Confronting Ignorance & Racism in Canada

The Sikh community has been front and centre in the aftermath of the tragic Wisconsin Gurdwara shooting which took the lives of six worshippers.  The shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a white supremacist and a member of the skinhead group “Hammerskin Nation” (which also has branches here in Canada).

The question that remains unanswered is how could such a tragedy have taken place?  Although the specific motive behind the targeting of the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin will never be known, it is not difficult to conclude that racism likely played a significant part. 

In Canada, we are far from immune from the problem of racism.  Memories may have faded of the brutal beating and murder of Nirmal Singh Gill by five racist skinheads in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey in 1998 but racism, particularly against the Sikh community, remains a reality.  In March of 2012, two Sikh men were attacked in Edmonton by members of the skinhead group ‘Blood and Honour’.  In June, the Khalsa Community School in Brampton was defaced with “KKK” graffiti and swastikas.  Unfortunately, racist graffiti against the Sikh community is not uncommon and has taken place both in Surrey and Montreal in the recent past.

Montreal VandalismSurrey Vandalism

Last Friday, CKNW’s Philip Till Show in Vancouver featured Dave Foran who wrote an offensive email to Shere-e-Punjab Radio in the wake of the Wisconsin shooting  stating that although he doesn’t condone violence, he believes “Sikhs are disrespectful” because they don't “blend in” after moving to Canada.  He also stated, “your long beards, turbans, clothes and waddling as you follow each other down the street is enough to make us sick. Lose the traditions or stay in India.”

According to Foran, during a trip from Surrey to North Delta he and his son counted a total of 47 Sikhs.  He insists however that he is “not prejudiced”

If Foran’s comments were not alarming in themselves, many comments were posted online in response to the story, supporting his position.  A few examples are below:

  • Dave Foran is simply saying what most people think but are to worried about speaking out.
  • Here Here Dave Foran, this multi-culturism has gone too far when other nationalities come here and they for example can drive motorcycles without a helmet just their turban or RCMP members can wear turbans…we built this country and if you come here adjust to our ways or stay home. Call me a racist if you will but many people feel the same way but wont speak out.
  • I agree with Dave as far as the display of religion goes. Other people from India do not display their religion like Sikhs… Sikhs have changed the uniform of the RCMP, will not remove their turbans when entering a Legion and will not wear helmets on bicycles or motor cycles. That is not coming to Canada and blending in…One man on the radio asked when he will become a Canadian and not an Indo-Canadian. Well, when would I become an Indian if I moved to India? If he can't handle that then stay in India or go back.

Of course, both Foran and those who share his views ignore that Sikhs have been in Canada since the 1800s and are hardly newcomers.

Despite the long history of Sikh engagement in Canada, negative attitudes towards Sikhs are not uncommon.  In a2009 survey, Maclean’s magazine found that only 30 per cent of Canadians had a “generally favourable” attitude towards Sikhs and that 26 per cent saw Sikhism as encouraging violence.

The first step in addressing ignorance and racism is acknowledging that it exists.

Ignorance is a major source of prejudice and hatred.  There is no doubt that the Sikh community must continue to reach out and educate about Sikh beliefs.  But in addition to efforts by Sikhs, all Canadians must speak out strongly against racist attitudes and statements.  Racism has no place in Canadian society. 

In the aftermath of the Wisconsin tragedy, it has been heartening to see the media report on the Sikh community and talk about Sikh beliefs.  This is a welcome change from reporting that often erroneously links Sikhs with extremism or terrorism and perpetuates negative attitudes and bias.  It has also been heartening to see people of all backgrounds and faiths stand in unity with the Sikh community at this difficult time.  But it shouldn’t take such a profound tragedy for us to have the opportunity to learn about each other or build bridges.  We need to create spaces and opportunities to ask questions and learn about each other’s beliefs. 

As Canadians and more fundamentally as humans, we have so much that unites us.  We all have a role to play in combating racism.  In the words of the tenth Guru, Sri Guru Gobind Singh, “Recognise all of humanity as one”

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