Farmer protests in B.C. have both local and international roots

A brief history of B.C.’s Farmers Unions and anti-racist activism

A farm in the Fraser Valley. (Flickr: Gerald Kichok)

As farmer protests in India continue, agitation across Canada in support of the international protests also gathers steam. For many, it’s easy to attribute this solidarity to the Indo-Canadian population’s “family ties back home.”

This solidarity, particularly in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley Region, is actually rooted in half a century’s worth of local history. Protestors are not simply showing solidarity with Punjabi farmers, they are continuing a longstanding local movement centred around labour unions and anti-racist activism.

In the 1970s, farm work was the third most dangerous job in B.C. Workers did not have access to toilets or clean drinking water and were excluded from provincial health and safety regulations. They didn’t have a guaranteed minimum wage, set hours, or overtime either, resulting in many making a paltry $2,000 per year.

It was under these circumstances that farm workers first gathered to protest at a local farm in order to collect $80,000 in unpaid wages. Their efforts were a success, and it galvanized them to officially form a trade union.

This was not an easy task for overworked and underpaid labourers to accomplish. Much of what was spurring the existing negligent labour policies was racism. In 1970 Vancouver’s historic Black neighbourhood, Hogan’s Alley, was abruptly demolished to make way for a viaduct, and the KKK were burning crosses at Stave Lake in 1981.

Residential schools were still operating in the area until 1984. Farm workers faced death threats, vandalism to their property, and threats of losing even the low paying jobs they had if they were to unionize. Despite all that, in 1980 the Canadian Farmworkers Union held its first convention at Douglas College and elected Raj Chouhan as their president.

The Union immediately began advocating for better wages and safety regulations for all farm workers. In doing so, they saw more than ever how labour rights issues were inextricably linked to racial equality issues in the Lower Mainland.

Many of the same people who founded the Farmworkers Union, like Raj Chouhan and Charan Gill, began to reach out to other local communities who faced racism. Working together with local Indigenous, Filipino, and Mexican communities, they formed the broad-based and multi-cultural BC Organization to Fight Racism.

They published and distributed anti-KKK brochures, protested against discriminatory immigration practices, and connected with Mexican-American civil rights legend Cesar Chavez — often inviting him to speak at their rallies.

A Time to Rise is a 1981 documentary by director Anand Patwardhan which contains poignant footage of farm workers on their journey to unionize.

Women in colourful Punjabi suits hold their children in their laps as they vote to unionize. We are shown a tiny basement apartment that houses matriarch Bibi Pritam Kaur, her children, grandchildren, and photographs of her deceased husband. She is one of the most vocal organizers, singing Punjabi folk songs, and dancing as protestors march down the street.

On Dec. 7 the first president of the Canadian Farmworkers Union and co-creator of the BC Organization to Fight Racism, Raj Chouhan, was elected to be the 42 Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of BC —  the first South Asian to hold the position of Speaker in Canadian history.

The protests happening in India right now are the biggest protest movement in human history. Global solidarity is being extended from San Francisco to London because it’s an easy movement to get behind — much of the world’s rice, pulses, spices, and wheat is grown by Indian farmers.

In the Fraser Valley, protestors aren’t just showing up for a lovable, far-away movement, but carrying on a long tradition of expressing solidarity to our multicultural local farming culture.