‘Shocking’: How phoney Sikh temples are taking advantage of religious immigrants

Sigh. The ingenuity of fraudsters…:

Judging from its online presence, the Sikh temple that purportedly sits on the edge of this Niagara-region border town is a lovely spot.

“They serve food all time with good flavoured chutney and the taste is superb,” says an August 2019 review on the Fort Erie Khalsa Darbar’s Facebook page . “The place of god to relax and calm your mind. “

The social media page and the temple’s website reinforce the pleasant image with photos of devotees and succulent-looking food.

What actually exists at its address in Fort Erie is something else: A long-abandoned motel surrounded by scrub land overgrown with weeds, and fronted by a no-trespassing sign.

The land is zoned rural. “A place of worship,” says Janine Tessmer, a spokeswoman for the town, “would be considered a zoning infraction.”

There is no temple, in other words. Yet Fort Erie Khalsa Darbar, incorporated as a federal non-profit in April, 2019, and granted religious charity status this February, has sponsored at least three priests to come here from India on special visas issued by Ottawa.

Directors of the Fort Erie temple — called a gurdwara in Punjabi — say they fully intend to open it one day and thought it would be running by the time their priests arrived.

Representatives of the country’s many functioning gurdwaras say they know little about the new facility, and couldn’t comment on its operation. But they warn that temples by name only, operating “under false pretenses” are a major problem, charging priests, real or not, tens of thousands of dollars each for sponsorships that can lead to visas and a cherished foothold in Canada.

They also say federal governments have long ignored their warnings about the unique, religiously inflected form of immigration fraud.

“The sharp rise in cases coming forward in the public regarding potential immigrants paying tens of thousands of dollars to these societies in order to secure work permits is shocking and undermining the immigration process and laws,” the heads of the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee and B.C. Gurdwaras Council said in a letter this July to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

“Potential immigrants to Canada are often fleeing poverty, state sponsored violence, genocide and oppression and to be further marginalized by this type of illegal and fraudulent behavior … is unacceptable,” they said.

In lower mainland British Columbia, a priest from India says he had to pay $29,000 to have gurdwara leaders sponsor him for a work permit to preach in what turned out to be a phoney temple. He says he and his young family are now destitute.

Directors of the Fort Erie gurdwara deny that money changed hands with the priests they sponsored, and that incomplete renovations on that vacant building in Fort Erie meant the men could not work there.

Bachittar Saini, the temple president, said he is covering all the project’s expenses from his own pocket as a gift to the area’s small Sikh population — non-existent in 2011, according to the most recent federal household survey that canvassed religious beliefs.

“When you are serving the community, you don’t have to be only serving the Sikh community,” Saini said. “It could be anyone, black, brown, white, whatever. We don’t ask ‘Are you Sikh, are you Christian, are you Muslim?’”

Meanwhile, there’s evidence that at least one of the three priests may now be working as a truck driver, and allegations he tried to obtain a visa fraudulently four years ago. Saini says the preachers have all disappeared, and that he reported them missing to immigration authorities.

Matieu Genest, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said Friday the government would not comment on any ongoing investigations, but takes allegations of fraud seriously and “constantly monitors” to ensure the safety of people using the system and safeguard the system itself.

“We encourage anyone who suspects immigration fraud to contact the Canada Border Services Agency’s Border Watch,” he said.

Genest said the program for bringing religious workers to gurdwaras is important to the Sikh community, and is regularly reviewed to ensure its integrity. Officials work closely with the community “to identify and eliminate opportunities for abuse.”

Two of the Fort Erie gurdwara directors have links to Navdeep Bains, a Liberal MP and minister of innovation, science and industry. President Bachittar Saini and the minister’s father, Balwinder, were advisors to the same slate of candidates in a board election last year at a large gurdwara in Mississauga. Fort Erie director Bahadur Bains is uncle to Balkar Bains, Liberal riding association president in Bains’ Mississauga-Malton constituency.

But John Power, a spokesman for the minister, said he had nothing to do with the Fort Erie project and no one on his staff helped in any way to obtain visas for the priests.

Gurdwaras are the places of worship for Canada’s 700,000 Sikhs, but also serve as community hubs, offering food to people in need and hosting weddings and funerals at halls that are often part of the temple complex.

