"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Now it’s time for Canada to exonerate Mewa Singh Featured



The exoneration by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, of six Indigenous Chiefs executed by the colonial government more than 150 years ago, should be followed by a similar move to right the historical wrong of hanging South Asian political activist Mewa Singh. 

Singh was executed in 1915 for assassinating controversial Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson. He was the first Sikh activist to be hanged on Canadian soil for a political murder.

On Monday, Trudeau made a statement in the House of Commons absolving the Tsilhqot’in chiefs, who were hanged for the killings of fourteen white road construction workers during the Chilcotin War of 1864, which was precipitated by the settlers who came in for gold and gave no consideration to the rights of the Chilcotin people.

During this time, not only did the settlers try to build a road into their traditional territory without consent, they also raped indigenous women.

Following the killings, five Indigenous Chiefs were tricked into peace talks, but were arrested and hanged, despite their legal argument that as a sovereign nation, they were engaged in a war against invaders. The sixth chief was executed much later.    

Trudeau acknowledged that these Chiefs had acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation.

So much so, Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, who is the opposition critic for Indigenous affairs, admitted that the six chiefs did what anyone would have done under similar circumstances to defend their rights.

In the light of Monday’s development, Canada should think of absolving Singh and recognize that what he did wasn’t a crime motivated by any personal motive or greed.

Singh was one of those South Asians who had started arriving to British Columbia by the late 1800s to earn a better livelihood. This was a time when India and British Columbia shared a history of British colonialism.

The British occupation of India had made lives of ordinary people in that part of the world miserable. Since the British Empire claimed that it treated its subjects fairly, many Punjabi Sikh immigrants emigrated to British Columbia in search of greener pastures. However, upon reaching here they had to face racial hostilities. They were not allowed to bring their families and were disfranchised in 1907. All this was done to discourage them from permanent settlement as the government wanted to keep Canada as a "white man’s country". 

The South Asian community elders realized that they were being treated with contempt only because their home country wasn’t free. Thus began struggles against colonialism back home, and racism abroad. Under these circumstances, the South Asian political activists started getting organized. Since a majority of them were the Sikhs, they built a gurdwara under the aegis of Khalsa Diwan Society. The temple provided a religious space, but also became a centre of political activism. Singh, who was a devout Sikh, was among those who collected donations for the first gurdwara in Vancouver. He later became involved in political actions.   

The turning point came in 1914 when the Komagata Maru was forcibly returned by the Canadian government under a discriminatory immigration law. The Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers was forced to leave under the shadow of guns on July 23, 1914, after remaining stranded at sea in the Vancouver harbour for two months. This incident had galvanized the freedom movement in India.

Trudeau has already made an official apology for the Komagata Maru episode in the House of Commons.

The incident had started a bloody fight within the South Asian community, which was divided in two camps, one led by the radical activists and the other patronized by Hopkinson. The latter camp was a group of spies who often intimidated activists in the South Asian community. Through this network of moles in the community, Hopkinson was gathering secret information about political activists and sending it to the British Indian government. He had previously served in India and was sent here on purpose. 

In the month of September, 1914, Hopkinson’s agent Bela Singh went into the gurdwara and shot two political activists to death - Bhaag Singh and Badan Singh. This act of sacrilege and blatant racism turned Singh into an assassin. He fatally shot Hopkinson at the Vancouver courthouse where the latter had gone to testify for Bela Singh who faced jury trial. Singh did not escape from the scene and courted arrest. He also decided against pleading not guilty in the court and took sole responsibility of the murder. His statement gives us an idea that he was willing to face death with courage and had no regret for his action, which was the result of racism and mistreatment of the South Asian immigrants in Vancouver. He chanted prayers when he was being taken to the gallows on the morning of January 11, 1915.

Undoubtedly, the murder of Hopkinson was the culmination of British colonialism and systemic racism. If Canada really cares for reconciliation then it must accept this reality and absolve Singh of criminal charges. But what is more important than these symbolic gestures is that Canada should address real issues, like growing white supremacy in our communities, honest nation to nation consultations with the indigenous groups before making any decision about pushing controversial projects, such as Kinder Morgan pipelines or Site C Dam into their territories, a meaningful investigation into the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women, and making environment safe for refugees and immigrants. 

In the meantime, Radical Desi has launched an online petition seeking exoneration of Mewa Singh. Anyone interested to sign can go to “Hey Canada Exonerate Bhai Mewa Singh" at Change.org.
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Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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