A man in a blue turban stood among thousands in toques, fur hats and yarmulkes in Poland on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Tim Uppal was there as the head of the official Canadian delegation for the commemoration ceremony, a role in keeping with his post as Canada’s minister of state for multiculturalism.
But Uppal has championed the importance of Holocaust remembrance for much longer, an unusual role for a Sikh member of Parliament from an Edmonton-area riding with only a few hundred Jews.
“There is so much we can learn from what happened here,” he said over the phone from Krakow, Poland ahead of his visit to the camp where an estimated 1.1. million were killed during the Second World War.
“And you can take those lessons and apply it to the present.”
Toronto Conservative MP Mark Adler lives those lessons daily; his father Abram survived internment at Auschwitz and made his home in Toronto after the war.
“My father passed on a kind of optimism — as bad as things can get, there are always sunnier things ahead,” he said in Ottawa on Tuesday.
“You’ve just always got to be strong and make a positive difference.”
Uppal’s connection predates his time in government. His wife Kiran Bhinder is one of the only non-Jews ever to take part in a trip called March of the Living, which takes teens through Holocaust sites in Europe and then on to Israel.
Uppal was taken by the stories his wife shared of her experiences, including her relationship with survivors from the camps, and began to develop his own relationships with them.
When he found himself with the opportunity in 2010 to bring a private member’s bill forward in the House of Commons, he was besieged with pitches.
One stood out: Canada did not have a national Holocaust monument.
There had been attempts to pass similar legislation in the past. Former Liberal MP Susan Kadis, who is Jewish and represented the heavily Jewish riding of Thornhill, introduced a bill in 2008. Winnipeg MP Anita Neville, who is also Jewish, brought another one forward later that year.
But it was Uppal’s bill that finally made it through. Construction on the monument is set to begin this year, funded by private donors and the federal government.
Holocaust remembrance is not a faith-based cause, Uppal said.
“I was doing something as a Canadian, this is something that affects us all,” he said.
“It wasn’t because of anything of my own faith but this is something that I felt was important to us all as Canadians.”
Uppal has become a fixture on the Jewish community lecture circuit, addressing crowds ranging from the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee to groups of teens about to depart on March of the Living trips.
He says he hopes to one day expose his own children, now 6, 4 and 2, to the story of what happened to the 11 million people who fell victim to the Nazi government’s racist policies.
“It’s so important that we pass on this history to future generations,” he said.
For Uppal, the issue of racism also hits closer to home.
In September, he posted on Twitter about an incident he personally experienced at a tennis court.
“A woman leaving the tennis court looked at me and my wife and said, “Are they members? Why can’t they play in the day — they don’t have jobs,” he wrote.
What he takes away from these encounters is the need for more education, he says, which comes also from more attention to history and the lessons of events like the Holocaust.
“It is important that we must learn from our history,”he said.
“We must know who we are.”
With files from Jennifer Ditchburn