Cultural Spotlight: The Indo-Fijian story in the Lower Mainland

The Indo-Fijians: Surrey’s Pocket of Paradise, the largely untold story of the Indo-Fijian community in the Lower Mainland is open to the public at the Museum of Surrey. The exhibit, created by Rizwaan Abbas, was, he says, inspired by his father and his community.

“What I really wanted to do with this exhibit was to reintroduce our history and heritage to the Indo-Fijian population,” says Abbas. “I wanted to instill some ownership and pride in who we are.”

Born and raised in Sparwood to an Indo-Fijian family, Abbas was trained as an archaeologist and has worked as one for almost two decades.

He began tilting his career towards museums after completing a museum studies course at the University of Victoria (UVic). Abbas volunteered at the Museum of Surrey where he was invited to pitch an exhibit to the museum’s administration. He pitched the idea of an Indo-Fijian exhibit in Surrey which is one of the world’s largest Indo-Fijian diasporas.

Two months later, Abbas was informed the museum liked his pitch and he could go ahead with creating it. Abbas got to work.

A diaspora within a diaspora

Indo-Fijians have lived on the South Pacific island country for hundreds of years. Fiji became a British colony in 1874. The British brought thousands of people from colonial India to Fiji as agricultural labourers, Abbas’ family among them.

The unique Indo-Fijian culture was formed by the experiences of Indian people in Fiji and their interactions with the Indigenous Fijians and the land itself.

Rizwaan Abbas captures the history and heritage of the local Indo-Fijian community in current exhibition.

“We’re kind of similar to traditional Indian culture, but there’s enough of a difference that we have our own distinct language, food, dress and music,” says Abbas. “This culture was beginning to spring up and this new middle-class of people were emerging and they were mainly Indo-Fijian.”

Along with the new prosperity of the Indo-Fijian community came resentment from Indigenous Fijians that endured after British rule ended in 1970.

“There’s always been a racial tension between the indigenous and the Indo-Fijians, and the racial tension has come to a head on many occasions,” says Abbas.

Coups, he says, and other political unrest in Fiji are directly related to tensions between Indo-Fijians and Indigenous Fijians. As a result, thousands of Indo-Fijians emigrated to places like Canada. Abbas’ father emigrated to Canada in 1973.

“Until recently, anyone who was born and raised in Fiji of Indian descent was not allowed to call themselves a Fijian,” Abbas adds. “That’s like me saying I’m not allowed to call myself Canadian, even though I was born and raised in Sparwood. That would be appalling.”

There are still religious tensions within the Indo-Fijian community itself that Abbas had to navigate. When gathering material for exhibit, a Hindu who had initially agreed to help Abbas stop communicating with him when he found out he was Muslim. Luckily it was an isolated incident.

“That aside, everybody else has been completely positive and the reception has been amazing with this exhibit,” he says. “I’ve had indigenous Fijians come up to me and be appreciative.”

Telling their own story

Abbas drew inspiration from Indigenous peoples in North America taking control of their own stories with their own words. One example he pointed out was a visit to Mayan ruins in Mexico where an Indigenous Mayan tour guide was the one showing visitors around their historic sites. He pointed it out as an example of how communities should be the ones telling their stories.

Abbas made sure that his exhibit would be an accurate representation of the Indo-Fijian community. That included giving more representation to the Hindu religion practiced by the majority of Indo-Fijians, than his own Islamic faith. Abbas also included Indigenous Fijian tapa designs for the exhibit.

“If I’m going to do an exhibit for the Indo-Fijian people then it has to be for all,” says Abbas. “Without the Indigenous Fijians, Indo-Fijian people wouldn’t be who we are.”

“I started this exhibit to honour my dad and I’ve been able to find so many like-minded individuals out of it,’’ says Abbas. “I’ve been able to be exposed to so many great Fijian people here in the Lower Mainland thanks to this. It’s been amazing.”

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.surrey.ca/arts-culture/museum-of-surrey/exhibitions/indo-fijians-surreys-pocket-of-paradise

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