By Paula Bhamji
Earlier this month, my son, Sharif Mohammed Bhamji, filed a human rights complaint against Canada’s second largest bank, TD. The bank refused to complete his application to open a bank account, because they didn’t believe he was, who he said he was.
My son is Indigenous and South Asian. He is a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, and he is Gujarati, and a Muslim. To open an account, he brought his status card with him—valid government ID with his name and picture. TD told him his card was illegitimate and asked him to leave.
Did TD know status cards are a valid form of ID? Did TD judge Sharif on his appearance? His ethnicity? His religion? His multiracial identity? From my view, the answer is “yes” to all of the above.
How could this happen?
Unfortunately Sharif’s complaint is not an isolated incident. It is the tip of an iceberg of racism and othering that my multiracial family deals with every day. We live in a world where the dominant majority does not accept us for who we are because we don’t fit into their stereotyped expectations of racial identity.
I love my family. We’re unique. Our Heiltsuk and Gujarati families have always accepted and supported us, and our multiracial children are strong and proud. Yet they face racism on two fronts: First, they are Indigenous, so like me, they shoulder the legacy of the shameful, brutal treatment of our people by the colonizers. Second, my children are also brown. So, like their father, they face the same kinds of discrimination and racial stereotyping that come with living in a white-dominated society.
Their grandmother, my mom, was a residential school survivor who took her trauma to the grave. Her mistreatment didn’t end with residential school either. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s report on systemic racism in the B.C. healthcare system, In Plain Sight, documents the kind of racist, discriminatory treatment by mom received during her last years. Her throat was permanently scarred by a misused ventilator, and she was dragged by her arms into an ambulance. As Indigenous people, this is the legacy that I, my children, and their children bear.
I’ve watched my kids grow up in a world that doesn’t understand who they are and won’t let them be. It starts with their names: Zuleika and Sharif. “Indigenous people have these kinds of names?” others seem to ask. They apparently can’t accept, even comprehend, the intersection of these different identities, and it all came to a head for Sharif at TD. They didn’t understand how someone with a Muslim name could also be Indigenous.
Sharif has told the media that the kind of treatment he got from TD happens to him every day, the moment he steps out the door, and I’ve seen it. One day I was finishing up shopping with Sharif and my granddaughter, Jasminah. Sharif went outside for a cigarette. He stood by our vehicle. A police officer pulled up to him and asked him who he was, what he was doing there, and if he was on probation.
When I walked over, the officer left. I called the police to follow up, but they told me they had no record of the incident. More recently, a white woman rammed her shopping cart into my daughter at a grocery store. My daughter told me she felt targeted. I reported the incident to the store. Nothing happened.
There are so many examples that they begin to meld together. You get used to them. You learn to live with them. We report what happens, and things stay the same. That’s why Sharif’s complaint against TD is so important. Sharif is saying enough is enough.
I’ve raised my children to speak out when things aren’t right. I pray that Sharif taking this stand will make him stronger. I pray that bringing awareness to these issues will empower others to stand up and speak out. We want people like us to know they are not alone. We have deep, strong connections to ancient and resilient cultures that give us the strength to know and be proud of who we are.
I raise my hands to all who support Sharif and other victims of discrimination, like Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, also members of the Heiltsuk Nation, who were arrested while trying to open a bank account at BMO in 2019. I raise my hands to those who take the negative in the world and try to make it a positive place to live, and to those who want to genuinely learn about each other.
To TD and institutions who claim to be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I ask you to practise what you preach. Let my children be. Understand that they are not a box to be checked, or a risk to be managed. Accept them for who they are: beautiful jewels in the multiracial mosaic of this country.