Jungfateh Singh: Kim Bolan’s Legacy Of Epistemic Violence
"[I]t’s crucial for the Sikh community to comprehend the problematic significance of Kim Bolan receiving a [2023 Lieutenant Governor’s BC Journalism Fellowship]"
August 2, 2023 | 7 min. read | Opinion
In all my years of travelling the world, one of the most prevalent myths about Surrey is its link with gangs and violence, a relationship that appears to be difficult, if not impossible, to break. It is so firmly ingrained in the city's mythology that it may be the only prevalent mythology that exists. Think about it: what else comes to mind when we think about Surrey?
This begs the question: how did this myth surface and come to define this city, and specifically, its Punjab community? Of course, there must be someone to write and spread these myths for them to exist, and some do so much more persistently than others that they have built successful careers around it.
On July 25th, Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin announced the second recipient of the Lieutenant Governor's BC Journalism Fellowship. A $25,000 fellowship, over three years, totalling $75,000, that is "designed to provide a working journalist the opportunity to develop a well-substantiated, long-form piece of journalism to shed light on a subject of importance to British Columbians." The fellowship certainly espouses admirable intentions, wanting to provide journalists with the time and resources they require to “produce in-depth coverage of important issues,” due to their suggestion that “budget cutbacks have become a reality for most newsrooms and deep-dive journalism requires significant resources.”
So, can we suppose a fellowship would be offered to a new and emerging journalist or a smaller, independent publication? No, unfortunately. Kim Bolan, Postmedia's most notable journalist over the last several decades, was given this fellowship.
In all candour, my initial feelings upon reading this were of anger and annoyance.
When I heard that Kim Bolan, a white journalist who has spent her entire career covering Sikh affairs in the lower mainland, was going to be given a huge sum of money to continue her work, I could not help but think of all the young Punjabi journalists who are struggling and often disillusioned by their profession.
During a conversation with a female Punjabi and Sikh journalist in Surrey, she shared, “I almost applied for that grant too, but I didn’t think I’d have a shot.” Can you blame her? The anger and annoyance soon faded. When I got home that night, I couldn’t help and think about how Surrey's mythology of being a hotbed of crime and gangs is so inextricably linked to Kim Bolan. Kim Bolan is a household name in Surrey and one that I soon realized is perhaps entirely responsible for the creation of this narrative.
While sitting on my couch that night, I read through dozens upon dozens of Kim Bolan's pieces on gang violence; all of them shared a dispassionate style of reporting, devoid of genuine empathy or feeling and offering instead a one-dimensional forensic description of the violence and fatalities.
Eventually, I stumbled across a dissertation from Simon Fraser University, by Widyarini Sumartojo, for her Doctor of Philosophy. Titled,“My Kind of Brown”: Indo-Canadian Youth Identity and Belonging in Greater Vancouver. To be honest, it would be an understatement to suggest that this 182-page dissertation and its findings did not leave me feeling angry and annoyed once more.
It's probably safe to assume that the vast majority of Canadians have no idea how corporatized and monopolized their country's media is. Numerous local newspapers are available in cities and online, and we think this seeming range of publications reflects a plurality of viewpoints. Contrary to popular belief, this is untrue. Today, a cartel of five corporations owns more than 80% of Canadian media: Bell Media, Rogers Media, Postmedia, Corus, and Torstar. Of these five, Postmedia has a virtual monopoly on news in the lower mainland, including the Vancouver Sun and The Province. This means that news is being reproduced across all properties controlled by Post Media.
For example, one of Kim Bolan’s recent articles, “Dead B.C. gangster named in civil forfeiture lawsuit filed this week,” appears in The Canoe, The Province, and The Prince George Post. Sumartojo explains that while these papers may “maintain their own editorial staffs, the fact that they are all owned by the same company suggests a strong likelihood that the content of newspapers in Greater Vancouver is more uniform than it might be otherwise.”
Further, writing of the dangers of media monopolies, Taylor C. Noakes presses upon us that "the consolidation of media leads to a consolidation of information and a narrowing of the mind." What this implies for us is that over the last few decades, residents in the lower-mainland have primarily received information from a single media behemoth and, as we'll see, have been fed a single restricted and incredibly racist narrative.
The label “Indo-Canadian” is not one that any of us can recall ascribing to ourselves; in fact, most people in the lower-mainland refer to themselves as Punjabis and, even more specifically, Sikhs. Nonetheless, it's a term that lives on, if not in our minds, then in the media. The label "Indo-Canadian" assumes a very different texture in the media when used in conjunction with terms like "Gangs," "Violence," "Crime," etc. More crucially, this then contributes to the pathologies that are employed through the seriality, which Sumartojo explores and defines as “the ways in which individual newspaper stories contribute to an overall narrative, such that each story serves as a sort of ‘episode,’ or element of a thematic series.”
