Dosanjh becomes British Columbia Premier  

Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer; March 7, 2000


Ujjal Dosanjh was born in a village of India's Punjab state, spoke not a word of English until he was a teenager and worked as a night watchman cleaning conveyor belts at a sawmill after immigrating to Canada in 1968.

Last month, the non-charismatic, soft-spoken yet iron-willed 51-year-old attorney general was sworn in as premier of British Columbia.

Just as Washington made history in 1996 by electing the first Asian-American governor in the mainland United States, Gary Locke, British Columbia became the first Canadian province to have a premier of Asian descent.

``I intend to run a government where people enjoy working with each other. . . . It will definitely not be Clark-style,'' said Dosanjh, referring to the headstrong former Premier Glen Clark, whose resignation Dosanjh helped bring about in August.

During the past 30 years, British Columbia has voted three premiers out of office. Four others have resigned under ethical clouds or facing defeat at the polls. In British Columbia, as former Premier Mike Harcourt is fond of saying, politics is a blood sport.

Dosanjh appears serene at taking a post that has devoured his predecessors. He is a man who experienced political beatings in his first two races for the British Columbia Legislature, as well as a brutal physical beating. In 1985, Dosanjh was repeatedly struck on the head with an iron rod in the parking lot outside his law office. The beating came after he had spoken out against Sikh extremism in the Indo-Canadian community.

Dosanjh, who has served as provincial attorney general since 1995, was elected leader of British Columbia's governing New Democratic Party Sunday at the conclusion of a raucous three-day convention. Under a parliamentary system, the governing party's leader becomes premier.

Dosanjh won the leadership of British Columbia's governing party 769-549 over British Columbia Agriculture Minister Corky Evans on the first ballot at the party's leadership convention.

The premier-elect confronted head-on the New Democrats' loss of popularity in the wake of confrontational predecessor Clark. He promised ``less confrontation and more cooperation'' in the often-raucous Legislature and ``a government you can respect.''

``I have listened to you and learned from you of our government's shortcomings,'' Dosanjh said in a speech directed over the heads of convention delegates to the province's voters.

Healing wounds

Dosanjh and his advisers promise early initiatives to heal cross-border wounds caused by Clark, who feuded with the governors of Washington and Alaska, and tried to throw the U.S. Navy out of a torpedo testing range in the Strait of Georgia.

``I would hope we would get him down to meet with Gov. Locke soon: We need to repair the damage done by Clark,'' said Harcourt, a top adviser to Dosanjh.

But the New Democrats must heal wounds of their own that first opened last summer as the party split over Clark's leadership and efforts to oust him. ``There is bad blood: There are different camps,'' said Dave Haggard, president of the International Woodworkers of America and a convention delegate.

Dosanjh will take on a formidable job in repairing party fortunes, and relations with other governments.

``My style is different; when the style is different, it leads to a different substance,'' Dosanjh said in an interview. On the eve of his election, the premier-to-be washed the breakfast dishes before settling into a bicultural living room full of books and mementos of India and British Columbia.

Un-Clark-like

During the prolonged U.S.-Canada Pacific salmon dispute, Clark feuded with Canada's federal government as well as the governors of Washington and Alaska. British Columbia was excluded from negotiations that produced a final settlement.

According to one Washington state official who has worked with him, Dosanjh is the antithesis of the strident, in-your-face Clark.

``He is a guy who believes in partnership. He's a gentleman who's very understanding of how something they do up there impacts Washington state,'' Attorney General Christine Gregoire said.

Gregoire has worked with Dosanjh on issues ranging from drug smuggling along the Interstate 5 corridor to transboundary telemarketing scams. She predicts ``a real good relationship'' between the state and province after the tumult of the Clark era.

Dosanjh will find some similarities with the son of immigrants from China who serves as governor of Washington. Like Locke, Dosanjh has risen in a political culture that a century ago sought to exclude Asian immigrants from full rights of citizenship.

``He is not perceived as Indo-Canadian; he is perceived as a Canadian success story,'' said Harcourt, who appointed Dosanjh attorney general.

``He is a Sikh, active in his religion and community (but) he is Canadianized,'' Harcourt said. ``He stood up against bringing conflicts from the Indian subcontinent to Canada and was assaulted for it.''

Dosanjh's success is not an isolated case. Immigrants from China and India sit in both the British Columbia and Canadian cabinets. Canada's governor-general, Adrienne Clarkson -- its ceremonial chief of state -- came to Toronto as a little girl as her parents fled the World War II Japanese occupation of China.

``Canada has been a magnet for people from poorer countries who have the drive and ambition to want to improve their lives. This is how leaders emerge,'' Raymond Chrétien, Canada's ambassador to the United States, reflected during a Seattle visit recently.

Thomas Berger, a former British Columbia Supreme Court justice and longtime friend, describes Dosanjh as ``a remarkable man'' of quiet demeanor but unshakable resolve.

``I remember him being interviewed on TV in the hospital after his beating,'' Berger said. ``He said straight out, `I don't care what they do. I'm going to go right back out there and take the same stand.' ''

Charges were brought, but nobody was convicted in the attack.

Dosanjh has been a somewhat controversial presence even in the no-holds-barred field of British Columbia politics.

He is wedded to what he calls ``the goals of social and economic justice, which this movement (the New Democratic Party) is all about.''

Dosanjh had his start in politics organizing farmworkers. He still proudly carries a union card as a member of the International Woodworkers of America. His wife, Raminder, is an outspoken feminist. He strongly backs his party's commitment to gay and lesbian rights and to active prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech.

Aside from his advocacy of lengthy prison terms for violent crimes, Dosanjh does not bother with conservative soundings. He defends the New Democrats' record of generous funding for health and post-secondary education. In power for eight years, the party has yet to produce a balanced budget.

``He is further to the left than Glen Clark. . . . He is a very left-wing social reformer and very redistributive, a believer in taxing the rich,'' said John Twigg, a onetime New Democrat turned conservative Victoria-based columnist.

Bad blood

He also has engendered bad blood among some New Democrats, for it was Dosanjh who effectively brought down Glen Clark.

In August, Dosanjh revealed to the New Democrats' legislative caucus, and then to the public, that Clark was under criminal investigation for his alleged involvement in a friend's casino license application. The disclosure forced Clark to resign.

Former British Columbia Premier Dave Barrett, a revered elder among many New Democrats, has bitterly denounced Dosanjh in party circles. Barrett has argued that the disclosure shrouded Clark in the presumption of guilt, unfairly and unjustly forcing him from office.

``I beg to disagree,'' Dosanjh said. ``The criminal justice system must not only function correctly but be seen to function correctly. It was important, in the public interest, that information be shared with the public.''

Clark worked behind the scenes to derail Dosanjh's campaign for the premier's office. The result, leading up to the weekend convention, was an intra-party feud that may have jeopardized what small chance the New Democrats have of holding onto power. A provincial election must be called within the next 16 months.