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that multiculturalism is more
talk than action.
Undeterred, he set out to
rehabilitate his life and his career.
On a recent afternoon in the
library at the Kamloops courthouse he sat down for a no-holds-barred interview.
In the five years since leaving
the bench, Sundhu earned a master’s degree in international human
relations from Oxford University—his dissertation delved into
terrorism trials and diversity in the
judiciary— and he has returned to
private practice law in Kamloops.
At 54, he seems boyish, soft-
spoken and sincere. He has
been through a period of deep
He says of his self-reflection: “I
had to ask myself: ‘Who am I,
where do I come from, what kind
of man am I?’”
Balwinder Bill Sundhu was
born and raised in Williams Lake,
a sawmill town. His parents arrived
there in 1950 in the wake of the
partition of India.
The newcomers were looked
down upon, Sundhu recalls. “Even
though I was born in Canada, I
remember a teacher saying to me
my English was very good—‘this
can’t be your work. You people
can’t do this.’ ”
He was 10 years old when his
father, a sawmill worker, became
disabled as a result of a fall at home.
His mother went to work at low
paying jobs, taking the nightshifts.
One day, his mother took him
with her to her lawyer’s office. “I
thought, boy, this looks good, I
would like to be a lawyer.” Every
night, after he brought in the firewood, warmed up the dinner his
mother had prepared and looked
after his little sister and his father,
he studied hard. Eventually, he
graduated from University of
Windsor law school and returned
to Williams Lake. In 1996, the
37-year-old Sundhu was one of
the youngest judges appointed to
the provincial court in B.C., or
indeed in Canada.
But as he settled in to the job,
there were whispers: The Indo-Canadian was a token appointment by an NDP government.
“I have always been careful
about discussing race, I am aware
it can be misused,” Sundhu says.
“I don’t think the judiciary is
representative of the true face of
the Canadian street.
“What I observed over time—
and I don’t exclude myself from
this—[is that] there is a danger
of some self-entitlement. There is
a degree of comfort and complacency and being cut off from the
struggles of people.
“I started to feel disquiet and
discomfort… about the quality of
justice that was being delivered
and the responsibility of judges to
the public,” Sundhu says. “When I
look back, it only compounded
my sense of isolation from many
of the judges. Even within the
judiciary, there were cliques and
circles of inclusion and exclusion.
“That word — exclusion — res-
onates with me.”
Indeed, to an Indo-Canadian,
the Exclusion Laws of the early
20th century, which led to the
turning back of Punjabi immi-
grants aboard the Komagata Maru
that sailed into Vancouver in 1914,
is like phantom limb pain. The Air
India investigation exacerbated
his feelings, he says. “The victims’
families were treated as if this was
not a Canadian incident.”
Sundhu was one of a small
number of judges on the provincial
court who were visible minorities.
Bill Sundhu first dreamed of being a lawyer growing up in Williams Lake B.C.
Being a judge is not the
prize I thought it was.
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In his master’s dissertation at
Oxford, Sundhu noted that
between 1991 and 2001, there were
a dozen appointments to the provincial court in B.C. of people that
were from visible minorities. In the
seven years following the dissolution of the court’s Equality and
Diversity Committee in 2001, three
of the 40 people appointed to the
bench were visible minorities.
In the Four Seasons case, it
took the special prosecutor five
and a half months to lay the
charge, then another three to
issue the stay of proceedings and
several months more for the
Chief Judge to decide what to do.
The summary made public by
the Chief Judge in 2007, said its
investigation was put on hold at
the request of the special prosecutor while he decided whether
to lay charges. It also noted that
its investigator consulted with
Sundhu’s lawyer after a draft
report was completed.
“The delay fuelled idle specula-
tion and false rumours,” Sundhu
says. “My children were harassed
at school—‘your dad is going to
lose his job.’ I got to see who was
nice to my face. Some I thought
would not be a friend emerged as
friends and supporters.”
After the criminal proceedings
were stayed near the end of 2006,
the Vancouver Sun said the B.C.
Federation of Police Officers
wrote to the Chief Judge about
the Williams Lake incident from
17 years earlier. The letter was
obtained by the Sun. The paper
later ran an editorial, which
noted that in entering an acquit-
tal (Sundhu had been charged
with assault), the trial judge in
the Williams Lake case observed
that if anyone was assaulted, it
was Sundhu by the police.
“Being a judge is not the prize I
thought it was,” recalls Sundhu.
He resigned in March 2007
and is not the only one who
remains critical of the process
that ended with his stepping
down from the bench.
“The investigation was flawed
and incomplete,” says Cunliffe
Barnett, a retired B.C. judge and
former colleague of Sundhu. “I
have heard more than a few people
say that he was the best and fairest
of the Kamloops judges. It is
unfortunate that the protracted
investigation by the OCJ wore him
and his family down.”
Barnett describes Sundhu as a
“truly good and caring man”
whose commitment to “human
rights is not merely academic or
legalistic: It is an integral part of
his being and is woven into every-
thing he does.”
In response to questions about
the makeup of the judiciary, the
legal officer for the Provincial
Court noted that candidates are
appointed by the government from
a list recommended by the Judicial
Council of B.C. “Judicial Council
encourages applicants from all
walks of life,” said Gene Jamieson.
He added that one-third of the
provincial court bench is made up
of females. It does not track the
ethnic backgrounds of judges.
For Sundhu, the challenge was
in determining what role he would
play in the legal profession after
stepping down as a judge.
“I learned my lesson in a very
public way. But in the end nobody
can define me except myself and I
know it is up to me to try to redeem
my image in the public and it has
been difficult and very much an
uphill climb,” Sundhu says. “The
best work of my career, much more
challenging, much more complex,
the work that takes more skill and
knowledge and more insight, has
been since I left the bench.”
He handles race discrimination
cases. He’s worked on police com-
plaint investigations, and he tries
to channel his experience in a way
he believes will make a better judi-
ciary and make Canada keep its
promises on multiculturalism.
“I think we are naïve in Canada.
I think we have to grapple with
some hard issues,” he says. “I don’t
want just to be tolerated.” n