Calls for B.C. to recognize caste oppression after landmark decisions in Seattle, Toronto

Seattle was the first city outside of South Asia to add caste as part of its anti-discrimination laws on Feb. 21.  (John Froschauer/AP Photo - image credit)
Seattle was the first city outside of South Asia to add caste as part of its anti-discrimination laws on Feb. 21. (John Froschauer/AP Photo - image credit)

Seattle City Council and the Toronto District School Board recently made the unprecedented decision to recognize and address discrimination based on the caste system — and now some British Columbians are pressing for similar recognition in the province.

The caste system is a form of social hierarchy in India that is passed down through families. The system dictates the profession a person can have and whom they can marry.

It was banned in India in 1948, but members of the South Asian community say it continues to affect lives in North America, often in unspoken or surreptitious ways.

Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, a historian with Parks Canada based in Abbotsford, B.C., describes a mixture of "shock, disbelief, excitement, [and] hope" when she found out about the decision in Seattle last month and the Toronto school board following suit last week.

"In terms of the North American diaspora context, it's about time. Many of us [in the South Asian community] are advocating for awareness-building of the system of violence that exists across the world because of this hierarchy," she said, adding that the silent "violence" of this discrimination can be just as harmful as physical violence.

Sandhra and members of the South Asian community are calling on the provincial government and school boards to create awareness of caste oppression.

University of the Fraser Valley
University of the Fraser Valley

A silent system

The system originated from the Hindu religion, with brahmins, or priests, taking the top spot in the hierarchy. At the bottom were dalits, or untouchables, who were forced into undesirable jobs like sewer cleaning and working in fields.

Sandhra says the caste system isn't isolated to Hinduism, but has filtered into other faiths over thousands of years, including her own, Sikhism.

"One of the key tenets of [the Sikh] faith is that we're not supposed to believe in the caste system … and yet it's still practised in silent ways," she said.

That includes the stigma over certain last names that can indicate caste in some cultures.

"I've heard stories of people who've changed their last names moving to Canada because of that fear of the stigma behind [the caste system]," Sandhra said.

Sandhra says it's hard to quantify how widespread caste discrimination is in B.C., but you can spot it if you know how to identify the language.

"During times of marriage, you see that language pop up around wanting 'somebody from the higher caste' … And in the Sikh tradition, … we even have a separate gurdwhara, a sacred space, for people who are not from the 'high caste,'" she said.

"It's not like a survey has been done where you can say that it's happening in a violent, outward way and that's actually more harmful because it's silent," Sandhra said.

'Got to start somewhere'

Seattle Coun. Kshama Sawant said the city's ban on caste-based discrimination is the first of its kind outside South Asia.

"It has really electrified and sent a message of empowerment for caste-oppressed people," she said.

Having grown up in India, Sawant says she was conscious of the inequality surrounding her and was surprised to see the same inequality in the U.S.

John Froschauer/AP Photo
John Froschauer/AP Photo

"The concentration of South Asian immigrant community workers has expanded over the last couple of decades in the United States, and so has the incidence of caste discrimination in workplaces," she said.

"We especially have data and also many personal testimonies of hundreds of workers from the tech sector," she said.

Sawant says she's heard of bosses treating employees poorly, or even denying them raises or promotions, if they're deemed to be of a lower caste.

When the law comes into effect near the end of the month, workers will be able to sue their employer if they feel caste discrimination is being used against them, she said.

In Abbotsford, Sandhra is taking inspiration from the changes to co-curate an exhibition about caste discrimination at the Sikh Heritage Museum.

She hopes presenting the issue in public will make people understand the harm of the system.

"You'd be shocked at how few people know this history of caste and how it kind of infiltrates Canada," she said, adding the first step has to take place in the classroom.