A symbol that’s widely associated with white supremacy has a far different meaning for many people who consider it a symbol of well-being.
On Monday, New West city council considered a request from New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian to support his private member’s bill, which would prevent anyone from selling and displaying symbols that promote hatred and violence. Under Bill C-229, symbols that would be banned include swastikas and other Nazi emblems, Ku Klux Klan symbols and Confederate flags.
Coun. Chinu Das said she supports the bill but recommended council ask Julian to tweak the bill to ensure the word “Nazi” appears before “swastika” each time it’s used in the bill. Das noted Julian’s motion is being put forward with the goal of being respectful and welcoming to all and addressing the increasing number of racist incidents that have occurred during the pandemic.
“The fact is, the swastika was co-opted by Hitler and made into a hatred symbol,” she said. “But if you really look at the word, the word swastika comes from the Sanskrit word svastika. Svastika means well-being. So there is two sides to this word – there is one that is interpreted as a hatred symbol, and swastika, in three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – looks at it in terms of well-being.”
If the goal is to be inclusive and respectful, Das said consideration needs to be given to the fact that many people still use this symbol in a positive way and interpret the word in a different way than the Nazis. She noted the swastika symbol is sometimes seen in doorways and entranceways to homes and is displayed on auspicious days such as birthdays and weddings as a way of welcoming people and hoping for their well-being.
“I know I talked about Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, but it’s not just the eastern cultures. If you really look into the origins of the swastika symbol, it goes back into the western culture as well. There’s a lot of documentation around it. In fact, the oldest artifact found shows the swastika symbol is 15,000 years old,” Das said. “So, for someone in history to corrupt it and use it for a short period and then it gets synonymous with hatred is a sad commentary on our society.”
Das said she fully supported Julian’s bill but asked that it be slightly changed to ensure that the motion references “Nazi swastika” instead of “swastika.”
“We are trying to do the right thing here, but also to do the right thing by members of this community who may be Hindus, Buddhists or Jains,” she said. “It does not mean hatred to them.”
Das said she doesn’t want the original intent of what a swastika was or still means to some people to be lost.
“I know it may seem trivial to all of you who probably don’t have the history that I have, but it does mean a lot to me that this term is also both respected for what it was originally and what it needs to be,” she said.
Mayor Jonathan Cote suggested the city’s letter to Julian include an explanation of the reason for council’s request to add “Nazi” before “swastika” in his bill.
“I wasn’t actually aware myself personally of that history with that term,” he said. “I do appreciate you raising that. I do think it is important to add to this discussion.”
Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said there’s been a habit of people appropriating and using existing symbols in ways that are different than their original meanings. He said it’s been difficult to see images of people flying of Nazi and Confederate flags on the lawns of Parliament in Ottawa in recent weeks.
“There is no place in Canada for bringing your Nazi flag to Parliament and flying it on the lawn,” he said. “So, I think that given what’s happened in the last couple of weeks, this is especially timely.”