Pancouver-Logo

Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Joven Narwal, KC: Let us draw inspiration from Holi and Holla Mohalla to continue striving to dismantle systemic racism

Joven Narwal
Joven Narwal, KC has called on regulatory bodies to publicly report on how they're conforming with the province's Anti-Racism Data Act.

Below are the speaking notes for a speech by Joven Narwal, KC at the Surrey Arts Centre on March 24. Mr. Narwal delivered his speech after receiving one of Spice Radio’s annual Hands Against Racism Awards.

Receiving this award today is truly humbling, fills me with gratitude, and inspires me. I am profoundly moved by the symbolism of our gathering today, which coincides with the Hindu festival of Holi, which celebrates love and the triumph of good over evil, and the festival of my Sikh faith, Hola Mohalla, which celebrates bravery and spiritual strength. These converging festivals encapsulate the essence of the struggle against racism by celebrating unity, spreading love and joy, and by showcasing our collective strength. These festivals resonate deeply with me, anchoring me to my roots.

My maternal roots in British Columbia are nearly 120 years old and date back to my great-grandfather’s arrival in 1906. Horror-struck by the overt systemic racism, he was inspired by the Ghadar movement to overthrow British Rule which sprouted on the West Coast of North America among Punjabi-Sikhs and other Indian-origin British subjects. He returned to Punjab to fight for the cause, becoming one of five Jathedars of the Babbar-Akali independence movement. He served a total of six years as a guest of Her Majesty in British jails for a variety of political offences, ranging from involvement in unlawful publications that described British exploitation of India and Indians abroad and making speeches against the Crown.

As my great-grandfather’s revolutionary career took root in Punjab, his son, my grandfather, first came to British Columbia as a 13-year-old. He eventually became a community organizer, possibly the first Punjabi-Sikh union delegate in B.C., and in the 1950s led a delegation to Ottawa that met with the then Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and the future Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, who was the Minister of External Affairs, to advocate for the easing of racist immigration restrictions.

My father came to Canada in 1976. He was a lawyer in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, but at the time, there was no mechanism by which to have his Indian law degree recognized. He eventually became one of the first Punjabi-origin Notary Publics in B.C. His office was located in the Punjabi Market in South Vancouver where he and my mother worked together.

I was born nearly 42 years ago, one week after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was proclaimed. I grew up in the Golden Age of the Punjabi Market in the 1980s and 90s. That was a watershed era in the socio-economic, cultural, and political history of the South Asian community and a watershed more broadly as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms began to take root. It was also a period of moral panic in which the “Indo-Canadian” community was vilified for extremism and gang violence, and were the object of unfair treatment by the police.

The narratives of resistance and resilience in my family history laid the foundations for my own perspectives. I felt the hallmarks of a police attitude from an earlier era with the wrongful arrest of Retired Supreme Court Justice Hon. Selwyn Romilly by the Vancouver Police Department, which prompted me to write an open letter where I pointed out that 47 years earlier, in 1974, Selwyn Romilly’s younger brother, Hon. Valmond Romilly, who was a lawyer and future provincial court judge, had also been wrongfully arrested by the VPD. This event was a painful reminder that history can repeat itself.

However, my message was also to point out the remarkable difference in the response of the VPD and mayor to the two incidents. In 1974, the VPD refused to apologize and it was not until a successful lawsuit was brought that the VPD issued a memo advising all members to be guided by the judgment and also said an apology should be given. With the 2021 incident, the VPD and mayor both issued public apologies, and in 2023 publicly announced that the VPD had informally resolved the public complaint with the Late Hon. Justice Romilly by revising its department-wide handcuffing and arrest policies.

The conclusion of that saga, in my estimation, proves the importance of the message of my 2021 open letter that the difference in response to the two incidents was a positive sign, and proved the fulfillment of my hope that it would be a meaningful teaching moment and an opportunity for concrete action. When tragedies like this occur, they must be used as an opportunity to reflect and consider whether current strategies to address racial bias are adequate and whether there are effective mechanisms of accountability.

I am further enheartened that in 2022 the Government of British Columbia took a significant step against systemic racism by introducing the Anti-Racism Data Act and will soon be introducing broader anti-racism legislation that builds on the Act.

However, there is still more work to be done. Systemic racism is not confined to traditional policing and law enforcement. It extends to all regulatory bodies.

Last week, on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I wrote to the Law Society of British Columbia regarding systemic racism in the disciplinary process. Having acted for about a hundred lawyers, I illustrated my concern by drawing attention to an unsettling statistic: Since 2021, 52% of consent agreements for discipline involved racialized lawyers and 30% of issued citations concerned racialized lawyers, which obviously amount to a much greater proportion than the total proportion of racialized lawyers in the bar. While it is self-evident that protection of the public and access to justice requires a bar that reflects the diversity of the population it serves, systemic racism and disproportionate discipline of racialized lawyers undermines this by eroding public trust and stands as a barrier to diversity. I called for a comprehensive review of disciplinary processes.

Last week, I also wrote to the BC Securities Commission because of notably higher incidences of scrutiny of companies that have a discernable number of racialized directors, officers, or shareholders, particularly of Asian and South Asian descent, and because of my concern of selective enforcement. I informed the Commission that failure to take action would result in many racialized British Columbians electing not to fully participate in the capital markets, including as public company directors and officers. The systemic barriers are already having this effect.

As with my previous open letter, I continue to be hopeful. In my view, all regulatory organizations should commit to the province’s anti-racism data mandate and to transparency and accountability by publicly reporting on both compliance and enforcement actions and outcomes, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and other relevant demographics to allow for scrutiny of its processes in an effort to identify and address biases and systemic concerns.

As we stand united in our diversity today, let us draw inspiration from Holi and Holla Mohalla to continue striving to dismantle systemic racism and build a community where every person, regardless of race, can live with dignity, respect, and in harmony with one another.

Jovan Narwal, KC is a trial and appellate lawyer in Vancouver and an adjunct professor of law at the Allard School of Law at UBC. He served as the first nonwhite president of the Vancouver Bar Association in its 126-plus year history.

Take Action Now

Pancouver fuels creativity and promotes a more inclusive society. You can contribute to support our mission of shining a spotlight on diverse artists. Donations from within Canada qualify for a tax receipt.

Share this article

Picture of Staff

Staff

Subscribe

Tags

Related Articles

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

© 2023 The Society of We Are Canadians Too Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.