Remembering Manmeet Singh Bhullar: 'He had the biggest heart'

Jim Prentice is one of many to commemorate the Alberta MLA. 'Manmeet really personified everything good about humanity,' he says.

Manmeet Bhullar listens in on group discussions in Edmonton, Wednesday, Jan.29, 2014 around changing provincial privacy laws to allow more information to be published on the deaths of children in government care. (Dean Bennett/CP)

Manmeet Bhullar listens in on group discussions in Edmonton, Wednesday, Jan.29, 2014 around changing provincial privacy laws to allow more information to be published on the deaths of children in government care. (Dean Bennett/CP)

Update, Nov. 26: A state memorial service will be held for Calgary MLA Manmeet Bhullar. The public service will be held at noon Sunday at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.  

A week ago Calgary-Greenway MLA Manmeet Singh Bhullar sat down with his friend and mentor, former Alberta premier and long-time politician Jim Prentice. “He reiterated to me that his life’s passion was serving other people. And that was the highest calling,” says Prentice.

On Monday afternoon Bhullar, 35, was driving from his home in Calgary to the Alberta Legislature in Alberta in blowing snow along the slippery Queen Elizabeth II Highway that stretches between Calgary and Edmonton. He pulled over to help the occupant of a car that had rolled over. He was in the median, next to his car, when a semi-trailer heading north lost control, skidding into the accident scene just north of Red Deer. It struck Bhullar, who died in hospital a short time later. No one else was hurt.

It was Bhullar’s habit, with little free time outside public, to spend Sunday nights with his wife, Namrita, an accountant. The two, who had no children, married in 2011. So, unlike some fellow Calgary MLAs who would drive to Edmonton on Sundays to avoid traffic, Bhullar drove on Monday mornings when it was busier on the QEII.

“The light in our lives went dark today,” his family said in a statement Monday night.  “Manmeet Singh left us while he was doing what he loved more than anything—helping someone else.”

In a phone call from the home of Bhullar’s parents, Prentice says the outpouring of grief across the province and across the political aisles in the Alberta Legislature reflects the fact Bhullar, “embodied everything good about public service—the concept of service to others. In a world where there are a lot of dark things happening Manmeet really personified everything good about humanity. Enormous heart. Incredible compassion.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who grew up in the same north-east Calgary neighborhood as Bhullar, one heavily populated with immigrant families, told reporters he was “utterly gutted,” by the news. He called Bhullar “a true warrior for fairness and justice.”

In 2008, at 28, the broad-shouldered Bhullar, who stood a hefty six-foot-four and played defensive lineman in high school, ran for the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta. At the time he was a second-year law student with a sociology degree. He won to become one of the youngest Alberta MLAs ever elected.

He rose quickly and was considered a shining star in the Progressive Conservative caucus. In 2011 then-Premier Alison Redford installed him as Minister of Service Alberta, where he earned praise for cracking down on unscrupulous contractors trying to rook Albertans for repairs after the 2012 flood.  In December 2013 Bhullar was promoted to Minister of Human Services.

He showed a decidedly non-partisan stripe when it came to fighting for the rights of abused and neglected children. “I believe we must empower those who are closest to these children to speak or not to speak,” Bhullar said then as Human Services minister. “It is their right as human beings.  If we do not have the right to speak up about justice as individuals then we have taken away too much.”

Prentice, who was the Alberta premier for five months until May 5 when he was toppled in a stunning  election won by Rachel Notley’s NDP, first met Bhullar when the latter was a kid, tagging along everywhere with his politically active father, Bill Bhullar. It was 1989 and Prentice was a lawyer doing pro bono work to help a group of Sikhs builds a Gurdwara, or house of worship, in the Calgary community of Martindale. “It was a different time, and there was a lot of opposition,” recalls Prentice. A key proponent of the Gurdwara was the elder Bhullar, a businessman who owned a taxi cab company and other enterprises in Calgary. Wherever Bill Bhullar was, “along with him, we had this nine or 10-year-old boy with immeasurable energy bouncing along at our side,” says Prentice. “That was Manmeet.”

“We were very close and he was at my side in every step of my own political career,” says Prentice. While in university, Bhullar helped organize Prentice’s unsuccessful leadership campaign for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. He then worked with him when Prentice, then MP for Calgary-Centre North, was Regional Minister for Alberta and the Territories.

In his teenage years Bhullar spoke in schools on behalf of the Calgary Police Service about the perils of drugs, alcohol and gang life. Prentice believes Bhullar’s strong sense of justice came from his closeness with his parents and grandparents, his Sikh community and his deep spiritual faith. “He was amongst the most spiritual people I have ever known in public life. He was driven by this desire to serve other people. And that is ultimately how he died … helping someone else who had been in a car accident.”

Kyle Fawcett was an offensive lineman on the same football team with Bhullar at Lester B. Pearson High in Calgary. Like Manmeet, he would go on to become an Alberta MLA for the Conservatives. Fawcett recalls first seeing Manmeet on the field when he was trying out for the junior team. “He was a big guy, and he wore a turban. But that didn’t work having to wear a football helmet. So he would take off his turban, and tie his hair up in order to get to play football.”

The two, both big guys who often squared off at practices, grew close through football, and then, after university, on the political grid. Years later, Bhullar revealed in a conversation with Fawcett the challenges he faced playing football as a Sikh. “He told me, what people don’t understand is he had no problems with the guys on the team. The biggest challenge was within his Sikh community, because taking off your turban is something not really allowed in a strict interpretation of the religion.”

“The way Manmeet saw it, it doesn’t make him any less Canadian because he wore a turban, and it doesn’t make him any less Sikh when he takes it off to play football.”

Bhullar was one of just 10 conservative MLAs to get elected during the NDP sweep of Alberta.  In his last conversation with Naheed Nenshi, Bhullar told him being in opposition wasn’t so bad. “It gave him a chance to work on an issue he was interested in a long time: religious minorities in Afghanistan,” Nenshi said in a video statement. About 300 Sikh and Hindu families are stuck in Afghanistan, where they’ve faced increased discrimination and danger because of their religious beliefs since NATO withdrew troops.

Bhullar, lately spending much time in midnight-phone conferences with families and officials in India and Afghanistan, was trying to speed up the refugee process so they could immigrate to Canada more quickly.

“You couldn’t think that Manmeet could do any more for people than he did,” says Fawcett. “But then the next thing you knew he was out doing something else. He just had the biggest heart. And he understood his purpose in life. That was to make the lives of other people better.”