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“Smashing the Ceiling”: Raj Chouhan becomes the first South Asian speaker of the B.C. Legislature

By:
Jeevan Sangha (@jeevanksangha)

Social justice advocate and five-time MLA of Burnaby Edmonds, Raj Chouhan was welcomed with a standing ovation after being elected the first person of South Asian descent to be Speaker in Canadian Legislature.

Chouhan addressed the BC Legislature last week, expressing gratitude for being elected to such a role and reminded the present MLAs of the history of racial discrimination in Canada. 

“There was a time when people of colour were not even allowed to enter this building, let alone this chamber. But our forefathers never gave up. They continued their struggle for justice and equality. Over the decades, we have won many battles, but the journey from fairness and equality is far from over.”

The applause for this historic accomplishment becomes much more pronounced in light of Chouhan’s long history of activism and public service since his immigration to Canada in 1973.

Chouhan’s first job when he arrived in Canada was working on a farm, where he was shocked at the unjust and inhumane working conditions labourers were subjected to. 

Though Canada was viewed as a prosperous country, Chouhan could not believe the disparity between the treatment of rich and poor people. 

Labourers suffered wages that fell well below minimum wage, exclusion from safety regulations, and racial discrimination, along with many systemic issues that oppressed farm labourers.

Chouhan with protestors at the Farmworkers' Organizing Committee Rally. Mission, BC (May 13, 1979) via: https://digital.lib.sfu.ca/cfu-164/farm-workers-organizing-committee-rally-mission-bc-may-13-1979-fwoc-president-raj-chouhan


In turn, Chouhan brought farmworkers together to fight for better working conditions, and an acknowledgement of the struggles they faced, by becoming founding president of the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union (CFU) in 1980. 

From that moment forward, Chouhan’s advocacy flourished, as he went from serving as the Director of Bargaining for the Hospital Employees Union for 18 years, to a member of the Labour Relations Board of BC, and the Arbitration Bureau of BC. 

Chouhan is also a founding member of the BC Organization to Fight Racism, and was the VP of BC Human Rights Defenders. 

In his political career, Chouhan was first elected as the MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds in May 2005. and has since been re-elected in 2009, 2013 and 2017. 

In his campaigns for MLA, Chouhan stressed the importance of lived experience when acting as a public servant for a city like Burnaby -- to live there and learn firsthand what the community needs. 

His goal as an MLA was to be the “voice of the people” and to help them with their daily issues, no matter how small. 

“People have their daily lives, daily concerns. That’s we deal with, and that’s what I’m really proud of.”

Chouhan has also served as the Official Opposition Critic for Multiculturalism, Immigration and Human Rights and as Assistant Deputy Speaker before becoming Speaker of the BC Legislature. 

He has also travelled across Canada to teach others and raise awareness for a number of issues including worker rights, racism, discrimination, and other forms of social inequality. 

In addition, Chouhan has also consistently supported many community organizations over the years, supporting neighbourhood safety, refugee assistance, and so much more.

Chouhan plays a pivotal role as the Speaker and will be responsible for “ensuring fair play by all MLAs,” and that debates in the Chamber are carried out appropriately. 

A cornerstone of the democratic process, Chouhan will maintain decorum and overall respect in the Legislative Assembly by acting as a buffer between MLAs, and setting the standard for political interaction. 

In his speech Chouhan also paid homage to other Indo-Canadian politicians who have broken barriers, such as Ujjal Dosanjh (the first ever non-white Premier of BC) and Moe Sihota (the first ever Indian MLA in North America). 

Chouhan, honored and humbled by this accomplishment, made sure to recognize his home, the place and the people who brought him to where he is today. 

“I ask all members, never forget your roots. Don’t forget where you come from. The people who sent us here, they are the ones who deserve all the credit for the work we do.”


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