The Ministers: Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi on his journey

Global News correspondents are sitting down with the new cabinet ministers who will shape policy in this country, to find out where they came from and where they want to take this country. Global National will air their stories in a new series called “The Ministers”.

OTTAWA — Picking a location for this interview was a no-brainer for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

The former city councilor chose Ottawa’s O-train. Public transit is, and has long been, Sohi’s passion.

“Public transportation is not just about moving people from one place to the other, it’s about social mobility,” he told Global News. “It’s about finding a job that you couldn’t access without public transit, it’s about connecting with people.”

The struggle is near and dear to Sohi’s heart. He immigrated to Canada at 18 years old from India.

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“I couldn’t speak English at the time, [had] very little understanding of the Canadian culture, so I struggled quite a bit,” he said.

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Sohi settled in Edmonton, Alberta and built his life there. He became involved in theatre and unions, but six years later his social activism drew him back home to India.

Tensions in the Sikh community were coming to a boil.

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While organizing a protest, Sohi was detained. Police accused him of being a terrorist, without evidence.

EXTENDED VIDEO: Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amajeet Sohi reflects on coming Canada from India at the age of 18, and how immigrants and refugees become an integral part of the “Canadian family.” He spoke with Vassy Kapelos in Ottawa for our ongoing series, “The Ministers.”

Sohi spent 21 months in prison, 18 of them in solitary confinement. He was 24 years old at the time.

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A change in local government finally led to his release and he came back to Canada.

“Canada has been very good to me and my family and I’m so grateful that I had the chance to be part of this great country,” said Sohi, who married and had a daughter after coming back to Canada.

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In 2007 he ran for Edmonton City Council, where he championed millions of dollars of spending on public transit.

Sohi resigned from council earlier this year to run for the Liberals, eking out a victory in the fall election by just 79 votes.

Not long after that, Sohi got the call; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted the public transit advocate to be infrastructure minister.

“I’m so excited I’ve been given this responsibility, this ambitious agenda to build and rebuild a nation,” he said.

Ambitious is the right word for it. The Liberals campaigned on a promise to spend big bucks on infrastructure – $10 billion this year, and $10 billion the next.

The projected deficit for next year is already bigger than expected, but Sohi insists the money will still flow.

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“Infrastructure investments are to grow the economy,” he said. “It is really critical for us to make the investments that we have promised, and we will make those investments.”

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Sohi admits it will be a transition going from asking for money as a city councilor, to deciding who gets money as minister.

“One change that I’d like to bring to this, is that decisions should not solely be made by me,” Sohi said. “Yes, I have to OK the projects.

But, what goes on in reaching to those decision, the consultation and work that has to happen prior to me signing off, that is where the critical conversation happens.”

Balancing the needs of different cities and jurisdictions will be a challenge, Sohi admits. But he insists his government is up to the challenge.

“There will be challenges, but it’s how you turn those challenges into exciting ways of doing things differently.”

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