Sikhism in Canada

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Canadian Sikhs are one of the most prominent non-Christian religious groups in Canada, and form the country's largest South Asian ethnic group.[1]. According to the 2001 census there are 278,000 Sikhs[2] in Canada, and this is likely an undercount.[3] Some unofficial reports go as high as 400,000. [4] Census figures suggest that there were 145,000 Sikhs in Canada in 1991 (up from 67,710 a decade earlier), but this is recognized to be an undercount. Population estimates of all Canadian South Asians based primarily on immigration data show that there were roughly 530,000 South Asians in Canada at the end of 1993; of these, about 35%, or 180,000, are believed to be Sikhs.

In the 1890 and early 1900s all immigrants from India were indiscriminately called "hindoo" or "hindu" regardless of religious affiliation. The term "hindoo" was also sometimes used in a derogatory sense for anyone from that continent. "These Hindus are all old soldiers. They know little outside of their regular drill… I would have White labourers of course if I can get them… But I would rather give employment to these old soldiers who have helped to fight for the British Empire than to entire aliens." (The Daily Province, October 1906)


Faith and Politics among Sikh Pioneers in Canada By Hugh Johnston - Simon Fraser University

Sikhs have been in Canada since 1897. One of the first Sikhs to arrived in Canada in 1897 following Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was a retired British soldier. In fact the Sikhs who immigrated to Canada, having severed in the British Army and been largely from India or African colonies were already, as were the Canadians they joined, loyal members of the British Empire.

Yet greater entry restrictions were placed on perspective Sikh immigrants as compared to those from Japan and China. While Canadian politicians, missionaries, unions and the press did not want the competition of Asian labourers with religions and customs which they had little knowledge of or respect for, British Columbia industrialists, who were were in need of workers, especially those with a good work ethic and more importantly, ones who were willing to work for less money than the established Canadians of European decent, welcomed the hard working Sikhs. Thus Sikhs were able to get an early foothold at the turn of the century in British Columbia. Of the nearly 5,000 East Indians in Canada by 1907, over 98% were Sikhs, mostly retired British army veterans.[5]. Sikh immigration to Canada was banned in 1908, and the Sikh population began to shrink.

With the advent of World War II and the internment of Japanese Canadians, Sikhs were able to prosper. Before going to the internment camps Japanese preferred to sell their homes and properties to their Sikh neighbors who they had known for so long. As the war economy picked up speed and moved into high gear, Sikhs were given positions of greater responsibility on the factory floors across the country. Many were as well made use of the opportunity to sharpen their skills as successful businessmen. Just as the shortage of labour during WWII prooved that American women could be more than just homemakers, and gave them the chance to prove that they were capable of doing a man's job, Sikhs were able to show that they were just as talented as their European counterparts.

For Sikhs one of the last major roadblocks to being equal citizens with their fellow Canadians was the right to vote. In 1947, fifty years since the first Sikh immigrants had arrived, Sikhs were still denied this fundamental right. Fed up with the the old excuses Sikhs began to demand that the laws be changed, soon Sikhs rallied to the cause, holded town hall meetings and lobbied both their local politicians and the central government in Ottawa to change the law.[6]

After the 1960s, Canada's immigration laws were liberalized and racial quotas were removed, allowing far more Sikhs to immigrate to Canada. The Sikh population has rapidly increased in the decades since. Major Sikh communities exist in most of the major cities of British Columbia and Ontario. Sikhs have become an integral part of Canada's economy and culture.

Early history

Sikh pioneers in Canada were part of an immigrant labour force recruited in the early years of the twentieth century. Their experiences closely resembled those of other immigrant workers, from whom they were separated by language, race and culture. Like other immigrant workers, they organized themselves for mutual support, and political objectives. Like other immigrant workers they were politicized during their early years in Canada, with two main thrusts to their activities - a struggle for immigration and citizenship rights in Canada and the promotion of a nationalist ideology antagonistic to the prevailing (imperial) regime in their homeland. The politicization of Sikh immigrants was also connected to a Sikh revival.

The conditions of working life in Canada supported both developments. There was a cycle that immigrant communities tended to pass through - from more intense political and religious activity to less. External factors - the outbreak of a world war in 1914 - probably accelerated this cycle. Within the space of two decades pioneer Sikhs had largely completed it. In some respects, the cycle has been repeated by the generation of Sikh immigrants who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.

This paper, however, concerns only the experiences of the first immigrants.

From a Punjabi Sikh perspective, Canada has been a place of religious and political extremes, a frontier of the Punjabi world where militants and pragmatists have shared space uneasily. In the 80s and beyond, the central issue has been the demand for an independent Sikh state of Khalistan. Among the pioneering Sikh immigrants who came to Canada nearly a century ago, the issue was Indian self-government. In either case, tensions rooted in the homeland have found energetic and, at times violent, expression in the diaspora community.

In the expression of tensions there has been a cycle that has moved initially in the direction of militancy and then towards moderation. We have witnessed this cycle twice, but it is with the first manifestation that this paper is concerned. For about a century, Punjabi Sikhs have lived and worked in Canada. Most of the pioneers arrived within a three or four-year period before 1908; after that, for nearly six decades, Canada allowed very little legal immigration from India. Only in the 1960s did the Canadian immigration barrier come down enough to make a sizable migration possible again.

Until the 1960s, the Canadian Sikh population was minuscule (approximately 6,000 in 1961); and even now it is only a small fraction (1.4%) of the world-wide Sikh population.[1] From the time of the first pioneers, however, the Canadian connection has been important to villagers in Punjab, particularly in the Hoshiarpur, Jullundur, Ferozepur and Ludhiana Districts. This connection has seen a transfer of population to Canada, but it has also seen an exchange of ideas and experiences, facilitated by Canadian Sikhs returning to Punjab to visit or to stay.

