“Someone should have told you that you were not what people said you were. That might have emancipated you from the expectations of a million voices judging you from a distance, which you believed as gospel. You might have found your identity independent of the shouts from the crowd or the cutting words of the critics.” John Pavolovitz, 2016.
(Ottawa, March, 2017) Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh. Han-ji Uncle Ji. It was such a wonderful feeling to receive your invitation to contribute to your memoir. We enjoyed many years working together, but I am not confident I adequately expressed my gratitude to you, your family, and the amazing community you introduced me to, for all the gifts you shared with me. You supported me in completing my education, and taught me many important lessons along the way. What you shared and the many kindnesses you showed me – has impacted every aspect of my life, including how I raise my daughter. I will bet you are relieved that you never had to put an ad in the Punjabi papers for me, but I now understand why you wished me a family. Charlie is such a blessing – thank you for praying and dreaming so well for me. Over her last ten years Charlie has often inspired me to remember the words of Guru Nanak: “Truth is the highest virtue – higher still is truthful living.”
If I recall correctly, in 1984, you would have been in B.C., raising your own family with Surinder Kaur and building a business with Prem Singh Ji; while I would have just graduated high school in Ontario. As a university educated, military veteran, world traveller and entrepreneur, you employed redneck Canadians in the western wilderness; and as a blissfully ignorant teenage receptionist with Aqua-Net hair and fabulous shoes, I worked for a record distributing company in Ottawa.
When the news broke about the Indian government’s military attack on pilgrims attending a religious sanctuary made of gold, somewhere in Punjab, I pretty much ignored it. The images that remained indelible were the gruesome pictures of dead and bloody men, women and children, immediately followed by video of irate bearded fellows in white pyjamas and yellow turbans carrying giant swords, who were screaming unintelligible words into a microphone. The announcer would always tell me what the ‘militants’ were doing, never explaining why it was happening.
The same news anchors told me the same ‘terrorists’ assassinated India’s Prime Minister Indhira Ghandi. After that, more turbaned people were accused of blowing up an Air India plane full of Canadians, and again there were a whole lot of angry voices on TV. Again I didn’t read up on it, because, ummmm…Google hadn’t happened yet.
A few years later, working as a federal public servant on ‘The Citizens Forum on Canada’s Future’, the Green Plan, Pesticide Registration Review, and other lost causes, I answered a job advertisement in the newspaper for a ‘Public Relations Manager’. Turns out the application was to work for the very people the media told me for a decade were mad militant extremists – yet I didn’t see any angry, sword-wielding crazies during the interview. The people I met were really nice. Thinking it wise to check the facts, I called the RCMP to make sure it was okay for me to work for the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO). Our Dudley do-right national police force told me they ‘couldn’t help’ me. Evidently, if there was a man to get – they didn’t know about it.
Working toward my university degree, I needed a steady income, so I trusted my instincts and took the job with the funny, smart, and kind pyjama’d people of the WSO. Over the next few years, while reading volumes about the history of India, we hosted parliamentary dinners, meetings with Ministers, Diplomats, and agencies, and managed communications with over 100 Gudwaras serving the needs of 500,000 Sikhs in Canada. Whether it was turbans in Legion halls or the RCMP, Hijabs on soccer fields, or Kirpans in schools, the WSO was always there to support equity and Canada’s Constitution. It was an amazing learning experience that taught me a great deal about my own country, and the people in it.
What amazed me over fourteen years working with the 32 member Board of Directors from across Canada is that too few of the Canadian media ever thought to interview the articulate and knowledgeable people I met each week. Countless volunteers spent hours collating the documents supplied by human rights activists in Punjab – bringing copies to the Asia Desk at Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Immigration and Refugee Board, and the Canadian International Development Agency. WSO members sponsored Federal and Provincial Parliamentarians to visit India, and then sponsored witnesses from India to visit Canada to testify about the mass cremation grounds of murdered Sikhs. The witnesses from India later ‘disappeared’, their bodies never recovered, likely in retaliation for going public in Canada.
Despite reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, CIDA still funded the Punjab police chief accused of the mass murders and disappearances, and DFAIT refused to believe any of the facts presented, or pursue a human rights agenda with the second largest burgeoning trade market in the world. Constructive engagement policies meant that Canada would ignore whatever it had to, to ensure profit. As a result, propaganda that characterized Sikh refugee claimants as comprehensively fraudulent was the ‘accepted’ narrative, and evidence from grass roots organizations was ignored. It was a constant effort just to get WSO a place at the discussion table, because only certain, selected Sikh voices were welcome. Brian McAndrew and Zuhair Kashmeri were the two Canadian journalists who documented the active campaign against Sikhs in Canada in the book ‘Soft Target’, and I was a first hand witness to these tactics throughout the nineties.
Even attending the United Nations in New York City with other university sponsored delegates did not protect the WSO (or me) from international embarrassment. My excitement just to BE at the UN fizzled when the Indian government publicly objected to my presence at an ECOSOC 1216 Review meeting, on the grounds that I (a little twenty something Canuck named Annie, from the village of Appleton, on the Mississippi River, a Gori….with big hair and pink pumps) was a Sikh ‘terrorist’. It would have been laughable were it not for the fact that this humiliation was to be the first of many. My once lauded skills as a ‘pit-bull with lipstick- A-type personality’ salesperson were not welcome when employed in speaking truth to powerful fact resistors, or reserving the right to self determination. I had stepped out of my station, and like the Sikhs, I would be punished.
