Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh
Sat Nam Readers!
Tomorrow, July 1st is Canada Day. Canada will turn 147 years old, very young when you compare that to countries like England, Thailand and Egypt but older than many of the newer nations created after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Today’s post will try to give a snapshot of who Canadian Sikhs are and our history within this country. It would be impossible to cover the long, rich history of Sikhs in Canada in a short blog post. For more information you could visit www.CanadianSikhHeritage.ca.
According to the 2011 census, we are approximately half a million strong, making up roughly 1.5% of the population of this country. Most of those numbers are concentrated in the western province of British Columbia and the central province of Ontario. In 2001 there were no Sikhs (according to the census) in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut but by 2011, Sikhs have a presence in every Canadian province and territory. And what a presence it has been.
In 1897, Queen Victoria was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. To take part in the celebrations in Canada, the Empress of India arrived in port in Vancouver in May, 1897. On board her was a Risaldar Major in the British India Army, R/Maj. Kesur Singh. He is credited with being the first Sikh settler to Canada. More would follow at the end of the 19th century, settling primarily in the Abbotsford area at first and finding work building Canada’s rail lines, in the forestry industry and in mines.
Initial immigration to Canada was not easy for the Sikhs. They faced, as other Asian folk did, gross racism. Hurdle after hurdle was thrown in their way. First, they were referred to by government as Hindus, though some 98% of immigration to Canada from India at the beginning of twentieth century were Sikhs. Then, as the population of non-Caucasians increased in British Columbia, they were accused of having a caste system. [One of the first things you need to know about Sikhs is that we do not have a caste system, such a thing is prohibited.]. In September of 1907, the faced the Anti-Oriental Riots in Vancouver, British Columbia. Our former Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier claimed that Sikhs were “unsuited” to live in the Canadian climate. They were asked to voluntarily leave Canada to settle British Honduras (an offer they declined eventually) and laws were passed which made further immigration to Canada virtually impossible and ultimately would lead to the Komagata Maru incident (subject of a future post).
Later, as World War II raged in Europe, they would face discriminatory minimum wage laws which saw them earn 25% less than white workers in the same job.
Despite all of this, on February 26, 1911, the Gur Sikh Temple (a gurdwara) opened in British Columbia. It would be the first gurdwara in all of North America and the first outside of South Asia. The gurdwara has since then been declared a historic and protected site.
Also despite all of the hardships inflicted upon Sikhs of the time, Buckam Singh enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Spring of 1915. He would be one of nine Sikh soldiers known to have fought for Canada (and technically for England as Canada remained a colony of Britain) in World War I. Buckam Singh Ji was wounded twice while serving. While recovering in England, he contracted tuberculosis. He died in a military hospital in Ontario in 1919 at the age of 25. He occupies the only known grave of a Sikh Canadian soldier from WWI, in southern Ontario. Though not recognized at the time, Buckam Singh Ji is now a celebrated Canadian hero.
Tomorrow’s post, on Canada Day, will talk about current Sikh Canadian history makers. I think you’ll find our conditions have significantly improved thanks to the hard work and efforts of the Sikhs who came before us.
Over the coming year, I’ll do my best to give a much more thorough history of Sikhs in Canada, including anti-immigration laws targeted at the Sikhs, the Anti-Oriental Riots, the Komagata Maru incident, and the involvement of Sikhs in World War I and World War II. This just is not a story that can be told in one sitting, in one post. Stay tuned!
Sat Nam Readers!