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Chandigarh (IANS): The controversy over the exclusion of the Sikh Regiment from the Republic Day parade in Delhi refuses to settle down, with Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal describing the episode as “sad and regrettable” in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and saying that the community was “hurt”. In his letter, Badal […]

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Published in India

by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

Depending on whom you ask, the actions of Louis Riel, and Dr. Norman Bethune, along with others who lived through difficult times, can be seen as verging on treasonous or justified. Add to that list Mewa Singh.

Outside of Canada’s sizeable two million plus South Asian community, few Canadians will have heard of Singh who is revered as a Che Gueverra-like figure, in particular by Sikhs. A new play, The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, which opened January 8, is the first major artistic production to re-evaluate a man whom many view as Canada’s forgotten martyr.

In the play, Mewa Singh is placed on the stand to answer for his real life shooting and killing of William Hopkinson, a Canadian immigration official. The incident took place in the same art gallery 101 years ago on October 21, 1914 when it served as the Vancouver’s Provincial Courthouse.

Outside of Canada’s sizeable two million plus South Asian community, few Canadians will have heard of Singh who is revered as a Che Gueverra-like figure.

On that morning, Singh walked up to the third floor rotunda and killed Hopkinson with four shots from his revolver. He then handed over his weapon to the authorities and took full responsibility for his act, knowing he would receive capital punishment.

“I shoot. I go to station,” he proclaimed, in his limited English.

Within three months on Jan. 11, 1915, Singh was hung from the gallows in New Westminster. He died at age 33, the same age as Hopkinson.

Lionized by Sikh Canadian community

Despite the violent nature of Singh’s act, he has been lionized by Canada’s Sikh community in the same way Louis Riel has been by the country’s Metis population. Though he is a character written into Canadian history books as an assassin, in the Sikh community he is their version of Tiananmen’s Tank Man, the solitary protester saying no and standing his ground against the machinery of institutionalized repression. 

There are numerous sports and literary events organized annually in his tribute. The dining hall in Vancouver’s Ross Street Sikh temple, the country’s largest gurdwara where India’s Prime Minister Modi stopped by with Stephen Harper for a visit last April, bears his name and iconic image in memorial. 

"He stood up in the most difficult of circumstances and follows in the tradition of other Canadian martyrs like Louis Riel.”

For playwright Paneet Singh, The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson is a forum to cast light on the murky events that led to the shooting and to reveal the social conditions that made the collision between Singh and Hopkinson unavoidable.

“I have been surrounded by this story since I was a child, when my mother would tell it to me,” said Singh. “Mewa Singh’s name resonates in the South Asian community, but it has been locked out of the mainstream. This play exposes his actions through the framework of the times in which he lived in order to move the story into the 21st century. He stood up in the most difficult of circumstances and follows in the tradition of other Canadian martyrs like Louis Riel.”

Hopkinson and Singh were born and raised in India, and in adulthood, both migrated to Vancouver. Singh left a small village near Amritsar, Punjab to find his fortunes while Hopkinson left his post as a policeman after his first wife died. The Raj in India was beginning its slow fade. Hopkinson had never lived in England and so chose to renew his life in Vancouver. 

But at the turn of the 20th century, Canada’s promise as a new world Gold Mountain came with caveats for non-white immigrants over their European counterparts. The Canadian government had institutionalized racism through legislation like the Chinese Head Tax and the continuous journey clause. The latter was utilized in 1914 in the infamous Komagata Maru incident which was playing out at the same time as the Singh versus Hopkinson duel.

Despite holding very different stations in life, the destinies of Hopkinson and Singh became intimately tied to each other in B.C. Hopkinson’s fluency in Hindi landed him a job as a government agent. His assignment was to harvest information from the Sikh community about their sympathies for Indian independence from British rule. He had a number of active moles in the community burrowing for intelligence.

Singh's legacy reflected in politics today

Hopkinson’s methods were as heavy handed as his agents were clumsy – they shot and killed two Sikhs at the local temple. Hopkinson threatened Mewa Singh to become an informant, or to find himself the next target.

