9 February, 2015: Indo-Canadian author and activist, Vinita Kinra, delivered a powerful hour-long speech in French to over 500 students and staff of Toronto’s premier Francophone school, École secondaire Étienne-Brûlé. Kinra was invited by Passages Canada, in partnership with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, to sensitize Canadian youth on the delicate subject of racism and discrimination, as part of the school’s festivities surrounding Black History Month of February, 2015.
“French is my fourth language, after English, Hindi and Punjabi, confessed Kinra, who holds a Master’s degree in French from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.
The crowd cheered her loudly when she upheld her book, Pavitra in Paris, now in the school’s library. “My life was not always a success,” admitted Kinra candidly. “I was a victim of racism and discrimination in Vancouver before I decided to become an author and activist.” She stressed the need to stay positive and hopeful. “A small moon has the ability to light up the extensively dark sky. Your life may be gloomy today, but chase that ray of hope, because dreams can be fulfilled only by staying hopeful and not allowing anyone to stand in the way of achieving your goals.”
Kinra emphasized the power of education and awareness in changing mindsets of people who are hostile, fearful or unwelcoming of those who don’t belong to their race, religion or ethnicity. “Having a world full of same race people would be like having only one type of flora, fauna or food.” She asked her audience if they could eat Sushi every day for the rest of their lives. The response was an overwhelming, “NO!” She underlined that the rainbow is beautiful thanks to its seven colours; likewise, the earth is breathtaking due to its diversity.
Kinra’s presentation was intense and wide-ranging. It encompassed not only injustices faced by black people of African descent, but covered a full range of global crimes against humanity like the Holocaust during the Second World War.
In Canada, she highlighted the discriminatory treatment accorded to Japanese-Canadians immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, USA, in 1941. She also shed light on the deplorable conditions under which Chinese-Canadians worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1881-1884, and just after the project was over, a head tax was imposed on future immigration from China as the labourers were no longer useful.
A tough lesson in history, Kinra’s speech brought home the hard reality of residential schools for Native Canadian children in the nineteenth century. Infamous for rampant abuse, cultural genocide, strict regime and endless atrocities, the residential school system killed the native Indian culture by its forced separation of children from their families.
Kinra drew an intriguing sketch of Mahatma Gandhi’s countless contributions to Civil Rights movements in South Africa, by showing the audience a video clip of the young Gandhi being pushed out of a train in Pretoria because he resisted moving to third class after paying to travel first class, only because he was considered “Coloured”. “If they knew that the person they are throwing out of the train will be the gigantic force who would throw the entire British rule out of India, they would have thought twice,” Kinra remarked jovially.
She gave credit to legendary Afro-American icons like Martin Luther King Junior, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela for carrying forward Gandhi’s legacy of civil disobedience and non-violence.
Kinra wrapped up her punch-packed presentation with glowing tributes to Black icons like Barack Obama, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.
“Do me a favour,” she demanded of her audience in a dramatic end to her gripping speech, at times starkly graphic of the bloody past. “Hug the person sitting next to you and say, ‘Zero Tolerance for Racism and Discrimination!”’ The crowd burst into loud cheers for Kinra and students could be seen hugging each other warmly.