Sikh migration and Canadian history

Wednesday 03rd July 2019 07:15 EDT

Dear Readers,

Hello from sunny Markham. The weather here couldn't get better. We celebrated Canada Day on July 1, Monday. It was a whole new experience for us participating in the revelry, which stood in a complete contrast as opposed to how India celebrates August 15. There were fireworks, barbecues, air shows and free musical concerts. The day was colourful and bright. Reflecting on the vast history of the country, I saw several names that rang a bell with me. The Sikh community has been associated with Canadian history since its inception. As I got curioser and curioser, I rang up on Sikh history in Canada on the internet.

The first Sikh settler in the country is believed to be a Risaldar Major in the British India Army, Kesar Singh. He was part of a group of Sikh officers who arrived in Vancouver on a ship named the Empress of India, in 1897. On way to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the Sikhs found work in laying tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway, lumber mills and mines. They openly earned lesser than white workers, but managed to make enough money to send some of it to India and get their relatives to migrate to Canada.

History depicts that the first Sikh pioneers came to Abbotsford in 1905, and originally worked on farms and in the lumber industry. As years passed, while the white Canadians were opposed to Asian workers, industrialists of British Columbia, which hosted around 90 per cent of the Sikh population, were short of labour and relied on the community. Through them, the Sikhs were able to get an early foothold at the turn of the 20th century in British Columbia. Most of them were British army veterans and their families. In 1907, the Khalsa Diwan society was set up in Vancouver with branches in Abbotsford, New Westminster, Fraser Mills, Duncan Coombs and Ocean Falls. While its intentions were purely religious, educational, and philanthropic, problems pertaining to Indian immigration and racism severely affected its existence.

Facing resentment from the white population of Canada, the Sikhs by this time, were facing pressure from the government who believed they were unsuitable to adapt to the climate of the country. In 1908, they were asked to leave voluntarily and settle in British Honduras, Latin America. A Sikh delegation was sent to now Belize, and upon return they asked their community members to strictly say no to the offer. On one hand, 1,710 Sikhs left British Columbia in the same year, while on the other, first plans to build a gurdwara were made. A property was acquired and the settlers carried lumbers from a local mill on their backs all the way up a hill to construct a gurdwara.

The Canadian government then passed two laws, which were specifically targeted at Punjabis. One provided that an immigrant had to have 200 dollars, while the other authorised the Minister of the Interior to prohibit entry into Canada to people not arriving from their country of birth by continuous journey and through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth or citizenship. The laws resulted in a dropping of Sikh population from 5,000 people in 1911, to a little over 2,500.

The Gur Sikh Temple opened on February 26, 1911. Sikhs and non-Sikhs from all over British Columbia attended the ceremony. A local newspaper even reported the event. This was not only the first Gurdwara in North America, it was the first anywhere outside of South Asia. The Khalsa Diwan Society eventually built gurdwaras in Vancouver and Victoria.

Sikhs who had fled to California as a consequence of Canadian immigration rules, founded the Ghadar Party in America in 1913. Thousands of Ghadar journals were published highlighting the racism encountered by Sikhs. Then happened the infamous Komagata Maru incident in the subsequent year. A Japanese ship filled with Sikh migrants was denied permission to dock. The fate of the men on the ship was tragic. Only nine Sikhs are known to have served with Canadian troops in World War I. Private Buckam Singh, served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders in 1916. He later died at the age of 25 in 1919. His grave is the only known World War I Sikh Canadian soldier's grave in Canada. Today, he is not only celebrated as a Sikh hero, but also a Canadian hero.

Fast forward to 1943, a twelve-man delegation, including members of the Sikh Khalsa Diwan Society, demanded voting rights for the South Asian communities. They explained that without them, they were nothing more than second-class citizens. While the Premier then only gave voting rights to those who had fought in World War II, in 1945, two years later, all South Asians had the right to vote due to the perseverance of the Sikh Khalsa Diwan Society.

Major immigration of Sikhs truly began in the 1950s, and in the later centuries, a new dawn of hope shown as tens of thousands of Sikhs, many skilled and educated, decided to settle across Canada, mainly the urban corridor of Toronto to Windsor. The process of migration has remained never-ending since then. What has truly changed is the Canadian government's attitude towards them and other South Asian communities.

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