What Hopkinson didn’t anticipate, was that Singh would accept death before turning. Killing Hopkinson would not save Singh, it would only give rise to another Hopkinson. But making a public statement by killing him in the open and by embracing the death penalty would make a statement that resonates to this day.

Neither could have foreseen the modern multicultural Canada their clash would inadvertently help cast.

For Sikhs in Canada who were struggling for a foothold in Canada at the time, Singh’s defiance would inspire their push for political equality – an achievement coming 30 years later in 1947 when South Asians and Chinese were granted the right to vote.

Mewa Singh’s singular act echoes still in the disproportionate success of South Asians in Canadian politics – there are 16 MPs of Sikh heritage currently serving in Canada’s Parliament. Had the Chinese community their own version of Mewa Singh, perhaps they too would be better represented at the highest politics levels.

William Hopkinson’s pernicious agenda was a spear foiled by Mewa Singh’s shield. Hopkinson left India seemingly to find his piece of the Cotswolds in the new world. But the new world would not be shaped by the old rules, as he fatefully discovered in his encounter with Mewa Singh.

Neither could have foreseen the modern multicultural Canada their clash would inadvertently help cast. 

For more information on the play click on the link for The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson.


This piece was was first published in The Globe & Mail. Republished in partnership with the South Asian Post.

 

Published in Arts & Culture

FOR the first time in five years, a decorated Sikh American has been granted a temporary 30-day religious accommodation to serve in the U.S. Army while maintaining his Sikh articles of faith. This accommodation, which will be confirmed or reversed by January 8, 2016, represents the first for an active duty Sikh requesting to […]

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Published in International

THE Holiday season provides a great opportunity for diverse communities to come together to make Christmas special for hundreds of families and a fantastic example of communities coming together is the Toys for Kids campaign by the Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen and Sikh Academy Elementary, who rally the Sikh community to collect and donate […]

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Published in National

by Daniel Leon Rodriguez in Calgary 

Religion can be a key element in the rehabilitation of inmates. However, for minorities, changes to prison chaplaincy services during the Conservative government made following their faith at federal prisons a challenge. 

For this reason minority community leaders are calling on the new government to engage in the issue. Currently, human right tribunals are listening to three religious discrimination complaints from Muslim inmates. 

For Amira Elghawaby, Communications Director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, these complaints confirm the concern of minority communities regarding chaplaincy services. 

“The service is spotty at best, discriminatory at worst,” she says. 

“The service is spotty at best, discriminatory at worst.”

“The government is aware of the concerns surrounding this important issue in federal corrections,” states Josée Sirois, a spokesperson for the Liberals' new minister of public safety, Ralph Goodale, in an e-mail. Sirois added that the minister would prefer to be fully informed before commenting any further “given the complexity of the issue.” 

'No sign of systemic discrimination'

In 2012, the Liberals’ then party justice critic, Irwin Cotler, denounced cuts to non-Christian prison chaplaincy services as “clearly discriminatory,” but it is difficult to measure the real extent of the issues. 

Offenders have multiple avenues to report abuses – through the internal grieving system, private council, the Office of the Correctional Investigator or the Canadian Human Rights Commission – and all these mechanisms try to first solve complaints internally, keeping information private. 

In rare occasions, complaints scale up to the Human Rights Tribunal and are made public. 

Sapers explains there is no sign of “directed and systematic discrimination” against religious minorities.

According to the federal correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, whose office monitors the situation of religious minorities, the problem has improved since 2012. However, Sapers says, “The situation is still far from perfect.” 

Sapers explains there is no sign of “directed and systematic discrimination” against religious minorities. Complaints he occasionally receives are the fault of one key decision maker “who isn’t exercising their administrative discretion appropriately.” He adds that most of the complaints he receives are about religious diet and recognition of special religious holidays. 

“It is not at the top of our [priority] list right now, because frankly the inmate population is not coming in large numbers to bring this concern forward,” he states.

Sapers says his priority is giving accessibility to inmates to submit complaints. His staff members visit prisons across the country to monitor them, and he received over 20,000 complaints from inmates last year by phone. 

