Amarjeet Sohi’s political journey fuelled by experiences as immigrant in Edmonton

Struggles with racism and bullying in his first few years in Canada helped a young immigrant from India learn how to fight against systemic injustices from hard-won positions in politics.

It was 40 years ago this month that 17-year-old Amarjeet Sohi stepped off a plane at Edmonton International Airport with his mother and father.

Sponsored by Sohi’s older brother and sister-in-law, the Sikh farming family from the small village of Banbhaura in Punjab was embarking on a new life in a new country.

“It was a good day,” Sohi recalled of his family’s arrival in Edmonton.

Sohi, who had little English before coming to this country, spent his late teens and most of his 20s dealing with racism, bullying and systemic issues that have plagued immigrants for generations.

Along the way, he learned how to fight back.

Last month, Sohi, 57, became Edmonton’s first South Asian mayor. He garnered 45 per cent of all votes cast in the Oct. 18 municipal election, compared to 25 per cent for his closest challenger, former council colleague Mike Nickel.

Presiding over his inaugural council meeting eight days later, the new mayor put forward a notice of motion for administration to develop a comprehensive anti-racism strategy for the city.

During the campaign, he had promised to make the fight against racism a focus of his leadership.

“I’ll be out there in the trenches for you,” Sohi said during one mayoral forum. “Standing shoulder to shoulder. And fighting together to end this evil.”

Sohi (top right) with his brother Jagdev (top left) in a family photograph. (Submitted by Amarjeet Sohi)

Sohi’s rise to the mayor’s chair in Canada’s fifth-largest city is the latest in a succession of political achievements for the former bus driver.

After first running unsuccessfully for Edmonton city council in 2004, he tried again in 2007 and was elected to represent a southeast ward he knew well.

Sohi was re-elected to council in 2010 and again in 2013 before taking a leave in 2015 to seek election as a Liberal Member of Parliament for the new riding of Edmonton Mill Woods.

After his win, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Sohi minister of infrastructure and communities.

In 2018, Sohi was moved to the natural resources portfolio, a position he held until he was defeated in 2019.

Sohi, as natural resources minister, speaks about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion at a news conference in Sherwood Park, Alta., in 2019. (CBC)

As a newcomer to Canada, Sohi faced language barriers, loneliness and racism. In high school, he got picked on and shoved into lockers by other students.

“I never understood why,” he said of the treatment he faced. “But now, reflecting on it, obviously it had to do something with my skin colour.”

He raised his concerns to teachers and his principal but said no real action was taken.

Acting lit a flame for social justice

Although in school he always felt like he didn’t belong, he did find a home in community theatre.

His older brother introduced him to a theatre company organized by community members in Mill Woods, the sprawling southeast Edmonton residential area where the Sohi family lived.

His family didn’t have a TV for him to watch shows or movies, but Sohi was charmed by theatre.

“I think what theatre allowed me to do was really express myself, what I was feeling,” he said.

Most of the theatre he performed dealt with topics he could relate to — racism, discrimination, being an immigrant in a new country.

In 1988, Sohi returned to India to study theatre. He learned that the spark ignited by theatre had also lit a flame in him for social justice.

The future politician, wearing a brown coat, performs in a play in Mill Woods. (Submitted by Amarjeet Sohi)

Sohi helped farmers in the state of Bihar organize protests that eventually led to his arrest. Accused of being a terrorist, he was tortured and beaten during 18 months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

Sohi was finally released after no evidence was found tying him to any terrorist organization. He returned to Canada in 1990 a different person.

“I was not in a proper frame of mind for a number of months to do anything,” he said.

Back in Edmonton, Sohi found work through a friend as a driver for the Disabled Adult Transportation System (DATS), part of the city’s Edmonton Transit Service.

‘He was organized’

DATS drivers — many of them immigrants, like himself — were not unionized at the time.

Sohi remembers working 12- to 14-hour shifts for low wages. Drivers didn’t get overtime pay or more money for working statutory holidays. They weren’t entitled to paid sick leave or medical benefits.

