Five years. A measure of time that, for a child’s age, a relationship, a professional commitment, marks a happy milestone. Five years since the passing of a loved one leaves you with countless emotions, but happy isn’t one of them.
We lost Manmeet Singh Bhullar on Nov. 23, 2015. He left the world as he lived it: helping others. An Alberta MLA and the first turbaned Sikh Cabinet minister, he was driving from Calgary to Edmonton when he stopped to assist a stranded vehicle. A semi-truck lost control and struck Manmeet as he carried out his act of kindness.
Then came a call that changed our lives, followed by cries of anguish and the eerie silence of joy leaving our lives. Some days my memory of that moment is so vivid it feels like it’s happening all over again, and others it feels like a lifetime ago. Before losing a loved one, it’s hard to grasp how life can change in an instant; after, every ache of your body feels tied to the ache you feel in your heart, to missing your loved one.
As his older sister, I have become accustomed to the words “I’m sorry for your loss.” Manmeet was the pillar of our family, and we leaned into his guidance, his counsel and his honesty. Without him, our good days are now bittersweet, and our bad days sting worse. We still half expect him to walk into every family gathering.
While life without Manmeet comes with daily and sometimes hourly reminders of our loss, I have found myself often thinking about the community he served, the work he carried out, the people he inspired. To all of them, I am sorry for your loss. You had a champion that was driven by his unwavering commitment and deep responsibility to making our community better. You had someone whose story was about more than him alone — it was about all of us.
Manmeet, simply by virtue of how he looked, stood out. That wasn’t easy. I was in elementary school when I first saw how, though we shared a skin colour, he was more of a target than I was due to the turban he wore. A classmate hurled racial slurs at him while he stood in line to use a pencil sharpener, it led to a struggle almost every Sikh boy with a turban has had to endure. Time and time again, Manmeet was reminded that a guy like him “didn’t belong” — first on the football field, and later in politics, as a Cabinet minister, in the halls of power and influence.
Armed with my father’s lifelong philosophy of “it is what it is,” he kept moving forward and embraced his Sikh identity. He felt a responsibility to prove himself not only to those who had made him feel unwelcome, but to those who looked like him, affirming that if he could do it, they could, too.
“His presence screamed of the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity, though at the time it wasn’t spoken of as openly as it is now.”
Stemming from this, much of his work was centred on making others feel that they belonged. He encouraged both young and old to be engaged in their communities and in the political process — even if at first that meant twisting their arms a bit. He reminded them their votes and voices mattered, and that when they used them, it wasn’t ethnic vote blocking, it was simply democracy at work.
Manmeet encouraged the right people to put their names on the ballot so that Canada was represented by those who understood their responsibility and would be able to uphold it with character. He saw their wins as a win for all of us, regardless of political stripe. He not only celebrated the achievement of others; he championed their causes.
He knew our most vulnerable needed to be seen and heard. He felt their pain, but also their courage, oftentimes leaning into his own vulnerabilities. His empathy made him a better public servant. His compassion led him to make better decisions. Fierce at the political game, he didn’t play to win at the cost of integrity, instead he looked for the win-win. And when there was a cost to the politics, he paid it by being harder on himself than anyone else could be on him.
I yearn for his voice to have a place in the conversations of today, because he would have added so much insight. His presence screamed of the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity, though at the time these values weren’t spoken of as openly as they are now. Like so many others, he experienced racism, but such instances were tolerated as battle scars and understood as a sign of the times. And yet through it all, he considered it a profound privilege to be who he was, to be Canadian. Years later, I hope this is how he’s remembered.
Time and life itself are fleeting. On some level, Manmeet must have always known this, because time was his most valued currency. He would spend his time meeting constituents, children, young adults, seniors, thought leaders, friends and family members, as often as he could, to nourish his mind and his heart. This became his sustenance. Measuring time by cherished moments is what serves as solace knowing that his life was well lived, if not long lived.
While this time of year is always one of reflection for my family and I, more than ever we hold space in our hearts for those who have experienced loss in these past months, many in isolation.
For some, time may well dull the pain of loss, and perhaps even the memory of the ones we lose. My ardent wish is that the lessons we can learn from their lived examples endure the test of time.
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