Canada's white supremacist history provided a backdrop for the bombing of Air India Flight 182
(This is the transcript of a speech that Straight editor Charlie Smith gave at Kwantlen Polytechnic University at the July 21 launch of Gurpreet Singh's new book, Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. A couple of sentences weren't in the oral presentation, including the mention of General Reginald Dyer, who was responsible for one of the worst slaughters during the Indian independence movement.)
I’ve been designated as the keynote speaker, so I guess this means that I'm supposed to talk a bit longer than some of the others. As some of you probably know, I'm the editor of the Georgia Straight, where Gurpreet has been contributing columns since about 2004.
There's so much I could say about Gurpreet as a person. He's funny. That’s apparent to anyone who watched the video of him on our website wrapping a turban around my head before the 2011 Vaisakhi parade.
He's also compassionate. He has integrity. Gurpreet has a sharp mind. And I've benefited enormously by what I've learned from him over the years. And he’s possibly the most courageous journalist I've ever known.
Through his wisdom, his intellect, his work ethic, his bravery, and his love for humanity, he is helping to make Canada a better country. His new book, Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families, is the latest example of how he's promoting more understanding.
I'm going to talk a bit about the big picture—just to provide some context into my thoughts on how Gurpreet is making Canada a better country.
One of the biggest challenges Canada faces is moving beyond its past. Some of you probably know that in the 19th century, Canada was well on its way to becoming a diverse, multicultural society. We had a large First Nations population.
We also had growing numbers of people moving here from China, Japan, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as from Europe. Some of the people coming here were fleeing the impact of colonialism.
The British were more or less looting India and they were flooding China with opium. It's not surprising that some people living in those parts of the world might want to escape the consequences of this by coming to North America.
Sometimes, that involved trading one form of colonialism for another—i.e. doing back-breaking labour on farms, in mines, or working on railroads. And not being allowed to vote.
I can remember Bill Chu of the group Canadians for Reconciliation telling me that in 1881, 20 percent of the nonaboriginal population in B.C. was of Chinese descent.
Similarly, we had former American slaves moving to British Columbia in significant numbers, with many settling in Victoria. Our first governor, James Douglas, was partially of African descent, tracing his roots back to the Caribbean on his mother's side. His wife was of aboriginal descent.
And under his leadership, 14 treaties were negotiated on Vancouver Island. These are known as the Douglas treaties.
Many Punjabis were also attracted to B.C. They came to help build our forest industry and develop agriculture, but they weren't allowed in the professions. That barrier eventually fell and one of them even became premier for a while.
Most people who are born in Canada don't think much about Punjab if they're not of Indian or Pakistani descent. It's important to recognize that Punjab has so often been in the crosshairs of the great collisions between cultures because of its geographic location.
Armies under Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Moghuls, and the British have tried to subjugate Punjab. Then, there was the horror of Partition, where about a million people died, with possibly 800,000 of those deaths occurring in Punjab. Layered on top of that have been massacres of Sikhs at the hands of the Moghuls, the British under General Reginald Dyer, and, of course, the terrible attacks on Sikhs in Delhi and other Indian cities in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Given this history, it's no wonder that Punjabis, and particularly Punjabi Sikhs, would want to come to Canada to create better lives for themselves.
But something happened on the way to Canada becoming a multicultural paradise in the 19th century. There was a huge backlash from the industrial class and, I'm sorry to say, from the labour movement.
Douglas was replaced by hardliners who didn't want to negotiate aboriginal treaties. One of the key people at that time was Joseph Trutch, who became B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor. He was close to the colonial governor, Anthony Musgrave.
Sir John A. MacDonald wanted B.C. to join Canada as part of his dream—or scheme—to connect the country by rail. But B.C.'s leaders at the time didn't want anything to do with the Native Indians.
So under the terms of union, B.C. joined Canada in 1871, but the federal government was given responsibility for the First Nations. There would be no more treaties for well over a century as the aboriginal people were rounded up on reserves. Any claims to their land were rejected. The next treaty came when Glen Clark was premier.
The aboriginal people couldn't vote. Laws were passed denying them the right to legal representation. Basically, everything was stolen from them, and their kids were sent to schools to strip them of their language and culture.
But it wasn't just the aboriginal people who endured discrimination. Various laws were passed to stop people from Asia moving here. There was continuous-journey legislation to prevent people from South Asia from coming.
If you wanted to come by boat from India, you had to stop for provisions in Hong Kong. But under the law, that was illegal for anyone coming to Canada.
Gurdit Singh Sandhu chartered the Komagata Maru to challenge that racist legislation.
I find it somewhat disgusting that in Vancouver, where I live, there's a street named after Joseph Trutch, who played such a major role in discriminating against the First Nations. But there's no street named after Gurdit Singh, who played a major role in fighting racism.
