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What I Learned From the First Nations Communities in Vancouver

By Syahidah Ismail

“I was born in this skin for a reason.” – Lynda Gray, First Nations activist and author

“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).”  – 49:13, The Quran

I’ve been asked to share my story. My story is not unlike many others – my voice is one of many, one in a chorus.

I want to start my story by situating myself. I’m currently writing on unceded Indigenous land in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. On this land, I am a visitor.

As I write this, I am wary of appropriating the voices and stories of the people I’ve come into contact with. I am wary of coming across like a smart-aleck, holier-than-thou ‘progressive’… God knows there are so many out there.

I am not an expert. I am a young soul – learning, listening, sharing and struggling to understand. Like so many of you.

I’m Singaporean by citizenship, Malay by racial identification, Muslim by faith.

My childhood home is located in a working-class district of Singapore, right next to where the industrial factories are. I grew up with the smell of smog outside my door amidst the sniggers and judging looks when I tell people where I’m from.

My parents are proud Malay-Muslims. Working-class individuals, a generation removed from poverty. They worked their way ‘up’ by consciously choosing to become engineers amidst an industrializing Singapore of the 1980s. They worked hard, sacrificed their personal interests and to some extent, their youth, to ensure that my sisters and I could attend university.

I’m the first to attend university in my family.

In 2007, I moved to Vancouver to attend UBC. I was fresh out of high school from Dubai, United Arab Emirates where my $20,000/year education tab was fully subsidized by my dad’s Japanese-based company. I remember the day my family of 30 strong waved goodbye at the airport. Since then, I’ve been studying, working, volunteering, living and breathing in this city.

I graduated from university last May. I can proudly say that I graduated with a double major in the Arts with first-class honors. I don’t usually wave my achievements in people’s faces but today I write this to recognize that my parents have sacrificed so much for me and to acknowledge that I am part of a select few who’ve been blessed enough to ‘rise above’ our largely disenfranchised Malay community back home.

As much as I learned in class, I learned infinitely more outside of class. I’ve made great connections with the people and communities here in Vancouver. I continue to learn and it never ceases to amaze me what I can learn, especially from friends and acquaintances who belong to First Nations communities.

In class, I learned about the Indian Act, the residential schools, the Oka crisis. I learned about the historical and present struggles of the first peoples of this land. Outside of class, I listened to the concrete experiences of First Nations communities and their present struggles. I learned about the true history of Canada and the interconnectedness of Canada’s legacies of colonialism, immigration and nationhood.

I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I didn’t know more about the First Nations communities before I came here. How could I? My Canadian friends in high school were all white. Canada’s international image is represented by whiteness and white people. No wonder no one knows about the histories of the First Nations communities here. Singapore experiences something similar. Singapore’s international image is represented by Chinese people. No wonder people think we’re in China.

The more I learned about First Nations communities, stories and struggles, the more I feel a sense of solidarity with them.

In Singapore, I belong to an ethnic group called the Malays. According to the constitution, the Malays are the Indigenous people of the land. This term is more a political designation than a socially accepted term, especially among Malay-Singaporeans. While the Malays in Malaysia happily embrace the term ‘bumiputera’ or ‘sons of the soil’, they do so in a country where the Malay community has majority social influence and economic power. In Singapore, we, the disenfranchised and marginalized Malays prefer to call ourselves Bugis, Boyanese, Javanese, Acehnese…terms that trace our ancestry back to the numerous islands of Indonesia. Malay children are not taught that we are indigenous. I surely wasn’t. I only found this out when I was 20 years old. The mere contesting of the term is perhaps a symptom of how isolated we feel as Malays from the land. But even if the political designation escapes us, my community experiences many struggles that are similar to Indigenous peoples all over the world. Many of us are trapped in cycles of poverty, many of us have difficulty attaining formal education and our customs and culture are heavily misrepresented and underrepresented in the media. The government is intent on trying to ‘help’ us instead of honestly and openly working with us. Many Chinese-Singaporeans grow up not having known a single Malay person. The few of us who manage to ‘rise above’ have to deal with mainstream culture telling us that our community is backward, that we are obsessed with having babies instead of getting an education, that we come from gang bangers, sex workers and broken families. Many Malay youth reject the label ‘Malay’ because it is negative – some of us change our names, some of us reject our faith, some of us reject our customs and our stories. Many of us cannot articulate our feelings of shame and ridicule. Many of us do not survive.

