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“Second Komagatamaru”


Laibar Singh is a 48-year old paralyzed Dalit Punjabi refugee claimant who is facing deportation to India. He had taken sanctuary on July 7 in the Abbotsford Sahib Kalgidhar Darbar Gurudwara. While in sanctuary, Mr. Singh’s health deteriorated and he had to be hospitalized. On Monday August 13, while in the hospital, Abbottsford police and Canadian Border Services Agency officers detained Mr. Laibar Singh. However due to immense community and political pressure, including a 600-person rally at his detention hearing within 24 hours notice, Mr. Singh was granted a temporary stay. He subsequently received a deportation order for December 10th- International Human Rights Day.

In a historic and unprecedented move, approximately 1500-2000 people including elders, women, and children converged at the Vancouver International Airport and surrounded the vehicle in which Laibar was being brought to the airport in for his scheduled deportation. Canadian Border Services Agency officers were unable to remove Laibar and were forced to postpone the deportation. The physical prevention of a deportation/expulsion- one of the most violent forms of state-sanctioned repression and brutality in the world today- has been hailed as a significant victory and has served as a powerful inspiration to movements across North Amerika.

Similar to indigenous resistance struggles, the racist backlash has been vehement and goes far beyond just the ‘violent protestor’ stereotype. Online forum discussion include comments such as "America has Al Qaeda. Canada has Sikhs"; "They weren’t Canadians, only White people are Canadians"; and "What bothers me is that the millitary was not brought in." South Asian organizers within this campaign have received personal hate-based emails and phone calls. Several South Asian youth have reported an escalation of racially-motivated comments in their schools, all of which has a devastating impact on the South Asian community and immigrant/racialized communities as awhole who are constantly reminded of their subordinate position especially during moments of active resistance to the Canadian government.

The struggle to support Laibar is not for him alone nor is it simply one case, rather it symbolizes the struggles of the South Asian community to resist the unjust policies of deportation through defiance of the Canadian state. South Asian media outlets have declared this moment as a ‘second awakening of the Komagatamaru’. The Komagatamaru incident was a stand-off in 1914 between the Canadian government and 376 South Asian boat passengers who arrived on the shores of Vancouver challenging the racist and exclusionary Continuous Journey Rule intended to eliminate South Asian migration to Canada and reinforce a "White Canada" policy. It thus demonstrates to us how hard and long racialized migrants must fight to assert their right to self-determination which the Canadian government consistently denies and instead perpetuates pain, anxiety, and violence through detentions and deportations. Finally, this struggle reveals to us the power within communities who are at the frontlines to educate and mobilize themselves and the responsibility we have to actively support them and facilitate their organizing.

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A version of the article below was published in the Indo-Candian Voice, December 15 2007

The recent case of paralyzed Laibar Singh has created much debate and division across Canada. There has been strong outpouring of sympathy for Laibar Singh and his medical condition, however the fundamental question turns on whether Canadian society has any "obligation" to support Mr. Singh as he has exhausted all his legal avenues. In addition, much of the public perception around Mr. Singh has unfortunately been fuelled by inaccurate facts.

Firstly, Mr. Singh was never handed down a deportation order prior to the one he received in July 2007. He has, therefore, never been "illegal" in Canada before taking sanctuary at the Abbotsford Gurudwara. Prior to his aneurysm, Mr. Singh worked as a labourer in Montreal.

Secondly, Mr. Singh arrived on a fake Indian document, which he declared to Canadian immigration authorities. This is not illegal as both international and Canadian refugee law recognize the reality that many asylum seekers will be forced to travel on fake documents. An overwhelming majority of refugee claimants arrive with false documentation and Section 178 of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides refugee claimants the ability to make a statutory declaration that attests to their identity.

Lawyer Michael A. Leitold of Roach, Schwartz & Associates and a member of the Law Union of Ontario Steering Committee states “Laibar arrived legally in Canada, and declared his false documents, which is a normal part of the refugee process enshrined in Canadian and International law. Writing as a member of the Law Union of Ontario, I would like to state that I support Laibar’s right to stay in Canada where he can receive the care he needs to live in dignity.”

It is unfortunate that some of us are declaring that he must leave because he does not "belong" any longer, despite the fact that his newly found family and community are here. Certainly his physical state of paralysis and the widespread community support he has received are all crucial factors and realities for Mr. Singh. He, like anyone else, should be entitled to live a healthy and dignified life. Instead of making declarations on what others are entitled to simply by virtue of the fact that we happen to already have immigrated to Canada or have inherited the privilege of Canadian citizenship by birth, let us support one another in being able to live a life of well-being and dignity.

We must challenge the idea that some are more worthy than others to decide their fate and their right to mobility; instead we should accept these as universal values of humanity.