In the course of the past century, the social, economic, and international framework within which Punjabis have moved between India and Canada has radically changed. The demands of the Canadian economy, the skills and education possessed by Punjabi immigrants and the general information universe are now very different. The ways in which Sikhs view themselves, and the ways in which they are viewed have also shifted, sometimes dramatically, over the years. Continuities remain and patterns repeat, but time has placed a great distance between the world of the pioneers and that of the Canadian community they spawned. In discussing Canada as a frontier of the Sikh world - whether a place of cultural decline or renewal - one must make distinctions between the pioneer experience and the contemporary one.

In the early twentieth century, Sikhs were participants in a global movement of workers to industrial sites in North America. The developing Canadian pacific coast province of British Columbia was one of this era's importers of labour - needed for expanding lumber and mining industries, road and railway building, housing construction and some seasonal farm work. While skilled and managerial positions were readily filled by Canadians or British and American immigrants, much of the unskilled labour came from northern, southern and eastern Europe and from Asia. Chinese and Japanese made up a large part of this work force, followed by Italians, Swedes, Ukrainians and Finns.[2] The two or three thousand Sikhs employed in British Columbia before the First World War were a small element, but, for political and racial reasons, they attracted as much attention as any group.

The railway, lumbering and construction jobs available to these immigrant workers were found in many isolated locations across British Columbia's rough terrain. The migrants prepared to travel half-way around the world in search of wages were mostly young men, and the worker communities that these people formed were highly transient. Men came to work and save money and neither sought nor found much encouragement to stay. They planned to return home within a few years and a large percentage did. The pattern was common across ethnic and racial divides, although there were differences of degree. When men had their wives and families with them they were more likely to stay; but the married men with families were generally those with better paying skilled and managerial jobs or entrepreneurial opportunities. The Chinese and the Sikhs had little access to the better jobs; and it is not surprising that they had few women in their midst. (In 1911, the Canadian Census counted only three women and 2,289 men among the Sikh and other Indian immigrants in British Columbia. [3]

Sikhs at their Local Gurdwara in Victoria

The early Sikh community in Canada should be understood not simply as a Punjabi outpost, but as a worker community. It could not resemble Punjabi village society, especially in the absence of women, children and older men. If one overlooked physical and cultural distinctions, Punjabis in Canada strongly resembled other immigrant labourers. Their hardships, challenges, goals and aspirations were much the same, although they rarely had the opportunity to compare experiences with other immigrant workers. In mining camps, in saw mills and shingle mills and on railway gangs, workers were organized on ethnic lines. The reasons were practical: so that a boss could communicate with a gang through a single interpreter and so that men who ate the same food and spoke the same language could cook together, and bunk together. Dictating these arrangements was the structure of the labour market, which recruited workers through ethnic agencies - creating competition for jobs among ethnic groups. As a consequence, workers of various origins lived segregated existences while sharing much the same situation. The differences among them were obvious, but the similarities were real.

Not only was British Columbia's international labouring population mostly male and mostly between the ages of eighteen and thirty, it was drawn from specific rural areas. Kinship and village ties were important elements of the recruiting networks that funneled labour into British Columbia. These networks, which also involved labour contractors, railway and steamship agencies and hostel keepers, connected job sites in British Columbia to precise localities in Europe and Asia. In a general sense, the Indians were from Punjab, the Chinese from Canton, the Japanese from a few southern prefectures in Kyushu and Honshu, the Italians from Molise, Campania and Calabria; and the Ukrainians from Galicia and Bukovina. More exactly, they were from particular villages, village clusters, communes or clans in these areas.[5] The Punjabis who came to Canada after 1904 were recruited through Canadian Pacific Railway agents in Hong Kong, [6] but also through a few men who reached British Columbia in advance of the main cohort. For example, in 1907, many of the immigrants from the Malwa area came at the encouragement of a Dr. K. Davichand, an educated Hindu Brahman who had secured contracts to supply labour to several saw mills in the Vancouver area. He had written and sent tickets to men in Riakot, Ludhiana, and other villages where he had relatives or was known.[7]

As a rule, potential emigrants - whether from Molise, Canton, or Punjab - belonged to the small landholder or renter class. Few were from the landlord or artisan classes.[8] For a great many emigrants, the main objective in going abroad was to accumulate money to acquire more land in their villages, or pay off mortgages, build large brick houses or pay for dowries. When Molisani, Punjabi or Cantonese villagers set off on a North American adventure, they were frequently more aware of the rewards ahead than the hardships. The wages they were paid and the conditions they encountered generally did not allow them to live very well - certainly not if they were intent on saving. What made the experience worthwhile were currency differentials. Money earned in Canada multiplied in value when taken home. Because they had come to North America to make money and did not intend to stay, immigrant labourers accepted privation more readily than they accepted low wages. When their wages were inadequate, their first answer was not to organize and strike, but to move on to another job. It required a change in perspective for them to see their situation in more permanent terms and to seek to make changes in the conditions they faced.

Working overseas in a place like British Columbia could be a powerful educational experience for a young man from a rural background who had spent most his life within a small radius of his village. Neither the Canadian government nor Canadian society offered much help beyond the chance to find employment. Workers organized themselves and the direction that they took was radical. Finnish and Ukrainian workers established reading rooms, socialist clubs and benevolent societies. The Chinese, with a longer history in British Columbia and a larger population, had a complex of locality, clan, benevolent and political associations.[9] In all of these ethnic groups, political discussion centred on revolutionary solutions to national issues in the homeland. Immigrant workers who were isolated from mainstream Canadian society made ready audiences for compatriot activists. In work camps in British Columbia, young men became nationalists, republicans and socialists, enlarging the boundaries of their identities beyond village, clan and family. A few years in British Columbia were not enough to make an immigrant from Austrian-ruled Galicia into a Canadian, but they could turn him into a Ukrainian. The Sikhs fit this pattern.

