Montreal’s Chinese and Indigenous community members mark a decolonized Lunar New Year | CBC News

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Elders and youths from Montreal’s Chinese and Indigenous communities stand hand in hand in a big circle.

They are performing a traditional Indigenous round dance together as part of the Lunar New Year festivities in Chinatown.

“My heart is pounding out of my body,” said May Chiu, co-ordinator of the Chinatown Roundtable.

“I’m so thrilled of the magic that happens when these two communities that … live separately to each other [are] able to bond and share.”

People hold hands around a circle.
The event took place at the Chinatown House on Clark Street earlier this week. It brought together both Chinese and Indigenous community members to heal and celebrate. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Chiu organized the event that brought the two communities together earlier this week. It took place at the Chinatown House on Clark Street.

The organizer says it’s important to acknowledge that Chinatown is on unceded territories, and she felt the need to reach out to the Indigenous community to share what she could.

“We have community centres. We have access to share our space. I hope the event gives a whole new layer to the meaning of what it means to decolonize Chinatown,” said Chiu.

One of the attendees was Annie Cheung, a volunteer at the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal.

WATCH | What the dragon means this year:

What does the Year of the Dragon mean?

The organizer of the Lunar New Year festival in Montreal’s Chinatown, Yifang Eva Hu, explains the dragon zodiac sign represents power and prosperity.

Speaking in Cantonese, she explained Indigenous people “were here first,” yet they have had to live through difficulty and discrimination.

“When we Chinese people immigrated here, we were also treated badly. So today is very emotional for me. I feel happy we can all be here,” said Cheung.

Another attendee was Alan Harrington, an activist of the Ojibway Nation. He brought deer meat, wild rice and bannock. In exchange, he got to taste the different Chinese foods that were offered, including Chinese cabbage, noodles and sesame pastries.

“You can hear the laughter, you can hear the talking. This is one beautiful thing about food. It brings us together,” Harrington said.

Annie Cheung, a volunteer at the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal.
Annie Cheung, a volunteer at the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal, says the celebration was very emotional for her. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Harrington is from Shoal Lake, between Ontario and Manitoba.

“When I walked in here today, it felt like back home in my community. You got the elders here and the young people. It really brought that stuff that I’m missing from back home,” he said.

Challenges with cohabitation in Chinatown

Chiu says there are parallels between Chinese Canadian history and Indigenous history. She refers to the Chinese head tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and other policies that specifically targeted Chinese people in Canada.

“A lot of people don’t know about the history of oppression and marginalization of Chinese immigrants. At the same time, a lot of the horrors that were done to the Indigenous people were not taught to us either,” Chiu said.

She adds this event was especially important because there have been some challenges with cohabitation in Chinatown in recent years.

A man standing in a room.
Alan Harrington, an activist of the Ojibway Nation, says the event felt like being back home in his community. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

When the pandemic hit, the Chinatown YMCA, which closed its doors at the end of 2019, turned into a shelter for unhoused Indigenous people. While the shelter was temporary and closed within a few months, Chiu says some Chinatown residents complained.

“I hope that what we have today was not just performative, but active,” she said.

Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel, a Kanien’kehá:ka activist and artist from Kanehsatà:ke, west of Montreal, was also at the event.

Gabriel says it’s important for people who have felt oppressed and marginalized simply based on their culture, race or language to learn about one another’s history.

Two women smile for a photo together.
Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel, left, pictured with May Chiu. Gabriel says the only way to build bridges is to ‘share some wonderful events and to stay united together.’ (Jessica Wu/CBC)

“We become more compassionate and respectful of each other because we get to know one another. It’s about building relationships,” she said, adding both Chinese and Indigenous people have historically been oppressed and misunderstood.

“The only way to build bridges is to sit down, discuss things, share a meal, share some wonderful events and to stay united together,” said Gabriel.

‘A very good beginning’

Chiu says this week’s Lunar New Year event was only the beginning. She says there will be more events like this and more collaborative work with Indigenous people.

Among other things, Chiu says she plans on continuing to work with Projets Autochtones du Québec, an Indigenous shelter within Chinatown. She says the Chinatown Roundtable is already working with them on a community garden.

Meanwhile, Estelle Mi, one of the co-ordinators of Chinatown Youth, says she hopes this event will spark more dialogue within the Chinese community about changing social realities within Chinatown.

Different cultural food on a plate.
Cultural foods from both communities, such as deer meat and bannock and Chinese cabbage and noodles, were present at the event. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

She says there is sometimes a divide in opinion between the older and younger generations within the community.

“I hope that this kind of event will help bridge gaps with older seniors,” she said.

Mi says these kinds of events Chiu organizes are inspiring to the youth and she hopes to be able to carry on this type of work in the future.

LISTEN | Sounds from the event that brought the communities together:

Let’s Go7:12Chinese and Indigenous community members gather to decolonize this Lunar New Year

Montreal’s Chinatown will be the place to be to take in festivities this weekend for the Lunar New Year. And this week, one event brought together two communities who want to heal while they mark the year of the dragon. We’ll bring you some sound of the day gathered by Let’s Go’s Shahroze Rauf.

Meanwhile, activist Gabriel says Chinese and Indigenous communities need to capture the joy as much as they can through events like these.

“I don’t know if anybody really knows what decolonization looks like, but this is a very good beginning,” she said.

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