“Hammad Ji, I can’t describe my feelings in words when I heard the ramz, sound of the drum,” Satnam Sangra mentioned when asked about the historic opening of the Surrey Nagar Kirtan by singers and drummers of Kwantlen First Nation back in 2018. 

Sangra, a Punjabi teacher in New Westminster, pitched this idea to Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar in Surrey and helped them organize this first ever Indigenous welcome at the Surrey Nagar Kirtan—inspired by the call for faith based organizations to also participate in the process of reconciliation in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

“For Indigenous communities, the drum is very sacred. It is the heartbeat of their ancestors. To hear it in one of the largest Vaisakhi congregations outside India, the significance of that moment…I can’t describe it in words, Hammad Ji,” Sangra mentioned.

“We wanted to honor and thank the communities on whose unceded lands we are living and raising our children. It is our duty. We owe all our success and benefits in Canada to them,” he said.

Land acknowledgement in Punjabi during Nagar Kirtan in Surrey, B.C, 2018. Photo courtesy: Satnam Sangra

Later in the same year, Sangra helped organize another hosting of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation in Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in New Westminster, the same city where Tsilhqot’in chief Ahan was wrongly executed in 1865 for protecting his people and land. 

“We presented the Tsilhqot’in First Nation with Kirpan, an article of our faith which represents social justice and commitment to honor the dignity of all people,” Sangra mentioned, “Sitting in a circle, we shared the histories of our own community while the members of Tsilhqot'in First Nation sang their songs and played their drums. Later, we all shared langar food.” 

Sangra is soon planning on taking Punjabi students to the First Nations community centers so that our upcoming generations can also develop relationships with Indigenous communities and learn the Indigenous protocols of living on this land.  

Tsilhqot'in First Nation members being served langar in Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar, New Westminster, 2018. Photo courtesy: Satnam Sangra

In the last few years Khalsa Aid, an international NGO grounded in the Sikhi principles of “recognizing the whole human race as one”, has stood in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan land defenders, provided for community kitchens and gardens in Vancouver Downtown Eastside and served the remote First Nation communities in Vancouver Island.

“We do not just go out in these communities and provide stuff,” Baljit Lally, the coordinator of Khalsa Aid in Vancouver, told 5X Press in an interview.

In the face of the historical and ongoing experiences of white, settler colonialism, Indigenous communities often find it difficult to trust non-Indigenous allies and ask for help. Therefore, we first develop a strong relationship of trust and friendship with them. For months, we visit them, listen to their stories and tell them about ourselves before learning about how we can serve them; with food, power generators, winter clothes, cultural supplies for sweat lodges and sometimes by just listening to them.” 

In forming such relationships of trust and solidarity, Lally and others are guided by the Sikhi principle of seva, a selfless service done without any intention or desire of being rewarded or recognized in return.

“Khalsa Aid has done more for us than the Canadian government,” Kanatiio told 5X Press. Originally from the Indigenous community of Kanesatake near Montreal, Kanatiio runs a community garden in the Downtown Eastside.

“The Government’s charity and donations come with a lot of conditions and judgements. They want to ‘correct’ and eliminate these homeless, addicted people [are also] seen as a ‘nuisance’ in the Vancouver is Awesome campaign.” he said.

“But when Khalsa Aid came to us last year, they helped us build these garden beds without any  conditions or expectations. The relationship of love, care, respect and support that Khalsa Aid nurtured with us is missing in the government’s policies and laws.”   

The importance of seva for Indigenous communities.

In the past 100 years, millions of people living in Punjab have left behind their homes, cultures, languages, families, friends and migrated to Canada in the pursuit of a better life, to escape a society mired down by its own legacies of colonial violence. Harjant Gill’s recent documentary, Sent Away Boys, poignantly shows this tragic desire of young, frustrated Punjabi men to migrate from India and settle abroad.

On the other hand, a white colonial settler Canada has not always been a safe refuge for Punjabi migrants either. Recent oral history projects like Union Zindabad, Punjabi in BC and digitization of older Indo-Canadian Oral History Collections indicate how the Punjabi community has historically struggled against everyday discrimination, fought for rights to vote, equal wages and safe work conditions in the mills, and made efforts to preserve its cultures and languages from assimilation. Even today, International students and precarious migrant workers from Punjab are treated as lesser citizens in Canada.