When Punjabi Sikhs organized in British Columbia, they formed gurdwara societies and built gurdwaras. These gurdwaras were places of worship, political forums, meeting places, and shelters; and their construction and management were entirely in the hands of lay volunteers. Their priests or granthis were also mill workers. The gurdwaras encompassed the community, bringing together individuals from different districts, clans and castes. Given the small size of the pioneer Sikh population, the gurdwara had to serve multiple purposes. As the main organization, it assumed the political and mutual aid functions that other immigrant communities gave to secular associations. The Sikhs were distinctive in making the construction of places of worship their central community effort. At the same time, through their gurdwaras they provided services and activities that other groups found elsewhere.

The Presbyterian Church of Canada did attempt a mission to the Sikhs of British Columbia, but with minimal success. At the request of the church's Foreign Mission Committee a missionary on furlough from India spent several months in Vancouver in 1907. His work continued through the efforts of the Hindi-speaking minister of Chalmers Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, John Knox Wright, who had learned Hindi and Urdu more than twenty years earlier in Trinidad. Wright pleaded for a full-time Punjabi-speaking missionary. `God has sent 2000 East Indians here. Will not the Church meet this movement by sending thus far one man?'[10] He met some opposition from fellow ministers who, like their congregations, saw Asian immigration as an invasion that threatened the social and cultural character of the province. Only in 1913 and 1914 did the Presbyterian Church's Home Mission Committee appoint two retired missionaries to Vancouver and Victoria. One of them continued the work for about four years and the other for more than a decade, and, while they were able to attract some Punjabis to their services, they were slow to get converts.

The Sikhs themselves looked after their own religious and community needs far more effectively than any Christian missionary committee could. By October 1907, about fifteen months after the main influx of immigrants had begun, a building committee had raised funds and signed a contract for the construction of a gurdwara at 1866 Second Avenue in Vancouver." Although, by this point, about 5,000 Punjabis had entered Canada, the number remaining in Vancouver was a fraction of this total. About half had immediately crossed the border into the United States and many others had gone into the interior of British Columbia or crossed over to Vancouver Island. Hundreds had received a grim introduction to Canada when they first landed, spending days and nights in the open, on the streets or in city parks, before finding jobs or moving on. Despite these challenges they commenced construction of a building that was completed by early January 1908 at a cost of $6,000, or approximately two days of wages for every man in the country. It was fully paid for by the time it opened. The Presbyterian minister, John Knox Wright, was impressed. `It looks as those these people intended to stay, does it not.' [12]

The 2nd Ave Vancouver Gurdwara

The Sikhs who built and managed the Second Avenue gurdwara had formed a society for this purpose in 1907. They called it the Khalsa Diwan Society. When they registered it under the provincial societies act in March 1909, it became the first registered gurdwara society in Canada and it still is one of the principal ones. Until the gurdwara was complete, Vancouver Sikhs rented a building which they used as a hostel and a make-shift gurdwara for weekly congregations. It would have been impossible to replicate the rhythm, pattern and character of religious practice in Punjabi villages. There are several reasons: they were working on many sites in Vancouver and in outlying areas; their days were long; and the only religious leadership they had emerged from their own ranks. Until one of the immigrants, Arjan Singh of the village of Malak in the Ludhiana district brought a full-sized Guru Granth Sahib to Canada for the opening of the gurdwara, they had no holy book. For their services they had previously used a small book of five psalms from the Guru Granth Sahib.

The seven men who made up the committee that built the Second Avenue gurdwara came from seven villages located in four different districts in Punjab.[13] They were from Hoshiarpur, Jullundur, Ferozepur, and Ludhiana, in other words, from the Doaba region north of the Sutlej River and the Malwa region to the south. Most of the immigrants were members of the Jat farming caste, but there were a few members of Manhas Rajput farmers from the Hoshiarpur districts, as well as a few Tarkhans (carpenters) and a very few Julahas (weavers) and other caste groups. [14] The immigrant community also included Punjabi Hindus and Muslims from the same districts as the Sikhs. The gurdwara became a meeting place for all of these men; and the committee was a representative one, able to appeal for contributions across district and regional boundaries.

In its design and structure, the gurdwara was a practical adaptation to local circumstances. It was a two-story frame construction with a peaked roof. The temple area was on the second floor along with a room to which the Guru Granth Sahib could be retired each night. It was richly carpeted and draped with lace curtains. The kitchen and dining and hostel areas were on the ground floor. One reached the second floor by a set of broad steps to a balcony across the front. Before choosing a design, the committee had looked at pictures of the Hong Kong gurdwara which most of them knew because they had stopped in Hong Kong on the way to Canada. [15] The Hong Kong Gurdwara was also a two-story building with a second floor balcony and accommodation and kitchen facilities on the ground floor. It appears to have influenced the Vancouver committee. Nonetheless, in its materials and construction the Second Avenue gurdwara was very much a Vancouver building. The committee did consider putting it up with volunteer labour, using the expertise of the carpenters among them, but decided instead to employ a Canadian architect and a Canadian contractor who knew the local building methods. [16] Designs varied in gurdwaras built in Abbotsford in 1911, Victoria in 1912, New Westminster and Paldi in 1919; and Hillcrest in 1934.[17] However, a common Canadian style could be seen in all.

