No sanctuary from media double standards

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The case of the former Russian spy, Mikhail Lennikov, who has taken sanctuary in a Vancouver church to escape deportation has generated keen interest in the Indo Canadian community too. With the memories of the Laiber Singh story still fresh in their minds, many Indo Canadians believe that the mainstream media and politicians are treating Lennikov more decently.

A tale of two migrants

Indeed, the hostility towards Singh, the paralyzed refugee claimant who had taken an asylum in an Abbotsford Sikh temple was notable. Throughout his stay in Canada, the mainstream media portrayed him as terrorist, who entered Canada illegally and suggested that his stay will burden the Canadian healthcare system.

Lennikov came to Canada 12 years ago. After finding that he had worked with the KGB, a Russian spy agency, the government ordered him deported citing security concerns. A sustained campaign by his supporters forced the government to allow his wife and a son to stay in Canada. Lennikov, who was supposed to be deported last Wednesday, took sanctuary in the Vancouver Church.

His supporters, including the opposition MPs, are asking the Immigration and the Citizenship Minister to reconsider the decision on humanitarian grounds. They feel Lennikov does not pose any threat to our security and was forced to work for the KGB.

Racism implicit in differing media discourse

The media is also trying to paint a more sympathetic picture of Lennikov. In contrast, the media hostility towards Singh in the past reflects a discriminatory attitude of the mainstream towards the people of colour in this country. Singh came here as an economic refugee and had concocted the tale of being a political refugee. He had claimed that the police in India suspected him of being a terrorist and might torture him if he is sent back home.

Singh got paralyzed while being in Canada. His physical condition generated sympathy among the Indo Canadians, who signed petitions and organized rallies seeking permanent residency for him, as his village in Punjab, India is ill equipped to take long term care.

As the government remained adamant, Singh took sanctuary in a Sikh temple in Abbotsford. He was first arrested from a hospital where he was taken for treatment and was released on a surety bond following protests.

Some of these protest rallies were virtually blacked out by the media, including the one held in a snowfall. In December 2007, when he was brought to the Vancouver International Airport, over 2,000 people showed up to stop his deportation. The authorities did not arrest him and allowed his supporters to take him back to the temple. The media reports portrayed the rally as an unlawful action.

Church leaders determined to help Lennikov stay

Singh finally decided to leave and surrendered himself before the Canadian Border Services Agency last year. Unfortunately, the community leaders also displayed lack of unity and will to help him. Some temple leaders suggested that they would be too happy to hand him over to the authorities if they came to arrest him, unlike the church leaders who are determined to accommodate Lennikov until they are sure that he won’t be deported.

After all, the Sikh temple leaders have immigration interests and they sponsor preachers and visitors from India. They cannot annoy the establishment and lack the spirit of activism.

But the biggest culprit is the system that treated Singh as a burden and ignored the demands of his supporters.

Gurpreet Singh is a journalist and talk show host with Radio India, based in Surrey, B.C. A version of this article was originally published in the South Asian Post and is reprinted here with permission.

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