In Conversation with Dr. Monika Singh | National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

iin conversation with dr monika singh

In an exclusive interview for ATI Vancouver on the eve of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, contributor Sanu Nair sat down with Dr. Monika Singh, whose extraordinary journey from India to Canada has taken her on a unique path.

Monika, who started as a social worker in India now works with the Ministry of Forests, BC public service as a Manager, Indigenous Relations for the West Coast Region, shares her insights and experiences of a remarkable journey.

dr monika singh recieving a letter of appreciation from high bar first nation
Dr Monika Singh receiving a letter of appreciation from High Bar First Nation

In our conversation, Monika explores the striking similarities she discovered between India’s Adivasis and Canada’s indigenous peoples, also highlighting the need for cultural understanding and integration among newcomer immigrants. She sheds light on the pivotal role that indigenous communities play in addressing the global challenge of climate change, discussing the obstacles they confront and the collaborative solutions they bring to the table.

dr monika singh on first nations territory
Dr Monika Singh on First Nations territory

Join us as we delve into Monika’s amazing journey and her perspectives on critical issues at the intersection of culture, environment, and societal progress. Excerpts below –

Q. Your journey from India to Canada is truly remarkable. Can you share more about how you transitioned from being a social worker in India to working among the First Nations communities? 

A. My journey from India to Canada was not necessarily a planned route. I began my career deeply entrenched in the social sector in India, where I worked at the grassroots level, directly engaging with tribal communities. This experience working with research and non-government organizations (NGOs) provided me the opportunity to understand the intricate challenges faced by poor and marginalized communities.

After some years, I returned to my alma mater, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), to teach aspiring social workers. Teaching for approximately five years offered me a different perspective on social issues and the power of education.

However, a desire to address broader societal issues started taking root. This led me to join an international NGO Oxfam GB, where I engaged with tribal and rural communities. But to make a meaningful impact on a larger scale, I realized further education was essential and I decided to pursue my PhD. 

Fate intervened when I attended the World Forestry Congress and met a UBC professor whose interest matched with my work. He not only suggested I pursue my Ph.D. at UBC but also secured a scholarship for me.

Initially, my plan was to return to India, but my perspective shifted as I became more involved with indigenous communities during my studies. My mentors and I often discussed my post-Ph.D. aspirations, and I expressed my desire to serve as a bridge between indigenous communities and the government.

At that time, I wasn’t aware that a role like this even existed. Nevertheless, it seemed as if I was inadvertently crafting my own job description. An opportunity with the provincial BC government materialized, and I was fortunate to secure the position. It felt as though I had manifested this opportunity.

So, in essence, my journey from India to Canada reflects that it’s not one’s place of origin but how one is perceived and the willingness to better understand, respect and empathize that truly matters.

Q: How does your experience working with Adivasis in India compare to your work with First Nations communities in Canada? Did the prior experience help?

A: Surprisingly, I’ve found a wealth of similarities between indigenous communities in both countries, not just in their cultural practices, but also in lifestyle, ceremonies, belief systems, and even some shared stories. 

For instance, the story of the sun being swallowed has variations in both places. Among the First Nations, they believe that a raven ate the sun and turned black. While in an important Indian story, Hanuman swallowed the sun. 

The reverence for nature, rivers, and mountains, as well as ceremonies related to births and deaths, are remarkably similar. While there are differences, like access to education and information, it’s the unexpected commonalities that have truly fascinated me. 

These shared elements serve as a reminder of the profound connections that exist among indigenous cultures worldwide, despite the geographical distances that separate them.

Q. Do you also think there’s a similarity in the challenges that the two communities face in respective countries?

Certainly, both India and Canada share historical legacies that have profoundly influenced the treatment of indigenous and tribal communities.

In India, many of the laws and regulations including those governing tribal communities are remnants of British colonial rule. These laws were designed primarily to serve the interests of the colonizers, often at the expense of local and tribal populations. This situation continues to prevail today, where many of these colonial-era regulations persist, hampering recognition of local indigenous governance of tribal communities.

Similarly, in Canada, the legacy of settler colonialism has left indigenous communities grappling with systemic challenges, including land dispossession, and a history of discriminatory policies and practices that the government is working to address.