From the exhibition Working the Green Chain: Sikhs, Fraser Mills, & The Lumber Industry at Coquitlam Heritage at Mackin House

How is it, then, that our common, historical, ongoing struggles against a white colonial system have not brought us closer to Indigenous communities?

Satendra Mann was seven years old when her father migrated from India to Canada in the early 1970s. Growing up in Squamish near an Indigenous community reserve, Mann thinks the colonially induced segregation kept the two communities from coming together. “As a child, I was afraid of the reservation. It was a “hostile other” for me and my brothers,” Mann mentioned.  

Sohan Singh Pooni, a historian of the Ghadar movement in North America, who migrated from India to Canada in the 1970s, also told 5X Press that he hasn’t witnessed any significant connections between Indigenous and Punjabi communities in his historical research and lived experiences. 

“One of the reasons,” Pooni suggested, “was our uncritical adoption of the stereotypes against Indigenous communities. Too caught up with earning dollars and fulfilling the Canadian dream, our community lacked the critical consciousness and historical knowledge to see through these stereotypes.”

Sangra also recalled his own lived experience navigating this colonial messaging.

“Back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the white, mainstream media was our only source of information and knowledge about Indigenous communities. We were fed a negative perception about them and lacked knowledge about the history of colonialism in Canada to realize what was happening with these Indigenous communities.” 

Sitting in his car outside the Downtown Eastside community garden, Kanatiio showed me a slide presentation he has prepared to show how the poverty, addiction, crime and homelessness that we see in the Downtown Eastside is entwined, like a Gordian Knot, with the broader, structural issues of colonialism, genocide, displacement and dehumanization. His presentation goes on to show how these structures and histories have created the Downtown Eastside.

One day, he hopes to show this presentation to the Vancouver City Council and Ken Sim, the mayor of Vancouver who wants to bring a “swagger to the city.”

Gordian Knot of Downtown Eastside, Courtesy: Kanatiio

While recalling his experience in the Kanesatake Resistance against the proposed expansion of a golf course on Kanienkehaka lands in 1990, Kanatiio shared his views on the reality of living in Canada as an Indigenous person, “Canada has taken away our lands, languages, traditions, severed our relationships with nature and community.” He also joined the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples formed in the aftermath of this event before eventually losing hope in it and any such initiatives taken by the government.

“Canada is portrayed as a land of opportunities to attract immigrants from all over the world,” Kanatiio mentioned when I talked about the experiences of migration in the Punjabi community, “A lot of people from international communities tell me how they come here to escape hell back in their home countries. I tell them, welcome to my hell, welcome to my Auschwitz. Look what Canada has done to us!” Kanatiio mentioned while looking at the people working in the community garden.

“This small piece of land is all we have now, a small place of healing where we can turn our anger into love, where we try to rebuild our relationships with land and community, to develop our own food sovereignty, to reclaim what Canada took away from us. I have to continuously apply for fundings to keep this place going.” Kanatiio said while looking out.

Downtown Eastside Community Garden, Photo courtesy: Mahnoor Lone

We both watched a young boy entering the garden. He was moving around restlessly, whirling, trying to tear apart his shirt, lying on one garden bed for a while before moving on to another. Kanatiio told me how he was very hopeful about that young boy. “He is much better now than he was when he first came here last year,” Kanatiio mentioned before pausing the interview and going out in the garden to meet him. 

“Each of the people working here have a heart wrenching story to tell. They carry issues that no human being ever should. And yet they are strong and brave enough to come here and grow their own food,” Kanatiio mentioned when I asked him about hope.

“Maybe, I will share their stories and introduce you to some of them next time you visit us.”

About the author

Hammad Abdullah

Hamad came from Pakistan to Canada as an international student and recently completed his masters in history from UBC. He is interested in issues related to South Asian cultures, histories, and colonialism. When not reading and writing (or thinking about reading and writing), he can be seen playing cricket.

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