When I think about my community back home, I draw inspiration from the resilience of the First Nations communities in Canada.

Last month, I was privileged enough to listen to Lynda Gray speak. She is a member of the Tsimshian Nation on the Northwest Coast of B.C (Gisbutwada / Killerwhale Clan) and the author of the book First Nations 101. She shared her experiences and work as an activist and a First Nations woman. This past weekend, I had the privilege of listening to Kat Norris, a Coast Salish elder, who also shared her stories of activism. Both women are leaders in the First Nations communities here in Vancouver. I am always struck by the resilience of their stories. They are proud to be First Nations, they are proud to be women, they are proud daughters, mothers and grandmothers. And every time I listen to First Nations women sharing their stories, I fight back tears.

Why do I cry? I cry because of the sheer bravery and courage of these women’s words. I cry because I realize that I stand in solidarity with these women. I cry because their experiences are not very different from mine. I cry because I am reminded of the importance of speaking up loudly.

Just like the First Nations communities in Canada, the Malay community in Singapore is struggling to get our voices heard. Some of us are trying so, so hard to rise above. And while many of us fail to break the negative cycles of poverty, drug addiction, sex work and low levels of formal education, many of us do succeed. And we succeed not because of the circumstances but in spite of the circumstances.

As young people, we have the responsibility to think ahead and continue to improve on what we’ve been given by our parents,  our grandparents and all our ancestors before us. The lyrics of the song ‘We are Young’ by Fun goes “We are young/So let’s set the world on fire/We can burn brighter/than the sun.”

While I don’t disagree that we can indeed ‘burn brighter than the sun’, we won’t accomplish this by sitting around, comparing who has the latest gadget or the highest grade or who’s getting married next summer or who’s going to India or Africa next year for a ‘humanitarian mission’. The world is in our hands, yes, but it is a responsibility we owe to past and future generations to ensure that it will be a better place once we pass it on.

I hope my story highlights how interconnected we all are. I’ve had the amazing luck, blessings and privilege of learning about myself and my communities through travel, formal education and meeting other people who look and think like me. Many others have not been as lucky.

We need to realize that the issues of First Nations communities, of immigrants, of refugees are not just issues for those communities alone. This is our shared history that affects all of us every single day.

So go learn something. Go to school. Be engaged in class. Talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Read a book. Watch TV critically. Listen to music critically. Engage in open and honest conversations. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Don’t get defensive when someone tells you you’re being obnoxious or just plain stupid. Write poetry. Draw. Sing. Dance. Express yourself. Find your voice. And once you do, remember to speak loudly.

In peace, love, rage and solidarity.

Syahidah Ismail is a proud Malay-Muslim woman. She’s been living, studying, working and volunteering in Canada since 2007. Her friends often describe her as a ‘sweet, caring and overall, wholesome person to bearound’ but she considers herself more of a Type A anti-oppression activist-ninja.She moonlights as a writer and enjoys reading books on anti-racist,anti-colonial, feminist theory. An aspiring media critic, she also enjoys watching television, films and and keeping up with pop culture in general.  And oh, the clothes…the clothes are always pretty on-screen. To read more of her writings, please visit her blog at www.lifeandlimabeans.wordpress.com.  

One thought on “Syahidah Ismail: Humility, Resilience and Connection

  1. Pingback: Humility, Resilience and Connection: What I learned from First Nations communities in Vancouver « lifeandlimabeans

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