Out in the Open

'I felt like my home kind of turned against me': Newfoundlander grapples with provincial pride and prejudice

Avi Cheema is deeply proud of her Newfoundland upbringing. But as the daughter of Indian immigrants, she's also experienced racism in the majority white province.

Avi Cheema and her family were welcomed into the province with kindness ー until 9/11

Avi Cheema, 6, with her mom, Sukhinder Cheema, and grandfather, Puran Singh Cheema at Flat Rock, Newfoundland. (Submitted by Avi Cheema)

This story was originally published on May 3, 2019.

Growing up, Avi Cheema was confused when kids in her Newfoundland hometown started calling her grandfather a terrorist.

"I couldn't understand why people would associate my grandfather, who wears a turban, with [someone] who did like a really, really terrible thing," Cheema told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

This wasn't always the experience for Cheema's family. When she moved with her Indian immigrant parents from Alberta to St. John's, N.L. 20 years ago, they were welcomed with immense kindness, and considered the province a safe haven.

"I was in awe," Cheema remembered. "I thought I'd landed in this little private paradise of an island, where I was protected, and my family could just be safe and happy."

They quickly became proud Newfoundlanders ー her mom taught at Memorial University, and her grandfather was involved with the community.

Facing racism after 9/11

Avi Cheema and her family moved from Alberta to Newfoundland 20 years ago. (Submitted by Avi Cheema)

But just days after the events of 9/11, treatment towards the family took a much different tone. Cheema says people in the community associated them with terrorism because of their skin colour, and because her grandfather wore a turban.

"One of the teachers at my elementary school had compared my grandfather to Osama Bin Laden," Cheema said.

Initially, she felt hurt and betrayed by the racial remarks. But as she got older, Cheema dug deeper into educating herself on discrimination, and the history of racialized people in Canada, as a student at Halifax's Dalhousie University.

"This is something that is very deeply grounded in ignorance, and even sometimes in more malicious racist ideologies," she said of the mistreatment her family received.

Cheema realized that the lack of conversations around race in her hometown was problematic, and saw an undercurrent of racism that profoundly shaped her and her family's lives.

"There are not very many racialized people in Newfoundland. There was maybe two or three of us, at most, growing up," she recalled.

As of 2016, about 2.4 per cent of people in Newfoundland and Labrador are immigrants and 2.3 per cent identify as visible minorities, according to the latest census data.

'This province that he loved just gave up on him'

Avi Cheema's grandfather, 76, hiking in Northern Bay Sands in 2013. (Submitted by Avi Cheema)

The tipping point for Cheema came in 2018, when her grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, and placed in elderly care for the final few months of his life. Being a former member of the Indian army during Indo-Pakistani wars, he was put in a nursing home for veterans.

At that point, her grandfather lost his ability to speak English, and could only speak in broken Punjabi. Cheema says that he was often "othered" by the staff, and other veterans in the home.

"All it took was for his health to deteriorate … I felt like this province that he loved just gave up on him," she said.

An accumulation of her experiences ultimately drove the 26-year-old to leave the province she loves. Now, Cheema lives in Toronto, and remains conflicted about her feelings towards Newfoundland and Labrador. She thinks that people there need to be more welcoming of immigrants.

"Newfoundland pride is really beautiful. But because it gives something for people to protect, I think that becomes a little bit difficult. When people don't look like traditional Newfoundlanders ー things get a little tricky."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "Point of Pride".


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