AU Community mourns the passing of humanitarian alumnus, Manmeet Bhullar

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Manmeet Bhullar [photo credit: Government of Alberta]

Manmeet Bhullar [photo credit: Government of Alberta]

Athabasca University is mourning the passing of one of its own.

Alberta MLA Manmeet Bhullar was a beloved and distinguished member of the AU community, and respected by the many Canadians who were lucky to have connected with him.

Tragically, on Monday evening, Manmeet passed away, doing what he did best, trying to help someone in need.

He was only 35 years old.

“We at Athabasca University are deeply saddened by Manmeet’s tragic and untimely passing. To his family, in particular his beloved wife Namrita, we extend our deepest heartfelt condolences,” said AU President Peter MacKinnon in an email to university staff.

“Manmeet’s bright-light and honourable legacy in Canada, Alberta, and at Athabasca University will live on through his spirit and commitment to “education for all,” for years to come.”

Bhullar graduated from AU with a B.A. in sociology in 2006, just two years prior to becoming elected to the Alberta Legislature for Calgary-Montrose, where he served as Minister of Infrastructure, Minister of Human Services and Minister of Services Alberta.

He was the youngest MLA to serve at that time.

But it was his indelible impact as an AU student, alumnus and stalwart champion of open education that leaves its sad mark on our community.

“He believed in Athabasca University’s model of education for anyone, anywhere, at any time,” added MacKinnon.

“He put that belief into action through his spearheading of various youth-oriented initiatives, and the numerous bills and motions he helped pass throughout his tenure as MLA—that bolstered the importance of education for all Canadians, notwithstanding socio-economic status, culture, creed or high marks.”

In 2005, Bhullar received the Athabasca Community University Leadership Award. He also received multiple awards for his community leadership, including the Alberta Centennial Medal and the Centennial Medallion.

Manmeet’s bright-light and honourable legacy in Canada, Alberta, and at Athabasca University will live on through his spirit and commitment to “education for all,” for years to come.”~AU President Peter MacKinnon

Shushana Ruttan, who happened to graduate from Athabasca University with Bhullar, said he was known on “campus” for his dedication to community and his hands-on approach to helping those in need. And, she asserted, he was much more than a colleague to her: “He actually ended up marrying my sister; he was a brother to me.”

Ruttan said her brother-in-law believed in empowering people and giving back and he put that belief into action—not only when he provided her guidance about facing the challenge of completing their respective degrees—but in the dedication he put forth to his community, starting at a very young age.

“I have seen him really live what he believes. Manmeet truly believes in giving his all and doing his all,” she said.

One of those community endeavours was in relation to Bhullar’s commitment to helping at-risk youth. He founded the grassroots group Inspire, a youth development organization created to empower and encourage young people to participate in community service, eschewing other, more harmful activities.

The perfect fit

But it was with respect to the concept of open university education that Bhullar was particularly passionate. He saw AU as the “perfect fit” enabling him to earn his degree without giving up his job or his extensive community work. Later, he appreciated the fact his alma mater was open to all students and not just those who scored high with marks.

In a 2011 interview with AU’s OPEN magazine, Bhullar talked about this reverence.

“I’m a strong believer in open education. I believe education is something that all students need to have access to in order to have a progressive Canada,” he remarked.

“All people in our society need to be educated, not just the top performers. Arguably, those folks are already motivated. We need to give opportunities to all students and create a seamless transition from high school to post-secondary education.”

He conceded he was actually someone that needed to be enticed into post-secondary education and that AU was the answer.

“I saw AU’s open-university concept and though it was brilliant,” said Bhullar, pointing to a need for a focus shift, whereby education would become regarded as something that could empower society as a whole.

“Alberta, today, is in a very good place. Our education system leads the world in many respects,” he asserted, concluding at the time that some of the province’s innovative pilot projects ought to become mainstream.

“They shouldn’t be the exception but the rule and these small steps can take us far. AU is an example of what we’re doing right; it says ‘come in, be educated, empower yourself,” Bhullar attested.

“I love that principle. It represents my ideals of spreading education throughout every corner of society. It’s not easy to do but a little creativity and innovation can take us to a whole new level.”

According to AU associate professor, sociology, Dr. Tony Simmons: “Manmeet applied himself diligently to his studies at AU—as in other aspects of his life. His untimely passing is a great loss to all of us.”

And Rattan noted that after graduating from AU, her brother-in-law really enjoyed his new, challenging role serving Albertans—particularly insofar as he was able to influence educational initiatives.

“He was very excited to work with the post-secondary institutions in Alberta,” she said.

Some of the governmental initiatives Bhullar got behind included:

  • Motion 508 (a motion encouraging innovation in Alberta education)
  • Bill 4 (which allowed Mount Royal and Grant MacEwan colleges to become full-standing universities)
  • Bill 7, the Post-Secondary Learning Amendment Act, among others.

He was also a member of Alberta’s Inspiring Education Committee.

AU is an example of what we’re doing right…It says ‘Come in, be educated, empower yourself. I love that principle. It represents my ideals of spreading education throughout every corner of society. It’s not easy to do but a little creativity and innovation can take us to a whole new level.”~Manmeet Bhullar, 2011

Bhullar’s grassroots community achievements included organizing youth volunteers to raise close to $100,000 for the Calgary Health Region. He also coordinated the Walking Hunger campaign which raised $52,000 in food and funds for the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank.

Rattan said that prior to being elected MLA, Bhullar worked as special assistant to former Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, then an MP for Calgary Centre-North, assisting him with various regional ministerial responsibilities for Alberta and the Territories – even being called on to advise the Prime Minister’s Office in this regard.

In a compelling CBC radio interview on Nov. 24, Prentice told As it Happens co-host Carol Off he’d had the privilege of knowing Bhullar since he was 10-years-old.

“I watched him grow up and mature into the fine young man that he was…He was at my side and his father’s side from those early days, serving his community,” said Prentice.

“The great thing about Manmeet, personally, was that he always had time for you and he always had time for everyone, which is why people loved him so much. He had a great sense of humour. I never met anyone that worked harder. He just was a pillar of strength really to everyone who knew him.”

Prentice noted Alberta had lost a “great leader and humanitarian,” and those qualities extended beyond his time in public life.

“You can go back to his early years as a young man and the work he did with the Calgary Police Service, counseling kids in high school when he was barely in high school himself…

In addition to his provincial responsibilities, he was engaged in some international humanitarian work to try to safely land a number of refugee families here in Canada,” said Prentice to the CBC.

Bhullar told OPEN magazine that while he was an MLA, he had seen too many young people with leadership potential getting hung up on various barriers they felt precluded them from pursuing higher education.

Said Bhuller: “People want to better themselves, learn and grow…My hope and dream is that we promote post-secondary education and continuous learning in every corner of the world. Every student, including those who never thought they were capable of higher education, or never thought [they were] important [enough], should get an education.

Public education is the most important tool we have to ensure that all kids, and especially those growing up in environments where education isn’t appreciated, can thrive. We have to make education more open so more people can get in. As a legislator, I’m working toward that.”

Indeed, Bhullar’s reputation as consummate humanitarian and exemplary public servant, along with his passion for open education, will leave a lasting legacy throughout Canada, Alberta and, certainly, at Athabasca University. AUN