In the last days of August in 1961, a scrawny 38-year old Indian father of three walked up to the port of entry in Prince Rupert, British Columbia to enter a strange, cold country named Canada. When the Indian man stated his nationality was Indian, the Canadian border officer shot him a look and said, “If you’re Indian, how come you aren’t wearing your turban?”
The Indian man was an English teacher, who once recited every couplet from Hamlet on cue. But he chose not to explain to the border officer that not all Indians wear turbans, or why such an assumption was openly racist. Instead, the Indian man demurred quietly, finished his paperwork hastily and crossed the border quickly. Within the year, he had traveled across the country and started teaching in a small farm town an hour outside of London, Ontario. It was the first time of many times he would settle quietly to survive.
Over the next thirty years, the man endured enormous struggle. He was denied early opportunities at career advancement because of his Indian accent. He once overheard a student call him the colour of poo. He struggled to survive as a single-income earner in that small farm town. But overall, he was widely accepted by other immigrant families in the town, found new friends and became a successful, hard-working Canadian.
The man in this story is my maternal grandfather, who was one of the early benefactors of post-1960s immigration. Many South Asian Canadians hear similar stories about their family’s assimilation into Canada. A half dozen of my chosen brown family members tell me about their younger South Asian male professional father, with education and ambition, who fatefully decided to immigrate to Canada, in the faint hope that his children would live a better life. The protagonists are always men who start with little money, pass tests, work hard, struggle often, stay humble, earn respect and become successful.
When I would ask my friends and family about how their brown Canadian stories of triumph connect to Black Canadian and Indigenous stories of racism, I’d get a combination of blank stares, disbelief and silence. None of our parents were racists, they’d say. We accepted people of all faiths and ethnicities. We respected the struggles of other immigrants. We were law-abiding citizens.
I don’t doubt that our improbable journeys, from hardship to triumph, are part of our story. But today, as Canada continues to reckon with anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, there’s a larger truth that contributes to our success as brown Canadians. My brown family and friends aren’t hiding this truth from me — but my fear is they are comfortable not knowing it.
When politicians talk about immigrants and communities of colour, they often point to brown families like mine — polite, law-abiding, successful, humble, talented, hard-working people, we’re told — who immigrated to Canada “the right way” through hard work and merit. This fictional tale is connected to the model minority myth, a false construction about “model” people of colour with relatively higher socioeconomic status. Political and business leaders often invoke this myth to contrast “good” immigrants from so-called “bad” immigrants — asylum seekers, people facing persecution and people without documentation. Similarly, our South Asian Canadian community leaders call upon the model minority myth to invoke stereotypes that are steeped in anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Many of the “bad” immigrants are described in coded language: “lazy”, “dumb”, “irresponsible”, “unworthy”, “queue-jumpers” or “illegal”. And it is not a coincidence that many of these people are Black, Indigenous or people of colour.
Like all settler-colonial states, Canada has always taken an ableist, capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal approach to immigration policy. The Immigration Act of 1952 codified Canada’s post World-War II preference for able-bodied, healthy, high-status immigrants. The 32-page statute explicitly banned “unworthy” immigrants, including “idiots, imbeciles and morons”, “physically defective persons”, “criminals”, “alcoholics”, “homosexuals” and “persons who engage in and advocate subversion of democratic processes”. Within a decade of the Act being signed, two-thirds of South Asian immigrants were high-skilled techno-professionals, including doctors, university professors, scientists and teachers like my grandfather.
To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself.
— Ben Okri, author, poet, novelist
Multiculturalism within South Asian Canadian identity in the 1960s and 1970s created lasting effects on our politics, our language, our culture and our history as South Asian Canadians. The fiction of a high-skilled professional as the poster child for immigration helped “maple-wash” Canada as a multicultural mosaic. “A distinctly Canadian version of liberal pluralism was quickly adopted as both a civic and a cultural identity,” writes Luke Savage on the 150th anniversary of Canada’s founding. The multiculturalism national brand strategy bought business leaders and powerful politicians, including Pierre Trudeau and his son Justin, a reliable voting bloc, immense notoriety, and a half-century of power and influence. It also created a cycle of selection, acceptance and repatriation that produced new waves of model minority immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s.
