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MP Bains: A "charter child"


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MP Bains: A `charter child'


Outspoken critic of government's role in Afghanistan is representative of the new Canada, says political consultant

Apr 26, 2007 04:30 AM

At 29, Navdeep Bains is a rising star in the federal Liberal caucus. He's outspoken, highly regarded and seen by senior Liberals as having the potential, as one put it, "to be the first Canadian prime minister in a turban."

The Brampton-born MBA is also what's known as a "charter child." It's the term for the growing number of young Canadian politicians who matured under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and consider it a reflex responsibility to speak out on important issues of human rights.

So it should come as no surprise that Bains (Mississauga-Brampton South) lived up to his reputation for outspokenness last week during a trip to Pakistan, making an issue of the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Bains wasn't in Lahore to talk about Afghanistan. The Liberal trade critic was part of a delegation, headed by International Trade Minister David Emerson, in the Pakistani city (not far from his maternal grandfather's birthplace) for World Trade Organization talks on agriculture.

But on the eve of the trip, another eight soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, and Bains asked Canadian diplomats to arrange a briefing for him with leading Pakistani journalists. He wanted to talk about the lack of border security between Pakistan and Afghanistan (making it porous to Taliban fighters), as well as the Afghan military coalition, which operates under NATO control.

What he heard disturbed him.

"I was very disappointed at their lack of knowledge of the Canadian role in Afghanistan," Bains told the Toronto Star, after his return to Canada on the weekend. The journalists thought the only foreign nations fighting in Afghanistan were the United States and Britain.

Bains explained to them that Ottawa is "very serious" about its Afghan mission and talked about the heavy loss of Canadian lives, which stands at 54 soldiers and one diplomat.

He faults the Conservative government for failing to publicize the significant cost to Canada. "We need to... make sure there is a strong awareness – particularly in the region – of the sacrifices Canada has made," said Bains. "And the government has to be more aggressive in insisting upon being part of the decisionmaking process in NATO."

Bains is also angry that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to release the written report of a recent fact-finding mission by Wajid Khan, the PM's special adviser on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Khan, the MP for Mississauga-Streetsville, joined the Conservatives earlier this year after Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion warned he couldn't serve as Harper's adviser and stay in the Liberal caucus. On Jan. 5, the day Khan was supposed to discuss his situation with Dion, he crossed the floor, skipping his meeting with the Liberal leader.

"What is Khan doing? We don't know. It's a secret," said Bains. "It's incumbent on the prime minister to better explain the situation to the Canadian public... It's not good enough for Khan to say that he can't comment."

Bains' outspokenness after his trip to Pakistan was typical of a man used to being at the centre of public controversy.

Politics is in his blood: his paternal grandfather Jaswanl was a municipal politician in India; his own interest began in high school in Brampton; and he won a hotly contested nomination in a newly created riding in December 2003, getting elected six months later.

In last year's Liberal leadership race, Bains supported Gerard Kennedy. When Kennedy threw his support to Dion, Bains went too, soon becoming a favourite among Dion Liberals.

Though he is touted as a possible future PM, Bains won't comment on his leadership ambitions, insisting: "I'm still learning the ropes."

He's bilingual, speaking English and Punjabi, but he hasn't mastered French – yet. He spent the first week of the recent Easter break studying French in Montreal.

"Nav is representative of the next generation of Canadians," said Toronto political analyst Rob Silver, a veteran Kennedy organizer. "This is the new Canada. He's from a family of immigrants and he grew up in the suburbs. It will be people like Nav who will lead the country and determine where Canada is going over the next 50 years."

Last week was the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms' 25th anniversary. A framed copy of the charter hangs in Bains' riding office in Brampton and he has made copies available in several languages to his constituents.

Fighting for Charter rights has been at the heart of his short political career. It's the reason he supported same-sex marriage legislation, despite opposition in the conservative Sikh community.

Bains received anonymous telephone threats his career was over – "not death threats" – but he didn't back down. Even his grandmother, Ajit, 72, who lives with his parents in Brampton, picked up the phone to hear her grandson pilloried.

"I am proud of him," she said on a recent Friday, before her regular visit to the Gurdwara Temple in Brampton. In a white chuni and tunic, she sat with Bains' niece Rumeet, 5, and talked about her grandson.

"It is a very honourable profession," she said in Punjabi with Bains translating. She watches Question Period on TVand complains when he's absent. Bains explained the significance of the Charter of Rights after he heard her talking about "somebody called Charter."

There have been other difficult times. In January, Harper rose in the Commons to ask for a Liberal response to a report in the Vancouver Sun that Bains' father-in-law, Darshan Singh Saini, was "on the RCMP's potential list of witnesses" for the Air India investigation and was a former spokesperson for a terrorist organization advocating Sikh nationhood.

Saini, who now drives cab in Toronto, told the Star he has been questioned by the RCMP and CSIS and long ago severed ties to the Babbar Khalsa Panthak. "I have nothing to hide. If they need to talk to me again, all they have to do is ask and they will be guests in my home."

Liberals felt the issue was used by the Conservatives to insinuate Saini was somehow a suspect. According to Silver, it was meant to smear Bains. "They can smear him or paint caricatures as much as they want but it's too easy and it's cheap... Nav is much better than that."

Meanwhile, Bains is upbeat about his political future. Dion called him last December to ask what role he would like in the shadow cabinet. His interest in business and foreign affairs brought him the international trade post.

"The life of an MP is awesome," said Bains, before kissing his grandmother goodbye at his parents' home and giving his young niece Rumeet a cuddle. It was practice for an upcoming role in October. That's when his wife, Brahamjot, is expecting their first child.

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