Saturday, July 28, 2007

'Misunderstanding' at root of name uproar

The Gazette; AFP contributed to this report
26 July 2007

Immigration Canada says a misunderstanding is at the root of the recent uproar over a supposed federal policy requiring would-be Sikh immigrants to change their names.

The Times of India wrote yesterday that Tarvinder Kaur, a Calgary woman awaiting her husband Jaspal Singh's arrival in Canada, learned that his application for permanent residency had been delayed for more than a month because of his last name.

Singh received a letter dated May 17, 2007, from the Canadian high commission in New Delhi saying, ''The name Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada.''

In the Sikh religion, all women were given the last name Kaur and men the last name Singh, to represent the abolition of class and caste inequalities in Indian society.

World Sikh Organization Canada president Gurpreet Singh Bal says requesting Sikh immigrants to change their names is "offensive."

"It also flies in the face of everything the Canadian Charter stands for and we as Canadians value. The policy needs to change so that Sikhs with the surnames Singh and Kaur are treated fairly and with dignity like all others in our society."

Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson Karen Shadd-Evelyn said yesterday, however, that changing one's name "is not a mandatory requirement for immigration to Canada."

She told various media outlets that the letter sent to the Calgary woman was "poorly worded" and does not reflect the government's policy.

Shadd-Evelyn noted a high volume of applications at Canada's New Delhi visa office are from persons named Singh or Kaur. She said that offering an alternate family name benefits permanent resident applicants "by ensuring fewer misfiled or mismailed pieces of correspondence, as well as fewer incidents of mistaken identity."

An immigrations official said yesterday that the policy to request an alternate name was put in place 10 years ago for the sake of efficiency.

Montrealer Raj Preet Kaur, 25, objected to the policy. "It's not just a name, it's part of who we are, part of our identity as a community."

She explained that many people have other last names in addition to Kaur and Singh, but many only use one last name.

"It should be up to people to decide what their last name is," said Kaur, who attends the Guru Nanak Darbar Temple in LaSalle. "They shouldn't change their names if they are afraid."

Jasbeer Singh, spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization, also objected to the policy.

"It is not fair to ask people to change their names," Singh said. "My name is a part of me, my personality, my identity. To say that it is too common and ask me to change it is an assault on my rights, my religion."

"Today, they have singled out Singh and Kaur. Tomorrow, they may dislike Mohammed and how soon before names such as Lee or Smith are targeted?"

Websites for Sikhs worldwide are posting the email addresses and telephone numbers of Canadian high commissions around the world, urging them to complain about the policy.

In Montreal, Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), said his organization became aware of the policy recently, but has not received specific complaints. "We have not had anyone expressing concern about it," he said. "Only a few people inquiring about it."

Niemi's group takes on human rights issues, both by engaging in public education and by sponsoring court challenges.

There are about 278,000 Sikhs in Canada, double the number a decade ago, but they represent only about 0.5 per cent of the overall religious mix in Canada.