History

Many academics and researchers have long recognized the hostile reception that Sikhs faced when they immigrated to Canada. Many scholars believe that the first Punjabi Sikhs to arrive in Canada were in a group of soldiers from Hong Kong that was travelling through Canada to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. It has been said that they were attracted to the warm climate and rich vegetation of Vancouver because it resembled their Punjabi homeland (Jagpal, 1994; Singh, 1999; Unna 1985).The census of 1901 captured 1,000 Canadian residents who had been born in India, and then resided in British Columbia and Ontario. In that Census, they were classified as being of British origin and were labelled as Anglo-Indians (Bali & Bal, 1993). Personal accounts from third- and fourth generation Sikhs in Canada, however, suggest that the first Sikh immigrants probably arrived as early as 1903-1908 (Johnston, 1988). Accordingly, with inaccurate census and classifications, it is difficult to identify when the first Sikhs emigrated to Canada. The data on the number of East Indian immigrants to Canada from 1901-1971 probably under-estimate the size of this group (Table 1).

East Indian Immigrants to Canada 1901-1971

Year Number Year Number Year Number Year Number
1904

45

1921

13

1938

14

1955 245
1905

387

1922

21

1939

11

1956 330
1906 2,124 1923

40

1940

6

1957 324
1907 2,623 1924

46

1941

3

1958 451
1908

6

1925

62

1942

0

1959 716
1909

10

1926

62

1943

0

1960 673
1910

5

1927

56

1944

0

1961 744
1911

3

1928

52

1945

1

1962 529
1912

5

1929

58

1946

7

1963 737
1913

88

1930

80

1947

130

1964 1,154
1914

0

1931

47

1948

63

1965 2,241
1915

1

1932

62

1949

52

1966 2,233
1916

0

1933

33

1950

93

1967 3,966
1917

0

1934

33

1951

81

1968 3,229
1918

0

1935

20

1952

173

1969 5,395
1919

0

1936

13

1953

170

1970 5,670
1920

10

1937

14

1954

175

1971 5,313

Jagpal (1994) has noted that, unlike other immigrant communities, relatively few Sikh pioneers
considered Canada home. “Their intention was to make money and return to India. They came to a cold and hostile environment, both literally and figuratively. Besides language problems, poor
education, lack of proper housing and health care, and culture shock, they faced
racial discrimination and segregation” (Jagpal, 1994, p. 19).

 

Many Sikh males entered Canada under restrictive policies, such as the Asiatic Exclusion policy and the Continuous Journey policy that was used to restrict the number of Asians (including South Asians and Sikhs) from entering Canada. Johnston, as cited in Jagpal (1994), the isolation faced by Sikhs could have been reduced through access to a normal family life, the presence of children, and contact with neighbours. For most Sikh pioneers, this was impossible; only an estimated nine Sikh women emigrated to Canada between 1904 and 1920. Despite the lack of Sikh females, many Sikhs retained a strong a religious identity, where relatively few Sikhs married outside their ethnic and religious identity (Verma, 2002).

Due to the restrictive immigration policies, hostile environments, and racism Sikhs faced, it is hardly surprising that Gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, became “pivotal place[s] in the evolution of the Sikhs from a purely religious group, to an ethnic one” (Singh 1991, p. 131) as a way to address the isolation they faced. While allowing for retention of the Sikh religion, Singh (1991) has argued that “Gurdwaras function as a bulwark against assimilative influences exerted by the exotic life of Western culture” (Singh 1991, p. 131). In addition to religious activities, the Gurdwaras allow children to learn about Sikhism through Sunday language programs and religious instruction.

The first Sikh pioneers in Canada had a strong desire to have a place to hold religious gatherings and to be surrounded by the Satsangat. The first Sikhs raised funds amongst the community and rented a house to conduct weekly Satsangat. Many of the first Sikh settlers were limited to working as farmers and lumberjacks, but Unna (1985) has noted that many later became successful mill and farm owners. In addition to farming and logging, many Sikhs worked on railways and in sawmills in British Columbia (Minhas, 1994, p. 11). While many of the first Sikhs were relatively unskilled and uneducated, they were favoured by employers because of their strong work ethic and discipline, along with their willingness to accept considerably less pay than white men (Jagpal 1994; Bains and Johnston 1995). Much of the Sikh community continued to raise donations to build formal Gurdwaras around the areas where they found work, which included Port Moody, New Westminster, Victoria, and Vancouver.

