Punjab Research Group

A small world in a faraway land

Posted in News/Information by rsmaan on February 18, 2018

A small world in a faraway land

(this article is also available at http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/spectrum/a-small-world-in-a-faraway-land/544596.html)


Posted at: Feb 18, 2018, 1:30 AM; last updated: Feb 18, 2018, 1:30 AM (IST)
A small world in a faraway land
The history of Sikh heritage in Canada boasts of values of community living. It tells about Punjabi immigrants who moved to Paldi and Abbotsford and painted strokes of inherited culture

Rishi Singh

The Sikhs who first stepped on the western-Canadian soil were on their way to attend commemoration of Queen Victoria of England Diamond Jubilee in 1897. These soldiers were followed by more Sikh soldiers who travelled through Canada for the celebrations of the Kind Edward VII in 1902. The number of Sikh settlers began to rise, especially, 1904 onwards. The ‘white community’ thought that the Sikhs were getting better jobs and this lead to racial tensions. Realising the challenges, Sikhs organised themselves socially and politically and formed Khalsa Diwan Society in 1907. It was during this time that the first gurdwara was established at West 2nd Avenue, Vancouver.

In an attempt to dishearten South Asians from settling down in Canada, the then Canadian government introduced the infamous “continuous journey” regulation in 1908. The regulation put forward a condition that only those who reached Canadian ports after travelling continuously from their country would be allowed to land on its soil. In the year 1914, a large number of passengers, majority of them Sikhs, sailed to Canada on the ship Komagata Maru were refused entry under the new law. To make matters worse, women and children under 18 were not permitted to come along with men to Canada until 1920s, when the law changed and families began moving in.

A high engagement with the democratic institution of the nation prompted the Sikhs, led by Khalsa Diwan Society, to ask for the right to vote. In 1945, war veterans from the World Wars were granted the right to cast votes in the provincial elections. In 1947-48, the Canadians from South Asian descent were allowed to vote both in provincial and federal elections. Thus, gaining full rights of a Canadian citizen.

Paldi — When a town became home

In Western Canada, the Sikh communities began prospering in cities like Duncan, Victoria, Vancouver, Abbotsford and Mission. Soon a sawmill town was established by Mayo Singh, a Sikh, who named the town Paldi after his native place Paldi in Hoshiarpur. In 1916, he went to Cowichan Valley seeking better source of timber and an appropriate site for establishing a sawmill. Slowly and steadily, the area around his sawmill began to grow like a town. Many workers, who were Japanese, South Asian, Chinese and whites began to settle there. The place had a Gurdwara, company store, post office and a Japanese community hall. As Paldi prospered, the place became a home away from home for many families. In tandem with the Sikh principles, Mayo Singh shared his earnings with the Duncan community. His donations to the Duncan hospitals are still talked about and appreciated. The sawmill stopped working in 1945 and that slowly put an end to the community living that saw amalgamation of several cultures in Canada.

Another fascinating fact that takes one to the golden days of Paldi is the making of a school.

In 1920, the first school in Paldi was built on a hill amidst huge stumps and debris of a former logging area, as mentioned by Carolyn Prellwitz in her article in Cowichan Valley Citizen. At the time when Canada celebrated its 150th year of existence, the one-room school at Paldi became symbolic of diversity and inclusion. Carolyn informs that all building material for the school was donated by the Mayo Lumber Company. Parents and others provided the labour and other equipment. The piano was personally given by Mayo Singh. The school photographs from the 1920s to 1960s featured Sikhs, Japanese, Chinese and Caucasian students, demonstrating rich diversity at Paldi.

The once-upon-a-time town of Paldi has disappeared, but what remains there is a Gurdwara Sahib. The gurdwara building has symbolic prakash of Guru Granth Sahib on the upper floor. The ground floor has a room with some old images that are put on the wall, pointing to the glorious days of Paldi. An image shows certificate of honours given to Mayo Singh by the government of Canada. There is an image of Mayo Singh meeting Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Indian Prime Minister of India, on his visit to Canada.

Abbotsford — Footprints of history

Nearly an hour from Vancouver, on the South Fraser Way, in the city of Abbotsford is located a Canadian Heritage Site, a gurdwara, known as Gur Sikh Temple. Soon after moving to Canada, I was fortunate to engage and work with the Fraser Valley Sikh community on a Canadian Sikh Heritage project that is the Gur Sikh Temple.

The site of the gurdwara opened in the year 1912 with support from Khalsa Diwan Society. As per the newspaper reports then, during the inauguration of the Gurdwara Sahib, a large number of Sikhs and non-Sikhs joined in the congregation. There are two floors on the gurdwara — the second floor has the prakash of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ground floor has a kitchen. Sunder Singh Thandi and Arjan Singh were instrumental in the making of the gurdwara. The one-acre land was bought by them adjacent to the mill, where 50 Sikhs worked. The owner of the Trethway Lumber Company donated the lumber for the gurdwara. It took Sikh community three years, beginning from 1908, to construct the gurdwara that formally opened in 1912.

In 2002, Khalsa Diwan Society asked the Historic Sites and Monuments Board to consider the gurdwara for National Historic Site status. In July 2002, the gurdwara received the recognition. Khalsa Diwan Society got the gurdwara building restored and reopened in 2007. The upper floor has prakash of Guru Granth Sahib. Currently, ground floor is used as exhibition space. The exterior of the Gurdwara Sahib has a gabbed roof. There are sculptures of Bhai Kanhaiya and injured soldiers being served water by him in the gardens of the Gurdwara premises. The exhibitions and sculptures make visitors curious about the Sikh history.

The teaching of tenth Guru of Sikhs, Gobind Singh, Manaski Jaat Sabhe eke Paichanbo recognises all mankind as a single race of humanity. It connects with the Canadian core values of equality and respect for cultural differences. Embracing this ethos, the Sikh community has played an important role in enriching the country’s institutions with its contributions. Canada is marching ahead, but at the same time is not forgetting its historic defining moments. It is rather preserving, conserving and sharing them with all. Those visiting Canada must make an effort to include Paldi and Abbotsford in their itinerary to experience the feel of Punjab while away from Punjab and to celebrate Canadian Sikhs’ glorious heritage in faraway lands.

%d bloggers like this: