31 Oct Giani Harnam Singh
When Ran Singh Koka left his village in the Punjab in 1905, he knew that he wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. Ran was a teenager, travelling alone to a country with an alien language and culture to make a better life for himself and the family he one day hoped to have.
Ran Singh Koka was the first member of the family to leave India to come to seek a new life in Canada. He left his village Kokian near Jullundur in 1905 taking a Japanese freight ship to Canada. He was one of the first Indo-Canadians to establish a farm in Canada and the first to live in Chilliwack. He was sent to Canada by his brother and his brother’s wife who wanted him to send money back home so they could buy more land and fix up their home. When he first arrived in Canada he was only 14 years old so a Caucasian couple allowed him to stay with them for a short time. This couple would remain good friends with Ran Singh all of his life and even ended up naming his two daughters: Lucy and Thompsie. Because Ran Singh couldn’t read or write in English, the couple assisted with filling out all of his legal forms. While there were some sympathetic and unprejudiced Caucasians there were more frequent incidences of racism and Ran Sigh was often told to “go back where you came from.” This was most often said by strangers as they passed by him on the street or by employers who didn’t want to hire Indian workers. Lucy explains that her father told her and her siblings stories about his early life in Canada quite often. He told her how he used to freeze at night while living in a barn, and when he had no money for food he and his friends would pick berries and other wild fruits.
The year 1929 in particular was a prosperous one for Ran Singh. It was the year he acquired the small dairy farm in Agassiz and went back to India, met Harnam Kaur and returned with her as his wife. Mrs. Harnam Kaur of the Kokerie village joined him in Canada 1925. Upon her arrival to Canada, Harnam Kaur became the only Indo-Canadian woman in the Chilliwack area and could not speak English so she was unable to socialize outside the household. It wasn’t until sometime later that an Indo-Canadian woman in Vancouver heard about her and started to visit her. The two women became inseparable. The general consensus by the majority Caucasian community was that Indians could never assimilate to Canadian culture and they therefore demanded that Indians wear Western clothing. As such, both of Lucy’s parents were forced to wear Western clothing. When Harnam Kaur arrived Ran Singh had already made her a rose colored dress which he brought to India so she could wear it when leaving the ship. Amazingly enough, especially given the racial turmoil and pressures at the time, Ran Singh wore his turban or pagri his entire life, never succumbing to the pressure to cut his hair. Similarly, Harnam Kaur continued to keep her Sikhi traditions by keeping a small comb with a little kirpan inside and tucked it in her hair.
In two years, the couple had two girls, Karm and Tej, both born at the Chilliwack hospital. In addition, during this period in the 1920’s Ran Singh also became one of the first Indo-Canadians to own a car when he purchased his green Ford; however, he could no longer afford it in the 1930s due to the Great Depression so he attached horses to it and drove it like chariot in the Cherry Carnival. Ran Singh would go on to say that with the exception of not being able to use his car, the great depression of the 1930s wasn’t very shocking to him because he and his pioneer comrades had seen worse times.
Wanting to expand his dairy farm and needing equipment to do so, Ran leased over 200 acres of land from the Catholic Church in Chilliwack and sold his Agassiz farm to buy machinery. (The Koka family’s second farm would eventually become the site of the Cottonwood shopping center in Chilliwack).
Over the following years, Ran and Harnam had five more children. Meanwhile, their herd of cattle grew to 200. The Koka kids would start and end their days milking 120 cows – with a full day of school in between.
For entertainment, the siblings would gather in one sisters’ room, where they were able to see the screen of the nearby drive-in movie from the window. “We’d all pile there and watch a movie until they caught us and made us go to bed because we had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning!” recall Ran’s son George Koka, 67, with a booming laugh.
By the early 1950’s, Ran Singh owned three farms in Ladner, and several of the Koka children and married and started farms of their own.
But while the family’s fortune grew, Ran Singh’s health began to falter. Suffering from arthritis, he broke one of his legs in 1952. After breaking the other in 1954, he was never able to walk again. In 1967, after more than a decade confined to wheelchair, Ran Singh passed away, leaving behind a tremendous legacy.
“If you pulled our whole family together from Grandpa down, there would be about 200 people,” says Ran’s grandson, Jack Koka. “If you look at how many people came out [to Canada from India] because of Grandpa either sponsored or in his family here, there would be hundreds and hundreds of people out here because that one person came out here. One person with a dream.”
-Excerpts taken from Mehfil Magazine’s story on Ran Singh Koka