The most important mission to the Sikhs was conducted by Sikhs. In its early years in British Columbia, Sikhism experienced a revival which should be seen within the general context of the Sikh revival in Punjab dating back to the 1870s. Although Sikhs had been growing increasingly conscious of boundaries between their faith and Hinduism, the definition of these boundaries was still a matter of debate. Kahan Singh's Ham Hindus Nahin (`We Are Not Hindus') published in 1897, was a forceful statement made necessary by the fact that it was disputed. [18] Moreover, the understanding that Sikhs were not Hindus, and that to be a true Sikh one had to adopt the Khalsa form - with turban and uncut hair - was best articulated among the Sikh urban elite. In the villages, definitions were commonly less sharp. In a foreign setting, however, young men from rural villages were ready candidates for a religious education that emphasized the Khalsa form.

When they arrived in Canada, many of the pioneers, while bearded and turbaned, were not practicing Sikhs or did not follow the complete Khalsa discipline; others were sahajdharis or clean shaven; and a good number were Hindus. In the manifests of the Canadian Pacific steamships that brought these men to Victoria and Vancouver, it is striking how many gave their names without the Singh that would have indicated that they were Khalsa Sikhs. [19] Warayam Singh of the village of Nathoke in the Ferozepur District was a spiritually directed individual who naturally assumed a leadership role among these immigrant labourers. He was the man who had brought with him the small book of hymns that were used for services in the evenings before there was a gurdwara. He also had a small instrument, a dhoki that every Sunday he wore around his neck, while singing Sikh hymns on the streets of Vancouver. [20] He was a religious man, but not a Khalsa Sikh until June, 1908, when he was initiated by Teja Singh at an amrit ceremony in the Vancouver gurdwara.[21]

Warayam Singh was a key member of the committee that built the gurdwara. Also initiated in June 1908 were two army veterans, Bhag Singh, of the village of Nathoke, Ferozepur, and Balwant Singh, of Khurdpur, Jullundur. These two were leaders on the gurdwara committee up to their premature and violent deaths a number of years later (in 1914, Bhag Singh was shot in the Second Avenue gurdwara by an immigration informant and in 1917 Balwant Singh was executed by the British in Lahore). The one individual around whom the Sikh revival centred was Teja Singh (later Sant Teja Singh), who had come to New York from Britain in the summer of 1908. Teja Singh was a Khatri Sikh with an LLB from Government College, Lahore, which he had earned in 1901. After graduation, he had been an assistant superintendent in the Northern India Salt Revenue Service; and this experience had made him a strong critic of the British regime. Teja Singh went to Britain to study at Cambridge in 1906 and to New York to study at Columbia in 1908. Shortly after he began his studies at Columbia, he gained some attention in the press and Balwant Singh wrote to ask him to come to Vancouver. The first visit took place in the summer of 1908; the second began in early November and Teja Singh continued to visit until March of 1913, when he returned to India. In the meantime he completed an A.M. degree at Harvard.[22]

By his own account, Teja Singh did not have a religious upbringing, and, until his early twenties, was not a practicing Sikh. His profound religious commitment began while he was vice-principal of Khalsa College, Amritsar, around 1904. At that time he became a disciple of Sant Attar Singh, one of the most esteemed spiritual guides of Punjab. Sant Attar Singh himself had grown up in the sahajdhari tradition, and had been initiated as a Khalsa Sikh only after enlisting in a Sikh regiment as a young man. [23] Teja's Singh's attachment to Sant Attar Singh carried with it an unshakable adherence to the Khalsa form. In North America, Teja Singh became a religious teacher for Sikhs and non-Sikhs, for whites as well as Indians. A Vedantist group of about 100 whites in New York drew him into their circle as a spiritual teacher soon after he arrived there. He also quickly developed a small following in Vancouver and Victoria, where he was invited to deliver talks to theosophical groups meeting in private homes and also to deliver public lectures. In organizing events and projects and in publishing and distributing pamphlets on Sikhism for English speaking audiences, he was assisted by a New York mining promoter, the wife of a Victoria property dealer, a Vancouver doctor and others.[25]

Teja Singh combined an ecumenical spirit with a commitment to the Khalsa discipline. He carried his mission to Hindu, Sikh and Muslim immigrant workers on the Pacific coast, speaking against their use of alcohol and tobacco (which he had witnessed) and on broader moral issues, while welcoming those who accepted initiation into the Khalsa discipline. During his second visit he conducted a great tour, beginning in Vancouver and Victoria, and proceeding to Seattle, Portland and California, securing new Khalsa Sikhs at each stop. This work continued vigorously in British Columbia through the efforts of Bhag Singh and Balwant Singh, two forceful personalities. Sikhs were not alone in becoming Khalsa, but were joined by Hindus and even some Muslims. By all accounts, Sikhs made up a large majority of the original immigrants - perhaps 80 percent. [26] In the first few years, this was a growing majority, with Khalsa Sikhs in the forefront. By 1914, Khalsa Sikhs in Vancouver were both ready and able to exclude sahajdharis from the gurdwara management committee.

From the beginning, the gurdwara functioned as a political forum as well as a place of worship. Its leaders were political activists as well as evangelists; and when they asked Teja Singh to come to Vancouver, their purpose was equally political and religious. Their most immediate concern was to defend the rights of their people to stay in Canada. By coincidence, the Second Avenue Gurdwara had first opened only eleven days after the Canadian government had introduced a regulation to stop immigration from India. [28] This was the notorious continuous passage regulation that gave immigration officers the power to refuse entry to immigrants who did not come to Canada on a single ticket booked from an Indian port. The regulation was ruled invalid in March 1908 when challenged in court, but authorized again under an amended immigration act passed by the Canadian parliament in April. Its impact was reinforced by an additional regulation, issued in June 1908, requiring immigrants from India to be in possession of $200 when they landed. (The earlier requirement had been $25.) In taking this action, the Canadian government responded to pressure from organized labour in British Columbia and from many other sectors of the population. A recession in 1907 had intensified this pressure, and a race riot in September 1907 finally moved the government to act. Although the riot had taken place in Vancouver's Chinatown, it had been provoked by the arrival of a CPR Steamship with 900 immigrants from India.[29] The continuous passage regulation was a direct consequence.

