Category Archives: Community Building Initiatives

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My Welcoming Remarks from City of Vancouver’s Islamic History Month – 27 October 2018

Islamic History Month Agenda

Thank you, Councilor Carr

For those that don’t know Councilor Carr was our Council liaison for the past year and almost a half. and we are very grateful for her work with us

Before we introduce ourselves, I would also like to thank Ms. T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss for her traditional welcome and all the work she does educating Vancouverites through her art and storytelling. It is a humble reminder that we as settlers have much to learn, listen and gain from the First Nations/Indigenous communities that we are all settlers on.

My name is Will Tao (pronouns: he/him) and this is my colleague and one of the lead event organizers Fatimah Yasin, and we are privileged and humbled to be Outgoing Members of the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Communities Advisory Committee. Our Committee, which served for a year and a half just immediately prior to the election was given a mandate to advise Council on enhancing access and inclusion for Vancouver’s diverse cultural communities to fully participate in City services and civic life.

Today marks the second of our Voices of Vancouver initiatives and our Final event of our term, and fittingly so. The very inspiration for us to turn our strategy from inward meetings at City Hall to outreach into diverse communities was because of Islamophobic protests and the powerful counter-protests that took place in August 2017. We recognized that while we were proud of those who stood up to combat racism and Islamophobia, we couldn’t help but recognize that some voices were missing even from those protests. Speaking to individuals after, they were afraid as newcomers, as Muslim-Canadians, as hijab-wearing Muslim-Canadian women, to go into a public space to stand up and speak out.

Our first Voices of Vancouver event, taking place on March 23rd, with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – where we had speaker and our good friend, Noor Fadel, speak to youth, many of whom were Muslim-Canadian, about her experiences as a victim of a hate crime. We provided bystander training that really brought to light how our conscious and unconscious biases affect our interactions and make some of us more vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination.

Around the same time, Councilor Andrea Reimer, reached out and asked us if we could take the lead on organizing a first public celebration for Islamic History Month on behalf of the City. So here we are today. With a little bit of hard work and a lot of sleepless nights. Although I will let Aslam, the lead organizer speak to that shortly.

Now to some more salient content and context for today’s event. The word “History.” I believe that we cannot celebrate Islamic History Month without recognizing the roots of all Muslim-Canadians as part of the history of the Canadian Confederation. As you will soon learn from Imaad Ali in his interactive display, we know as a historical fact that there were Muslims in Canada prior to Confederation in 1867, that by 1911 BC had the most Muslims in the country, and that by 1912, when the Komagata Maru arrived there was a local Muslim on the shore committee who managed to get permanent residence in Canada. We know that in 1965, Vancouver’s first Mosque, the Jamia Mosque was established on West 8th and operates to this date, still serving as a homeless shelter when temperatures drops. As you can see from just these few snippets, this is a continuing, and evolving historical narrative that we must continue to tell and share to remind all those who come that there was a foundation – paved by Muslim Canadians. Islam is not a newcomer religion or a Middle Eastern religion. It is a Canadian religion.

Indeed, by 2036, Statistics Canada estimates that between 5.6% and 7.2% of the total population of Canada will be Muslim. With increased numbers, we hope will become increased focus, study, and a deeper look at how we can integrate Muslim ideas and culture into our Canadian social fabric – work I know the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies at SFU has already been doing and continues to do as lead organizers of this event.

In boldly stating that Muslim ideas have a place in Canada’s future, I challenge anybody who argues that the recognition that the way we spend our substance – however much of that we cherish, upon family, orphans, the needy, newcomers, the homeless, and freeing those from the bonds of misfortune, be it drug addiction or trafficking, is not fundamentally Canadian. Our Charter values aim to protect the rights of those very groups facing historical subjugation that this Quran passage just highlighted. We can keeping enunciating differences between us or we can find those unique synergies and strengthen them. I pitch today for the latter.

This leads to my next point, before I pass it on to Fatimah to share her experiences organizing this event, – we need to also accept our shortcomings as we move forward. As a City (writ large), we haven’t heard your voices, Muslim voices. We haven’t given you space to celebrate, engage, and share your perspectives. To lead. To be empowered. Case in point, not a single Muslim-Canadian has ever served as a City Councilor in Vancouver. The last South Asian City Councilor elected was in 1972. Intersectionally, we have never had a South Asian (let alone Muslim) woman City Councillor. This also isn’t just a Vancouver phenomenon. Recently in Toronto not a single Muslim-Canadian was elected to Council on 24 wards. Only one hijab-wearing female politician has ever been elected to public office in Canada, Ms. Ausma Malik, as a School Board Trustee and when her ward was eliminated and she chose not run in the past civic election. How do they see us if we are not there?

Therefore, we cannot speak of reconciliation broadly as a City without facing every single one of our Cultural Communities, examining how they have become our neighbours and Citizens and increasing not only our own cultural humility in integrating them into our lives but allowing them opportunity to integrate us into their stories and their narratives (attending events such as today, I propose is a good start but only a start). Similarly, while we step forward to change, we also need to look behind traditional power structures and see how that might involve us stepping back and allowing others to have a share of the podium, and that power – that their success can be our success.

As Allama Iqbal, the great Pakistani poet, once wrote – words without power is mere philosophy.

Finally I hope as today as you listen to the music, laugh at the comedy, trace your brush through the calligraphy that you don’t forget your role in helping to facilitate conversation, to elevate voice and to help empower this diverse Muslim community that this City is proud to help, and along with that all our diverse ethnocultural and Indigenous communities. Thank you.

