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Speaker for the 42nd Parliament of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia Raj Chouhan answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

The first person of South Asian heritage was acclaimed as Speaker of the British Columbia legislature Monday, as politicians returned for a brief session after the October election gave the New Democrats a majority government.

Raj Chouhan, a former farm workers’ union leader and 15-year New Democrat member of the legislature, also becomes the first South Asian to serve as a Speaker in Canada.

Premier John Horgan said Chouhan’s election is historic, saying the five-term New Democrat holds the distinction of being the first Punjabi-speaking Sikh outside of the Indian sub-continent to hold the position of Speaker of any legislature.

“I lift my hands to you, my friend, honourable Speaker,” said Horgan in the legislature.

Chouhan said he was humbled to have the support and trust of legislature members.

“To get here has been a long journey,” said Chouhan, who immigrated to Canada from India in 1973. “There was a time when people of colour were not allowed to enter this building, let alone this chamber.”

Chouhan, a lifelong advocate for labour rights, human rights and racial equality, said progress is being made on these fronts, but more must be done to ensure fairness and justice for all.

“Never forget your roots,” said Chouhan, adding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic calls for togetherness.

“During these challenging times, let’s continue to work together,” he said.

Interim Opposition Liberal Leader Shirley Bond said Chouhan’s election is a step forward.

“It is an honour to be part of this historic moment,” she said. “This chamber needs to reflect the faces of all British Columbians.”

Horgan said the government will use the session to make good on an election promise to provide one-time, tax-free payments of $1,000 to eligible families and $500 to individuals to help people get through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The premier said the pandemic recovery payments will stimulate spending and help the B.C. economy.

Bond said her Opposition members will push the New Democrats to address troubles beyond the pandemic recovery fund, especially on the issue of the province’s finances.

Horgan’s New Democrats won 57 of the 87 seats in the legislature, while the Liberals lost more than a dozen seats, prompting Andrew Wilkinson to resign as leader.

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