History of Gurdwaras in Vancouver, British Columbia

The Khalsa Diwan Society was founded in 1906 after an appropriate lot was built to house a Gurdwara, in what is considered downtown Vancouver now. The construction of the Gurdwara was completed on January 19, 1908. The Gurdwaras are and continue to be a place for religious activities, the Gurdwaras allow children to learn about Sikhism through Sunday language programs and religious instruction (Gill, 2007). The Gurdwaras is open to all denominations and all ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. According to Sikh faith, a langar is provided for the entire community. Langarrefers to the community meal and the kitchen in which food is prepared. It is a fundamental part of Sikhism, testifying to the importance for Sikhs of social equality and the familyhood of all people. In langar, everyone prepares and eats the food together. To demonstrate equality, everyone, regardless of race, class, or gender, sits on the floor beside one another.

The Khalsa Diwan Society became a place social and a religious place for new immigrants and community members, including many non-Sikhs. Moreover, it was a place for new immigrants to find shelter and food, especially the needy, which continues to be a long standing tradition. Sikhs held meetings to discuss their social, religious, and political concerns, which continues to this day.

The Khalsa Diwan Society was formally registered in 1909 and its Constitution was drafted by the esteemed Sikh Professor, Teja Singh. After building a first Gurdwara in Vancouver, the Sikhs also built Gurdwaras in Abbotsford, Victoria, and New Westminster. In 1908, the sentiment surrounding South Asians, including Sikhs, became increasingly hostile. Minhas (1994) has pointed to an increasingly restrictive set of measures that were put place by the Canadian Government to curtail immigration from certain parts of the globe. For example, a 1908 Order-in-Council required each immigrant to Canada to bring with her/him at least $200, making it more difficult for immigrants to enter Canada. This was a particularly difficult barrier for South Asians; as the average Sikh made just $50 per annum (Minhas, 1994). In spite of aggressive lobbying by South Asians to challenge these measures, modifications to existing laws were made to cap immigration from India (Verma, 2002).  As a result, Minhas (1994) found that many Sikhs on the West Coast moved to the United States. According to Johnston, from 1903 to 1908 immigration was “comparatively unregulated,” but the door became relatively shut in 1908 to any immigration from India for the next fifty years (Johnston, 1988, p. 296).

Pressured by politicians, unionists, and the media, an Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was started by Vancouver alderman Henry H. Stevens in 1907, who later became a Member of Parliament (Singh, 1994).  Stevens has been quoted as saying “Canada is best left in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon race.… As far as Canada is concerned, it shall remain White and our doors shall be closed to Hindoos [sic] as well as to other Orientals” (Jagpal, 1994, p. 26). While not directly influenced by the Anti-Asiatic riots staged in Vancouver in 1907, Singh (1994) has argued that these activities probably provoked the then-Deputy Minister of Labour, W. L. Mackenzie King, to go to London to arrange limitations on Sikh immigration.  The British accordingly agreed to stop such migration, as long as it did not cause a revolt in Punjab by Sikhs (Jagpal, 1994). These sentiments ultimately led to the passage of the Continuous Journey regulation in 1908 as an amendment to the Immigration Act.

The Continuous Journey regulation was specifically designed to outlaw immigration from India. Minhas (1994) has noted that as of 1908, the government required that immigrants arriving at any Canadian port must have had a non-stop journey from their country of origin.  In response to a high number of immigrants from China, India, and Japan to British Columbia from 1905 to
1907, the Asiatic Exclusion policy was invoked in response to what some had come to regard as “the invasion” (Verma, 2002). Sikhs were considered part of the “Hindoo invasion” and seen as a threat to the shrinking labour market. It was next to impossible for residents of India to come on a direct voyage to Canada, through the Continuous Journey regulation.

