The Canadian Archeologist, Fijian Culture In His Blood

“I remember the first archaeologi­cal site I ever found, the first artifact I dug but there is also the adven­ture of riding snowmobiles in -30 C weather over chest-deep snow or be­ing dropped off in swamps in north­ern British Columbia so remote, we had to be dropped off by helicopter,” he said.
26 Sep 2021 12:19
The Canadian Archeologist, Fijian Culture In His Blood
Canadian archeologist Rizwan Abbas

Rizwan Abbas was born a Canadian, but his culture embedded deep in his genes remains a Fijian.

The archeologist has used this as an inspiration to set up an exhibit in the Museum of Surrey in Canada.

The exhibit discusses the history of Fijians of Indian descent, how and why they travelled out of India and what the Girmit was like and how it played a part in shaping mod­ern Fiji.

Much of it is inspired by Mr Ab­bas’s father.

“I have been a consulting archae­ologist for almost 20 years and while my father was dying of cancer, I had the opportunity to explain to him what it was I do as an archae­ologist. As we were talking, I came to realise that I should be studying my own culture and heritage, my fa­ther’s culture, and history,” Mr Ab­bas said.

“My father’s story is also woven into the exhibit. His story is not dis­similar from most other Indo-Fijian immigrants who left Fiji in search for a new home.”

He said he used his father’s items in the exhibit to bring life to the In­do-Fijian culture.

“We can all relate to his story.”

Fijian links

Mr Abbas’s parents are from Ta­vua. They emigrated to Canada in the late 1970s to look for better op­portunities.

Mr Abbas was born in a small min­ing town called Sparwood in Cana­da, but his upbringing has strong Fijian influence.

“I grew up in Sparwood where there was a small Indo-Fijian com­munity, we were the only Muslims. I moved to Surrey when I was 15 years old and that was the first time I saw the Indo-Fijian culture in full.”

He said he had the opportunity to attend weddings, go to mosques and centres and visit large extended family.


Mr Abbas said he was lucky to grow up in Sparwood.

It was “small-town Canada” and there were only 5000 people living in Sparwood.

He said he had friends of all differ­ent backgrounds and was exposed to Western, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh culture from a very young age.

“I always felt a little bit like an out­sider. Not quite fitting into any box, but when we moved to Surrey I was exposed to my Indo-Fijian culture for the first time,” he said.

“I have always appreciated our unique way of doing things. Our language, food, music, clothing, for example are all rooted in Indian cul­ture but with a Tropic Island Flair.

“I would like to think that this ex­posure to my culture at an older age was probably one of the motivations I had to study culture and become an archaeologist.

“I am very lucky and proud to be a Canadian of Indo-Fijian descent. My dad was also proud of Canada, but he missed his homeland Fiji, un­til his dying day.”

Canadian influence

Growing up in Canada came with its influences. One of those was Ball Hockey. Ball hockey is similar to ice hockey but players play on the floor wearing shoes, using a hard plastic ball – no ice or skates.

“It does not get the recognition that Ice and Field hockey get, but I enjoy the competition. I find one needs to have the skills of a hockey player, the mindset of a basketball player and the cardio of a soccer player to play the sport,” he said.

“I won the 2017 British Columbia Provincial Championship. It was Division three, but an achievement nonetheless. Competitive Ball Hock­ey is a very demanding sport for a goalie.

“I am also a ball hockey referee, sanctioned by the British Columbia and Canada Ball Hockey Associa­tions.”

Mr Abbas is also a coach in the Sur­rey Minor Ball Hockey Association where I am a member of the Board.

He volunteers with a local char­ity on behalf of the Vancouver Canucks, the local professional Ice Hockey team, raising funds for Ca­nucks for Kids Charities which ben­efit sick children.

The archeologist

As an archeologist, Mr Abbas is writing a chapter about Indo-Fijian history and culture for an upcom­ing social history book about South Asians in British Columbia being published by the University of the Fraser Valley South Asian Studies Institute.

“The chapter will go more in-depth about our history and story than my exhibit. It is scheduled to be pub­lished in January 2022,” Mr Abbas said.

“I remember the first archaeologi­cal site I ever found, the first artifact I dug but there is also the adven­ture of riding snowmobiles in -30 C weather over chest-deep snow or be­ing dropped off in swamps in north­ern British Columbia so remote, we had to be dropped off by helicopter,” he said.

He said he has found evidence of past humans in the most remote of places, tops of mountains, in the middle of swamps, and in all differ­ent environments.

“That’s one of the enduring quali­ties of humanity. And it’s that resil­iency that I want to showcase in my Exhibit being held at the Museum of Surrey titled “The Indo-Fijians: Surrey’s Pocket of Paradise” open now and running until December 19, 2021.”

“I have an Associates in Arts De­gree – Douglas College, Bachelors of Arts Degree (BA) in Archaeol­ogy (with a 3.5 GPA) – Simon Fraser University (SFU), Professional Spe­cialisation Certification (PSc.) in Museum Studies – University of Victoria, and a Master’s of Science Degree (MSc.) in Paleoanthropology and Paleolithic Archaeology – from the School of Archaeology – Univer­sity College London (UCL), London, UK where I graduated with Distinc­tion,” he said.

“I am especially honoured to call Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi fellow alumni from UCL,” he added.

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