To address these issues, both India and Canada must undertake substantial reforms. In India’s case, it is imperative to revisit and reform colonial-era regulations to ensure they align with the principles of justice and self-determination for tribal communities. This includes recognizing and respecting traditional governance systems and rights over land and resources.

In Canada, efforts to address indigenous rights must continue, with a focus on reconciliation, and increased representation of indigenous communities in decision-making processes. The government continues to dismantle systemic barriers that hinder the full participation and success of indigenous peoples in Canadian society.

Overall, while the historical contexts may differ, the shared challenge is to rectify historical injustices and ensure the rights and dignity of indigenous and tribal communities are upheld.

Q. Considering the increasing immigration to Canada, how do you view the gap in social and cultural interactions between the newcomers and the indigenous people? Why is it important to address this gap?

The knowledge gap is a matter of growing concern, especially among newcomers who may not have had prior exposure to indigenous history and culture. This gap represents a significant hurdle to achieving a harmonious and inclusive society. Understanding the indigenous peoples whose ancestral lands newcomers now call home is of paramount importance. 

It’s essential for immigrants to recognize that they are residing on indigenous land, and this acknowledgment is the foundation of building respectful relationships.

Moreover, indigenous communities in Canada have a rich history, culture, and unique perspectives that newcomers should be aware of. By learning about these communities and their histories, newcomers can foster a deeper appreciation for the diverse tapestry of Canada. This understanding can lead to stronger bonds between different cultural groups, promoting harmony within the country.

For instance, while working in the Interior (Cariboo) and building relationships with First Nation communities, I did not really limit my interaction and engagement during working hours. If there was some cultural event or celebration on a weekend or beyond office hours, I chose to attend those because I was interested and enjoyed doing that. This certainly helped deepen my understanding and also build a better relationship with the Nations.

Q: What challenges did you face as a landed immigrant trying to bridge the gap between First Nations and the provincial government in your role? Did you ever feel like an outsider?

A: One of the initial challenges I encountered was language. Although I grew up speaking English, it was not the same as the English commonly used here, and the nuances were different. 

But I’ve come to realize that fitting in, in the conventional sense, isn’t the ultimate goal. What truly matters is being passionate about your work, striving to make a positive impact, and doing your best. So, it wasn’t a daunting challenge for me to work with indigenous communities since their culture had similarities to mine. Understanding their culture, and behaviors came naturally to me. Concepts like family dynamics, the importance of ceremonies, and the perception of time were familiar and relatable. 

The age at which you move also plays a crucial role. I didn’t relocate at a young age, so developing cultural adaptability became critical. 

In the end, it wasn’t about fitting in perfectly; it was about embracing diversity and thriving in an environment of continuous learning and adaptation.

Q: In a world grappling with climate change, what role do tribal communities play in addressing these issues?

A: Tribal and indigenous communities worldwide, including those in India and Canada, face common challenges tied to climate change, land rights, and resource management. These communities often reside in resource-rich areas, putting them at the forefront of environmental concerns. While challenges manifest differently in various regions, the fundamental struggle for land rights and sustainable resource use remains constant.

One vital solution is a balanced approach to resource management that involves indigenous knowledge. Engaging indigenous communities in decision-making processes can lead to more responsible resource extraction and development practices. 

Tribal communities, with their traditional wisdom and close ties to the land, offer valuable insights and a commitment to environmental stewardship. Recognizing their rights and contributions is crucial in the global effort to combat climate change and ensure responsible resource utilization. Their involvement is essential for a sustainable and equitable future.

Q: What insights or lessons would you like to bring back to the tribal communities in India?

A: One dream I cherish is to build an exchange program, bringing together tribal communities I’ve worked with in India and the First Nation communities here in Canada. 

The key learning from my journey in Canada is the importance of engagement and dialogue with the government. While asserting rights is valuable, collaborating with the government can also be effective. In India, we still grapple with colonial regulations, necessitating a shift towards more indigenous policies.

My dream exchange aims to enable learning and understanding from each other, bridging the gap between these distinct but interconnected communities.

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The Letter of Appreciation


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