These episodic narratives (newspaper stories) centred on "Indo-Canadians" began about the same time Kim Bolan chose to investigate gang violence. Sumartojo suggests that “‘Gang violence" began to emerge as a recurring topic of local news media in the early 2000s.” In October 2000, the Vancouver Sun published a front-page article, “‘Gang slayings escalate’: Two years after the murder of notorious cocaine dealer Bindy Johal, an increasing number of young Indo-Canadian men are falling victim to the kind of violence associated with drug dealing and gangs.” From 2000-2009, according to Sumartojo’s research, Kim Bolan would write “almost all of the stories that the Vancouver Sun published concerning the local Indo-Canadian and/or Sikh community.”
Further to this, she found that:
During the same 2000 to 2009 period that the Vancouver Sun ran 208 stories that used the term “gang” or “gangster” in relation to the Indo-Canadian community, the Province ran 145 stories that specifically mentioned Indo-Canadian gangs. Another 137 such stories appeared in local weekly and semi-weekly newspapers owned by Postmedia Network, and six in Postmedia’s national daily, the National Post.
Postmedia and Bolan’s “article effectively put Indo-Canadians squarely at the center of media discourse about ‘ethnic gangs.’” and “contributed to the creation of an increasingly coherent narrative about Indo-Canadian ‘gangsterism.’” Almost inconceivably, one white woman has dominated the conversation on gang violence in the Sikh community and virtually all other Sikh affairs.
Kim Bolan has long insisted that she is a "local" reporter who focuses on issues that affect her community. White journalists like Kim Bolan are free to hyphenate and pathologize our communities while still referring to them as "their communities." And let’s be clear, Kim Bolan's entire career has consisted of pathologizing Panjabi, Sikh men, and in turn, the entire Panjabi, Sikh community.
Sumartojo writes of a 2004 article by Kim Bolan from the Vancouver Sun:
The full-page article consists mainly of a list of 48 homicide incidents, some of which are “gang and drug-related,” and others that “are the fallout of insults between groups of young men.” The lack of distinction between the two is telling: the salient point is not that the drug trade breeds violence, but that Indo-Canadian men are themselves violent, and more importantly, homicidally violent.
This decades-long continuous narrative of "Indo-Canadian" homicidality has serious ramifications for how Canadians perceive our communities. If most or all coverage of Panjabi Sikhs in British Columbia between 2000 and 2009 came from Kim Bolan, then the results of a national poll conducted in 2006 raise some troubling questions.
From Sumartojo’s dissertation, we find that In 2006, the Vancouver Sun reported on the results of an online poll of Canadians asking if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that ethnic groups are more responsible for crime than others and “when those who agreed with the statement - nearly two-thirds of the Vancouver sample – were asked to list the groups they felt were most responsible for crime, some 56% included “Indian/East Indian.”
The Vancouver Sun then reported on an Angus Reid Strategies poll conducted three years later, which revealed that 30% of British Columbians believe Sikhism promotes violence and that just 30% of Canadians approve of Sikhism. To expand on Noakes' comment, one corporation and one white woman have consolidated the idea of what it means to be "Indo-Canadian" in Canada, which is one predisposed to violence and incompatible with "mainstream" Canadian society.
While I couldn't find anything from Kim Bolan refuting any accusations of racism levelled against her, it's important to note that these accusations have always been levelled against her, but as a community without access to mainstream platforms, it's difficult to engage in any meaningful dialogue to interrogate this further. In fact, many Sikhs critical of her reporting find themselves blocked by Kim Bolan on Twitter.
So, while she may not engage in open, overt racism, almost all her work around Sikhs has been, as Sumartojo explains, “an example of ‘inferential racism,’ in which media representations ‘enable racist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.’”
Worse, a study conducted by the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley concluded that this lengthy coverage spanning decades fails “to acknowledge or even identify the systemic problems that underpin and contextualize these criminal justice issues,” and that her work “serves to misinform the reader about the reality of Sikh communities painting an incomplete and arguably prejudicial representation of Indo-Canadians.”
While writing this, I couldn’t help but think about the words of the young Punjabi female Sikh journalist who chose not to apply for the fellowship. Now more than ever, it’s crucial for the Sikh community to comprehend the problematic significance of Kim Bolan receiving this fellowship thoroughly. It highlights the fact that both the province and its media, along with Kim Bolan herself, have been and still are invested in pathologizing Punjabi Sikhs, thereby marginalizing us and considering us as interlopers.
To her fellow white journalists, community/peers and those that handed out this awards, Kim Bolan “is an example of someone committed to maintaining the freedom and integrity of the press,” but for many young Punjabi Sikhs, she is a jarring example how the press continues to maintain a stranglehold on our communities and continue to exclude our voices.
Jungfateh Singh is an organizer, writer and producer, and has worked on Sikh issues across the globe for over 15 years.
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