Written by Mita Hans
The Sikh Activist Network has rightfully endorsed the Idle No More movement. I am elated to see Sikh youth engaging with the Native community. In talking about Idle No More, it is important that we build bridges across communities, see how one affects the other, find our commonalities as the differences speak for themselves. When Aboriginal communities speak out against Bill C-45, it is important to understand that they speak for us all. Canada had over 5 million bodies of water protected by legislation. Passing of that bill reduced that number to under 100. If you drink water, this bill affects you. The Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, an independent body charged with making science-based decisions to protect Canadians from toxic chemicals and hazardous materials in the workplace has been eliminated. This affects every Canadian. Idle No More speaks for us all when they protest such sweeping legislation. I am lending my voice to this movement and I would like to share my own personal reasons why.
I didn’t have my first interaction with Native people until I was 16 despite the fact that I had already lived in this country for 7 years. I had learned about them in school. That they ate pemmican and travelled in canoes and hunted buffalo and lived in teepees. I learned that they were a vanquished culture and largely vanished except in remote Northern communities. Everything I knew about them was learnt in a single semester in elementary school. Most of what I learnt was wrong.
The summer I turned 16 was a summer of discovery for me. I discovered punk rock. Through it, I discovered a political voice. Canada was being used as a testing ground for cruise missiles. Reagan and Thatcher joined forces to create a political dialogue that the world had never seen before and I joined rank with the protestors opposing Iron Ladies and Steel Men intent on destroying the world as we knew it. It was at an anti-cruise demonstration that I heard drumming behind me. Four men carrying a drum and singing. I turned to look at them and saw brown skin and long hair, something that I had only seen in my own Sikh community before. When their song ended, they smiled at me and greeted me. I found out that they were Native….Cree, Mohawk, Pottawatami and Ojibwe. They were not vanished at all. They were protesting because the testing grounds for the cruise missiles were directly over caribou migration paths that would affect their communities.I wanted to know more about them and I spent my summer learning everything I could.
I joined CASNP (Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples) and found out about treaties and land claims and reservations and the Indian Act. I found out that the broad tracts of Crown land that I had come across on numerous camping trips was unceded Native land. I found out that the Hudson’s Bay Company had purposefully handed out small pox-infested blankets to Native People to allow disease to kill off populations in areas where the company wanted a strong-hold. I found out that corn and potatoes were indigenous native plants that made their way to the rest of the world through the first settlers. The more I learnt, the more I wanted to learn. I learnt harsh truths about Lubicon, Big Mountain, Oka, Gustaffson Lake and too many more.
20 years later, I found myself sitting with the group at the front helm of CASNP. We took our directions from Native peoples to build an educational resource centre for non-Natives. We compiled teaching packages to enrich school curriculums to make sure that they included Aboriginal issues that were not always in the past tense. We built bridges with churches – the Unitarians, the Quakers and others who were progressive enough to join hands in opposing land grabs and assimilation practices that were very much in the present tense. The Sikhs, sadly, were completely uninterested. In 1996, we were organizing an annual event called Honour Mother Earth Day held at the Toronto Islands on Mother’s Day, the purpose of which was to bring together different communities to stand behind the original stewards of this land in honouring and protecting the Original Mother. I approached several different Gurdwaras to lend their voice or at least provide something to contribute to the feast we were holding but not one stepped forward. My father came; he was the only turbaned Sikh that did.
One of the people who did step forward was a young man from a reserve called Ipperwash. Four days before the event, I got a surprise visit at the CASNP office on Spadina across from the Friendship Centre. A slight man with an impish grin who I had been holding phone conversations with about the progress of the event showed up with 3 big garbage bags. 2 of the bags held full deer legs and 1 held a brace of whitefish. He said he had hunted and fished and brought these over to contribute to the feast as he couldn’t be there on the day itself. He also brought over a ton of information on events happening at his reserve that the world needed to know about because things were heating up. I took him out for lunch to thank him for his incredible generosity. It would be the last time I would ever see him.The man who brought over the food was Dudley George and he was killed by police at Ipperwash a short time later. I had no idea what to do with 3 garbage bags filled with deer and fish, so I called my mom. She was the only one I knew who had pots large enough to make that amount. She called making a giant vat of stew to feed 400 people an act of seva and her only complaint in being handed over the job was not being able to add masala to it.
It was around this time that I had met the man who would become my husband. He was a traditional Ojibwe pipe carrier from a northern reserve called Onegaming. We had met at a pow wow. When he questioned me on my Sikhi, we started sharing how much our cultures had in common. He had long hair down to his waist. He was Medewin, the Ojibwe version of Amritdhari Sikhs. He had taken a promise to not cut his hair, to not drink or do drugs, to live his life serving his community. I learned that prayers were carried to the creator through the pipe smoke which was never ever inhaled. Tobacco was a medicine for prayers and not to be abused. I took him to a Gurdwara and he experienced Japji Sahib and Nitnem and we found that our prayers and rituals had so much in common. We experienced each other’s spirituality to the fullest without ever once giving up our own and found that the two meshed perfectly. My parents told me that he was a better GurSikh than most Punjabis, me included, and gave me their blessing. We decided to get married in a Gurdwara in Mississauga where my family were and in a Medewin Teaching Lodge on Onegaming where his family were. His parents came here for the wedding. They loved that Gurdwaras have 4 doors, a commonality with the sacred 4 directions from Ojibwe teachings. The Milni ritual brought together Sikh and Ojibway cultures in a way that deeply affected all those partaking in it. Our marriage may have ended amicably over a decade ago but the bridges built through it will endure.
I have just celebrated the 10th anniversary of my current partnership. Nicole is a French/Cree woman who is a strident activist for Indigenous rights. She has dedicated her life to frontline work working with marginalized peoples. From HIV/AIDS workshops to prison work, from Anishnabe Health to Native Women’s Resource Centre. She has worked with street people and sex trade workers, with policy advisors and Aboriginal banking initiatives. Through her, I have reached a far deeper understanding of seva in Sikhi. When my niece was 2, she looked at Nicole and said, “Your name is Nanku”. My family decided that her choice was most fitting as Nicole embodies the principles set forth by Guru Nanak in the work that she does selflessly and have adopted that nickname for her ever since.
All of these experiences and many, many more have led me to a very personal understanding of the connections between Sikhism and Native issues. When the Guru Granth Sahib speaks of standing for the oppressed, whose oppression surrounds us? Who are the marginalized who suffer? The Gurus taught us to fight injustice wherever we come across it; is there an injustice greater than that perpetrated upon Indigenous peoples through residential schools? The word Sikh means to learn; I have spent 30 years doing just that. The word Mita means friend and I have spent my life being just that. This is who I am and why I stand with Idle No More.