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Saturday, May 05, 2007

The "R" Word 


Anyone who remembers Paul Henderson's goal would once have been surprised by this photo.
In the Canada of the 1970s, and before, nobody ever saw turbaned Sikhs in Canadian police uniforms.
You didn't see very many women, either, of course.
But it is the Sikh officers I noticed in this photo -- because in reading the latest news from the Air India inquiry, I'm wondering if anyone is mentioning the "R" word there.
Can I mention it here? The "R" word is Racism.
Now, I haven't undertaken any kind of detailed research into the ins and outs of the trials or the recent news from the inquiry now going on. But I lived through those times. I remember. And I believe to this day that racism in BC and in Canada against Sikhs, and Asians generally, was a factor, perhaps a significant factor, in the failure of the Air India investigation.
Over the years, many things have been blamed for the chaotic, unfocused nature of this whole investigation, from the initial failure to take the warnings seriously, to the antiquated personnel policies of RCMP and Vancouver police which limited recruitment of non-white officers, to inter-service rivalries between the RCMP and CSIS which apparently led to mishanding of evidence and the inability of prosecutors to bring anyone to justice.
But underneath it all is a racist taint. The lives of the victims were devalued because they were of East Indian heritage. As a result, irrelevancies and distractions like inter-service rivalries and office politics were allowed to dominate and ultimately derail the investigation.
Here's one example of this devaluation which I still remember vividly:
The explosion happened June 23, 1985, one of the worst disasters in Canadian history. Macleans magazine didn't even stop the presses and pull their cover story. They just put a banner across the top right corner. I have never forgotten my shock when I saw that cover -- a major Canadian disaster, and our major news magazine doesn't even make it their cover story? It was as though it was just another disaster in a foreign country, rather than a disaster for citizens of Canada.
Here is testimony from Toronto engineer Bal Gupta to the inquiry in September, describing what the Air India disaster did to Canadian families:
... 329 persons were murdered, most of them Canadians. Twenty-nine families were completely wiped out, 32 families had one spouse left alone. Eight couples lost all their children, and two children lost both parents...
Yet Prime Minister Mulroney did not call the families. Gupta testified:
"The Government of Canada did not set up any information line and did not offer any other administrative or emotional help immediately or any time thereafter. Instead we heard that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent condolences to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi."
Here are some of the historic events from that time in Sikh-Canadian history -- and all of them happened in the decade AFTER the Air India disaster:
1986
Metro Toronto Police permitted Sikhs to wear their turbans while on duty with the force.
1986
First Sikh elected to any provincial legislature in Canada was Manmohan (Moe) Sahota from Esquimalt, British Colombia.
1988
March 10, the Canadian Parliament devoted a whole day to debate the issue of the Sikh's rights and the issue of Khalistan.
1988
Dr. Gulzar Singh Cheema was elected as an M.L.A. to the Manitoba legislature.
1990
A plaque commemorating the Komagala Maru Incident was placed at Portal Park in Vancouver on May 23 jointly by the municipal, provincial, and federal Governments.
1990
March 15, the solicitor General of Canada announced that the RCMP dress code would be amended to have a turbaned Sikh join the force. Constable Baltej Singh Dhillon had the honour of becoming the first baptized Sikh to join the RCMP.
1991
Three Sikhs were elected to the British Columbia legislature. Manmohan (Moe) Sihota, and Ujjal Dosanjh have held various cabinet posts, and the other M.L.A. is Harbhajan (Harry) Lalli.
1993
Gurbax Singh Mahli and Harbans (Herb) Dhaliwal were the first Sikhs elected to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
1993
In July, Vancouver Punjabi Market at Main and 49th Street was officially recognized with bilingual signs in English and Punjabi.
1993
Five Sikh veterans were invited to participate in a Remembrance Day parade on November 11, but were denied entry to the Royal Canadian Legion in Newton, B.C.
1995
The B.C. Government officially recognized the Vaisakhi Parade and published a brochure.
1996
February 15, the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed a Sikh officers right to wear a turban.
I remember that stupid turban battle which went on and on and on, embittering so many people and setting Canadians against each other. And I remember that ridiculous flap about wearing a turban into a Royal Canadian Legion, as if East Indian veterans weren't quite "good enough" to associate with the "real" Canadians.
I hope we are living in a better Canada today. In 2005, then-prime minister Paul Martin declared June 23, 2005, as a national day of mourning and said June 23 would be Canada's National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism.
Ujjal Dosanjh was quoted in Macleans just yesterday:
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh says he's shocked but not surprised that police did not take seriously warnings that Sikh extremists planned to blow up an Air India jetliner two decades ago.
In the months preceding the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, Dosanjh said it was clear that police didn't understand or care about tensions within British Columbia's Indo-Canadian community.
"There was at that time a basic perception (that) here are some brown guys with turbans fighting each other, maybe hurting each other," Dosanjh said Thursday.
"The rest of the society really didn't know the culture, didn't know the language, didn't really know the issues, didn't in fact care very much. And that permeated throughout the (police) forces . . . I'm not blaming them but that was the environment at that time." . . .
"Maybe it's harsh coming from me at this day and age but I genuinely believe if you had 329 white Anglo-Saxons killed in an Air India disaster, you would have had an inquiry in no time."
Dosanjh had been relatively circumspect in his comments about Air India until now. But evidence coming out of the Air India inquiry about ignored warnings and investigative foul-ups prompted him to bluntly suggest that racism was part of the problem.
"I've never spoken so harshly before but that's the truth and Canadians have to, we have to confront that truth," he said.
"The fact is racism lurks in various nooks and crannies of this society. All of us have dark corners in our hearts. We have biases and prejudices that we live with. We have to all kind of come clean and deal with these issues."

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