Vancouver journalist Charlie Smith honoured for standing up against bigotry

The long-time Georgia Straight editor was recognized by a South Asian community media outlet for his history of anti-racist advocacy
Photo: The Indo-Canadian Voice
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The editor of Vancouver's Georgia Straight was given Radical Desi’s medal of courage on Dec. 1 by members of the South Asian community at a public event in Surrey.

Charlie Smith had recently refused to interview Maxime Bernier, the leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada, because of his anti-immigrant views. This was in sharp contrast to many editors of mainstream media outlets who provided Bernier with a platform to air opinions that fuelled racism during the federal election. Smith did not want to give legitimacy to Bernier's highly divisive rhetoric.

Radical Desi is an online South Asian magazine, which covers alternative politics. Smith has frequently faced backlashes for his advocacy of diversity.

He had openly asked for a street in Vancouver to be named after Gurdit Singh, a Sikh activist who had chartered the Komagata Maru. The Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers was forced to turn back from Vancouver in 1914 under discriminatory immigration laws passed by the Canadian government to keep Canada as a "white man’s country." Singh’s actions and image have often been distorted by Eurocentric historians, and Smith has come under online attack for pointing this out.

Smith was presented with the medal by anti-racism activists Annie Ohana and Avtar Singh Dhillon, alongside Muslim activist Furquan Gehlen.

Ohana is an anti-racism educator, while Dhillon has been fighting for the right to wear the turban at workplaces in Canada.

Gehlen has been campaigning against human rights abuses in the India-occupied Kashmir, ruled under a right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government that is determined to transform the country into a Hindu theocracy. Attacks on religious minorities have grown in India ever since the BJP came to power with a majority in 2014.

Gehlen brought postcards addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to break Canada's silence on Kashmir, which has been under lockdown since Aug. 5. Participants signed the postcards at the event. Smith also signed a postcard to show his solidarity with Kashmiri Muslims who are being persecuted by the Indian forces.

Smith, who is married to a woman of Indian origin, has a deep understanding of Indian history and politics. Not surprisingly, his critical articles on India's government have frequently invited the wrath of right-wing trolls owing allegiance to the BJP.

A calendar dedicated to the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, produced by several South Asian community media outlets, was also unveiled by Smith at the event.

Nanak was the founder of Sikhism who taught his disciples to earn their livelihood through hard work and share and respect Mother Earth. He also denounced discrimination on the basis of caste, colour and gender.

Smith noted that Nanak was way ahead of his times, and laid the foundation for a just society five centuries ago. He said that Nanak’s legacy is even more relevant today because of the climate emergency, growing intolerance and repression and gender violence all over the world.

The painting of Nanak ploughing a field like an ordinary and hardworking farmer on the calendar was made by Surrey-based artist Jarnail Singh. The calendar has several important dates related to the radical history of South Asian elders alongside significant days, such as International Human Rights Day and International Women’s Day.

The event began with a moment of silence for Zofia Cisowski, a Polish woman from Kamloops who passed away recently. Her son, Robert Dziekanski, was tasered to death by the RCMP at the Vancouver Airport in 2007. She had fought for justice and became an icon of human rights struggles in Canada.

Among those who spoke on the occasion were Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal, Surrey Greentimbers MLA Rachna Singh, Sikh activist Kulwinder Singh, Omni TV Reporter Haroon Gaffar, independent broadcaster Gurvinder Singh Dhaliwal, and secularist activist Sayyad Wajahat.

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