Gurpreet Singh: In solidarity with the Taae Ke (elderly uncle’s family)
Recent events involving aboriginal communities in Canada have not only damaged the reputation of this country internationally, but have also exposed the doublespeak of its establishment that claims to be a champion of human rights.
Both the housing crisis in the Attawapiskat First Nation and the story of over 600 missing aboriginal women have attracted the attention of the United Nations. While all this was going on, at least two former aboriginal female police officers came out with allegations of racism against them within the RCMP. And if this was not enough, the truth commission established to heal the victims of the abuse in the residential-school system reported a shortage of funding.
This occurred despite Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper's apology in 2008 for the abuse to victims, which was to correct a historical wrong. What’s the point of making a tokenistic apology when the First Nations of this country continue to endure systemic racism and indifference even today?
Such coldness of the establishment has continued since the colonization of the land that belonged to North American Indian tribes. Only recently when Statistics Canada predicted that the aboriginal population would grow to 2.2 million by 2031, some hostile and racist comments started pouring in on a media website. While the snobbery of the dominant culture toward the Natives is shameful, some well-to-do immigrants also disparage First Nations and are influenced by popular stereotypes about them.
Much like white supremacists, they also treat them as subhumans and believe in false notions of their ancestors being savages when Europeans first stepped onto Canadian soil.
It’s a shame that such prejudices even exist in the Indo Canadian community, whose forefathers had to endure slavery during the British occupation of India. Yet complete ignorance or the arrogance of some East Indians has obscured their ability to see a parallel between their own history and the suffering of Native Indians, whose land was taken away by the colonists and whose language and culture were marginalized.
Some right-wing Indo Canadian media commentators have blamed the Natives for all their problems, instead of focusing on the government when the Attawapiskat crisis came into the spotlight.
What can be more shameful than Indo Canadians getting the right to vote in Canada in 1947, while the First Nations of this country were the last ones to get it in 1960?
Although this was their land and territory, all others—including Europeans and South Asian immigrants—bypassed them to gain access to a country rich with natural resources and economic opportunity. Some Indo Canadians married aboriginal women to get permanent residency in Canada and eventually abandoned them.
A short fictional piece written in Punjabi by Sadhu Binning reveals how First Nations women were exploited by East Indian immigrants. However, many old Indo Canadian immigrants used to refer to the aboriginals as Taae Ke, an expression in Punjabi that means elderly uncle’s family. Those people saw a connection between themselves and the so-called "Red Indians".
However, as time progressed, hostilities started to grow between the two groups. Some Indo Canadians who gradually became rich and joined the elite club began belittling the Taae Ke.
That said, leftists like Binning continue to ally themselves with the aboriginal people. There are other prominent Indo Canadian activists who have also consistently supported the cause of aboriginals, including Harsha Walia, who never forgets in her public speeches to recognize that she's on Coast Salish people's territory.
Nearly a decade ago when the B.C. Liberal government ordered a referendum on land treaties with First Nations, some prominent Indo Canadians, both from the moderate and the fundamentalist Sikh camps, also sided with the aboriginal people.
The kinship with the Taae Ke needs to be revived to jointly challenge institutional racism. After all, the two communities have a lot in common, having a shared history of colonial repression. Incidentally, Louis Riel, a Métis leader, and Kartar Singh Sarabha, an Indian rebel, were both executed on November 16, although in different years, for raising their voices against expansionism.
If bigotry against the Taae Ke continues even after Harper’s apology, so have the government's discriminatory immigration and citizenship policies, despite an apology for the Komagata Maru episode. (The Komagata Maru was a ship with hundreds of South Asian immigrants that was turned away from Vancouver's harbour in 1914.)
The only thing that should divide the two groups is the nomenclature given by the Europeans: East Indians and Red Indians.
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.