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

It’s time for Punjabis to give back to Indigenous peoples by supporting their efforts to revitalize traditional languages Featured

Gurpreet Singh


When I moved to Canada from India as a Permanent Resident with my family in 2001, I was deeply touched to see welcoming signs in my native language of Punjabi, not only in and around the Vancouver airport, but shortly after at a few more public spaces in Surrey.

Thanks to the diversity of a country that eventually became my home, Punjabi is now the second most spoken language in several municipalities of BC after English.

The irony is that Punjabis had to fight to keep their language alive in their home country. We have a long history of struggle, jails and bloodshed that led to the creation of the present day Punjab state of India. Punjabi is still facing many challenges within Punjab from elitist English speaking schools and growing dominance of the Hindi language, particularly under a right wing Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi.

Here, in a country that once discouraged Punjabi immigrants, things have changed remarkably over the years. Not only have Punjabis made it to Canadian legislative assemblies, but also to the House of Commons, with a few (including my wife Rachna Singh, who is now Minister for education) having made history speaking Punjabi, although briefly, in the provincial parliament in Victoria.

That said, the diversity of this country should not be taken for granted. We must acknowledge that this nation was built on the stolen lands of the indigenous peoples, who continue to face systemic racism and battle to revitalize their traditional languages, some of which are on the verge of extinction because of colonialism. Both Residential schools and the day boarding schools, established by the colonists to assimilate indigenous peoples, discouraged children from speaking in their mother languages. Defiance would often invite inhuman treatment and brutal punishments.

On March 31, National Indigenous Languages Day, we as Punjabis should be aware of this dark chapter of Canadian history. Rather than celebrating our language alone, we need to give back to the indigenous peoples for what their elders did for our pioneers, who were taken into their embrace when the immigrants were facing blatant racism. That’s how the First Nations came to be known as Tae Kes (from elder uncles’ family) by the Punjabis.

I am thankful to my friend Jennifer Sherif, who took me to Iskut nation close to the National Reconciliation Day in 2023, to see firsthand how the people of the Tahltan territory are trying to revitalize their language that was impacted by the boarding school, according to Jolene Hawkins the Education Manager at the Band Council.

The Klappan Independent School in the community provides education in Tahltan language. Angela Dennis, the language and culture teacher, has a room with an alphabet chart in that language. School principal Glen Campbell, a published author who previously served in the Slocan Valley, is passionate about the efforts of revitalizing Tahltan. As a matter of policy, signs in that language greet visitors everywhere in the school right from the library to the kitchen.  

I was given an opportunity to ask a group of educators at the school what non-indigenous groups need to do for true reconciliation. They divided themselves in four small groups and came up with 21 points. These included a few related to the language, asking for accepting traditional languages and for indigenous language immersion programs. Apart from asking for land acknowledgment and addressing racism in public schools, they mostly emphasized revitalizing the languages that are losing speakers.

While these steps give us some hope for a better future ahead, the experience left me wondering if we are really paying attention to the needs of the original stewards of Turtle Island, whose existence matters the most. Mere tokenistic territorial acknowledgments and reconciliation greetings that appeared in some local weeklies around our visit aren’t good enough.

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Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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