The Continuous Journey regulation did not go unchallenged.  In response to widespread unemployment in Punjab, many Sikhs traveled abroad in search of better economic conditions (Kuggal, 1994). As part of this migration, Gurdit Singh Sarhali, a wealthy Sikh businessman, embarked in early 1914 on a Japanese ship named the Komagata Maru along with 376 passengers, a group that included 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus (22 of whom were returning Canadian residents). The ship, which had been chartered in Hong Kong by Sarhali, arrived in Vancouver on 23 May 1914 following stops in Shanghai and Yokohama (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2000; Morse, 1936). The ship’s arrival was met with extreme hostility from the residents of Vancouver and its passengers were not allowed to disembark (Kazimi, 2003). Kazimi’s 2003 documentary film on the saga of the Komagata Maru found that some Vancouverites labeled its arrival as the “Hindu Invasion.” According to Kazimi, the reaction to the arrival of the Komagata Maru was “anything but Canada’s Finest Hour.” In the film, Kazimi (2003) further described the implications of immigration policies that could not be openly and blatantly racist but were masked with stipulations against various ethnic groups, such as the Continuous Journey clause, which was explicitly geared towards Asians. As the passengers were forced to remain on the dock, the Khalsa Diwan Society and the Sikhs along with many of the Indo-Canadian community raised funds for court cases and formally appealing to officials and authorities in London, United Kingdom and Ottawa, with no resolve.

Leaving behind only those who had been previous residents of British Columbia, on 23 July1914, after two long months on the coast, the Komagata Maru was escorted back into the Pacific Ocean by Canada’s HMCS Rainbow (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2000). Despite the fact that all of its passengers had British passports and after exhausting every possible to tactic to get the ship to dock, with local citizenry cheering, the Komagata Maru was forced back to Calcutta, at which point passengers were either killed or captured as World War I had erupted (Morse, 1936; Unna, 1985; Kazimi, 2003).

Despite the anti-Asian exclusion and the hostile environments that Sikhs faced, many Sikhs settled and established their homes in Canada. Until the end of the ‘60’s, the Sikhs population represented a small minority in Canada, forced to assimilate with the culture of the majority, losing their own identity. In 1967, immigration rules were relaxed by the Canadian government allowing greater immigration from the Punjab region.

There has, and continues to be a divide amongst the community of westernized Sikhs who do not cover their heads when entering the Gurdwara and more traditional Sikhs who consider this an essential requirement, before entering the Gurdwara. Many times, Gurdwara committee members would not cover their heads while conducting ceremonies in the Gurdwara.

In the late ‘70’s, many Sikhs felt that there should be a reform movement to re-establish traditional Sikh values and tradition in Gurdwaras. A group mobilized to take over the management and committee members, to re-establish basic traditional Sikh customs. With the support of the general population, they were successful in establishing quorum and strength in the Sikh faith.

History of the Canadian Sikh Study and Teaching Society

There was and continues to be many Gurdwaras and Sikh organizations around the Vancouver Mainland but none of these institutions had a specific mandate to educate Sikh youth and publish books on Sikh history and theology. The Sikh youth who were born in Canada had many questions, remain uncertain about their faith, but there was no established institution to support their inquiries. In 1987, under the guidance of Dr. Gurbakash Singh Gill (form Dean and professor PAU, Ludhiana) and a number of dedicated members of the Sikh community from Vancouver and other towns, decided to form an organization, specifically designed to inform the community about the history and religion of the Sikh population. The mandate of the Society included publishing authentic materials/literature on the Sikh faith in English, in order for Canadian born Sikh children to learn about their roots of their faith.

In order to run the Sathya of Guru Granth Sahib (correct reading of Gurbani), Late Giani Harbhajan Singh Ji was invitied from Stockhom California. Giani Harbhajan Singh was a great preacher (kathakair) and he had expertise in the field of Gurbani Viakarn (grammar). Hundreds of Sikhs took advantage of his scholarly way of teaching and learning Gurbani. The Society also started other projects, such as holding of youth camps in the summer for children.  Gurbani path classes and Punjabi language classes Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, and Surrey. The Society was formally registered as a non-profit organization in 1988.

In 2011, the Society started a free homework club to assist local students from grades 4 to 12 with their homework every Saturday, 9am- 12 noon from September to June. Dedicated volunteers with a university and college background assist students with math, English, history, and their projects.

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