In 1908, the situation of Punjabis in Canada was extremely insecure. They were battling, unsuccessfully, to keep the immigration gate open for their relatives and countrymen; and they were trying to avert deportation themselves. Opponents of Asian immigration had three arguments to make. The first was that immigrants were taking jobs away from Canadians. The second was that Asian immigration would change the character of the country. The third was that Asians, and particularly immigrants from India, could not adjust to Canadian conditions and that for their own sake, and to keep them off relief rolls, they should be denied entry.[30] The sight of large numbers of men, unemployed and without proper shelter, gave impetus to the last of these arguments. It led officials to consider means of relocating those already in the country. The result was the Honduras scheme. British colonies in the West Indies regularly recruited labourers from India under three-year contracts. These labourers generally came from areas closer to the port of Calcutta than Punjab, particularly from the United Provinces. The Canadian government proposed that, instead of sending a ship to Calcutta, the government of Honduras should send one to Vancouver to recruit Punjabis. [31] Canadian officials coupled this proposal with a threat to deport any indigent Indians remaining in Canada. [32]

The whole community - Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim - stood together in mounting a response, with the Second Avenue gurdwara their meeting place. The leadership did accept a Canadian government offer to take two delegates to Honduras to investigate conditions there and to report back. The delegates were chosen and they traveled to Honduras with a representative of the Department of the Interior, J. B. Harkin, private secretary to the Minister, as well as an interpreter, W.C. Hopkinson, (a former a Calcutta policeman who soon after became a Canadian immigration officer and who was shot and killed in 1914 by the Sikh martyr, Mewa Singh). The findings of the delegates were inevitably negative. Contract labourers in Honduras received a shilling a day. Free labourers in British Columbia could earn four or five times as much. Moreover, the conditions of contract or indentured labour were unacceptable to men from landowning families in Punjab who had paid their own way to North America and who expected to move freely from job to job. The return of these delegates to British Columbia created a great stir among their compatriots. At this point, Teja Singh came back to Vancouver from New York. In a direct and dramatic confrontation with Harkin at the Second Avenue gurdwara, he signaled his opposition, and that of his people, to the Honduras scheme. There the matter died.

Deportation remained a threat through the winter of 1908-09. In December 1908, Teja Singh estimated that 70 percent of the men were employed [34] . The challenge that he assumed, along with other community leaders, was protecting the rest. When the Governor of Honduras, Colonel Eric J.E. Swayne, a former Indian army intelligence branch officer, personally investigated the situation in Vancouver in December 1908, he was struck by the way in which all the elements of the India immigrant community had coalesced in Canada, something that he believed could not have happened in India. [35] While most of the immigrants were labourers, some were labour contractors and shopkeepers and a few (mostly Bengalis) were students. Men of different castes and faiths from Punjab and Bengal combined to create a fund and an employment bureau to assist the unemployed men. They also raised some capital for an investment vehicle, The Guru Nanak Mining and Trust Company, which they hoped would create jobs for some men. [36] When immigration officials proceeded with vagrancy charges against any of the immigrants, Teja Singh would appear with money to negate the charges.[37] By the following summer, with an improving provincial economy, only about five percent of the men were still out of work. By this point, the danger of wholesale deportations was gone.

Once they had achieved a degree of security for their people, the leadership began agitating for immigration and citizenship rights. Again, although Teja Singh and the gurdwara leadership were in the forefront, they had the close cooperation of Hindu activists organized as the United India League. Of the Hindus, the most prominent was Taraknath Das, a Bengali student at the University of Washington in Seattle who had worked as an interpreter in the Vancouver office of the US immigration service in 1907. Several members of the community, Hindu and Sikh, petitioned without success for the right to vote, which British Columbia legislation denied to all Asians.[38] The leadership, however, concentrated its efforts on the immigration issue, beginning with resolutions, petitions and deputations, and proceeding to direct challenges. They sought repeal of all discriminatory regulations blocking Indian immigration, but they emphasized the admission of women. Canadian officials assumed that Teja Singh and his supporters were directing attention to women for strategic reasons as the issue most likely to get a sympathetic response from Canadians.[39]

A deputation of four met the Minister of the Interior in Ottawa late in November 1911. This deputation, which included Teja Singh and two other Sikhs as well as L.W. Hall, a Presbyterian minister from Victoria, prompted the Minster to send an immigration department official to Vancouver and Victoria to investigate.[40] In the meantime, two leading members of the gurdwara society, Balwant Singh and Bhag Singh, arrived in Vancouver with their wives and children. They had gone back to Punjab to get their families as part of a coordinated campaign to bring the immigration issue to a head, and their journey back from the orient had been well publicized among their compatriots in North America. Unfortunately, all they were able to achieve was the admission of their own families as a special concession, without any change in Canadian regulations as applied to other Indian immigrants .[41] A second deputation, named at a meeting in the Vancouver gurdwara in the summer of 1912, left the following spring to put the case to the British Colonial Secretary in London. This was a particularly fruitless mission because the British neither had jurisdiction over Canadian domestic policy (which included immigration matters) nor were they inclined to exert pressure on the Canadians. The delegates, led by Balwant Singh, went on to India where they secured an interview with the Governor of Punjab, Sir. Michael O'Dwyer. They found no friend in him either. Nonetheless, agitating in India ultimately proved the most effective way to get action. It was pressure from the government of India that eventually, in 1918, persuaded the Canadian government to soften its stance and to admit wives and children of men already in Canada.[42]

