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B.C. historian explores South Asian-Indigenous relations

McGill PhD candidate Rishma Johal looks to hear voices from both communities in Pacific Northwest
Mission’s Rishma Johal is researching historic relations between South Asian migrants and Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest for her PhD at McGill. /Submitted Photo

Mission’s Rishma Johal knew academia would be challenging.

The McGill PhD candidate was warned by professors and supervisors along the way that it would be hard to find a job in the long run.

“There’s this looming fear sometimes that comes along while you’re studying, even though I’m not quite at that stage yet,” Johal said.

However, while researching her current thesis, Johal discovered a different but familiar challenge.

Her project delves into historical interactions between South Asian migrants and Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest between 1857 and 1947.

Historical data is limited because the thesis focuses on two racialized communities, Johal says.

“The most challenging part for me currently, while doing my research, has been trying to trace stories of South Asians and Indigenous communities,” she said.

Johal says researching South Asian history has recently become a bit easier because there are more online archives available. However, looking at relations with Indigenous communities is still challenging.

“It’s not something that the South Asian community speaks about openly,” she said.

So far, Johal has poured through oral histories, interviews and other secondary sources but she feels her research is only halfway done.

The current research looks at how South Asians engaged with settler colonialism in both Canada and the United States. Johal has found some cases where South Asians and Indigenous peoples had married and discovered other cases in Chilliwack where South Asian farmers bordered Indigenous reserves.

“[South Asians] basically had this middling status. They weren’t necessarily individuals who thought to colonize or displace Indigenous communities… They were sometimes categorized alongside Indigenous people and faced many challenges on their own but at the same time, engaging with land ownership, engaging with the Canadian state – the settler state. They were sometimes, more than often, positioned in a place where they were also participating in Indigenous displacement and dispossession. So I look at the intricacies of those encounters [and] what that meant.”

Johal is recruiting participants for the study, including Indigenous peoples who interacted with South Asian migrants and South Asian migrants who arrived before 1947 (or their descendants).

“There are some cases where I feel like the narratives are missing. I want to hear the voices of those people of these communities,” she said.

The current project isn’t the first Johal has completed. In the past, she has studied subjects such as the Ghadar Movement and its impact on South Asian Canadian women, and Sikh roots in the Fraser Valley.

Johal, who grew up in Mission but currently lives in Abbotsford, was first inspired to pursue academia while completing her undergrad. She was struck by the way one of her professors was teaching and thought she would enjoy it too.

Academics became her main pursuit and she developed a passion for writing and researching. She also spent time as a reporter covering South Asian news but had the itch to return to academia.

Going forward, Johal is interested in researching South Asian history in Alaska and Hawaii.

However, her main goal is to teach at a university. At McGill last semester, she taught Quebec History and Canadian Women’s History.

“It’s something I absolutely love doing. I love being able to share my passion for history with others,” she said.

Those interested in participating in the study can contact Johal at 604-300-8746 or

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Dillon White

About the Author: Dillon White

I joined the Mission Record in November of 2022 after moving to B.C. from Nova Scotia earlier in the year.
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