To meet the demand for such services, many temples sponsor jathas — groups of three priests — to come from India for stays of about six months in Canada.

They are admitted under various types of work permits, a Canadian consulate in India co-ordinating with gurdwaras to ensure no one over-stays their visa, said Béatrice Fénelon, an Immigration Refugees and Citizenship spokeswoman.

In total, 519 work permits or permit extensions were issued to religious workers from India between 2018 and July this year, while 70 were granted permanent resident status, she said.

The gurdwara associations say in their letter that a system developed in 2012 to deter abuse had some early success. But now, they say, there are “hundreds if not thousands” of non-profit Sikh religious societies that are using their paper credentials to make money off of would-be immigrants.

They call for a crackdown to ensure perpetrators do not “continue to financially gain from this illegal activity.”

“There are so many gurdwaras registered but they are not existing any place. They are fraud,” said Amarjit Singh Mann of the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee. “They rent a place in the plaza or somewhere else, and they say this is a gurdwara … but there is nothing.”

Saini, the Fort Erie temple president, is a realtor and also director of a numbered company — 2323266 Ontario Inc. — that bought the property in 2019 for $310,000, according to land registry records. All the gurdwara’s board members are based in Brampton, 150 kilometres away.

Fort Erie is a curious location for a Sikh religious facility. The 2016 census found just 10 residents whose mother tongue is Punjabi — which could also include Hindus and Muslims — while Statistics Canada’s 2011 national household survey revealed zero adherents of the Sikh religion. The town’s population has increased little since then.

Director Bahadur Bains suggested otherwise, estimating that there are “300 or 400” Sikhs in the town of 30,000. The gurdwara would also be of benefit, he added, to Sikhs in Belleville, though that city is 340 kilometres away in eastern Ontario.

The temple’s online presence gives no hint that it exists in the record books only. The administrator of its Facebook page began posting messages there in April 2019, and continued until as recently as the middle of September.

Then there are the reviews. That one posted in August 2019, in praise of the temple’s food and meditative ambience, was posted by Buy Sell on Time, a company run by president Saini.

At the property itself, site of the former Tatler Motel , someone was working inside the building without a permit in 2019, prompting the town to issue an order to comply in September, then a stop-work order in November, said Tessmer.

The structure looks thoroughly abandoned now. But the sponsored priests still received their visas last year.

Saini said the stop-work order prevented the building being ready to accommodate them and a potential congregation. He said he now plans to tear down the motel and build anew, but said work was halted because of the pandemic. In fact, Ontario allowed construction to proceed throughout the COVID-19 lockdown.

Meanwhile, no one has applied to change the zoning to make opening a temple there legitimate, said Tessmer.

Where the sponsored priests are now is also murky.

Unable to take up work in Fort Erie, they found jobs at a gurdwara in Brampton called Jot Parkash, then vanished, said Saini. But Jot Parkash spokesman Satbir Singh said he’s never heard of them, or the Fort Erie facility.

Meanwhile, a Windsor, Ont., businessman, Amarjit Grewal, initially confirmed to the National Post that one of the preachers was working for him as a truck driver. Then, in a subsequent interview, he denied that was true, saying the man, whom the National Post could not reach and is not naming, was at a temple in Mississauga.

In 2016, a priest of the same name and two jatha members forged letters from Canada’s largest gurdwara — Ontario Khalsa Darbar (OKD) — in a bid to win visas, the temple alleged in a letter to immigration officials at the time. Their warning seems to have been for naught, as the same preachers managed to get visas later after convincing a different temple to sponsor them, said a follow-up letter to Immigration.

“It would be greatly appreciated if you can address this matter promptly and help us eradicate fraudulent behavior,” the OKD gurdwara wrote in April 2017.

It’s “mind-boggling” that despite the warnings the same priests are now back in Canada, granted visas after being sponsored by a temple that does not physically exist, said Jaspal Bal, an advisor to Ontario Khalsa Darbar.

When he found out they had returned, Bal said, “I thought ‘man oh man, what is going on’”?

Source: ‘Shocking’: How phoney Sikh temples are taking advantage of religious immigrants

Why hard-fought election at North America’s largest Sikh temple could be bad news for Liberals in next federal vote

We will know in October, but of course other factors will also be at play. And the sensitivity regarding the mention of Sikh extremism in a Public Safety report is also noteworthy:

When North America’s largest Sikh temple elects a new board of directors, it doesn’t fool around.