Challenges and hardships in Canada, isolation from Canadian society, and the ferment generated by a strange life far from home, all had a transforming effect on young men. As a result, as we have seen, Sikh immigrants experienced a religious awakening, and Hindu, Sikh and Muslim immigrants found common ground. Most dramatically, these immigrants developed a sense of national identity. From early on, there were agitators among them. Taraknath Das, who had been involved as a student in the 1905 disturbances in Bengal, openly criticized British rule in India from the moment he arrived on the Pacific Coast in the summer of 1906. He was joined by a growing cadre of Bengali and Punjabi students enrolled in schools and colleges in Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia [43] Teja Singh added an articulate anti-British voice from a strongly Sikh perspective. In North America, these men enjoyed a freedom of speech and an access to their rural countrymen that they would not have had in India. Finally, events in Punjab added fuel to this mixture. In 1907, by dramatically raising land taxes and by introducing miscalculated land legislation, the British administration provoked protests and demonstrations across rural Punjab. The disaffection spread directly to Punjabi units in the Indian army, and it was carried overseas by immigrants.

Many of the immigrants were army veterans who had served in India and abroad. These men were in the vanguard of the immigration: the adventurers who discovered North American and who encouraged others to follow. In Canada, they began to reassess their army service, and, although they did not all reach the same conclusions, those who emerged as community leaders all became militant opponents of British rule. Within three years of their arrival, these leaders were making a public display of their anti-British feelings. On October, 1909, the executive committee of the Vancouver gurdwara, banned the wearing of military insignia, medals or uniforms by executive members.[45] To dramatize this action, Bhag Singh, the secretary of the temple society, burned his honourable discharge, turning his back on five years in the Indian army cavalry, as well as several years in the police in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Service under the British, he declared, was the service of slavery. His position received mixed support from other veterans. In September 1912, when the Canadian Governor General visited Vancouver, officials invited Sikh veterans to take part in a military review. Bhag Singh and the executive rejected the invitation, but many Sikhs paraded in uniform.

The influence of the Canadian immigration department and its officials ensured some opposition in the community to leaders like Bhag Singh. From 1909, the immigration department employed W.C. Hopkinson, the Hindi-speaking, mixed race, former Calcutta policeman who had accompanied the Honduras delegation in 1908. Hopkinson maintained a string of informers and they and their friends constituted a small but potent faction within the Punjabi immigrant community.[47] The emergence of the informers and the militants as hostile factions took place by degrees. By 1913 the enmity between factions was intense and personal. In the middle were the majority of the immigrants who had come to Canada for work and who put that purpose first. They were being politicized, however, by the prejudice they faced in Canada, the immigration regulations that stopped their relatives from joining them, and by the persuasive case made by the gurdwara leadership and by student activists like Taraknath Das. They were, moreover, receiving a lesson in political realities from the Canadian government, which was employing Hopkinson primarily to report on subversive activities. The Canadian government was sending Hopkinson's reports through London to the Indian government in Delhi. When Indian police made inquiries in villages in Punjab, immigrants in Canada began to realize that they were under an unfriendly scrutiny. Nationalism bridged religious, regional and class identities - linking Sikh millworkers and Bengali students. In British Columbia, nonetheless, the Sikh gurdwara and its leaders were at the centre of all activity. The political ideas that these leaders were absorbing came from outside the local immigrant community - from Teja Singh and Taraknath Das and other student activists on the Pacific Coast, from agitators in Punjab, and from Canadian sympathizers. In 1912, Sikhs in Vancouver established a connection with the Socialist Party of Canada, a Marxist organization later superseded by the Communist Party of Canada. Their intermediary was Husain Rahim, a Gujerati merchant whose caste and locality origins identify him as an Ismaili Muslim.[49] Rahim had come to Vancouver in 1910 from Japan, where he had spent 15 years. He was active in the Socialist Party of Canada between 1912 and 1914, and he encouraged Balwant Singh, Bhag Singh and other members of the temple executive to join himself in forming a party locals. [50] By the end of 1913, however, they were caught up in the Ghadar agitation emanating out of California. Ghadar party propaganda, generated by Har Dyal and his associate in San Francisco, appealed powerfully to Sikh militants in Vancouver.

As Harish Puri and other students of the Ghadar movement have explained, there is no single story of the origins of the Ghadar movement.[51] Did the initiative lie with the charismatic Har Dayal, who had been in California since the spring of 1911 and who knew personally the leading Indian revolutionaries in Europe? Or did the initiative lie with prominent Sikhs in Oregon and California who wanted action and who were seeking leadership? The answer depends on the sources. What can be said is that in the spring and summer of 1913 Har Dyal joined Sikh leaders in mobilizing Sikh workers. For this purpose he traveled up and down the US coast, visiting mill towns, railway towns and farming communities, raising funds and generating excitement. By November 1913 he had produced the first issue of the Ghadar weekly, printed in Urdu and packaged in bundles of fifty for distribution in India through friends and sympathizers in overseas communities on the Pacific Coast, in the Caribbean and in the Far East. [52] By the second week of December, issues were appearing in the Punjabi script of the Sikhs as well as in Urdu (which educated Punjabis generally knew).

