Gurpreet Singh: Becoming a protester
The dayTime magazine announced "The Protester" as its person of the Year in 2011, my memories drifted back to December 2007. That's when Indo Canadians rallied in support of a paralyzed failed refugee claimant outside Vancouver International Airport. It was not because of the impact of the protest, but because I was one of the demonstrators.
Laiber Singh, a refugee claimant, was ordered deported by the Conservative government despite thousands who had petitioned seeking residency for him on humanitarian grounds. This issue enraged Indo Canadians, who showed up at a rally on the day he was brought to the airport to be flown to India.
What added insult to injury was that it was on December 10, the international human-rights day, and irate members of the Indo Canadian community felt humiliated by the federal government’s action.
Nearly 2,000 protesters stalled Singh’s expulsion and he was given refuge in a Sikh temple for several months. It’s a separate matter that he ultimately decided to leave the country on his own out of sheer frustration, and lives in India.
The size of this protest at the airport was unprecedented, with traffic disrupted. At the end of the rally, parking staff let almost everybody leave without charging anything.
My throat was aching after all the sloganeering and anti-establishment rhetoric. This was the first time I had protested publicly in my life time for a collective cause. In the back of mind, I kept asking myself whether I did the right thing. After all, I am a professional journalist. I had learned to watch a parade from a distance and not to become a part of it.
I not only fell in love with the story of Singh, but also became one of its characters. Undoubtedly, I had crossed my journalistic boundaries and that’s the reason why Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith refused to allow me to write a story about the Laiber Singh campaign—and I must admit that he was right.
Nevertheless, my protest was legitimate. There is a saying in Punjabi, "Even a child can’t get milk from mother without protesting." That’s what we had been doing, but the government was not listening. We all signed petitions, went on radio talk shows, and sent our representatives to Parliament seeking residency for Singh on compassionate grounds, but these efforts all fell on deaf ears.
The mainstream media was bent upon portraying Singh as an illegal alien who had entered Canada with the help of a fake passport. His supporters were obliquely branded as extremists, whereas Singh had actually received sympathy from all the sides in the Indo Canadian community—the left, right, and centre, as well as from moderates and fundamentalists.
Big media outlets had also killed a story of scores of people showing up at a rally in support of Singh during a heavy snowfall in Surrey. Some media commentators mocked Singh. If I and my other Punjabi media colleagues had crossed our professional boundaries, so did those in the mainstream media. All these circumstances forced us to join the airport rally, which was mainly led by the group No One is Illegal, but which gradually became a grassroots campaign.
When I look back at the whole episode, I feel that I should have avoided being a participant in the rally. But I also have no regrets for being a protester and a supporter of the campaign. I now think that I could have expressed my views through my radio commentaries and editorials. And I could have done a better job by remaining within my professional boundaries.
Nobody could have stopped me from taking a definite position. But this experience has educated me about the legitimacy of protests.
What choice does a protester have when governments are not listening? The year 2011 witnessed many demonstrations across the world, from North American cities to the United Kingdom to Greece. Protests exploded in Arab countries and India for different reasons, ranging from corruption to democracy to the widening rich-poor divide. Tear gas shells, gunfire and other forms of intimidation have all failed to stop people from venting out their anger.
These protests have also exposed the doublespeak of powerful western countries. While the western countries were all too happy throughout the so-called Arab Spring, they were busy trying to discourage Occupy movement supporters from camping in public places in Canada and the U.S.
I recall that Laiber Singh’s rally was also dubbed illegitimate for disrupting traffic, whereas there was no outcry when the supporters of the Conservative government held demonstrations against the coalition formed by the Liberals and NDP in 2008? If the Occupy movement is villainous, why would the West glorify uprisings in the Middle East. Such hypocrisy will only lead to more protests.
If I choose not to protest in future, others cannot be stopped. So without taking sides, let’s get into the bottom of the reasons that force people to take to the streets instead of demonizing them, because protest is a democratic tool.
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.