Gurpreet Singh: Surrey Vaisakhi parade organizers make history by recognizing Indigenous lands

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      This year's Surrey Vaisakhi parade marked a new chapter in Canadian Sikh history.

      It was the first time that any Sikh temple recognized Indigenous lands during a Vaisakhi parade in Canada, and perhaps across Turtle Island.

      Vaisakhi is an auspicious occasion for South Asians. But it has a greater significance for the Sikhs as their 10th master, Guru Gobind Singh, chose this particular day in 1699 to establish Khalsa, a force of dedicated Sikh warriors who rose to fight against injustice and caste-based oppression.

      Every year, Sikhs in Vancouver and Surrey organize Vaisakhi parades. This past Saturday, the organizers in Surrey heralded a new beginning by inviting members of various First Nation bands to start the parade with both Sikh prayers and traditional songs and drumbeats by the Indigenous participants.

      One of the banners put out by organizers read: "Happy Vaisakhi on the traditional, unceded and shared territories of the Kwantlen, Semiahmoo, Katzie, Musqueam, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt and Tsawwassen First Nations."

      The Surrey parade is organized by Dashmesh Darbar Gurdwara and is attended by hundreds of thousands of Sikhs and non-Sikhs from all over the Lower Mainland. Others come from as far away as California.

      This year's celebration took place on April 21.

      Keeping with the social justice aspect of Vaisakhi, the organizers decided to not only involve Indigenous communities, but also acknowledge that Canada is built on the traditional lands of the First Nations.

      Dashmesh Darbar spokesman Gian Singh Gill told the Straight that temple officials have always welcomed the members of the mainstream community with open arms to the Vaisakhi parade.

      "It was cautiously decided to make efforts do outreach to the Native people this time."

      Moninder Singh, a young Sikh human rights activist associated with the gurdwara, was instrumental behind making this possible.

      According to Singh, this was important as Sikhs, being settler immigrants, have a responsibility to recognize that we are all on unceded lands of the First Nations.

      "We often make a big fuss about our language and culture, so why not also accept that the Indigenous communities were subjected to cultural genocide and stand up for their rights as well?"

      Responding to the recent campaign asking for a papal apology for residential-school abuses, he said that the church must take responsibility for what happened instead of dragging its feet.

      "The Catholic Church controlled two-thirds of the residential schools and was directly responsible for the pain, suffering, familial separation, and mental anguish of tens of thousands of First Nations families and contributed directly and indirectly to a physical and cultural genocide."

      He insisted that Sikhs must never side with the oppressors and tyrants, so therefore it's necessary to stand up for Indigenous peoples who were pushed to the margins by the colonists.

      Singh demanded that all Sikh temples also recognize during their prayers that this land belongs to the Indigenous people. He is working on trying to have a plaque installed at the gurdwara recognizing this fact.

      He added that the Dashmesh Darbar would like to invite First Nations to join future Vaisakhi parades with their own flags.

      This isn't the first time that interculturalism has brought together Sikhs and the First Nations. Since both communities share a history of resistance against racism and colonialism, there have been similar efforts made in the past.

      However, this was the only instance that any gurdwara took the initiative to involve First Nations during a religious event.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.