In the Ghadar, Har Dyal promised that the British would be thrown out of India within a decade.[53] The incendiary nature of this message, with its justification of violence and its appeal to overseas migrants, was taken very seriously by the government of India. In North America, it was a difficult message to combat. Ghadar propaganda drew a connection between discrimination experienced abroad and subordination endured at home. Indians overseas would not be treated with respect, the Ghadar declared, as long as their countrymen were under British rule. The argument had been made before, by Taraknath Das, Husain Rahim and others, but the Ghadar made it with great power in the Punjabi language. Although Har Dayal never risked crossing the Canadian border, and his organizing efforts never took him north of Oregon, the Ghadar party had fully committed sympathizers in Canada. At the core of this group were the executive members of the Vancouver gurdwara, particularly Bhag Singh, who read issues of the Ghadar to assemblies in the gurdwara. Some of the content was aimed directly at Sikhs in Canada, describing in inflammatory language their confrontations with immigration officials and making dire threats against informers in their midst. [54]

By January of 1914, a community of economic emigrants - men who had come to North America to make money - had become absorbed in militant nationalist politics. At the centre of this situation were the Khalsa revivalists of the Vancouver gurdwara committee. Two developments during 1914 served to explode an already heated atmosphere. The first was the attempt of 376 Punjabis on the converted Japanese freighter, the Komagata Maru, to secure the right of entry into Canada. The second was the declaration of war in Europe and the Ghadar party's call to arms. A spate of violence within Vancouver's Sikh community in the fall of 1914 expressed factional tension that had been building for several years and that became acute as a consequence of the Komagata Maru and the call to arms. This violence included several isolated murders, a shooting in the Vancouver gurdwara perpetrated by an immigration informant, Bela Singh - in which Bhag Singh and one other Sikh were killed and seven were wounded - and the shooting death of immigration inspector Hopkinson at the hands of Mewa Singh, a Sikh millworker. In this period, the Sikh community in British Columbia weathered a crisis, but changed in character.

The voyage of the Komagata Maru was political from the start. Although most of the passengers were simply seeking work in North America, the organizing committee and its leader, Gurdit Singh, were acutely conscious of the political context. [55] Moreover, they turned the ship into a political classroom. Gurdit Singh and the passengers' committee brought bundles of Ghadar party literature on board during stops at Shanghai, Moji, and Yokohama; Balwant Singh, the Vancouver activist, who was returning to Canada via regularly scheduled liners, twice came on board at Moji to lecture; and at Yokohama, another prominent Ghadar sympathizer, Bhagwan Singh Jakh, addressed the passengers.

Balwant Singh's presence in Moji shows a degree of coordination between the passengers' committee on the ship and activists in Vancouver. However, the initiative belonged on the passenger's side. Despite the exclusionist policies of the Canadian and American governments, Punjabi emigrants still sought ways to get to North America. They were willing to gamble much against the slightest possibility of success. These men did not need to be encouraged by people they knew. Most of, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were not from the same districts as the men already in Canada. [56] They were fellow Punjabis, but the majority were neither relatives nor fellow villagers. That made no difference once their ship reached Canadian waters: their countrymen in British Columbia passionately took up their cause.

Their voyage was underfunded and Canadian immigration officials knew it. These officials delayed deportation proceedings for several weeks in the expectation that the passengers would run out of money and that they would be obliged to leave before any of them put a foot on shore. The ship stayed, however, and the passengers got their day in court because their compatriots on shore raised $18,000 to maintain the ship's charter and to pay legal expenses. The chief English speaking spokesperson for the Shore Committee that raised this money was a Gujerati, Husain Rahim. The chief link between the Committee and their lawyer was an educated Punjabi Hindu, Sohan Lal. A Punjabi Muslim was also among the members. The rest, however, were Sikhs, and although Hindu, Sikh and Muslim had joined forces, the gurdwara leadership, and particularly Bhag Singh and Balwant Singh, were the dominant element. The Shore Committee also had a few friends among white Canadians. One was the Presbyterian minister from Victoria, L.W. Hall. Another was the socialist lawyer hired for the passengers, J. Edward Bird. (Rahim had known Bird through the Socialist Party of Canada.) These friends, however, had no influence with Canadian officials and their opinions carried little weight with the Canadian public.[57]

