What Don Cherry might not know about all those who fought for freedom

Posted on in Equality History

Source: — Authors:

NationalPost.com – Opinion
,   Humera Jabir

In the Second World War, 2.5 million Indians fought for the British, forming the largest volunteer army in the war


Noor Inayat Khan, a wartime British secret agent who was the first female radio
operator sent into Nazi-occupied France, was captured by the Gestapo, tortured
and executed. 
Postmedia News   National Post

When Don Cherry said the words “you people that come here” and “you love our milk and honey,” any newcomer to Canada knew exactly who he was talking about. That’s because we have heard these words before. This is a reminder of our place: we did not build this country and we must pay our dues to those who did.

Cherry’s firing shows that this dog-whistle commentary is becoming less tolerable. But calling out his words alone does not strike at the beliefs behind them.

There is a deeply entrenched view in our country that the World Wars were fought by white, old-stock Canadians; people who resemble Cherry. The reality is that the freedoms of the Western world were acquired by the sacrifice of people of all colours and creeds. Called into conflict as colonial subjects, some voluntarily and some forcibly, the stories of millions of non-white soldiers and workers have been consigned to the footnotes of history.

The freedoms of the Western world were acquired by the sacrifice of people of all colours and creeds

It seems obvious to say that the world was mobilized in the World Wars. Indians, Arabs, Africans, Chinese and Caribbean soldiers and workers, and many other peoples, were instrumental to Allied victories in every part of the globe. Their service and sacrifice is as worthy of praise and remembrance as those of white veterans.

I was awed when I learned the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a wartime British secret agent who was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France. Within 10 days of arriving in France, the British agents in her network had been arrested. But Khan refused to return to Britain and did the work of six radio operators. She was captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. A witness report said that her final word at Dachau concentration camp was “liberté.” She was an unlikely spy; a Muslim, a musician, a writer of fairy tales and Indian royalty. And she served with heroism. Khan was posthumously awarded a George Cross by Britain and the Croix de Guerre, with a gold star, by France.

And here are a number of facts I never learned in my history classes.

Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in the First World War. They outnumbered troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa combined. Indian soldiers fought in Flanders Field and died in the trenches. They described the pain of war with words that spoke of their own homeland: “The shells are pouring like rain in the monsoon” and “The corpses cover the country, like sheaves of harvested corn.” Historian Steven Purewal says that Canadian and Punjabi soldiers fought and died side by side in the second Battle of Ypres, and that one in six British Empire soldiers on the Western Front wore a turban.

In the Second World War, 2.5 million Indians fought for the British, forming the largest volunteer army in the war. Indian troops fought bravely from Hong Kong to Italy, and played a notable part in the defeat of Imperial Japan in Burma. Thirty Indians were awarded Victoria Crosses for their service.

And the vital role of Chinese workers in the British war effort has also been buried in history. In 1917, nearly 81,000 labourers from China travelled secretly to Canada, boarded trains from Vancouver to Halifax, to then cross the Atlantic for the battlefields of Europe.

The vital role of Chinese workers in the British war effort has also been buried in history

These workers toiled behind the lines, digging trenches, repairing roads, carrying the wounded and burying the dead. Thousands died on the arduous journey to and from Europe, and on the Western front while supporting Allied troops. Their graves are largely unmarked, and their sacrifices have been unrecognized. One of the reasons they travelled secretly across Canada was because our country discriminated against Asian peoples at that time and had policies to keep Asians out.

What is critical to remember is that non-white soldiers and workers in the wars fought for the liberation of Europe while facing significant racial intolerance or prejudice as colonized peoples, and while being denied the very freedoms they were asked to defend.

In exchange for service during the First World War, Britain promised Indians progressive self-rule, but broke that promise after the war ended. Indian troops fought for the freedom of Europe, but were denied freedom in their own lands.

This was also the case for Canadian soldiers. Francis Pegahmagabow was an elite sniper and Ojibwe Nishnaabe who received medals for bravery during the First World War. Despite his outstanding service to Canada, he returned to our country and faced the discrimination and strict regulations imposed by the Indian Act. He became a leader in the fight for Indigenous rights.

Pte. Buckam Singh also fought in the First World War. He was the first Sikh man to enlist with the Canadian army, in 1915. Because of racist immigration restrictions that did not allow Sikh men to immigrate with their families, Pte. Singh died without family or community in Canada in 1919 from illness contracted during the war.

Frank Wong was a Chinese Canadian who fought in the Second World War. He landed on Juno Beach and was present for the liberation of Holland. Wong said the following about his military service: “I was born in Canada and was proud to be Canadian, but there was so much discrimination … We were not allowed to go in a public swimming pool and if we went to the movies, we had to sit in the back row. I guessed that if I joined the forces and showed my loyalty to Canada, they would give me the right to vote one day.” Chinese and other Asian Canadians were explicitly denied the right to vote until 1949, after the war.

These are heroes we ought to know and cherish

These are heroes we ought to know and cherish. Their service is rendered even more special by their willingness to fight for the freedom of others in spite of their own exclusion, and the hope that their sacrifice would help our country achieve equality.

That fight for equal treatment continues to this day.

More than half a million black African soldiers put their lives on the line for Britain in the Second World War from the Horn of Africa to Burma. Recent reports show they were paid up to three times less than white soldiers. Today, the few remaining black veterans, some now 100 years old, continue to demand just compensation for their service.

Books and movies on the World Wars have omitted the contributions of non-white soldiers and workers, but this does not change the truth of history. People of all races and nationalities made great sacrifices that are worthy of remembrance. And many died for the liberty and equality we enjoy today while being denied their own.

In the days since Cherry’s comments, I have heard repeated the lament that Remembrance Day has lost its meaning to Canadians, and that newcomers do not share its importance. I would be more eager to participate in commemorative activities if Remembrance Day included the history of sacrifice shared by so many from around the world.

On Sunday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh shared a photo of his great-grandfather, Hira Singh, who served with the British in both World Wars. Like Singh, many newcomers to Canada are the children and grandchildren of those who served and died in the wars.

Cherry said what he did because he believes the myth that newcomers have not paid their dues for our freedoms. Firing him does not uproot the beliefs behind his words. We need to tell the complete story of the wars, one that includes the sacrifices made by people of all colours and creeds in shaping the Canada we pride ourselves on today.

Humera Jabir is a lawyer and writer. She is a graduate of McGill University’s Faculty of Law and Lester B. Pearson United World College.

Humera Jabir: What Don Cherry might not know about all those who fought for freedom

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