Gurpreet Singh: Sikhs must avoid this year’s Canada Day celebrations to show respect for Indigenous people

A Surrey broadcaster and writer feels that this is not the time to hold flag-waving parties

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      With the ongoing discoveries of mass graves from near the sites of Indian residential schools, demands for the cancellation of July 1 events are understandably growing.

      Sikhs, too, have been enthusiastically celebrating Canada Day every year with the rest of the Canadians by flying maple leaf flags from their homes and occasionally from their gurdwaras.

      This year however, they must avoid such displays of patriotism, considering what the Indigenous communities are going through. First Nations are mourning the discoveries of the remains of those who were made to suffer at the racist residential schools. Already, several municipalities have canceled Canada Day celebrations.

      It was remarkable to see Sikhs coming out to show their support to the grieving community during the month of June. Those associated with Sikh motorcycle clubs rode all the way to Kamloops where the remains of 215 Indigenous kids were located.

      Meanwhile, Sikhs offered special prayers for another 751 whose graves were detected in Saskatchewan.

      A Sikh community elder, Mota Singh Jheeta, made time to attend a vigil held outside Surrey City Hall early this month. This is despite the fact that Sikhs were mourning their own loss caused by the June 1984 military invasion on their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar.

      The ill-conceived army attack was planned and executed to deal with a handful of militants inside the place of worship. Known as Operation Blue Star, it left many innocent pilgrims dead and several historical buildings destroyed. The entire operation was aimed at humiliating the minority community in Punjab so as to polarize Hindu majority, thereby setting the stage for a victory in the impending general election.

      This attack completely outraged Sikhs and alienated them from the national mainstream of India. Since I lived in Amritsar at that time, I can both explain and understand the pain that I felt firsthand being born in a Sikh family. The scars left behind by the army attack are permanently etched in my memory.

      Following this bloody episode, Sikhs did not celebrate the festival of Diwali that year. Our family also joined the protest and did not display lights or candles. We intentionally observed "Black Diwali".

      Perhaps, we need to do the same during this year’s Canada Day. I am pretty sure that the Sikh community, which is politically involved in Canada, will consider this and avoid celebrations to show their solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Those who are trying to malign the calls for cancelling Canada Day should show some compassion, which is integral to Sikhi as it teaches its followers to stand up for others.

      People of my generation who have kept the memories of 1984 alive would know how much it pained us when others tried to ridicule us even more by celebrating Diwali that year without being considerate of our sentiments. This was like rubbing salt on our wounds.

      Let’s not jump on the bandwagon of privilege and nationalism. Even otherwise, a country is represented by its citizens and not by its flag or any such emblem. If one section of people is hurt, we need to stand up for them. And not stand with those who are talking from a position of power just to prove our loyalty to the nation.

      The Conservative leader’s statement accusing people like us of tearing down Canada is laughable as our country is not like building blocks that can be dismantled so easily by skipping celebrations. Instead, he and those like him need to do some soul-searching on how we have been treating the original inhabitants of this land since colonization.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.