For a long, long time, this tragic event was commemorated with a tiny plaque at the foot of Thurlow Street in a little bit of greenspace that nobody knew even existed.
Here’s a quote from Gurdit Singh from that era: “The visions of men are widened by travel. And contacts with citizens of a free country will infuse a spirit of independence and foster yearnings for freedom in the minds of the emasculated subjects of alien rule."
There was a story in the newspaper recently about how the City of Vancouver was going to name two new streets. The names were going to be Saskatchewan and Nunavut. Why can't we name one of them after Gurdit Singh?
We have Mackenzie King on our $50 bill, who rounded up Japanese Canadians, seized their possessions, and put them in concentration camps. He was also labour minister when the Liberal government negotiated with the Japanese in the early part of the 20th century to cap immigration from Japan at 1,000 per year.
China had a weak government at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. So nobody could negotiate a way to stop the Chinese coming. So Canada's solution was to charge a head tax, starting at $50 and then going to $100 and $500, before virtually all Chinese immigration was outlawed in 1923.
The UBC historian Henry Yu has pointed out that what we really experienced in B.C. was a prolonged period of white supremacy. It wasn't white supremacy like in Hitler's Germany, where people were sent to the gas chambers. It wasn't white supremacy like in the southern United States, where blacks were lynched.
But it was white supremacy, nonetheless. People couldn't vote, they couldn't join the professions, and they were prevented from immigrating. It's our legacy in B.C. People aren't comfortable acknowledging this in such a blunt way because it raises all sorts of troubling issues.
There's a reason why some people of colour who are born in Canada sometimes feel less connected to the country and have lower voter turnout than the population as a whole. They aren't reflected in our history. They aren't reflected in the names of the streets and parks and schools in our communities.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung talked about the concept of the “shadow”—which is the part of ourselves that we won't acknowledge. We bury this in our unconscious mind and deny, deny, deny that this exists. Canada's shadow, in a Jungian sense, is its collective refusal to truly and honestly acknowledge that white supremacy over several generations took this country on a very damaging detour.
Some people still actually believe that Canada used to be a white country—with a few aboriginal people of course. But then Pierre Trudeau changed the dynamics by promoting multiculturalism. And that’s when things changed.
No. That’s not the truth at all. Canada used to be a diverse country. Then it was hijacked for a very long time by white supremacy. And then Pierre Trudeau moved the pendulum back to where it previously stood by sharply reducing racism in the immigration legislation.
A former interior minister in the late 19th century, Clifford Sifton, ensured that Asians, blacks, Jews, and Italians were prohibited from receiving land grants to settle the Prairies.
Had we not gone on this white supremacist detour, Saskatoon and Winnipeg would probably look a lot more like Vancouver today. We lost a lot of human potential by separating families and denying so many people their chance of achieving their dreams.
Fortunately, an immigrant from India, Gurpreet Singh, has taken action in a very concrete way to address this injustice. He and his friends created a calendar highlighting contributions of many of the South Asian pioneers. I like to bring copies to our employees of Indian descent. They always have a big smile when they see the calendar, which celebrates the pioneers who helped build Canada.
This newest one shows how the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, returned his British knighthood—and protested against the Komagata Maru episode in Vancouver. I wasn’t aware of Tagore’s opposition to what happened in Vancouver until I received this calendar.
I've also been struck by how several of the South Asian pioneers in Canada also played a role in the Indian independence movement. Until Gupreet pointed this out, I never knew about the importance of the Indian newspaper in Vancouver in advancing the anticolonialist cause. So just as what was happening in India affected migration to Canada, I've discovered that what was happening in B.C. also had an influence on India.
Through this work in creating the calendar, Gupreet is helping to bind our country together and address what I like to call the "shadow". The Great Canadian Shadow of denial.
Air India bombing's backdrop
That Great Canadian Shadow was also on display in the bombing of Air India Flight 182. I have a friend who knew 18 people on that plane, including his girlfriend. He had just graduated from high school at the time in southern Ontario. It was a monumentally life-changing event and led him to pursue a career in the media.
I also remember reading a book by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, The Sorrow and the Terror, which made the point that the bombs were placed right at the end of the school year. This ensured there was a maximum number of Canadian kids onboard, who would be travelling back to India to visit their families. But it wasn't seen as a Canadian tragedy by many of our leaders at the time.
Try to imagine how that must have stung the families—to have a high-ranking Canadian government official call Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to express sorrow, when the majority of the passengers were Canadian.
Mukherjee said she was so disgusted by Canadian government policies at the time that this led her to move to the United States. I won't even get into the stories of CSIS bungling, and turf wars between the intelligence service and the RCMP that hampered the investigation.
When Mukherjee left, Canada lost a great writer. But more importantly through this tragedy, Canada lost dozens and dozens and dozens of kids who might have grown up to become doctors, teachers, writers, playwrights, scientists, judges, politicians, engineers, and who knows what else. I can't even put into words the magnitude of what Canada lost when the bomb went off onboard that plane.