“The city did not treat us like other employees,” Sohi said.

In 1994, he reached out to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569, which represented ETS drivers.

Steve Bradshaw, now the local’s president, remembers that Sohi was quick to learn what he needed to know to have DATS drivers represented by the union.

“He was smart about what he was doing,” Bradshaw said. “He was organized. He was forthright in what his goals were and he [absorbed] whatever information and details that he would glean to try to move this forward.”

DATS drivers voted to join the union in the fall of 1998, days after they were declared city employees in an Alberta Labour Relations Board ruling. The city had argued the drivers should be treated like independent contractors.

Sohi and Bradshaw became close friends, sharing family dinners and working together for their community. 

In 2005, when a Mill Woods convenience store worker was shot and killed in a robbery, an anguished Sohi reached out to Bradshaw to discuss what they could do to keep the community safe.

They formed the Mill Woods Crime Council in collaboration with the city and local community groups.

‘Working-class people should be at the table’

Sohi’s decision to run for city council was an idea that formed slowly, a consequence of previous experiences working for his community.

“The more we became involved in organizing, the more we realized how critical it is that public institutions impact our working conditions and they impact our quality of life,” Sohi said.

“That really taught me a big lesson that working-class people should be at the table talking about issues that matter to working-class people.”

Bradshaw was one of the first people he reached out to. “I’m going for council and I need you to manage my campaign,” Bradshaw recalls Sohi telling him. 

He didn’t win in 2004, but in 2007, he ran again and was elected on a platform promoting better transit and amenities for southeast Edmonton.

“It’s difficult for people to understand sometimes that certain areas of the city were not getting the kind of infrastructure that they needed,” he said. “And Mill Woods was one of those communities that lacked a proper library, that lacked a proper rec centre.”

Sohi was the only visible minority member of council when he was elected.

Sohi was federal infrastructure minister in 2016 when this photo was taken with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson (left) and Brian Mason, Alberta’s infrastructure minister. (CBC News)

‘Ahead of his time’

Former Edmonton mayor Don Iveson, a rookie city councillor himself in 2007, remembers Sohi making an immediate impression on him.

“He’s a very kind human being and listens very genuinely,” Iveson said.

He said that on council, Sohi brought up tough conversations about race and white privilege.

“This is before these concepts were in wide circulation … he was ahead of his time thinking about these questions and incredibly courageous to bring them forward,” Iveson said.

Iveson said he was curious and remembers asking Sohi a lot of questions, especially keeping his own mixed-race children in mind and trying to learn how they might experience life moving forward.

Iveson said he has high hopes for Sohi as mayor based on their time together on council.

Sohi has “a lot of finesse as a leader, as a councillor,” that he didn’t fully appreciate until after Sohi left to run federally, Iveson said.

“It wasn’t until Amarjeet went on leave that I understood how much glue he provided on that council,” Iveson said.

His advice for anyone questioning whether Sohi can bring together a council: “Underestimate Amarjeet Sohi at your peril.”

‘I stepped up’

During his time as a city councillor, Sohi led anti-racism initiatives and helped build relationships with multicultural communities. As the only non-white member on council, many different communities looked up to him for a connection at city hall, he said.

“We increased funding for emerging cultural organizations during my time, and we initiated more information sharing and how they engage with cultural communities during my time on city council,” Sohi said.

After his defeat in the 2019 federal election, Sohi had no plans to run for mayor.

“But when Mayor Iveson decided that he was not going to run again, a lot of my friends reached out to me to see if I would meet with them to explore this option,” he said.

Supporters told him he had the work and life experience for the difficult job ahead, and the right temperament for it.

He listened.

“After talking to my friends, I stepped up to that idea,” he said. “If that’s what is needed, I’ll do it.”

A victorious Sohi on election night last month, flanked during his acceptance speech by his daughter Seerat and wife Sarbjeet. (CBC)

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