Canadian Sikh Heritage | Lucy Tej Gill (nee Koka)
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Lucy Tej Gill (nee Koka)

Lucy’s father, Ran Singh Koka was the first member of the family to leave India to come to seek a new life in Canada. Ran Singh 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 Ran Singh 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. Ran Singh would go on to say that the great depression of the 1930s wasn’t very shocking to him because he and his pioneer comrades had seen worse times.

In the 1920s Ran Singh 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 so he attached horses to it and drove it like chariot in the Cherry Carnival. Ran Singh worked in various labor jobs, earning a wage of no more than $.10 cents per hour. But through his hard work, Ran Singh was slowly able to amass enough income to purchase cattle’s-enough to eventually start a farm of his own. He returned to India in the early 1920s to get married. His fiancé, Harnam Kaur’s family had no objection to her moving to Canada although they didn’t know where it was or how far away it was. Because there was so little immigration to Canada people in India knew very little about it.  For a short period of time he tried to live with his brother and his sister-in-law; however, they didn’t get along and he quickly returned to Canada. Mrs. Harnam Kaur of the Kokerie village joined him in Canada 1925. She was 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.  Lucy explains that the wider community argued that Indians could never assimilate to Canadian culture and demanded that Indians wear Western clothing. Therefore 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.

Lucy was born in Agassiz in 1928 but was only eight months old when her family moved to Sardis. As their home in Sardis they had no running water so the family moved to Chilliwack where they purchased a 200 acre dairy farm. Lucy has a younger sister and brother and so all three helped on the dairy farm from a very young age.  In addition, by the age of nine Lucy was expected to help her mother cook, clean, do laundry and take care of her younger siblings. Her parents then had four more children; seven in total. As children were too young to do the entire farm work Ran Singh hired farm hands. Every day the girls would bring them drinks and bake cookies for them. The workers always left one cookie on the tray for good luck. Most of the workers were Mennonites from the Vedder area.  In addition, her father often hired First Nations workers however they usually worked there only temporarily. There were very few Indo-Canadians in the community, but whenever the family met one, they were always invited over for a meal. Before the rest of their siblings were born, Lucy and her older sister were the only South Asians in their school and they had no problem making friends with Caucasian students. Both sisters joined the elementary school softball team. It was in high school when another Indo-Canadian girl began attending their school, as a result, Lucy, her siblings and the other girl were the only Indo-Canadians at the school in the later 1920’s. Lucy and her siblings would speak to each other in English to tell each other secrets; however, when Harnam Kaur quickly learned the language, they then began spelling out the words until their mother learned how to spell and read as well. Learning the English language was imperative to do anything outside of the home and so most new immigrants learned English quickly. Once Harnam Kaur learned English several of their white neighbors came to teach her how to make jams and jellies and other Western food. Her mother always talked of this incident and how she appreciates their help. Lucy recalls one story in particular when as a child she and her siblings would go grocery shopping with their mother. If the bill came out to be less than their budget the children could have any treat they wanted. All the Koka children attended Sardis elementary until they moved onto Chilliwack high school. According to Lucy although their parents encouraged them to retain Sikh values, there was no pressure to do so and they made no effort to teach their children the Punjabi language.  In fact, Lucy did not learn to speak Punjabi until she was married and had to speak Punjabi to communicate with her in-laws. She made a deal with a friend to teach her how to speak Punjabi and in return she taught her English. Lucy had plans of becoming a nurse but was unable to because her family needed help on the farm, in addition Harnam Kaur didn’t see the value in girls obtaining a higher education.

The family visited the Abbotsford gurdwara only three or four times a year particularly for Guru Arjun Dev’s birthday, Vaisakhi and Guru Gobind Singh’s Ji’s birthday. These events were attended by about 100 Sikhs and Indo-Canadians throughout the Fraser Valley and sometimes as Lucy recalls, the Vaisakhi celebrations had the biggest turnout due to the good weather in the 1950s. Although Lucy remembers little of the 1930s and the great depression she explains that because of the depression people met less frequently at the gurdwara as they were busy maintaining or searching for jobs.

According to Lucy when Indo-Canadians received the right to vote in 1947 they were all ecstatic. For the first election they were allowed to vote in, a majority of them supported the Liberals ardently (including her father Ran Singh).  Being a teenager, Lucy herself wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but she certainly remembers the renewed vibrancy and energies that emerged in the Indo Canadian community.

In 1949, Lucy was 20 years old when she was married to Sewa Singh Gill (who immigrated to Canada in 1947). Sewa Singh’s uncle was friends with Ran Singh and hence the relationship between Lucy and Sewa Singh was formed. Once the parents approved of the marriage they asked both Lucy and Sewa Singh if they also approved. They replied that they liked each other and so they were married in a double wedding with her sister Karm Kaur. On the way back from the wedding the driver stopped at a gas station from which Sewa Singh bought now Lucy Tej Gill some daffodils; it was the first time she had gotten flowers from anyone so something she always remembers. Sewa Singh and Lucy lived for two years with Lucy’s parents in Chilliwack to help them on the farm and then the two got a place of their own in North Vancouver. Together they had five sons: Rick (now a boiler engineer), Gary (in construction/ instructor), Perry (former Canadian National Railroad employee/ insurance broker), Donald (supervisor of logging transport), David (a civil engineer for Matsqui city planning). In addition, Lucy has six granddaughters and five grandsons.

After marriage, Lucy did not work for too long outside of the home however she briefly held a job at a poultry company and then became a cook for Delta hospital.  According to Lucy, her mother Harnam Kaur occasionally visited India and took Lucy’s brother there to be married in 1952; however Ran Singh never returned to India. Lucy Tej Gill herself has been to India four times; her first time being after she was married.

Today, both Lucy and husband Sewa Singh Gill have been retired for twenty years and are thoroughly enjoying their retirement by spending every winter in Palm Springs, California.