Canada lost human potential because of white supremacy in earlier decades. And once again, Canada was the loser. Promises were made for an inquiry, which never happened for another generation.
Thankfully, retired justice John Major helped go some way toward addressing this with a report that offered solace, finally, to many of the families, but far, far too late.
For all of the positive aspects of Major’s inquiry, I still don't think he adequately dealt with one of the issues at the root of the tragedy. And that is this Great Canadian Shadow of collective denial about our white supremacist history, which contributed to seeing local Indians in the early and mid 1980s as “the other”—almost like a different group of people altogether.
This prevailing attitude, this Great Canadian Shadow, gives sustenance to religious fundamentalism and leads to catastrophes like the Air India bombing.
Again, Gurpreet has tried to bring about reconciliation. His new book offers us the voices of the families, the Canadians who were left alone by this horrific act. We read of Bal Gupta, who lost his wife. And Lata Pada, the Toronto dancer who lost her husband and two teenage daughters. There’s Major Singh Sidhu, who himself has given so much to our community. He was entirely apolitical until he lost his sister, his niece, and his nephew. Dave Hayer lost his father because of this issue.
In the face of this, Gurpreet Singh has demonstrated his courage in bravely pointing out shortcomings in what he sees of the local Indian media's coverage of this tragedy. And for that, he gets vilified on a regular basis. But he soldiers on because he's here to help create a better Canada.
Nobel Prize–winning intellectual Amartya Sen—a Bengali by birth—wrote a fantastic book a few years ago called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. It was a response to Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations, which suggested there would be inevitable conflict between East and West.
Sen noted that we're not as different from one another as we sometimes think. Democracy fluorished in Japan a long time ago. Complex mathematical computations were occurring in the Arab world long before the European Enlightenment. He pointed out that people have a multiplicity of identities.
We may define ourselves in part by our religion or our ethnic background. But we're just as likely or more likely to define ourselves by our occupation, our class, our family status, our sexual orientation, or even our hobbies or educational level.
On the face of it, Gurpreet and I might appear very different. But we’re both journalists. We’re both curious about the world. We both wonder how actions in one part of the globe boomerang in other parts. We both worry about religious fundamentalism, the minimum wage, and we both like to write.
I would suggest that I have more in common with Gurpreet than most of the Canadian-born, Caucasian people I work with at the Georgia Straight.
Sen pointed out that the real danger comes from reducing people to just one aspect of their identity, especially if that one aspect is their religion.
After 9/11, Tony Blair, George Bush, and other world leaders made a point of meeting with religious leaders. Our Canadian multicultural policies also have a tendency to inflate the importance of religious leaders, sometimes through financial contributions or by showering attention on them through visits to a temple or mosque or gurdwara or synagogue or church visits.
Sen and Gurpreet have always understood that this carries some risks, particularly when these religious leaders are extremely conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, and they try to keep people in their community separate from the wider public.
Writer Kenan Malik recently gave a speech in Vancouver and said that when politicians do this, it has a tendency to marginalize progressive voices within communities who may be battling the very people that the government is strengthening.
In B.C. in the early 1980s, fanatics were given a free hand in B.C. to plan—as Gurpreet likes to point out—the worst case of aviation terrorism in world history before 9/11.
He has helped teach me about the damage that religious communalism can have. It's not only in B.C. but also in India, which has been so deeply scarred by Partition, and the violence in Delhi and, more recently in Gujarat, where chief minister Narendra Modi's thugs went on a killing spree against the Muslim community.
In a candid moment, Rahul Gandhi told the U.S. government that he's actually more concerned about Hindu fundamentalists than Muslim fundamentalists in India. We learned that thanks to WikiLeaks. And Gurpreet doesn't discriminate when it comes to highlighting the dangers of fundamentalism.
He's written about Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim extremism—and the price that progressives within these communities have paid for this.
Gurpreet's desire to give a voice to the victims of the Air India bombings—let’s not forget about the Narita Airport explosion—is one of many ways in which he is advancing the cause of secularism in Canada.
I enjoy running Gurpreet's columns because I don’t want to fall into the same trap as George Bush and Tony Blair.
I'm going to close with this. By giving a voice to the Air India victims, by giving a voice to progressives in the community, and by elevating awareness about our progressive Indian pioneers in B.C., Gurpreet is helping to build the type of Canada that I can be proud of.
On behalf of all Canadians who share my views, I want to thank Gurpreet for what he's giving to the country.
In his own way, Gupreet is improving our Canadian level of consciousness. I bet he's never thought of himself as a therapist before. But that’s how I sometimes look upon the work he's doing.
He's helping us heal from the wounds of the Great Canadian Shadow. It’s a noble enterprise and one that has long-lasting positive effects.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.