In order to mark 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation, the World Sikh Organization (WSO) has started a conversation on Sikh settler privilege. To make a beginning, the Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council Chief Dr. Robert Joseph was invited as keynote speaker at their annual dinner in Surrey on June 11.
Joseph who was formerly the Executive Director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and a witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission spoke at length about the sufferings of the indigenous children at the residential schools and touched upon other racist incidents of the past, including the Komagata Maru episode of 1914.
The European settlers had introduced a controversial residential school system where indigenous children were forcibly sent with the help of the police to turn them into Christians. The students at these schools were forced to give up their traditional names and discouraged from speaking their mother language. The current Canadian government acknowledges that it was a cultural Genocide aimed at the assimilation of the Indigenous peoples.
In keeping with an idea of building Canada as white man’s nation- the discriminatory immigration policies were also adopted. Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 passengers was forced to return under a law that was passed to discourage permanent settlement of Indians in BC. Joseph tried to link all the historic wrongs in his speech and reminded the gathering of racism and bigotry that continues to prevail across the world. He noted that the wars and occupations and religious intolerance are impacting harmony and creating problems for the humanity and called upon everyone to jointly fight back for dignity and human rights.
He was later honoured by the WSO leaders Mukhbir Singh and Gian Singh Sandhu, while a video presentation was made to educate those in attendance about how Canada looked like before it was colonized.
The speakers recognized that the event was being held on the Unceded Coast Salish territories and the lands of other indigenous groups. A poll was also held to find how many people present at the event knew about the indigenous peoples and their issues.
A call was given to the Sikh community to attend an annual reconciliation walk organized in the month of September by the indigenous activists.
The idea was to examine Sikh Settler Privilege, according to the WSO Spokesman Balpreet Singh – who also made a presentation on racism faced by the Sikhs, particularly those sporting long hair and religious symbols. He said that the Sikhs also share history of persecution in India with the indigenous peoples of Canada. He pointed out that the Sikhs continue to fight for the right to self determination in Punjab, India and their political struggle partly began with the fight for the right to river waters flowing from their traditional lands to other states in India against the riparian laws.
The event was part of the annual dinner that is organized every year by the WSO in the month of June to commemorate infamous military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar in 1984.
The army invasion was ordered to flush out handful of religious militants who had fortified the place of worship during their struggle for extra rights to Punjab and the Sikh minority. The attack had left many pilgrims dead and the buildings inside the shrine heavily damaged. The destruction of the Akal Takhat- the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs had angered the Sikhs all over the world.
A video presentation was made on the ugly political events of 1984.
Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.