Sixteen years ago I made Canada my home. Like most South Asian immigrants I also came to Canada from India for a better livelihood. Like other immigrants from India where corruption and human rights abuses are very common, I was also impressed by the Canadian system and influenced by its openness to accept other cultures and diversity.
However, as I discovered the history of the struggle of our community elders in Canada against racism, I gradually learned that the Canada wasn't always a great country that accepted immigrants with open arms. To keep Canada as a white man's nation, rulers of the land formulated policies that were aimed at discouraging permanent settlement of immigrants from South Asia. These immigrants were disfranchised in 1907 and were not allowed to bring their families. Also, a ship carrying more than 350 passengers from India was forced to return in 1914 under a discriminatory immigration law.
Community elders fought against these injustices. One of them, Mewa Singh, was hanged in 1915 for assassinating a controversial Immigration Inspector, William C Hopkinson, who had penetrated his spies in the community to keep a watch on political activism. Among those spies was Bela Singh, who murdered two community leaders, Bhaag Singh and Badan Singh, in a shooting inside Vancouver's oldest Sikh gurdwara in September 1914. Mewa Singh killed Hopkinson to avenge the sacrilege of the temple.
Indian immigrants gained the right to vote in 1947 and as years passed they became politically influential. Currently, Canada has its first turbaned Sikh defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, and in B.C. alone there are seven MLAs who trace their roots back to Punjab. In the meantime, Canada gave refuge to Sikhs who fled India to escape from state violence and persecution during 1980s. This was a time when Sikh activists were fighting an armed struggle for an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab.
The shift indicates how Canada has changed over the period of 100 years. There were times when Sikh men had to cut their hair to get jobs, and both Sikh men and women avoided stepping out of their homes in traditional attire to avoid racial taunts and attacks from white supremacists.
They also avoided speaking Punjabi, fearing violence at the hands of racists.
Nowadays, not only do Sikhs proudly sport their religious symbols, Punjabi has now become an integral part of the communications messages from Crown corporations. Caucasian politicians have picked up some key words in Punjabi to greet constituents in ridings with a sizeable South Asian population.
Indebted to Canadian authorities, many Sikhs now see themselves as proud Canadians. They believe that apart from providing religious freedom, Canada also offers them freedom of speech. After all, they can openly speak here in support of a separate homeland in Punjab without fear of getting arrested for sedition, a charge that is freely used by Indian police against minorities.
Not surprisingly, supporters of a Sikh homeland who have lost faith in Indian nationalism have no problem celebrating Canadian nationalism. On July 1 when 150 years of Canadian Confederation was being celebrated all over the country, many Sikh temples organized special prayers for the well-being of the Canadian state.
One can understand the compulsions and passion of Sikhs behind these gestures, but there is a need to acknowledge that Canada was built on stolen lands of the indigenous peoples. The white supremacy that hounded Sikhs and other immigrants has its roots in the colonization of Canada.
European settlers who came to this part of the world brought indigenous peoples under subjugation through wars and deceitful trade relations. The sense of cultural superiority, because of the strong backing of the church, gave these settlers a reason to believe that they had right to capture this land and turn indigenous communities into Christian enclaves.
Since then, Eurocentric scholars have tried to portray indigenous culture as inferior and their identity as that of a savage. It's a shame that the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of Canada make up only four percent of its total population. Their numbers were reduced through wars, diseases such as smallpox brought by the Europeans, and the policy of assimilation through the residential school system, in which they were forced to give up their language and traditional names.
All these factors contributed to create poverty among indigenous tribes. That they are overrepresented in jails suggest that the structural violence and systemic racism against them continue to prevail in Canada, which claims to be a human rights leader and showcases its diversity and multiculturalism by opening its doors to immigrants.
So when Sikhs and other immigrant communities are excited about Canada 150, they need to understand the anger of the indigenous activists, whose Resistance 150 campaign is an attempt to reject Canadian nationalism. For them, Canada 150 is a celebration of the genocide of the First Nations.
Sikhs and other immigrant groups must take a moment from their celebrations to see this reality and show their solidarity with indigenous peoples. As both South Asians and the indigenous communities share history of racism and colonialism, they must stand up for each other in the face of growing bigotry under U.S. president Donald Trump right across the border.
Not only should Sikh leaders acknowledge that we are on traditional lands of indigenous groups, but that the indigenous communities were forced to give up their spiritual beliefs, languages, and traditional names.
It should not surprise anyone that indigenous peoples were always more welcoming to immigrants than the white settlers. When "East Indian" males were denied entry to bars and pubs in the past and no white woman dated them, some elders in our community remember it was the indigenous women who accepted them with open hearts. As the men from India were not allowed to bring their wives, they got into relationships with indigenous women.
Perhaps those were the times when community elders starting addressing the indigenous peoples as Taaye Ke (those from elderly uncle's family) in Punjabi, just as those of European ancestry referred to them as "Red Indians". That bond needs to be made stronger.
There is also a need to acknowledge that indigenous peoples obtained the right to vote in 1960, only after the Indians and other immigrant groups. Whereas Sikhs celebrated the election of seven Punjabis in the May provincial election of B.C., the provincial legislature has only four indigenous MLAs (Carole James, Melanie Mark, Adam Olsen, and Ellis Ross).
Sikh activists who've had success in getting the ant-Sikh pogrom of 1984 in India called a genocide in Canada must also see that the indigenous peoples were subjected to cultural genocide when the Canadian state was being established.
This is not to suggest there is a complete silence around indigenous stories in the immigrant communities. There are a few dedicated Sikh and other South Asian activists who have been raising voices in support of grassroots movements within indigenous communities. A few Punjabi-language authors have written stories and poems dedicated to the indigenous peoples. But that is not enough.
Racial bias against indigenous peoples also exists among South Asians, who are often influenced by stereotypes about First Nations widely reinforced by the mainstream media and populist leaders. This is why they can sometimes be insensitive toward the sentiments of indigenous communities. Those who understand these issues need to educate their compatriots and break these myths and make them understand how deep-rooted racism has marginalized First Nations and pushed them to impoverishment.
On Canada's 150th birth anniversary it's time to rethink Canadian nationalism rather than getting blinded by it. A nation is not just represented by its government, insignias, and power structure but by its people.
And if its real stewards for centuries are now fighting discrimination every day and opposing the ongoing appropriation of their lands by the extraction industry, there is hardly any reason to rejoice. Particularly when this industry is backed by the Canadian state and those historical stewards are met with police brutality and bad press.