• The History of South Asian Labour in British Columbia: Against A Single Story, A Single Identity

    The History of South Asian Labour in British Columbia: Against A Single Story, A Single Identity

    South Asian communities have been migrating to Canada ever since the start of the twentieth century and have made valuable contributions to the various labour movements of the country. Similarly, they also actively supported various freedom movements of their home countries such as India, which was under British colonial rule. These communities were, however, considered too South Asian for Canadian history, and too Canadian for South Asian history. Unable to fit into either of the two boxes, their lives and contributions have slipped into relative obscurity today. To shed light on their stories, SOI staff writer Hamad Abdullah Nazar recently interviewed Dr. Anushay Malik on her research work, which attempts to tell the stories of these South Asian laborers in Canada beyond such categories of Canada and South Asia. 

    Dr. Malik is a visiting faculty member in the history department at Simon Fraser University. The South Asian Canadian labour history project that she is working on is being conducted by the BC Labour Heritage Centre as part of a much larger project being run by the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. Some of the questions in the following interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: Why do you think the South Asian labour history in BC matters? What is its importance?

    A: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous Ted Talk “The dangers of a single story” aptly sums up the importance of this historical project. We cannot be tied down to only one story or one identity, for example as a South Asian or a woman. Similarly, we cannot assume to know another community of people through only one story or identity. In his book, How to Be an Anti-racist, Ibram Kendi offers a definition of racism as the existence of one story about, say, people of colour, who can then become knowable through that one story. We are so prone to falling into this pitfall if there is only one story about a group of people.

    This work on South Asian labour history in British Columbia is one way to fulfill this necessary task of telling multiple stories about a community– South Asian people in Canada. Let me explain this through the example of Sewak (or Sabik) Singh Dhaliwal. He migrated from India and worked as a truck driver here in BC. Other than this, he was also active in organizing various trade unions and worked to promote workers’ rights. Now, if we only understand him through a single story, a single identity, as a South Asian man, we would miss out on the many other aspects of his life.

    Sewak Singh Dhaliwal, photo courtesy of 100 Year Journey

    When we think about this underlying logic of telling multiple stories, our project does not remain restricted only to South Asian communities. It also invites us to think about how other communities like Indigenous people or other immigrants would also have multiple stories of their own, which cannot be boxed into one identity or one story.

    Q: This project simultaneously deals with two different parts of the globe, South Asia and Canada. What is the importance of its global nature?

    A: People cannot be located in one geographic area, language, or religion. The global aspect of this project helps us see the limitations of such neat divisions of humans. For example, one of our interviewees was Jinny Sims, who is a social activist, a union leader, and has served as an MLA here in BC. She told me how her father remained a strong inspiration for her all along. Her father was, in turn, inspired by the activities of various Anglo-Indian, anti-colonial movements he witnessed and participated in when he went to Britain in his youth. This story makes us realize how an early twentieth-century anti-colonial movement in Britain can travel and be connected to the social and political activities of present-day Canada.

    Sabik, who I mentioned earlier, was born and raised here in Canada. Yet, he carries a list of people from South Asia who arrived here in 1906. He has preserved that list because his father’s name was also on it. Despite such affiliations, Singh has not been to India, the country of his father. He spent his entire life here in Canada. Should we call him an Indian or a Canadian? You see, he does not easily fit into such categories.

    These two examples show the existence of various global connections and the travelling of ideas and people from one part of the world to another. The lives of humans cannot be contained by national or geographic boundaries.

    Q: When the history of South Asian communities in Canada is highlighted, it is often coloured by a celebratory tone. We are told how things today are much better than they used to be in the past. What do you think about this narrative of improvement?

    A: I think the concept of improvement is quite relative; different people have different ideas of what counts as improvement. There cannot be one narrative about it. But what interests me more when it comes to improvement is to think about how it came to be in the first place. The rights that people, like South Asian immigrants, got were a result of their own initiatives and efforts. We should remember how this improvement resulted from resistance and mobilization by people like Charan Gill and Hari Sharma. It was because of their historical struggles against discrimination and racism that we find ourselves in relatively better environments today.

    Charan Gill

    Q: Is there any story or interview which stood out for you during this research work and you would like to share with us?

    A: Yes, I think the story of Darshan Singh Canadian is very interesting. His interview is available online on the Simon Fraser University website. He was born into a poor family in a small village in Punjab. When he grew up, he decided to travel to Canada in pursuit of better economic opportunities. He studied at the University of British Columbia for a while but was not very good at his studies. Instead, he said he felt a natural attraction towards the activities of various progressive and communist students on campus. He then went on to join the Communist Party and the International Woodworkers of America and started organizing various labour movements and trade unions in British Columbia. Meanwhile, he also met a white girl, and they both fell in love with each other. However, the parents of the girl were not happy with their relationship. Unfortunately, their relationship did not last very long, and the two had to part ways. “If things had worked out, would you have stayed?” asked the interviewer. “Naturally,” answered the heartbroken Darshan Singh. This makes me very sad because he was murdered in India. After spending ten years in Canada, a country he came to love so dearly that he adopted the word “Canadian” as his last name, Singh finally went back to India in the 1940s, where he spent his life with the Indian Communist Party fighting for the working classes.

    Q: How is this history of South Asian labourers in Canada connected with colonial India at that time?

    A: A lot of South Asian people here in Canada were aware of and supported the freedom movements in India. The Pacific Tribune newspaper would often publish articles and news about what was happening in India. Khalsa Diwan Society would invite important Indian political figures here. One of the reasons why these Indian migrants were so connected with these independence movements was their disappointment and lack of faith in the British government in India. Unlike other home governments who would advocate on behalf of their citizens living in Canada, the British government remained largely unconcerned about South Asians in Canada. Such a lack of support created an alienation from British colonial rule amongst these South Asian migrants.

    Spheres of Influences thanks Dr. Anushay for taking out time and talking to us. Her work on South Asian Labour history can help us critically think about the perils of a single story of confining people into such neat boxes as of race, geography, and gender. The stories of these people show how complex the lived experiences of human beings can be, which cannot be justly contained by or understood through such categories. We have to tell and believe in this complexity of human stories, of human lives.

    Edited by Pearl Zhou

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