South Asian Heritage Month

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South Asian Heritage Month is the name given to the month long celebration in Canada, each May, of the presence and heritage of people with roots in the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives.

In Canada, 'South Asian' refers to those who have come directly from these countries to Canada (and their descendants) as well as those who have made second and even third migrations from more than 15 other countries, such as Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and others from the Caribbean from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa from Africa, from Europe, the Middle East, South America and Oceania.

Origins[edit]

The first[citation needed] South Asians first arrived in Canada in the year 1897, when soldiers from the Indian army passed through the country on their way back home from London, England after attending the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria. Some of these Indian soldiers later returned to live in Canada permanently. The first known Caribbean based South Asian was Dr Kenneth Mahabir, a Trinidadian medical student who came to Halifax in 1908 and stayed on.

It was not until the 1980s that events marking the coming of South Asians to Canada appeared. They were pioneered by Indo-Caribbeans, descendants of the Indians who had first arrived in the West in Guyana in 1838 and in Trinidad in 1845, and who had made a second migration to Canada in large numbers since the 1960s.

In 1986 a Toronto based group Ontario Society for Services to Indo-Caribbean Canadians (OSSICC) was formed primarily to celebrate the upcoming 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians to Guyana in 1988. OSSICC continued to celebrate Indo-Caribbean Heritage Day until the year 2000, with interest coming mainly from Indo-Caribbeans.

In April, 1997 the Indo Trinidad Canadian Association (ITCA) was formed and immediately started Indian Arrival Day celebrations that year. In that year too community activist Asha Maharaj organized a display of Indian artifacts, the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Ottawa held its first celebration, and the Caribbean East Indian Cultural Organization headed by radio host Richard Aziz organized an Indian Arrival celebration in Toronto.

By 1998 ITCA had decided to celebrate the event as Indian Arrival and Heritage Day, and held a huge show/display/dance at the Etobicoke Olympium. It was never an Indo-Caribbean for ITCA but always Indian, meaning all people with roots in the Indian subcontinent.

Indian Arrival and Heritage Month[edit]

Since 1997 ITCA and later the Council for Indian Arrival and Heritage Month had decided not to make this an Indo Caribbean event. They realized that Indo Caribbeans were only about 10 per cent of the "Indian" group in Toronto, and if they confined Indian Arrival to Indo Caribbeans it would remain forever a marginal event.

By 1999 ITCA had moved to celebrate the month of May as Indian Arrival and Heritage Month. At this stage only ITCA and OSSICC were organizing events.

By the year 2000 a Council for Indian Arrival and Heritage Month was in place, composed of people from ITCA, OSSICC, the Guyanese group GEAC, the Hamilton group CICA and several individuals. The group was marking the arrival of Indians in the West as 1838 when the first landed in Guyana, and 1897 as the year the first Indians (Punjabi Sikh actually) arrived in Canada. The catch line from the letterhead for the Council in 2000 was "Commemorating the 162nd anniversary of the arrival in the Americas of the people and heritage of the Indian subcontinent". This included all the groups who are now satisfied to be called South Asians, such as Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans etc.

Even though the Council tried to attract the support of the other groups, it was a hard sell and they did not usually get a positive response. In the Caribbean the word Indian includes everybody who came from what was then united, colonial India. In Canada it was different. When the word Indian was used, the assumption was that it referred to people who had come from India, if it wasn't confused with native Indians. Many of the Punjabi Sikhs did not relate well to India because of their political problems with that country, and did not want to see themselves as Indians. The Pakistanis did not respond to the word Indian Arrival and Heritage Month or to Indian Arrival events. The Sri Lankans also said they were not Indians and ignored Indian Arrival and Heritage Month. There were similar problems with people from Bangladesh and Nepal. The Indian Arrival celebration was going nowhere.

Becoming South Asian Heritage Month[edit]

When Indian Arrival and Heritage Month was launched at the Scarborough Civic Centre in 2001, the keynote speaker was Raminder Gill, at the time the South Asian Member of the Ontario Parliament. Gill said he would introduce a bill in the legislature to legitimize the event, and he did so later that same year. Gill obtained multi-party support for the bill, but was told the legislature would not accept Indian Arrival and Heritage Month because it would cause confusion with the Indian Act and other laws relating to native Indians. The name was changed to South Asian Heritage Month, and the bill received unanimous support and was signed into law in December 2001.

Since then, South Asian Heritage Month has grown dramatically. Dozens of celebrations take place each year, including events at the Ontario Parliament, the Gerard Street bazaar, numerous religious and community groups and the media. It has been embraced enthusiastically by the Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, and most of the 20 plus sub groups in the South Asian community. Efforts are being made to extend the celebration throughout Ontario and to other provinces and territories in Canada.

Declaration of South Asian Heritage Month[edit]

AN ACT TO PROCLAIM MAY AS SOUTH ASIAN HERITAGE MONTH AND MAY 5 AS SOUTH ASIAN ARRIVAL DAY

South Asian immigrants began arriving in Ontario at the start of the 20th century. Working primarily in the sawmill industry, South Asian immigrants settled in various parts of the province. For South Asians, the month of May has been a time of celebration and commemoration of their arrival from the Indian subcontinent to the Americas beginning on May 5, 1838.

While most South Asians came to our country from India, many others came to Ontario from such places as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, the United Kingdom, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. Today, South Asians make up a significant proportion of Ontario's population and are proud to draw upon their heritage and traditions, contributing to many aspects of culture, commerce and public service across this province.

It is appropriate to recognize and pay tribute to the contributions South Asian immigrants have made, and continue to make, to the development and general welfare of Ontario.

Therefore, Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario, enacts as follows:


1. May 5 in each year is proclaimed as South Asian Arrival Day.

2. The month of May in each year is proclaimed as South Asian Heritage Month.

3. This Act comes into force on the day it receives Royal Assent.

4. The short title of this Act is the South Asian Heritage Act, 2001.

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