There is a month long celebration taking place in Canada every May that some of you may be aware of. South Asian Heritage Month acknowledges the history and culture of those in Canada with family roots from the countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan, among others. It also includes those South Asians who eventually came to Canada through the Caribbean, South America and central and southern Africa.
Our history here goes back much farther than many Canadians might realize. The first South Asians began coming to our country as early as the late 19th century, although the first major influx of immigrants from South Asia began in the early 20th. Yet due to strict, race-based immigration laws, the numbers were still very low. In fact, between 1909 and 1943, only 878 were legally permitted to enter Canadian borders.
The discrimination faced by Asian Canadians was overwhelming. Take the now infamous “Komagata Maru” episode of 1914, where a boat carrying 376 prospective immigrants of East Indian decent – mostly Sikh veterans of the British Army, was halted in Vancouver. Although as British subjects they had the right to enter Canada, they were refused and forced to wait for two months in appalling conditions while the federal government did virtually nothing. Instead, only twenty passengers were allowed to stay, with the rest being forced back to India in the Fall of 1914.
Thankfully, people don’t have to tolerate these kind of racist immigration policies any more, largely due to generations of South Asians and millions of other visible minorities who for decades, worked together to confront discrimination in Canada. It wasn’t easy, and it certainly didn’t come about overnight, but we have made incredible strides in the struggle for racial equality and social justice.
Our history throughout the world is a proud one. Soldiers of South Asian descent fought bravely for the Allies in World War I and especially World War II, when they joined both British and Canadian armies in the Pacific against the Japanese Empire. In addition, South Asian immigrants living in South Africa throughout the 20th century, some of whose descendants live in Canada today, played a crucial role in overthrowing Apartheid, working alongside the African National Congress and other organizations to eventually create a free, democratic society.
As for the celebration of our heritage in Canada, it was not until the 1980s that public events began to take place. In 2001, the Legislature of Ontario passed an act which officially recognized May as South Asian Heritage Month. This year, there are events taking place in every major city throughout the country, and there is even a Facebook group commemorating the celebration that users can join.
Today, South Asian Canadians make up approximately 7 percent of Ontario’s population, and our history, music, film, fashion and literature – among many other of our cultural achievements – are deeply engrained in the Canadian mosaic.
“Together We Can Make A Difference”