It was Bhai Gian Singh Ji, and Sardar Ajit Singh Sahota, Palbinder Shergill, Gurpreet Singh ji and many other WSO volunteers who had the patience to help me learn to cope and become more resilient. Now publicly shamed by a foreign government, without any substantive facts, I understood better how Sikhs felt. Plus, at the office each morning, were all those blind rage voice mail messages telling me to go back to the country I came from, or threatening to beat my ‘paki-ass’ – not knowing the colour of my skin or my ethnic origin. Legion members, school boards, and retired RCMP officers in Lethbridge, also showed me that each individual and collective voice in Canada is limited by the stereotypes and labels attributed to them. Whether you are a ‘Newfie’, a ‘Squaw’, a ‘Fag’, a ‘Rag-head’, or a transgender woman, the contempt is the same. Witnessing the intersectionality of oppression long before it became a popular post-modern academic subject of study, was a gift of understanding that would change my life, and eventually, affect the lives of my children.
As an employee of the Sikh community, it was essential to ensure that every aspect of organizational communication was above reproach, and framed in terms of calm and constructive suggestions for change. Our essential job was to work against the label, by consistently proving the critics wrong, no matter if the subject matter was beards in boxing rings or air carrier security regulations. The knee jerk emotional responses to whatever was said, the hostility and hate, was hard for me to accept.
Gian Singh Ji was very patient with me and my struggles with the anger, frustration and exhaustion that come with dealing daily with haters. He explained the background details and context I often missed, and kindly suggested that I consider ‘toning things down a little’ because my entitlement to be outraged and outspoken ended the first day of work for the Sikh community. As an Amritdhari Sikh, with a long flowing beard, an accent, a turban, and a wallet, he had learned how to survive with a sense of humour, so as to fight another day. It was on the really bad days that I would wonder if me working for the Sikh community was a little like Erin Brockovitch working for the Dalai Lama.
Eventually I learned to place a higher value the long term battle for improved education and understanding, instead of focusing on the stings of cruelty. The lesson was to ‘Keep my eye on the ball’ and ‘Keep Buggering On’, because my passion and empathy was welcome, but my angst (while understandable) was not productive. The writing of briefing notes, training documents, school holiday guidelines, and news releases had to be carefully vetted to protect the inevitable fragile white backlash that the wrong word choice could inspire. I learned to dance like an elephant on eggshells, as the Sikhs (and Muslims, and FNMI, and gender diverse) do, every single day. It took me a long time to grudgingly accept these new rules of engagement that exposed my privilege, by the loss of it.
Perhaps it was naïve to think there wouldn’t be huge repercussions from serving a minority community in Canada. In hindsight, it was clearly a mistake to believe that I wouldn’t lose family and friends for doing my job. But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I finally realized I had been blacklisted by my own government. My fiancée at the time, and his brother, both of whom were connected to CSE in Ottawa, robbed me of the family heirlooms my grandfather made, after they did an investigation into where I worked with the ‘cosmic’ level security clearance they boasted of. Suddenly, I did not exist as a good human being.
My grandpa survived the Dardanelles in WWI, and turned his wounded spirit as a Lancashire Fusilier wheeler, and his carpenter-joiner skills, into the hardwood floors of Maple Leaf Gardens, mosquito planes, and beautiful furniture. Two white guys from Nova Scotia felt justified in stealing these treasures from me, because doing my job for the Sikh community made me less than the dirt beneath their feet. Whatever information they had access to; they didn’t share it with me, but did share it with ‘friends’ who suddenly weren’t friends anymore. Even Access to Information requests turn up only redacted documents.
The same year, Bob Rae made me wait over an hour so he could angrily inform me that he believed the organization I worked for was somehow involved in Air India, and then he demanded that I tell the Sikh community to ‘come clean’ and produce the evidence he needed to substantiate his allegations. His direct condemnation of me and the only Sikh organization in Canada that had a proven record of working positively with Canadian officials for over two decades, showed the measure of his ignorance. It was not the first time I realized that the apologies most valued, are the ones rarely offered – but it was the last time I volunteered for public abuse – until I became a teacher. I left the WSO shortly after this incident and the ridiculously false CBC documentary that followed it. And then 9/11 happened.
Appearances at the Senate in support of Civil Marriage, as intervenors at the Supreme Court of Canada, or contributing to the Hansard of the House of Commons, not to mention the WSO’s longstanding record of peace building, remains largely ignored. Over the years, no matter how many times I breathed Ik Onkar in through-my-nose, and exhaled Waheguru out through-my-mouth, I couldn’t escape the contempt of others. I finally understood the privilege of anonymity.
In spite of the hardships, WSO reaches out to other vulnerable segments of society, from Vietnamese refugees, to the LGBTQ+, Muslims, Jews, First Nations, Métis and Inuit, to consistently support democracy in Canada, pursuing freedom, dignity and respect for all citizens. This is due in large part, Sardar Gian Singh Ji, to your devoted leadership and commitment over many decades. Thank you Uncle Ji, for giving me the opportunity to learn and serve. You are such a great teacher.
Sat Sri Akal