 

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20 September 2018 – CCAC x Punjabi Market Forum – Text of My Intro Speech

Full text (minus a few ad libs from the day of):

I would like to Acknowledge that we are on the unceded, traditional territories of the Coast Salish Peoples  – the Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-waututh.

It is the resilience of our First Peoples, in the face of adversity and historical and on-going discrimination that inspires us to continue to strive for reconciliation.

I ask that we draw on their collective wisdom, the wisdoms of the ancestors of this land, as we gather in our own circle here today.

Friends, name is Will Tao. Pronouns: he/him/his. I am the Chair of the Cultural Communities Advisory Committee. I am so grateful to be able to provide brief statements to open up today’s packed agenda of events.

For those that don’t know about our Committee we are a 15-member volunteer advisory committee. Our mandate is to enhance access and inclusion for Vancouver’s diverse cultural communities.

Over this present mandate, we have played important roles on some of the City’s major projects. We’ve been part of the Vancouver Immigration Partnership, assisted in drafting the Apology for the Historical Discrimination Against Chinese Project, been part of the Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration, The Assets Naming Committee (who I add just did a fantastic job naming several City assets)!, among others.

We are particularly proud of our Committee-driven initiatives, from the Spaces survey studying challenges in securing ethno-cultural spaces, to hosting the City’s International Day for the Elimination for Racial Discrimination, to our Voices of Vancouver statement, and to the exciting Islamic History Month, the city’s first, coming up on October 27th.

If you have any questions about our Committee’s work, I ask that you approach our Committee members. We have seven members here today – almost quorum (joke for all of you who do advisory work).

Today, marks a continuation of our efforts to ensure that diversity is more than a check mark.

Today marks our first meeting of the 3.5 half years I have been on this committee – held outside City Hall.

This brings me to the heart of today’s conversation – the Punjabi Market Community. One member of our Committee told me a few days back that this would be nostalgia for her. As a kid, Punjabi Market (like for many of the community members in this room today) was their backyard. A place to shop, to eat, to  spend those cherished family memories that today we look back fondly on.

This is a special community that stands for resiliency over time. That stands for everything great about our City and our people. It is our past, present, and future, all rolled into to one diasporic dosa.

When community members Ajay Puri and Gulzar Nanda, whom I will introduce momentarily, asked to attend a CCAC meeting a few months back and told us they needed our help. We immediately heeded their call.  Their passion for this neighbourhood – tied into their honouring of the legacy of their forefathers is an inspiration to all of us. I see our role today not only to share our own experiences and advice but to be active listeners to what this community wants us to hear as it heads to its half-century birthday in a mere two years.
I would like to close my brief remarks on just one more point.

For those that may not know, I have been adopted into a Punjabi-Sikh family myself. Had a traditional Punjabi wedding (even though my partner is Chinese). Spent hours in prayer at the Ross Street Gurdwara reflecting on God’s good graces.

I love the expression of Chardi Khala and how it ties in to work today.

Chardi Kala teaches us that even through difficult and trying times, that some of us may be facing be-it through life, work, paying rent, affording to run a business on 49th and Main, that we are all interconnected with one another. That our work here is for more and greater than our own selves and our own ambitions.

This community’s fate and future is our fate and future. By being here you have stepped into the shoes of this community for the evening, and have left your shoes at the door. Having stepped in it, it is not simply good enough to come back once every four years. You are bonded as well all are.

Today, let’s choose to face this challenge of community building with eternal optimism and positivity – Chardi Kala. Thank you for all being here.

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Some Additional Thoughts:

Growing up on the west side, Main Street was already considered too far East. I had very few South Asian classmates in high school. In University I was blessed to meet Davinder Sethi and his family who took me. Later. I studied South Asian migration and took Dr. Oberoi’s South Asian Beyond South Asia Class.  It was also during this time I was first exposed to the Punjabi Market. Davinder and I filmed an intro video to our Asian Representation in Politics course featuring Kohli’s and what was then Guru Bazaar.

For the past ten years, I will have to admit I lost touch with the Punjabi Market. I went to Pabla’s maybe twice. Even moving to South East Vancouver in April, I stayed within the confines of Fraser St. on the West and Victoria Drive on the East.

Recently, I was very fortunate to have two special individuals enter my life – Ajay Puri and Gulzar Nanda. They took not only the initiative to meet with our Committee but both took initiatives to meet with me individually. With Ajay, earlier this summer, we walked around City Hall talking about his engagement work. In mid-summer I met with Gulzar over coffee, bringing Davinder and hearing their stories of growing up in the neighbourhood. Both Ajay and Gulzar share commonalities with me. We’re all around the same age. Both of us have lovely partners (clearly better 1/2s), all three of us have lost a parent. I am so grateful for their passion for this City and their neighbourhood and that they were willing to welcome me into their networks with open arms.

This brings me to the picture  above . The Cultural Communities Advisory Committee decided to host its first ever meeting outside of City Hall in the Punjabi Market thanks to the work of Ajay and Gulzar. The tour of the Market was incredible – I learned so much about the history of the businesses, the art work, and some of the changes in the works. The Forum was equally aspiring, particularly the participation of the neighbourhood elders who were eager to engage with youth, sharing their wisdom while appreciating the young energy. I think some of the ideas that were recommended can be implemented very soon. I cannot wait to see what the next Diwali, a possible mural festival, and Indian cooking/dance classes will look like. I will certainly be there.

Now that we have these ideas, its time to start implementation. We have a host of really talented political candidates, who (whether elected or not) appear ready to ensure this neighbourhood is not forgotten for another four years.

As I said in my speech – I definitely view these next years with a sense of chardi kala.

Keep posted with the progress – https://www.punjabixmarket.com/

With gratitude!

Will