It took almost six months for Joban Panag to reach his goal of making it to the BC Provincial Heritage Fair.
He shudders to think that the Indian passengers of the Komagata Maru were trapped aboard the ill-fated vessel for nearly six months in 1914. There were 376 people who made that voyage with the dream of becoming Canadian. They came agonizingly close to the promised land but were not allowed to dock at Vancouver. Panag admires Sikh leader Gurdit Singh for challenging Canada’s discriminatory immigration laws back then. He also takes his Canadian freedoms less for granted now.
The Grade 5 Mission Hill Elementary student interviewed Singh’s great-great-granddaughter, Nimrat Randhawa.
“I think it’s great to see how far Canada has come from when the Komagata Maru Incident happened to now,” said Randhawa. “It’s a huge change.”
Panag’s journey of discovery started at the school in January. After two months of work, he was ready to present his project at the Mission Hill Heritage Fair, alongside 140 other students.
One of those participants was Meerub Siddique, a Grade 6 student who focused on the fight for women’s rights in Canada. Seeking an expert, Siddique contacted Dr. Lara Campbell, Professor of Women’s Studies at SFU, who told Siddique about her heroes. This included Helena Gutteridge, Viola Desmond, and Nellie McClung.
Siddique then connected with Marcia McClung, who said that her famous grandmother would be pleased to see more women elected at every level of Canadian society but not as happy that women have yet to reach 50 per cent representation in politics.
“She would feel mixed,” McClung told Siddique.
McClung added that she would be glad to see the pay equality legislation, but greatly disturbed by the ongoing issue of violence against women.
Siddique and Panag advanced with 19 of their Mission Hill peers to the Vernon & District Heritage Fair — an event organized by the North Okanagan Optimist Club where 42 students competed for 25 spots in the Okanagan Regional Fair.
Siddique and Panag were successful and took their projects to Kelowna to stand among the top 60 in the whole valley. From there, only four would qualify for the BC Provincial Fair in Squamish. The first two tickets went to students from Kelowna and Creston, respectively. Siddique won the third spot in the competition and the final student to qualify was Panag.
Vernon’s two delegates arrived in Squamish on July 4 for four full days of enriching activities alongside 45 other young historians from around the province. Lodged at Quest University, the students were able to spend the time exploring history in fresh and exciting ways: they rode a gondola up the Stawamus Chief to hike the sacred mountain, and gained a deeper appreciation of the Squamish and Lil’wat peoples at their cultural centre in Whistler, they rode a train around the West Coast Railway Heritage Park, and another train deep into the Britannia Mine, weaved cedar bark, taking outdoor survival training, and panning for gold and gemstones.
The pair shared their heritage projects one last time at the public showcase on July 7. The provincial fair is the end of the line. While proud of her achievement, Siddique is already looking ahead, mindful of Dr. Campbell’s call to action, “We need to work for racial equality, gender equality, and environmental justice to make sure that everything around us is healthy for us.”
“I think that there is a lot of work to be done in a lot of different areas,” added Marcia McClung, before telling Siddique her favourite quote from her grandmother: “Never explain, never retract, never apologize. Just get the thing done and let them howl.”
Siddique now looks forward to next year.
“I’m inspired by all the women who got told no so many times, but they kept on going,” she said. “I want to do something. I want to have my voice heard.”
Joban Panag is building up steam for new challenges, too. He has taken an interest in the work of the Sikh Foundation, which promotes greater understanding between Sikhs and all people. He knows age-old prejudices persist, echoes of the Komagata Maru Incident.
Panag wants to see more sharing of ideas, perspectives, and cultures, like what he experienced on his heritage fair journey. Whatever courses he charts will be informed by that kind of respect and inclusion — what the would-be Canadians of the Komagata Maru were looking for a century ago.
Meerub Siddique agrees that heritage fairs develop citizenship.
“I feel like you learn so much, and you get to meet these new people, and you get to make new friends, and you get to have this fun opportunity,” she said. “You get to build a relationship with people that wasn’t possible before.”
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