Community First, Movement Second: A Short Bio of Harsha Walia

“…the most important feature of powerful social movements, is an affirmation of community.”

– From “Young, Brown and Proud: Personal purpose and political activism” by Harsha Walia


Connection requires a crossing of boundaries. It requires seeing one thing in another without disturbance of difference: that old mean thing still snipping at the threads we THE PEOPLE weave when we breach the gap between ourselves and another, when we see ourselves as one. And it seems these days that those who are best at connecting were born to difference, too. With wide focus, they can see it for what it truly is and pass through as if there were no boundary at all—grasping at those other strands with ease and bringing the rest of us gratefully along. 

Like Harsha Walia, who has taken up the threads of so many; who has brought us many times through the boundary of difference only to reveal that our causes (the things we want and strive for most) are more connected than we could have ever believed. That it doesn’t matter where we cross through, but rather, that we do it together. 

Born in Bahrain and now living in Vancouver (unceded Coast Salish, Treaty 8 territories), British Columbia, Walia bears a legacy of being both a part of a struggle, and an experiencer of it: both fighting for the rights of South Asian, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities, and against the vestiges of Canadian colonialism (and post-colonialism) through continued activism close to home. At the same time, she extends her critical views into controversial action, tackling the closely-related injustices still thriving all across Canada and even bravely addressing the United Nations—among other political bodies across the globe.  

As she puts it in a 2013 interview: “…the drive for me around activism [is] really both of those things – wanting to be involved for struggles around freedom and liberation wherever they take place, and seeing that as part of a global system, and bearing witness to the impacts of borders and the ways in which they tear apart communities in real and violent ways.”

Walia has in fact been hailed as one of Canada’s most brilliant and effective organizers. In 2001, she co-founded one of Canada’s most prolific anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist migrant justice movements, No One Is Illegal (NOII), and in 2003 began assisting with the Skwelkwek’welt Protection Centre toward land protection aims, among other related Indigenous-focused causes. She has further accumulated the interests of minority and marginalized communities through her work supporting Ide No More, the Defenders of the Land Network, and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy, forever cultivating her unique knack for drawing people together under a joint banner: equality. 

Dually involved with anti-poverty and feminist activism through her work as a project coordinator for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre – where she facilitates a Power of Women group – Walia has also actively been involved with several other Downtown Eastside housing justice coalitions, and continues to evoke the passions of those similarly drawn in supporting the struggles of other vulnerable, poverty-stricken groups searching for change. 

For over a decade, Walia has therefore contributed her voice and self to these and other often-neglected causes brought up by NOII—like deportation, incarceration, land claims, violence, privacy and consent, and education. She has been a fundamental force shaping long-standing events like the February 14th Women’s Memorial March, and the Annual Community March Against Racism. In 2010 alone, she not only stood her ground during the No Olympics on Stolen Native land convergence – later that year risking arrest and facing detention herself on behalf of her support during the G8 and G20 protests in Toronto – but again committed to an act of protest that saw her arrested during a national day of action for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.   

Walia has of course received several accolades for her work – she is for instance a recipient of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives Power of Youth Award and Westender’s Best of the City awards in Activism and Change-Making – but this hasn’t stoppered her motivation for pursuing still-needed change. Today, she continues to be an active board member with Shit Harper Did, and is a youth mentor for Check Your Head, where she passes on incredible insights on how to be a change-maker, and how to make sure one’s voice is heard in harmony with the cries of others. 

While her preference for opening up conversations surrounding migrant solidarity and gender violence do take precedent through much of her activist work, Walia has become more comfortable exploring her own perspectives as both a woman of colour and a successful organizer of large movements through writing. Credited with over 30 publications ranging in subject, Walia has time and again highlighted the collective anti-imperialist struggles of minority peoples all across Canada.

It is perhaps her first full-length publication though – Undoing Border Imperialism – which best captures Walia’s uniquely precise outlook on connection and movement-building. 

“Connected to this piece around undoing border imperialism is, as movements, how do we undo the bordered logic within our own movements,” says Walia of the work. “That really ended up being the inspiration for writing this book – hoping that it was in the service of something more collective.” 

Representing a culmination of her lifelong dedications to equality and to cultivating the communities and relationships required for the process of liberation, the narrative establishes a community of perspectives, including those of over 30 fellow activists. 

For Walia, much of her organizing work and activism – including her added involvements with the Anti-Capitalist Convergence and the Northwest Anti-Authoritarian People of Colour Network – is thus centered on her belief that one cause can be all causes. She has repeatedly set out to build alliances with Indigenous communities, feeling strongly that Canadian migrants of colour (and of course majority white populations) have a responsibility to those communities in their activism. Now, she continues to cross silent boundaries through a blend of words and action, stifling the sharp powers of difference and choosing connection at every turn. 

Header Image Copyright Jessica Barratt
Article Originally Published HERE.

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