Given Canadian attitudes, prospects of success were slight for the people on the Komagata Maru. The image of the ship and its human cargo, detained throughout a long summer in Vancouver harbour, aroused great interest and excitement in Canada, but little sympathy. Officials saw the passengers as intruders who were trying to beat the law and this view was widely shared by the Canadian public. How well either Gurdit Singh and the passengers, or the Shore Committee understood this is difficult to judge. What they were looking for was public reaction in India. If they expected the threat of protests in India would affect Canadian opinion, they misread their audience. In any case, they did not get the hoped-for public outcry in India, where the authorities maintained a tight control over the press. After a month, the Canadian authorities allowed the passengers a test case in court, which they lost. From that point on, negotiation between Canadian officials and the passengers concerned only the terms under which the passengers would leave. Compared with what occurred when the ship reached India at the end of its six month voyage, both sides acted with restraint while it was in Canada. Aside from a failed police attempt to board the ship, and the employment of a navy cruiser to escort it out of Canadian waters, Canadian officials avoided naked force. The bloodshed that ended the lives of nineteen passengers occurred within hours of the Komagata Maru's arrival at the port of Budge Budge in Bengal. It happened in an exchange of fire between some of the passengers and a force of police and troops who were on the scene to make arrests of some of the passengers. The violence that ended the Komagata Maru's saga might have sparked anti-government demonstrations if the authorities had not censored the press, and if they had not been able to count on the moderation of the leading Indian politicians of the day. Only in the midst of the Indian nationalist protest of 1919-1920, did the Komagata Maru become nationally known and recognized in Indians. For the small population of Indians in Canada, on the other hand, the Komagata Maru was a defining event. The Komagata Maru might have had more political impact if war had not swiftly commanded public attention. Fighting began in Europe while the ship was returning to Asia. The British Empire's state of war strengthened the hand of the Indian government in dealing with suspected subversives like the leadership on the Komagata Maru, and it diverted Canadian public attention away from issues that the Komagata Maru exemplified. Moreover, the war years removed much of the Sikh community from British Columbia, and dampened its voice. For Indian revolutionaries, the European war brought a moment of decision. They believed that the opportunity to rid India of the British had come and they were determined to seize it. On the day that Britain entered the war, Ghadar leaders in California began calling meetings, raising funds, and recruiting volunteers for the expected uprising. Within two weeks more than seventy volunteers gathered in San Francisco, seeking passages back to India .[59] This was the beginning of an exodus from North America that continued throughout the war years. In British Columbia, half of the Sikh-Hindu-Muslim population had gone by the summer of 1915, leaving only 1,100 behind. By 1918, another third had left, leaving only 700. In the vanguard of the exodus were the most committed revolutionaries. Among them were men from British Columbia like Balwant Singh, the activist who had been at the centre of things from the moment a committee was formed to build a gurdwara. The motivation of the mass of men who followed cannot be described simply. They had no sympathy for the British, but many listened to Ghadar propaganda with great skepticism because they did not believe that an uprising had any chance of success. What drove them out of British Columbia was a wartime recession that sharply curtailed production in resource industries such as lumber. Sikhs were not alone in losing their jobs. By one estimate in 1916, seventy or eighty percent of the Chinese in the province were unemployed.[60] The entire foreign immigrant labour force was affected, and while Sikhs were leaving the province, Chinese, Italians, Ukrainians, and others were going as well.[61] A majority of those who left never found their way back. For Sikhs it was especially difficult to return once the war was over because the Canadian immigration authorities rejected any suspected of Ghadar activity. During the war years, and especially in the first few months of the war, British Columbia's small Sikh community underwent a drastic purge. The numbers alone do not show the full consequence of the exodus. By 1915 most of the early leadership was gone. These were the men who led the Sikh revival, invited Teja Singh to the west coast, fought the Honduras scheme, agitated against Canada's exclusion policy, and promoted Ghadar propaganda. At the other end of the scale, the exodus also included the men who were least successful or least interested in establishing an economic foothold in British Columbia. These might be men who had saved enough to never need to come back, or those who had nothing to hold them in the province when they lost their jobs. Left behind were the most successful in acquiring an economic stake in Canada, and the least political. While hundreds of men were leaving, a few entrepreneurs were laying the basis for substantial fortunes. They did so by forming syndicates - generally of men from a common village or caste background - and taking over the operation of small mills, using their collective labour as capital to get an ownership stake when the value of the mills was low. [62] By law and regulation, British Columbia limited the occupational opportunities of all Asians, but various forms of entrepreneurship, small and large, were open to them. A survey done in 1922 showed six lumber companies, seven logging camps, two shingle mills, twenty-five farms and fifty firewood outlets owned and operated by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in British Columbia. Some of these enterprises involved a dozen or more partners, which means a significant entrepreneurial element in a male population of less than 1,000.[63] Two clean-shaven Sikhs, Mayo Singh and Kapur Singh, emerged as major mill owners and influential community members. Their clean- status was generally accepted by other Sikhs, who understood that it helped them to do business in Canada.[64] The history of many immigrant groups has followed a common pattern. A sojourner phase, dominated by male immigrants who went back and forth, was followed inexorably by a settler phase, as some of these men invested their future in their new surroundings and brought family to join them. The transition from sojourner to settler involved a shift in values and priorities that steadily changed the relationship between the overseas community and home. For an Italian immigrant arriving in Canada at the same time as the Sikh pioneers, it could take as little as six or seven years to make the conversion from sojourner to settler. Such a shift was impossible for Sikhs as long as Canadian regulations prevented their families from immigrating. Even after 1918, when it became permissible to sponsor wives and children, the pioneering generation of Sikhs retained a sojourner mentality. Few of them brought their wives over, although they did bring their sons when they were mature enough to work. In the 1920s, the sons of the pioneers began to bring over wives and to establish a small community of Sikh families in British Columbia. Although the majority of the community remained sojourning men, its culture and outlook was shaped increasingly by the presence of families who had put their roots down in Canada. The restructuring of the community - which began with the wartime exodus and continued with the emergence of an entrepreneurial group and with the arrival of families - radically altered the relationship between Canadian Sikh culture and that that of Punjab. Canadian Sikh culture no longer promoted Khalsa revival and militant nationalism, but instead made pragmatic adaptations to life in North America. The independent direction of Canadian Sikhs was evident in a controversy in the Vancouver gurdwara in the early 1930s. The issue was whether or not the Khalsa Diwan Society should have a formal connection with the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in Punjab. The voices in favour of this connection carried the day at a general meeting in February 1933; but their motion was rescinded and the independence of the Canadian gurdwara society affirmed five months later.[66] When Sant Teja Singh revisited British Columbia at the age of eighty in 1957, after an absence of forty-three years, he was dismayed by the path that Canadian Sikhs had taken, particularly their custom of attending gurdwara services bareheaded. There were few practicing Khalsa Sikhs in Canada by that date, and the strongest defenders of the Canadian Sikh way articulated their position in sahajdahari terms. By this point, Canadian Sikhs had won two vital victories in their struggle for equality in Canada. The first was the right to vote, gained in 1947; and the second was a small immigration quota secured in 1952. Within a decade that quota was to disappear, enabling an annual immigration in the thousands that has continued to the present. This immigration has brought with it a renewed absorption in the political and religious issues of Punjab and a new cycle of reform, militancy and reaction that has not yet run its course

Sikh Populations

Table 1: Current and Projected Sikh Population of Canada[7]

Sikh Population 2001 2017 2021
Canada 269,000 443,600 771,790
Atlantic Provinces 500 1,400 8,525
Quebec 7,400 14,300 23,345
Ontario 108,900 191,600 300,435
Manitoba 5,700 9,100 35,470
Saskatchewan 500 1,100 9,035
Alberta 2,400 4,100 103,600
British Columbia 141,900 185,000 290,870

Prominent Canadian Sikhs

See also

External links