Amir Bajehkian and Sara Sagaii: Will Nowruz celebration come to Vancouver City Hall in March 2019?

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      By Amir Bajehkian and Sara Sagaii

      What is multiculturalism, anyway? What’s in it for us? We don’t know if there is a correct answer. But here’s our take.

      We came from a land far far away, in an entity that was around for 7,000 to 8,000 years. As immigrants, we went through a process to get screened. You know, background checks, and going over finances and stuff.

      At the border, we had to declare what we had and what we were going to bring. But the Canadian Border Services Agency missed something.

      What we failed to declare was our story; The stories that were passed along to us, generation after generation. One of which was the story of Nowruz.

      Iranian-American standup comic Kayvon Moezzi describes finding out about Nowruz as an adult in these words: “What would you do if you found out about a brand-new holiday that everyone else seems to already know about? What if, as an adult, your parents sat you down and told you for the very first time about Christmas?”

      Nowruz is as significant to our community as Christmas and the New Year combined. As immigrants to this land, all of us have precious stories of Nowruz with family and loved ones that we hold close to our hearts. However, second-generation Iranian Canadians often grow up not having witnessed a public acknowledgment of this important ancient tradition. Unable to express their cultural identity to other Canadians, they often relegate it to the private realm.

      Based on the 2016 population census, Persian is the 7th nonofficial and non-Aboriginal mother tongue of the residents of Vancouver, with a population on par with Japanese and Korean speakers. However, in terms of cultural visibility and official recognition, outside of concentrated areas such as North Shore, the Persian language and culture is hardly anywhere on display. This is particularly the case in Vancouver proper.

      Being an ethnically diverse nation, blending in can come easier for some of us Iranians, who can pass either as white or European or Latin American. Even though this diversity does not stop us from being racialized, it very likely results in underreporting the number of Persian speakers in census data.

      Still, despite our diverse ethnic backgrounds, we have strong common cultural bonds that transcend the borders of present-day Iran and extend into neighbouring countries with Farsi speakers—Afghanistan and Tajikistan. As well, there are cultural and linguistic influences on the whole of the region of West, Central, and South Asia.

      A motion from Vancouver councillor Jean Swanson coming to city council this week calls on the City of Vancouver to recognize Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as an officially observed celebration day in Vancouver and to celebrate it at Vancouver City Hall.

      The motion’s preamble reads: “Nowruz is the celebration of Spring Equinox, marking the beginning of the year for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, celebrated in more than 15 countries from Eastern Europe to Central and South Asia...[It] is a public holiday in over 10 countries, and [is] included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

      It continues: “In 2009, the Parliament of Canada passed a bill to officially add Nowruz to the national calendar of Canada, and the province of British Columbia proclaimed March 20 as the day of Nowruz in B.C.”

      Coun. Swanson’s motion was brought forward at the request of activists in the Iranian community who had previously approached the provincial government to hold the first-ever Nowruz celebration at the Legislative Assembly in 2018, along with the Afghan and Baha'i communities.

      COPE councillor Jean Swanson is trying to bring a Nowruz celebration to Vancouver City Hall this spring.
      Jean Swanson

      Before this, in 2011, a group of community activists approached the City of Vancouver to add Nowruz to its official calendar of observations and celebrations. This resulted in a one-time proclamation by then mayor Gregor Robertson of March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz. But that was the last time the Persian community heard from the city about this holiday.

      Gestures of cultural inclusion, such as an official observation and public celebration of Nowruz by the most accessible level of government—i.e., the City of Vancouver—can increase all residents’ knowledge of other cultures. It can also help refugees and immigrants feel more safe and welcome in their new home and enhance our ability to participate in Canadian society and democracy as full citizens with full rights.

      This is something all Canadians should support, especially those of us who are more accustomed to the intricacies of the Canadian political system. We can attest to the difficulties newcomers and outsiders encounter in navigating this system.

      But this is not all. We believe that, among other things, multiculturalism is about sharing. As non-Indigenous people on this land, we are all settlers, and it is incumbent upon us to bring a gift with us to this new home.

      We, as immigrants, have to share our joy with our fellow citizens. Because the message of Nowruz is not restricted to a people or a region. We can all look at spring as a chance for renewal. To remember our connection with nature. To reflect on the past and look forward to a better and brighter future.

      To share a chickpea cookie or two…or even three :)

      In a world filled with walls, Nowruz is about building bridges: a bridge between us and our past, a bridge between us and Mother Nature, a bridge to cultures, connecting peoples of lands near and far.

      With that, we hope to extend an invitation to our fellow Canadians and Vancouver city councillors to join us in welcoming the spring and the Persian New Year at this house of the people, Vancouver City Hall, first by writing to your councillors in support of this initiative.

      Because Nowruz is best done with the ones you love. Be it your family, or your fellow Vancouverites.

      Let us greet the spring together :)

      And vote for Motion B3, Persian New Year.

      Amir Bajehkian is a flight data analyst based in Vancouver. He is also a member of the B.C. Multicultural Advisory Council, and the president of Green Cedar Consulting Ltd. The opinions expressed in this piece reflect his personal point of view. Sara Sagaii is an Iranian immigrant and a graduate student at the SFU School of Communication. Sara worked as the outreach coordinator for the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) 2018 municipal election campaign and sits on the steering committee of the Vancouver Tenants Union.