Canadian Sikh Heritage | Sewa Singh Gill
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Sewa Singh Gill

Sewa Singh was born on January 1, 1932 in Punjab, India. He spent his childhood tutoring and helping out at a local school as well as working on the family’s fifteen acre family farm.  Sewa Singh’s father, Mangal Singh Gill, came to Canada in 1906 and worked on railroads, frequently sending money home to his young family back home in India. When he lost his job, Mangal Singh Gill then moved to the United States where he worked as a farm laborer and lived in a barn. Since Indians were not given citizenship in either the United States or Canada a friend of Mangal Singh Gill’s married a Mexican-American in order to buy land.  Eventually however Mangal Singh Gill returned to India to take care of his ill father (Sewa Singh’s grandfather).  In 1930 Mangal Singh was wedded to Gurbachan Kaur-he was close to fourty years old during the time of his wedding. Mangal Singh returned to Canada in 1932 staying until 1935 and then remained in India from 1935-1946 until WWII was over. During this time, Sewa Singh was born on January 1st, 1932. When Mangal Singh returned to Canada following the end of WWII he brought the fifteen year old Sewa Singh with him.  Mangal Singh then returned to India in 1952 and stayed there until his death also in 1952.

Sewa Singh explains that everyone was excited to immigrate to the United States, very few people had heard of Canada when he left. In 1947 Sewa Singh and Mangal Singh began their journey to Canada by taking a train to Mumbai and then boarded the ship named Marine Order to Singapore, Hong Kong and then San Francisco. This boat carried between 4-5,000 men as it included soldiers on board as well. Sewa Singh found the hardest part of being on the ship was eating Western food; he couldn’t even stand the smell of it. Eventually some of the Indian passengers talked to the cook who was African-American and who permitted a man named Ganga Singh to cook for the Indian passengers. Ganga Singh was paid a dollar by each of the passengers in doing so. As the voyage was on average a two month long crossing, the men passed their time by talking, playing cards or teaching each other whatever English they knew. Sewa Singh and Mangal Singh took a ship to San Francisco where they stayed with an Indian man Mehar Singh and his wife Connie for two months.

When Sewa Singh arrived in Canada he immediately found a job in a saw mill in North Vancouver.  Because Sewa Singh was only 15 years old at the time, he technically was not allowed to work; however, because of Mangal Singh’s connections, he was able to begin work immediately. Meanwhile Mangal Singh worked on the Green chain making $.75 cents per hour.  The two lived in the company bunkhouse with twelve other workers and a cook.  They had no electricity however the company supplied the bunkhouse with fire wood. After a couple months, Sewa Singh got another job at the mill as well as a raise of $.5 cents, meaning he was now earning $.65 cents per hour.

Sewa Singh had short hair when he was living in India, only having adopted a turban a few years before coming to Canada. After immigrating he kept his turban for about a year and half before cutting his hair, having always preferred the clean shaven look.  Mangal Singh on the other hand, always kept a beard and his turban. Sewa Singh explains that there were several movie theatres, restaurants and pubs that didn’t allow turbaned patrons and so it was very difficult for him to live his life freely in Canada.  Sewa Singh and Mangal Singh both visited the Vancouver West 2nd Avenue gurdwara several times per week. Each gurdwara would exclusively celebrate an event in order to get maximum attendance. The Granthi would be paid very little; in addition to managing the gurdwara the granthis also had to make and pile fire wood and clean the bathrooms. The two also sent money, approximately $100.00 per month as it was the maximum they were legally allowed to send, to their family in India. Often they sent more than $100 per month by pretending that they were going to buy something in India.  Mangal Singh was elected as the President of the West 2nd Avenue Gurdwara and was present when India’s first Prime Minister, Jawarlal Nehru visited Canada in 1949.  He was also involved in fighting for the Indo-Canadian franchise in the 1940’s.

Sewa Singh always missed India and had planned to return, especially given that his mother was still there. However, he ended up marrying in Canada and he and his wife (Lucy Kaur Gill nee Koka) decided to stay and buy a house together in Vancouver. The couple were introduced to each other by Sewa Singh Gill’s family Uncle, Jarnail Singh Kooner. And so, on March 13, 1949, the couple were married at the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple. Sewa Singh’s new wife, Lucy Kaur also has very deep pioneering roots as her family had lived in British Columbia since 1906. As someone who was born and raised in Canada, Lucy was able to help Sewa Singh improve his English. The couple had five sons who all grew up to be engineers. The family very much recognizes the efforts of Mangal Singh Gill in helping to forge the foundation upon which they have continued to thrive and build upon.

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