“I would be misleading you if I told you we are getting every single complaint, and that every inmate feels they have access to legal recourses. That is not true,” says Sapers.

Minority groups falling through the cracks

Karen Slaughter, a staff lawyer with West Coast Prison Justice Society, shares Sapers' concerns. 

“There is a possibility for religious minority groups to fall into the cracks,” explains Slaughter. 

She adds that ethnic community groups are receiving more and more complaints from inmates about religious discrimination and this is concerning because these groups don’t have the funding or the resources to prepare litigations on behalf of individuals.

Slaughter says her organization has heard all kinds of religious complaints from Muslim, Jewish and Sikh inmates, however, never from Christians. 

“Religious minorities feel like second class citizens inside the prison system.”

“Religious minorities feel like second class citizens inside the prison system,” she says, pointing to a lack of education and resources as the main problem. 

Slaughter says correctional services are a giant bureaucratic machine and change can only come from the top. She hopes the new government will implement some of that change. 

For Sapers, the new government could improve a few things with the correctional service system. One of his concerns is that some religious groups provide support, counselling, guidance and reintegration services on a voluntary basis. 

“It is not entirely fair that some groups are paid for their services and others are [not],” says Sapers. 

He also called on the government to do an external review to ensure that the terms of the contract with private company, Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy Inc., which provides the services is inclusive enough, so no one feels excluded. In April 2016, this contract will be taken over by Bridges of Canada Chaplaincy.

Religion's role in rehabilitation 

Mubin Shaikh, an expert on radicalization and extremism, urges the government to improve the situation because without proper religious direction individuals could be more prone to radicalization, as seen in Europe. A religious practitioner without proper guidance “is like driving a car without brakes,” he says. 

A religious practitioner without proper guidance “is like driving a car without brakes.”

Yasin Dwyer, a former federal correctional imam, says that the situation in the prisons is “delicate.” He worked for over 12 years in the federal prison system until last year he renounced in protest to the Conservative government’s decision to privatize the chaplaincy services at all prisons. 

According to Dwyer, chaplaincy services are important because they provide a positive environment for prisoners to express themselves and can help prisoners in rehabilitation. 

The imam explains that one of the most important aspects of religion is that it allows inmates to connect with the community through volunteers. 

“The prison has walls, but [these] walls are [imaginary] because these prisoners are part of our community,” says Dwyer. 

This is important as 90 per cent of prisoners in the system will eventually return to society, Dwyer says. It is also why he stresses the need for the new government to take the role of minority religious communities in the prison system seriously. 

As Dwyer notes, “Prisoners need a community to come back [to].”

Video produced & edited by Daniel Leon Rodriquez for New Canadian Media.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Top Stories

News East West

LONDON: The deeds of Islamist terrorists are coming to haunt the Sikh community once again after the Paris terror attacks.

A British Sikh man named Navjot Sawhney from Bristol

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RANDEEP Sarai, MP for Surrey Centre, after meeting with the Sikh Societies of British Columbia (SSBC) over the weekend, after the federal government released its refugee plan, said: “The amount of support that the community is generating is encouraging.” The assembly of community leaders created a website – www.BCSikhs.com – which provides updates on the […]

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Services like free tuition for 1,000 students at Khalsa School for one year, free meals, clothing and blankets for 2,000 refugees from many gurdwaras, transportation and medical services are being offered to the refugees. “The Sikh community themselves have come to Canada in many different ways from the early 1900s and onwards,” said newly elected [...]

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Published in Top Stories

When anyone signs a blood donor form, he is but signing a lease of life for someone, for the colour of the human blood is red all over the world.  Anywhere you can donate blood.
The 16th annual Sikh Nation Blood Donation campaign has helped save 104,000 Canadian lives since its inception in 1999.  [...]

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Published in National

New York (IANS): The filming of a movie based on the true story of a Sikh boxer, who was barred from the sport as he refused to shave his beard, is underway at a US university. The filming of the movie “Tiger”, which has many Indian-origin actors playing important roles, is underway on the campus […]

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Published in Arts & Culture

Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

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