Gurpreet Singh: An unusual Christmas gift from an antiracism campaigner

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      This holiday season, we at Spice Radio in Burnaby received an unusual Christmas gift reminding us of a great trailblazer.

      A historically important $10 bill bearing the picture of Viola Desmond greeted us when we opened our New Year cards accompanying Christmas goodies signed by our CEO Shushma Datt.  

      Beneath the message of “Peace on Earth” inside the card, Datt had written a note: “This keepsake currency is to remind us it happened in our lifetime."

      Indeed, Desmond was a Rosa Parks of Canada, refusing to give up her seat in the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946. As a result of the segregation laws, she was arrested and had to spend a night in jail. Her act of resistance paved the way for people of colour in Canada.

      This year, the Bank of Canada issued a $10 banknote with her picture.

      I had been badly seeking the bill for my collection of historical documents. So when I picked up the bag of goodies with my name tag on it placed under the Christmas tree in our office, I never imagined the kind of happiness it was going to bring.

      Datt is right. The currency is certainly a souvenir, which I am not going to spend.

      The beauty of this small, but sweet gesture is that it came from another trailblazer of our community.

      Datt is the first South Asian female broadcaster in Vancouver who has always been vocal against racism and gender discrimination. For decades, she has faced threats and intimidation from religious fundamentalists within the Sikh community for being critical of their actions.

      This was despite the fact that she has also been critical of Hindu extremism, which has grown under the current right-wing Hindu nationalist government in India. In 2015, she started the #HandsAgainstRacism campaign on the birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr., and has never looked back after that.

      Shushma Datt's #HandsAgainstRacism campaign is designed to promote greater understanding of different communities.

      As part of this initiative, she first honoured Baltej Singh Dhillon. He was the first turbaned Sikh officer to be recruited by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

      At the time, Dhillon faced hostility from white supremacists because of his religious background. The second person to receive the annual award as part of this campaign was University of British Columbia Professor Sunera Thobani, a vocal critic of Islamophobia who also came under attack from white nationalists for criticizing U.S. foreign policy and aggression in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks. Datt picked Thobani for the award to send a message to right-wing politicians like Donald Trump who have been perpetuating hatred against Muslims and women.

      Later, antiracism activist Alan Dutton and Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith were also honoured as part of the initiative to show solidarity with those in the mainstream white community standing up for visible minorities.

      For me, the $10 bill with Desmond’s picture will be a prized possession. I want to publicly thank Shushma Datt for choosing it as this year’s Christmas gift for her staff. It shows her unwavering commitment to a fair and just society.

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      Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor and a broadcaster on Spice  Radio.

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