Candidates have campaign managers, cold-call voters and go door-knocking in the race for leadership of the Ontario Khalsa Darbar (OKD), a Toronto-area institution that functions as a place of worship, a community centre — and a nexus of political influence.

The Liberals have long been linked to the OKD, and arguably benefited from its status among the province’s Sikhs. But the election that wrapped up there early Monday morning may not bode well for the party.

A Grit-associated slate promoted by the fathers of Navdeep Bains, a star in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, and MP Ruby Sahota was roundly defeated, and a controversial government report that suggested Sikh terrorism still poses a threat here may have played a role, say observers and campaign organizers.

That could have ramifications for Liberal support in several swing seats in and around Brampton, Ont., most of which flipped to the party from the Conservatives in the 2015 election.

“These local ridings will be affected by it,” said Balraj Deol, a Punjabi-language journalist in the area. “That is an advantage for Conservatives, and the NDP also. It’s a loss for the Liberals and it will be a gain for the other two.”

“This may be a sign,” said Jaspal Bal, campaign manager for the victorious side.

Even Trudeau was dragged into the race, with the winning group alleging his visit to the area last week was designed to bolster support for the other side.

But not everyone sees broader implications in the temple vote, no matter how intense the campaign became. Avtar Badyal, the losing presidential candidate, said Trudeau’s visit and Liberal policies had nothing to do with his team’s loss. The election was simply about which group voters believed could best manage an important spiritual institution, he said.

“This is not a political thing, it’s a religious thing,” said Badyal. “I don’t know why they are making this into something that it’s not.”

Another local journalist said he also doubts that broader politics played a role in the temple election, or will be affected by its outcome.

“Not at all,” said Yudhvir Jaswal, who hosts popular radio and TV shows on the local Y-Channel. “I think they are oversimplifying things.”

Regardless, when the ballots were all counted at about 3:30 a.m. Monday, the entire “Panthak Alliance” slate backed by the fathers of MPs Bains and Sahota had been defeated, every one of their 11 opponents elected by healthy margins.

To the winners goes control of a temple — or gurdwara — that boasts 3,700 members and a sprawling, 70-acre site near Toronto’s Pearson airport.

Underscoring the high stakes in such elections, a court battle between directors that began in 2006 forced a nine-year delay in voting and reportedly generated $5 million in legal bills.

Sikh temples are community focal points as well as religious institutions, and OKD includes 15 halls that are booked solid with weddings.

It also provides a potential platform for politicians eager to reach the region’s powerful Sikh voting bloc, said Deol, hosting gatherings that can attract tens of thousands of people.

“That gurdwara is the prime hub for everything,” said an organizer on the winning side, who asked not to be named. “It’s very influential.”

Liberals like Bains, the economic development minister, used to have ready access to the OKD stage, the person said. “That’s not going to happen any more, so that’s a big blow to them.”

Bains was among several Liberals of Sikh background who captured Brampton and Mississauga ridings in 2015, a key part of the Greater Toronto Area battleground that is itself crucial to winning federal elections.

But the community’s support for the party took a serious hit with the release in December of a Public Safety Canada report on terrorism that suggested “Sikh (Khalistani) extremism” remained a threat.

Sikh groups reacted with outrage, saying that using violence to support Punjabi independence was rejected long ago in Canada. The so-called Khalistani movement is entirely peaceful today, they argue.

Local MPs are expected to face a grilling this Sunday at a town-hall meeting about the report.

Many of the temple members who voted for the winning slate in Sunday’s gurdwara election did so to express their opposition to the terrorism statement, equating the other slate with the government, said Bal.

In fact, when a candidate on the opposing side promised to honour the four Sikh-Canadian ministers in the Trudeau cabinet at the gurdwara, the eventual winning slate gained more support, he said.

“People put aside their bickering and differences and said this is one of the issues that is uniting us to support these 11,” said Bal. “Because they have said they will not sit idle and wait with a garland to welcome the leaders who have declared us a terrorist threat.”

Source: Why hard-fought election at North America’s largest Sikh temple could be bad news for Liberals in next federal vote