Multiculturalism has allowed for some measure of diversity in our nation’s appearance, but it also constrains communities of colour. A flattened version of our cultures — our food, our traditions, our clothes, our movies and our music — is given limited freedom to exist in exchange for our participation in static, patriarchal and capitalist projects. “Multiculturalism is the dominant discourse through which all of us are forced to articulate our politics,” explains Dr. Sunera Thobani, a professor at the University of British Columbia, in a 2008 university talk. She points out that multiculturalism is a useful tool for leaders to articulate colonial, capitalist and patriarchal community politics. In brown communities, that can sound like the language of meritocracy — a fair and objective system — in which brown Canadians are willing participants.
It’s tempting for brown families to believe we earned our way to success through hard work, merit and a little bit of luck. That’s implicitly the history that my elders taught me. That’s implicitly the history that I was supposed to teach my daughter. And if everyone came to Canada in 1961, like my grandfather, one could make the case that our immigrant success demonstrates merit.
When we evaluate a more complete history of Canada, the case for meritocracy is without merit.
Multiculturalism is the dominant discourse through which all of us are forced to articulate our politics.
— Dr. Sunera Thobani, sociologist, academic, and activist
Multiculturalism created the illusion of dignity and fairness, but it also erased generations of struggle for justice, dignity and hope. For centuries, Black Canadian and Indigenous people have courageously challenged racism, refused white supremacy and organized for social changes for all people of colour, including brown people of high socioeconomic status, “model” minorities and brown families like mine.
By the time my grandfather came to Canada in 1961, Canada was pouring more money into its cultural genocide project — known as the residential school system — by kidnapping more than 20,000 Indigenous children, in what is now referred to as the Sixties Scoop. This policy change followed a century of genocide, land theft and forced cultural assimilation of various Indigenous peoples, who were on this land for centuries before European colonizers founded the concept of Canada. Residential schools continued until 1996, and its legacy is part of a history of extreme conditions, broken promises and heartless discrimination that still underpins the very existence of Canada today.
Various Black communities in Canada have also experienced a similar systemic violence, with three hundred years of forced migration, slavery, segregation, discrimination and exploitation. “Blackness has existed in Canada mainly as a political tool within white supremacy,” wrote Vicky Mochama in 2017. “Initially, it allowed colonizers to keep Black people as slaves, then, following the abolition of slavery, it was a way of preventing Black people from accessing social and economic rights.”
Robyn Maynard is a Black feminist scholar, organizer and intellectual based in Montreal. In her award-winning, best-selling anthology, Policing Black Lives, Maynard details how Black people continued to experience “separate and unequal access to economy, education, and housing as well as heightened exposure to police surveillance and incarceration”.
Multiculturalism has served a role similar to that of the Underground Railroad, allowing Canadian officials and the public to congratulate themselves on Canada’s comparative benevolence, while rendering invisible the economic and material deprivation currently facing many Black communities.
— Robyn Maynard, author, scholar, organizer and intellectual
Small acts of resistance to state violence were integral to shifting attitudes and policies around multiculturalism. In 1954, the government of Ontario was compelled to introduce legislation that prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, gender and ethnicity. In 1956, African Canadian residents like Bromley Armstrong used the newly introduced legislation to win the first court case for racial discrimination in Dresden, Ontario. And in the United States, various post World-War II civil rights movements culminated in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. These cultural shifts paved the road for people like my grandfather to immigrate to Canada.
Like many Indian immigrants, my grandfather likely saw Canada’s long, ugly legacy of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism as distant and removed from his harsh reality. My father, who moved from India to Canada as an adult, might feel the same, as might my in-laws and my friends. There is a long, nuanced, complicated history to all forms of immigration, and the effects of Canadian state-sponsored selection produces particularly devastating consequences for South Asian countries and their diaspora: human capital flight, colonial mentality, obedience, state loyalty and conformity. As a matter of survival, Indian immigrants often choose silence over action in Canada.
