Gurpreet Singh: New West councillor Chuck Puchmayr kickstarts sixth annual campaign against racism

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      Raise Your Hands Against Racism, an initiative launched by a Burnaby-based radio station, formally entered its sixth year this week.

      Started by Spice Radio CEO Shushma Datt on January 20, 2015—the 86th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday—this year’s campaign was launched by New Westminster city councillor Chuck Puchmayr.

      Puchmayr, a vocal social-justice advocate, played an instrumental role in a recent proclamation recognizing January 11 as Bhai Mewa Singh Day. This was in commemoration of a Sikh political activist who was hanged in New Westminster in 1915.

      Jonathan Cote, the mayor of New Westminster, created history by reading the proclamation on January 13 in the council chamber in the presence of members of the South Asian community.

      Mewa Singh was part of a radical movement launched by Indian immigrants in North America in the early 20th century against the British occupation of India and racism abroad.  

      Singh was also a devout Sikh, who assassinated a controversial Immigration Inspector, William Hopkinson, in Vancouver in 1914. The incident was the culmination of infamous Komagata Maru episode.

      This Japanese vessel carrying more than 350 South Asian passengers was forced to return to India under a discriminatory federal immigration law enacted to keep Canada as a “white man’s country”.  

      This law led to bloody clashes between the political activists and the pro-establishment faction in the South Asian community.  

      As a result of this, Bela Singh, a mole of Canadian authorities within the Sikh community, went inside a gurdwara in 1914 and shot to death a revolutionary community leader, Bhaag Singh, and his associate Badan Singh. This came two months after the Komagata Maru was expelled from Vancouver's harbour.

      Since Bela Singh was patronized by Hopkinson—who precipitated the conflict among local South Asians through his network of spies—Mewa Singh murdered him. Mewa Singh also courted arrest soon after.

      Mewa Singh was hanged in New Westminster in 1915 after murdering immigration inspector William Charles Hopkinson, who operated a network of spies to keep tabs on anticolonial activities.

      Prior to being murdered, Hopkinson had been keeping an eye on the activist, trying to weaken the movement to serve the interests of British Empire.

      Mewa Singh faced his trial with courage and conviction and chanted prayers while being taken to the gallows in New Westminster. His testimony establishes that he took such an extreme step in response to racism and sacrilege of the temple. 

      As a fitting tribute to Mewa Singh, who laid down his life fighting against racism, the City of New Westminster decided to proclaim January 11, 2020 as “Bhai Mewa Singh Day”.  

      Puchmayr admitted that this was a difficult thing to do and that the city faced a backlash from those who see Singh as a killer, without acknowledging the history extreme racism.

      Spice Radio invited the entire city council to start this year’s campaign to reciprocate its important gesture on behalf of the South Asian community.

      While Cote could not make it, Puchmayr, along with his council colleague Jaimie McEvoy, came to Burnaby to participate in the campaign. It encourages people to dip their hands in colour and leave behind their handprints on a white sheet with a message against bigotry.

      City of New Westminster had earlier removed the statue of a controversial colonial era judge, Matthew Begbie, who had ordered the execution of six Chilcotin Chiefs in 1864 for the murder of 14 white road construction workers who were harassing Indigenous peoples.

      Likewise, the City of New Westminster showed leadership in 2010 by becoming the first municipal government in Canada to apologize to Chinese Canadians for injustices of the past.