On the face of it, it may seem as if Sikhs and Indigenous people do not have much in common. Indigenous people have been settled here for over 10,000 years; the first Canadian Sikhs arrived little over 100 years ago. Yet both groups have faced the interlinked forces of imperialism and genocide.
Now that Sikhs are well settled in Canada, it would perhaps seem tempting to ignore the systemic challenges facing Indigenous people. However, that would be a betrayal of Sikh values and of our own historical experiences. It is the duty of every Canadian Sikh to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.
Recent months have seen several prominent instances where Sikhs have stood in solidarity with Indigenous people.
International Sikh humanitarian charity Khalsa Aid International partnered with the people of Ahousaht First Nation to launch the Maggie Sutlej Ahousaht Project, pledging financial aid to fund youth programs and search and rescue operations.It was the coming together of two peoples linked by the injustices of British colonialism. The name of the project references the HMS Sutlej, a British warship used to attack the Ahousaht people in Vancouver, destroying nine villages. The British named the ship after the Battle of Sutlej in Punjab, India, where they defeated the Sikh Empire in 1846.
In another example, Sikh community members in Surrey, B.C. reached out to Kwantlen First Nation to include them in the celebration of the annual Khalsa Day Parade. The day is marked by the nagar kirtan ("neighbourhood devotional singing"), whose processional route passes over the First Nation's land. The route of the parade had been known for months, but how many of those in attendance had thought about the land they were walking on?
Following extensive, sensitive discussions to ensure the invitation would go beyond mere tokenism, Chief Marilyn Gabriel was invited to open the nagar kirtan in a first-of-its-kind ceremony. It was a sincere recognition from the Sikhs of the land they were on, and of the trauma experienced by those who knew it better than anyone else.
Both of these cases were merely the first step of what both sides hope to be a deep and lasting bond of solidarity. Both were derived from compassion. For us Sikhs, a righteous action is the one grounded in compassion.
Two cultures shaped by colonialism
Sikhs are in a unique position to empathize with Indigenous people. We know only too well the impact of settlers on indigenous land.
Instead of recovering from subjugation under the British Empire, the Sikh homeland of Punjab was brutally divided between the two new states of India and Pakistan. To the majority of the world's Sikhs — who live in India — so much of their rich history is inaccessible despite being mere miles away (for example, Nankana Sahib). Since then, they have faced genocide and erasure in what the West likes to call the world's largest democracy.
Many Canadians today live and work on land that once belonged to Indigenous people, who lost much of it through combinations of force, deceit and threats. Conventional historical narratives and their associated power dynamics can all too easily obscure where our compassion should be directed. I urge Canadian Sikhs to not just recognize that, but to relate it to our own historical experiences. Now that we are settled in the West, it is not the time for us to turn our backs on the oppressed.
Sikh history is a rich narrative of standing with the oppressed and dispossessed. As divine (as opposed to just worldly) sovereigns, the Sikh Gurus were the providers of power, support and dignity to the powerless.
When Muslims could not build a mosque, the Sixth Guru built one for them, with no strings attached. The Guru Ki Maseet ("the Guru's Mosque") still stands today. The Ninth Guru, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib Ji, was executed as he prevented the forced conversion of a religious people not his own. The Gurus set the standard of solidarity, compelling us to put the welfare of humanity (what we term sarbat da bhalla) before our own self-interest. The Sikh slogan, "Degh Tegh Fateh" — "victory to the cauldron and the sword" — affirms our commitment to feed, shelter and defend the most vulnerable in society.
It starts with listening — not just with our ears, but with respect.
So, what can we do to express solidarity with Indigenous people? The experience in Surrey shows that any such engagement needs to be respectful and sensitive. Canadian politicians often fall into the trap of overpromising and underdelivering. Others want to be seen to be helping, to enhance their "woke" reputation. Unfortunately, the reality of solidarity is much less glamorous. It starts with listening — not just with our ears, but with respect.
At the same time, we must invoke the bravery of our Gurus in speaking out against the power that leaves Indigenous people stripped of their land, resources and culture. Sikhs have never feared the might of worldly, unjust power. The First Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, spoke against the tyranny of Babur when he invaded what is today India. The truth uttered by the Fifth Guru against the Mughal regime led to his execution. Recently, I wrote about a contemporary example: Jaswant Singh Khalra. Bravery such as his is needed just as much now as it's ever been.
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In my work as a Sikh educator, I encourage young Sikhs especially to arm themselves with knowledge so that they are equipped to understand the complex history of not just our own people, but of Canada, and its land and people throughout history. That is the first step; our history inspires us to do the rest. That's why for Sikhs, solidarity with Indigenous people comes naturally.
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