Many of us, though, don’t have that excuse. I was born and raised in Canada, as was my sister, my brother-in-law, my cousins, my niece, my daughter, and every future Canadian-born child of Indian descent. We don’t have any claim to Canadian exclusion. We’re actively part of the racism cover-up in Canada. In trying to define ourselves as the children of “successful” immigrants, we give space for Canadians to treat “unsuccessful” immigrants with less dignity and less human rights. And knowingly or not, our existence gives oxygen to the deadly argument that those who were here first never deserved to live in Canada anyway. Brown people like us — born into Canadian citizenship with high socioeconomic status — have always been a convenient alibi for Canada to cover-up centuries of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. When the sons and daughters of Indian immigrants become the generation that is born, raised and embedded deeply into the fabric of Canada, they implicitly consent to all of white supremacist, colonial-settler Canada, from Sir John A. MacDonald’s “ kill the Indian in the child” to Justin Trudeau in blackface.
This is part of our story, too. And it is time for us to own it.
Owning Canadian history doesn’t diminish the individual stories of our brown ancestors. It clarifies the collective stories of our brown descendants. It might make my brown family and friends — some of whom have married into lovely white families — uncomfortable to say out loud, but white supremacy is a pillar in the foundation of Canada. Brown people simply cannot survive in Canada unless they are connected to white supremacy in some form. And there is no reasonable way to separate the supremacy of whiteness from the inferiority of Blackness.
Dr. Vijay Prashad is a professor, scholar and the author of The Karma Of Brown Folk. In this landmark best-seller, he calls for “model minority suicide”, a provocative idea that young, progressive desi people should actively destroy model minority status to fight oppression. It’s analogous to how white people with privilege can help with work to be done in the struggles for racial justice. In the United States, millennial-led advocacy organizations like South Asians for Black Lives, South Asian Americans Leading Together, Brown Girl Magazine, Equality Labs and Black Desi Secret History are working on undoing the harmful histories that our upper-caste Indian families brought with us from our brown, native homes. Their starting premise is simple: We, the benefactors of racism, classism, sexism and capitalism, are in the best position to identify, intervene and dismantle the legacy of systemic violence for ourselves, our children and our friends.
There is much work to be done in the fight against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in Canada. We must understand how anti-Black tropes were written into our religious scriptures, integrate Gandhi’s anti-Black racism into his complicated legacy, educate ourselves on Canada’s history of policing Black lives, read reports on the Roots of Youth Violence and Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mobilize support for Black liberation and calls to justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and vote for political candidates who stand up for people made vulnerable by oppressive policies, among many other small but important acts of solidarity.
Some of this work can happen quietly in our homes, and other work must be done loudly in public. None of this work is simple, comfortable or compensated, nor is it ever truly complete. But all of the work is necessary. And all of it counts.
Our brown families are entitled to learn about our community’s triumphs in Canada, but we should also know about our community’s long history of failures to confront anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. Learning resistance, perspective and vision from the stories of Black Canadian and Indigenous peoples is not an act of charity. It is in our own self-interest. Our families know better than most what it is like to have our humanity, our histories, our cultures and our lands lost, stolen and broken. Fighting back against racism is one of many opportunities we now have to retrieve stories about our humanity, from those we lost to those we gain.
We don’t need to ask Canada for permission anymore. We can be grateful for where we’re at, and still be critical of how we got here. We can listen and take direction from Black Canadian and Indigenous people who need our voices and our bodies. We owe this to them, first and foremost, but they aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. We do, too.
When we fight for them like they fight for us, our shared struggle becomes part of a better story about all of us. ❖
This essay was published with the financial help of Virtual Grounds, a series dedicated to feminist perspectives on digital sustainability and survival.
Written and researched by: Milan Gokhale
Financial support by Nasma Ahmed & Emily Fitzpatrick for Virtual Grounds
Additional artwork by Roelle Santa Maria, Dhiya Choudary
Additional editing by Amanda Ghazale Aziz
Special thanks to Ananya Ohri, Farah Rahemtula, Zeeshaan Mustafa, Adeeb Dhanani, Ketan Vegda, Ishani Nath, Ayesha Basit, Saadia Muzaffar, muhbehbeh and you, my love