The assumption is that Mr. Singh is being deported because he is an "undesirable" who has "failed" the designated legal processes. However his refusal as a refugee claimant must be understood in a climate where an increasing number of critics are pointing to a failing immigration and refugee system. This includes a growing movement of faith communities who are responding to structural flaws by publicly offering sanctuary, including nine current cases of sanctuary across Canada where churches are defying deportation orders handed down by the government.

For example, Immigration and Refugee Board members are political appointees who are not mandated to have any experience in the law; there is no Refugee Appeal Division despite its guarantee provided in the June 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act; certain avenues such as the Pre Removal Risk Assessment have acceptance rates of 3-5% while others such as the Humanitarian and Compassionate claim do not have to be processed prior to deportation. The refugee system has been termed a "lottery system" because acceptance rates can vary from 0-80% depending on the judge. Most recently, the Federal Court of Canada struck down the Safe Third Country Agreement between the US and Canada which was creating a "Fortress Canada" by disallowing up to 40% of asylum seekers.

In the case of Mr. Singh, his deportation order was handed down despite the fact that he still had a pending legal humanitarian and compassionate claim. It is not far-stretched to suggest that one should not be deported prior to this legal claim being heard. While Mr. Singh received two temporary stays of deportation as a result of immense community pressure, a negative decision on Mr. Singh’s humanitarian and compassionate claim was rendered largely on the basis that he ‘does not have significant ties to Canada`, clearly a false assessment.

In addition to 40,000 petition signatures, a variety of organizations have expressed their support including the Canadian Labour Congress, BC Coalition of People with Disabilities, B.C Hospital Employees Union, BC Chapter of Council of Canadians, the Multifaith Action Committee, Student Christian Movement of Canada, Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity Society, a long list of South Asian community and faith groups, and politicians from all political parties.

A group of health care professionals- including 13 independent doctors- issued a letter to Immigration Minster Finley stating, "As health professionals, we are outraged at the fact that the Canadian government would consider deporting a paraplegic man, whose health condition is extremely fragile… For the sake of his safety, health and well being, we fully support him and demand that [the Minister] grant him permanent residency status on the basis of humanitarian and compassionate considerations."

As written by the B.C Hospital Employees Union “As health care workers on the frontline we fight to preserve a public healthcare system whereby people receive medical treatment based on their health needs. We do not judge people based on their income, social status or behaviour. Clearly Mr. Singh is in need of medical attention. Therefore we ask that as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration you allow Mr. Laibar Singh to remain in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds and ensure that his medical needs are met.”

It is crucial to highlight that Mr. Laibar Singh’s situation is not unprecedented. In October 2006, a Polish family on tourist visas in Winnipeg suffered from a car accident that left the father paralyzed. Initially they were refused on their humanitarian application; however their deportation order was subsequently overturned after pressure by the Polish-Canadian community, residents of Winnipeg, and political intervention by federal politicians. Therefore ministerial discretion in humanitarian and compassionate claims can and has been exercised in the past to stop deportations; in fact it exists for that very purpose.

Many in the South Asian community have been deterred by the negative backlash that has been fostered, specifically the racism in mainstream media outlets and online discussion forums that utilize commentaries and images that invoke a fear of violence and terror particularly in the post 911 climate. The campaign around Laibar Singh has revealed the ways in which the South Asian community is being constructed as "Outsiders" who do not quite belong to the Canadian Nation, which is based on a social construction and entitlement of Whiteness that invisibilizes the colonization of indigenous peoples in its formation.

As we know, Canadian history is marked by racism against racialized communities such as the Komagatamaru incident, the Chinese Head tax, the Japanese internment and much more. The very labelling of these communities as "immigrant communities" despite the reality that these communities have resided here for centuries, reveals their second-class nature and their eternal status as hyphenated citizens.

Multiculturalism in Canada celebrates our communities’ culture as long as it does not disrupt too deeply any social or political issues. This internalized model-minority syndrome (the perpetual foreigner syndrome which forces us to constantly prove ourselves as being "worthy" of being in Canada) restrains us from believing that we can- indeed we have a responsibility- to stand up and exercise our rights and to stand united against systemic injustice without being deemed "unpatriotic" or "ungrateful", which is a brilliantly manipulative tool to impose a chill-effect on immigrant communities.

Finally, we have to vigorously challenge the assertion that the protest on International Human Rights Day was unlawful. Civil disobedience has its roots in human rights struggles including the Indian independence movement, the American Civil Rights movement, the South African Anti-Apartheid struggle, and all across this stolen land of Kanada by peace activists, indigenous communities, women’s rights activists, and trade unionists. Those who went to the airport were expressing their commitment to moral values and were acting out of a sense of justice and compassion to protect human life.

In fact, the only thing that has transformed harmful laws and unjust decisions are such courageous movements driven by dedicated and compassionate people.

- Harsha Walia, South Asian activist, writer and member of No One is Illegal. With previous No One Is Illegal writings by Harjap Grewal, Mia Amir, Naava Smolash, and Cynthia Oka.

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