alleged activities and crimes include murder, robbery and incitement of violence against Hindus. In 1981, he was reportedly charged with the murder of a newspaper editor who had penned editorials critical of him.
To some Sikhs, however, he’s considered an important martyr and religious leader who stood up against oppression.
Saranbreet Singh, a member of the local Sikh community who spoke with the Free Press but said he only represented himself and not the Sikh Society of Manitoba, said Bhindranwale is a misunderstood figure.
"He was religious leader of the Sikh community. He raised his voice against the racism and discrimination Sikhs had to face at that time in India. The government attacked him, calling him a terrorist, but he was a religious leader and he was a good person," Singh said.
Bowman said he plans to follow up with the Sikh Society of Manitoba to get a better sense of why that portrait is hanging on their wall.
When asked what he would say to members of the local Hindu community potentially upset at the photo, Bowman said he recognizes he probably doesn’t have the same historical understanding of the controversial figure that others do.
"I don’t know of any religion that doesn’t have controversial figures in their past. Like I said, I wasn’t asked to meet with anyone in a portrait; I was asked to meet with a group of Winnipeggers who are doing good work in the community," Bowman said.
A spokesman for the Hindu Society of Manitoba declined comment when reached by the Free Press.
Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk defended her rival when reached for comment, saying she too attended a Sikh gathering Sunday. She dismissed the photo as a "loaded controversy."
"Winnipeg is celebrated as an open and inclusive mosaic of multiculturalism and we are all Winnipeggers. No candidate should be vilified for perceived associations simply because they accept an invitation," Motkaluk said in a written statement. "Meeting fellow Winnipeggers is not an endorsement of their political viewpoints."
Bowman isn’t the first Canadian politician to raise eyebrows for tangential connections to Sikh separatists.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent trip to India sparked controversy after a Sikh separatist, with past ties to a terrorist group and a conviction for a politically motivated attempted murder, was invited to a government function and photographed with his wife.
On the trip, local MP Kevin Lamoureux also found himself in hot water after a photo was published that showed him with a former Indian politician with alleged ties to an international drug cartel.
Trudeau also caught flack in 2017 for being the first sitting Prime Minister to attend the annual Khalsa Day parade, which celebrates Sikh leaders such as Bhindranwale.
Those incidents, and others, have led members of the Indian government to accuse some Canadian politicians of being weak on Sikh separatism.
— with files from Aldo Santin
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.