Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sindi Hawkins, politician (1958-2010)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 29, 2010


In the hothouse of British Columbia politics, where rival partisans are as friendly as Hatfields and McCoys, both sides of the Legislature found agreement in saluting the legacy of Sindi Hawkins.

Ms. Hawkins, who has died of acute myeloid leukemia, aged 52, displayed wit, grace and generosity in a promising political career cut short by her disease.

A registered nurse who later earned a law degree, she won three consecutive elections to the B.C. Legislature, where she held Cabinet posts, as well as serving as a deputy Speaker.

In those instances, she was a trailblazer as an Indo-Canadian woman.

Beyond her many accomplishments, it was her open and vigorous campaign against the disease that eventually claimed her life that earned her widespread popular affection.

After her diagnosis in January, 2004, Ms. Hawkins spoke candidly of her condition. She encouraged British Columbians to donate blood and she called on Asian-Canadians to register as potential bone-marrow donors after learning only 15 per cent on the list are non-Caucasians.

She wrote diary entries for the The Province, giving readers of the Vancouver daily newspaper an intimate look at the life of a cancer patient.

“People have talked to me about my ‘courage’ in my fight against leukemia,” she wrote. “If anything, in the beginning, let me say I was driven more by fear than anything I would ever recognize as courage. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the treatment. Fear of my prognosis.”

Such openness endeared her to fellow cancer sufferers.

Even before she suddenly turned sick, she had been active in raising money for cancer research, a cause for which she had become dedicated as a nurse. Her fundraising efforts intensified after her diagnosis.

Satinder Kaur Ahluwalia was born on Sept. 15, 1958, at New Delhi. Her mother, Sharanjeet, and father, Manohar Singh, immigrated to Canada with four daughters in 1963. Two more children were born here. The family settled in Sturgis, a town in east central Saskatchewan near the Porcupine Provincial Forest.

After graduating with a nursing degree from the University of Calgary, she spent 12 years treating cancer patients before returning to campus to earn a law degree in 1994. She then established her own law firm specializing in legal issues involving medicine.

In 1996, after moving to British Columbia, Sindi Hawkins, the name she used after marriage, contested the constituency of Okanagan West for the provincial Liberals. She won twice as many votes as her nearest rival, though her party narrowly failed to form government, having won the popular vote but taking fewer seats than the governing NDP under Glen Clark.

A star candidate, Ms. Hawkins presented a dynamic and sympathetic face for her pro-business party. Her background made her an effective health critic in Opposition.

In the 2001 provincial election, in which her party won all but two seats, Ms. Hawkins took nearly two-thirds of the vote in Kelowna-Mission. She won an easy re-election four years later.

Premier Gordon Campbell named her health planning minister and she later served as minister of state for intergovernmental relations.

As an elected official, she launched the Sindi Hawkins and Friends charity golf tournament, an annual event that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a local cancer clinic.

It was after a massage left bruising and a pesky cut on a finger refused to heal that Ms. Hawkins underwent medical tests. She decided to make her fight against leukemia a public one.

“You have choices,” she told the Globe’s Rod Mickleburgh six weeks after her diagnosis. “I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to be a survivor. I’ve always chosen to be a survivor.”

A search for a bone-marrow donor led to a match with her younger sister, Seema.

While recuperating, she eschewed her usual diet of Western foods for the comfort foods of her childhood — roti, rice, beans, lentils, chick peas and chicken, prepared twice daily by her mother.

As she recovered, her sisters prepared a Top 10 list of the reasons they loved her. No. 3, which referred to her eponymous golf tournament, read, “Only you would help raise $200,000 for cancer care and then spend it on yourself.”

When NDP Leader Carole James received a cancer diagnosis of her own, Ms. Hawkins offered a sympathetic and understanding ear.

“Sindi was there with support, ideas, and encouragement and I know she played that role with so many others,” Ms. James said in a statement released on Ms. Hawkins’ death.

Ms. Hawkins was a national co-chair for a Canadian Blood Services campaign to recruit stem and bone marrow donors. She also co-chaired a B.C. Cancer Foundation campaign two years ago with the American cyclist Lance Armstrong, a testicular cancer survivor. The Tour of Courage campaign raised $1.9 million for stem-cell research.

Her dynamic personality and positive outlook won over the hard hearts of the Legislative Press Gallery, a group known more for cynicism than sympathy. Les Leyne, a political columnist for the Victoria Times Colonist, became a blood donor because of her compelling arguments about the need for more donations.

Ms. Hawkins announced that a return of her disease would force her to retire from politics. She did not contest the 2009 election.

Hours before her death, the premier announced that a cancer facility in Kelowna would be renamed the Sindi Hawkins Cancer Centre for the Southern Interior. Gordon Campbell said the honour “will be a lasting legacy of her kindness, her passion for helping others and her generosity of spirit.”

Ms. Hawkins died in a Calgary hospital on Sept. 21, six days after her 52nd birthday. She leaves her parents; sisters Rupie Sachdeva, Moni Snell, Seema Ahluwalia, and Pamela Anderson; and, a brother Lakhvinder Ahluwalia, known as Lucky.