Power to the Brown People

Vancouver's Desis rage against the deportation machine--and it works.

By Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha May 01, 2008


On December 10, 2007, with just a few hours notice, close to 2,000 South-Asian Canadian immigrants flooded Vancouver International Airport. They paralyzed the international departures section and surrounded a cab taking a severely disabled 48-year-old Sikh refugee, Laibar Singh, to his deportation flight. The crowd did what no other protest in North America had done before—using civil disobedience, it stopped a deportation proceeding in its tracks.

The protest prompted a tense, hours-long standoff at the airport. Officers of the Canadian Border Services Agency announced, a bit nervously, that they were unwilling to wade into the crowd. And after eight hours, the cab—well, it just started backing up. Someone helped Singh climb out of the cab, and he was ushered back to the Sikh place of worship (a gurdwara), where he has sought sanctuary while awaiting a resolution of his legal challenge to stay in Canada. 

Singh became an overnight celebrity, the subject of national and international headlines and live video feeds. Suddenly, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was beaming rarely—if ever—seen images around the country. Right there on TV was the fierce sight of Sikh priests who looked like my uncle now transformed into defiant activists. They stood alongside hottie rabble-rousers like Harsha Walia of the group No One Is Illegal, celebrating an honest-to-God immigration rights victory. And support wasn’t limited to Sikhs. As one unnamed young man at the rally said haltingly on CBC’s live clip, “We see support from Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and all other groups. And we see that Singh is popular with anyone who has a compassionate heart. And we see that the government has lost that compassionate heart.”

Of course, as the story blew up, Singh’s celebrity grew in less-welcoming circles as well. Newspapers like The Globe and Mail and Vancouver Sun were forced to disable online comments on articles about Singh, as they were flooded with racist rants. “Only white people are real Canadians,” one reader wrote. “America has Al Qaeda; Canada has Sikhs,” opined another. Organizers received (and continue to receive) death threats.

None of which burst the community’s euphoric bubble. “I laughed. I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t believe it,” said Vancouver-based Indian/Filipino artist and activist Hari Malugayo Alluri, recalling his reaction when he first heard about the airport scene.

And so did brown people all over the country. We’d won. For once, instead of another tidy, symbolic but ultimately impotent march, we’d actually won. We’d put our bodies on the line to stop one of our own from being sent back—and it worked.
Desis have been in British Columbia for over 100 years, and they’ve been fighting for their space all that time. In the early part of the 20th century, Vancouver’s South-Asian community was a hotbed of revolution. The community boasted one of the highest rates of membership in the Ghadar Party—an armed, anti-colonial political group founded in San Francisco that offered a sharp contrast to the better-known non-violent Indian independence movement. The Ghadar Party newspaper’s masthead made its brand of politics clear: “Wanted—brave soldiers to stir up rebellion in India. Pay—death; Price—martyrdom; Pension—liberty; Field of battle—India.”

The party, along with Vancouver’s broader South-Asian community, played a key role in one of North America’s earliest and most infamous immigration battles, which was itself the result of Desi civil disobedience. In 1914, 376 Punjabi Indians onboard the Komagata Maru steamliner en route from Hong Kong were denied entry under a convoluted British Columbia law that had been passed as a thinly veiled effort to block Indian immigration. The Komagata Maru voyage had been chartered as a way to confront the new law and to reveal it as a racist hit on Indians. When the resulting confrontation erupted into an international crisis, Vancouver’s South Asians united to raise more than $20,000—from $20-a-month paychecks—to fund a planned legal fight in Canada and a hoped-for uprising back in colonial India. The standoff ended tragically, with several passengers massacred by British troops when the ship, unable to dock in British Columbia, returned to India. But the Vancouver South-Asian community’s cantankerous spirit persisted, and a century later it seems to have animated the community members that rallied around Singh.

The crowd at the airport wasn’t made up of engineers and lawyers. The people who came out were farm workers, folks who toil in bread factories and cab drivers from the largely working-class desi communities of Burnaby, Surrey and South Vancouver that Singh called home. They swarmed the airport alongside their second-
generation immigrant children, many of whom were students who’d made it to college on Canada’s cheaper tuition rates. Organizers say it’s this coming together of the generations that made the action take off.

It all started at the George Pearson Centre, a long-term care facility for severely disabled people where Singh lived. Singh came to Canada in 2003, and in 2006 suffered a massive stroke that left him quadriplegic. He needed dialysis three times a day and help with daily rituals like eating and dressing, and so moved into the center. It was there, in July 2007, that Singh got notice of his deportation order. The order shocked fellow Punjabi residents at the center, and the topic preoccupied conversations with visiting family members.

As word spread throughout the community, outrage grew. “We’re angry and upset that Canada is so bent on deporting this paralyzed man,” says Naava Smolash, a young woman who was present at the airport protest. “We want our brother to stay. It’s as simple as that.”

With the community buzzing about Singh, someone tipped off what are universally known as simply “the radios”—Radio Punjab and Radio India, two South-Asian community radio stations where all the talk is still in Urdu or Punjabi. “They have four hours of drive-time a day, and it’s all political—it’s all about Afghanistan and First Nations land claims and the hourly wage,” No One Is Illegal organizer Walia reports with enthusiasm. But because the radios are so entrenched in the communities they serve, their leftist politics aren’t easily marginalized; they’re directly tapped in to immigrant communities that traditional activists often wish they could reach but don’t.

The second-generation members of Walia’s group were deeply familiar with the radios as well. So as they worked to drum up broader community support for Singh, instead of planning traditional big meetings, they got on Radio Punjab and Radio India and hosted call-in shows. “We asked, ‘What do people think of going to the airport?’ and people were like, ‘Yeah, that’s great!’ People had been angry for so long about immigration, but this just became a lightning rod,” says Walia. A mere 48 hours after the first talk show, 600 people showed up at Singh’s initial deportation hearing. (Most hearings are lucky to get 30 folks out protesting, even with months of organizing.)
The radios—relatable, everyday media that first-generation desi immigrants already listened to—made it easy for people to get informed and get involved in the case. Once involved, those newly politicized hordes used first-generation community centers like the gurdwaras to further spread the word and ultimately to fill their buses to the Vancouver International Airport’s international departures section.

No One Is Illegal, made up mostly of second-
generation immigrant youth, brought their own skills
to the table—from English fluency to a familiarity and
comfort with direct action tactics. “The role we see ourselves playing is to make people feel confident in doing strategies like radical civil disobedience,” says Walia. “It’s something that seems really frightening to everyone—even for people who call themselves activists. It’s something you come to really slowly.”

Since Singh’s escape, both sides of the community have been providing his round-the-clock care. Gurdwara members and protest organizers alike help with everything from baths and meals to just keeping him company. They’ve been paying out–of-pocket for all of his medical bills, as he’s not covered by Canadian health insurance, and taking direct responsibility for the nitty-gritty that makes his ongoing survival possible. “People taking care of him now love him and think of him as family,” says Smolash.

Of course, no one is delusional. Direct action has its limits, and the future remains altogether uncertain for Singh. Sanctuary cases in Canada can drag out for years, some with happy endings, but many without them. Still, Singh’s case remains a gift, showing us that even in a generations-long, often dispiriting struggle, victory is possible. “It’s so inspiring to know that you can face down the state and win. Now the border-guards union is saying that the workers’ morale is low because of us,” Walia laughs, cherishing the way the emotional tables have been turned. “Stockwell Day [the minister of public safety] had to come out and do a speech to make them feel better!”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan and the author of the book Consensual Genocide.