South Asian community activists laid foundation for rising opposition to racism in Vancouver

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      Last night, a large crowd braved the snow and freezing weather in Vancouver to express their opposition to racism and Islamophobia.

      Well over a thousand people gathered at Jack Poole Plaza to remember victims of a racist gunman's attack on a Quebec City mosque.

      Vancouverites are only now coming to terms with the realization that in the age of Trump, mentally unstable people infused with poisonous ideology are more likely to commit hate crimes on Canadian soil.

      It's encouraging to see so many people mobilizing to counter a racist mindset that reduces our neighbours to one aspect of their being, whether it's their religion, national origin, or race.

      But there's another aspect of this story that has largely gone unnoticed in the mainstream media. And that is the leadership role played by people in the South Asian community to rally the public to fight racism.

      Just as the Indigenous community has led the way in promoting environmental awareness, people who trace their family roots back to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have been on the frontlines educating the public about the harmful impact of discrimination.

      This includes the local Ismaili community, who experienced racism firsthand when their families were ordered to leave Uganda by the mentally deranged dictator Idi Amin.

      NDP MLA Harry Bains isn't shy about raising the R word in public discourse.

      People over the age of 45 and who trace their roots back to India or Pakistan can remember the appalling discrimination of the early 1980s. It flourished in B.C. as demagogues and Ku Klux Klan activists tried to play an us-versus-them game during a deep economic recession.

      In recent years, we've seen politicians of South Asian ancestry—most notably NDP MLAs Harry Bains and Raj Chouhan and former Vancouver park commissioner Niki Sharma—consistently try to keep a spotlight on the scourge of racism.

      They've been assisted by activists in the South Asian community, such as Coalition Against Bigotry founder Imtiaz Popat, broadcaster and Georgia Straight contributor Gurpreet Singh, No One Is Illegal spokesperson Harsha Walia, lawyer Zool Suleman, and Spice Radio founder Sushma Datt. 

      Singh's wife Rachna, the NDP candidate in Surrey-Green Timbers, is another who has rallied the community about racism well before the recent Quebec massacre, as has Harinder Mahil, former head of the now-defunct B.C. Human Rights Commission. 

      Surrey-Green Timbers NDP candidate Rachna Singh organized a forum on racism last December.

      On Thursday (February 2), activists of South Asian ancestry were once again in Holland Park holding another protest to raise awareness. This time, it carried greater urgency because it followed the horrific mosque shootings.

      But there's been a consistency in the community's call for a restoration of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, which was abolished by the B.C. Liberal government in 2002.

      The magazine Radical Desi and the Coalition Against Bigotry organized the February 2 event.

      Popat has also organized several other demonstrations over the years, including some at the Trump tower, to elevate public understanding about Islamophobia and homophobia.

      He's maintained that the man linked to the Quebec City killings, Alexandre Bissonnette, should be charged under Canada's antiterrorism legislation.

      At the February 2 event, community elder Mousa Ismail and Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians organizer Shahzad Nazir Khan made the same point.

      MLA Bains pointed out that people from all ethnic groups should join hands to defeat white supremacy. Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal, who was in Ottawa, sent a message of solidarity.

      Among the other speakers were Rachna Singh, and human-rights activists Barjinder Singh and Sunil Kumar, who've advocated for justice the victims of the 1984 attacks on Sikhs in India. The latter two pointed out that bigotry has also escalated in India under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government with strong ties with Trump.

      Meanwhile, Rachna Singh acknowledged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for opening doors of Canada for people fleeing from persecution, contrasting that with Trump's decision to restrict the entry of visa holders from seven Muslim countries.

      Charan Gill (left, beside former city councillor George Chow) is one of the fathers of B.C.'s antiracism movement.
      Charlie Smith

      The community's opposition to racism isn't new. Two others of South Asian ancestry—Aziz Khaki, the now-deceased founder of the Committee for Racial Justice, and long-time human rights activist Charan Gill—were leading the movement against the KKK in the early to mid 1980s.

      Khaki was a Muslim who immigrated to Canada from Zanzibar; Gill, now CEO of Progressive Intercultural Services, was from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. They each took tremendous personal risks speaking out in the media against bigotry.

      They, along with deceased former SFU professor Hari Sharma, inspired a generation of activists.

      These three are really the fathers of the rising antiracist movement in Vancouver that has emerged in response to the Trump effect. And for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.