Canadian Sikh Heritage | Shyam Singh Sandhu
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Shyam Singh Sandhu

Shyam Singh Sandhu, born in the year 1875 and hailing from the Village Sandhwan in District Jalandhar, Punjab, India was the first out of his family to migrate to Canada in the year 1907. At 32 years of age, Shyam Singh was already married at this time to Bissan Kaur; however, discriminatory restrictions on migration prevented many women from India such as Bissan Kaur from being able to join their husbands in Canada. Shyam Singh, like most other Sikh migrants coming to Canada from Punjab, boarded the CPR ships which were Canadian owned and operated. According to Jarnail Singh Sandhu, grandson of Shyam Singh, his grandfather would regale stories of the poor conditions on the CPR ships. On the two to three month long voyage, the ships would continuously be leaking water, and so all the passengers would get buckets and try to take as much out as they could along the journey. Luckily, Shyam Singh was joined by a friend also from Village Sandhwan so he wasn’t alone on the arduous journey.

Upon his arrival to Vancouver, Canada, Shyam Singh joined the other Sikh men working in bunkhouses at various sawmills and worked with the horses who were used to carry lumber across from one space to another. Because there were so few Sikh men, or men from India at the time in Canada Shyam Singh was fairly easily able to find work; this was especially so because strong, sturdy and hard working men like Shyam Singh were needed to work the sawmills. Two of the mills in particular Shyam Singh mentioned working for were the Wesminster Shook Mills limited located in New Westminster and the Timberland Lumber Company Sawmill located on Fraser River. Jarnail Singh remembers the deplorable conditions his grandfather used to describe, explaining how often the Sikh men would sleep in the same barns as the horses because there was nowhere else for them to sleep. In addition, Shyam Singh also used to tell his grandson how hated the Sikhs were and the immense racism they faced on a daily basis on part of the majority Caucasian communities. As such, the West 2nd avenue Gurdwara, built in 1908, became a site for unity amongst the Sikh men where they could go to support each other but also go to provide support for the emerging Ghadar party. After working for many years in Vancouver in such places, Shyam Singh returned back to Punjab, India, twenty one years later in the year 1928. This was the same year that his grandson, Jarnail Singh was born on January 28th.

Shyam Singh stayed with his family for five years in India, and then returned to Canada in 1935. Although he was only seven years old at the time, Jarnail Singh still recalls his grandfather picking him up, playing with him, but more importantly regaling all his stories of life in Canada. Despite him being in Canada and so far away from his family, both Shyam Singh and Bissan Kaur would exchange letters with each other every few months. Upon his return to Vancouver in 1935, Shyam Singh relocated to Vancouver Island where he worked for the Vancouver Island (Cowichan Lake) Youbou Mill. Shyam Singh would end up working at this mill for the next fourteen years. Then in the year 1949, Shyam Singh once again returned to his home. The family back home in India was always aware of Shyam Singh’s arrival back home because of those letters and the correspondence that continued throughout. Jarnail Singh remembers Shyam Singh’s second trip back to India in particular because he was 22 years old at the time. Even though Jarnail Singh hadn’t seen his grandfather in fourteen years, when a local villager told him of his Grandfather’s arrival, Jarnail Singh immediately pointed him out in a crowd, proudly declaring: “That is my baba.” Jarnail Singh recalled that Shyam Singh had a small birth mark below his right ear and because of that small memory; he was able to point his baba out. Another interesting anecdote Jarnail Singh remembers of this second visit was that Shyam Singh refused to enter the village in a Tanga, which was a horse-driven carriage as he didn’t want to other villagers to think he thought highly of himself because he had amalgamated wealth while in Canada. Shyam Singh stayed for three years during his second visit back home, returning back to Canada in 1952.

In 1956, Shyam Singh then sponsored his son, Bikkerma Singh (Jarnail Singh’s father) to join him in Canada. Bikkerma Singh was married to Bhagho Kaur. Upon his arrival to Canada, Bikkerma Singh joined his father as they both worked at a mill located between Williams Lake and 100 mile house. Both father and son would work at this mill for seven years. Jarnail Singh arrived fairly soon after his father had migrated, coming to Canada for the first time on October 31, 1959. Jarnail Singh worked at the same mill as his father and grandfather for seven and a half years. He then returned to India in April 1967 where he then sponsored his wife Bakshish Kaur to be able to join him in Canada. Thus, in 1969, Jarnail Singh was able to return back to Canada joined by his wife Bakshish Kaur. Upon their arrival to Canada, the couple joined their eldest son Buta Singh who had already been sponsored by Jarnail Singh and was living on Williams Street in Vancouver. This house on Williams Street was the first home purchased by the Sandhu family. Prior to this home, Shyam Singh had purchased a home in partnership with other men and located close to todays’ knight street bridge in Vancouver. Jarnail Singh sold this house soon after for $8,000 CDN even though as Shyam Singh was leaving to return to India for the last time in 1960, he had advised Jarnail Singh not to as he was aware of the bridge that was going to start building soon and had thought profit could be made from it.

Upon his final arrival to his home in India in 1960, Shyam Singh passed away a few years later in 1964 at the age of 90 years old. His wife Bissan Kaur had passed away a few years before him. According to Jarnail Singh, the one thing in particular that Shyam Singh continued to be proud of was that he was able to see his family grow and prosper both in India or in Canada. Indeed, today the family is immensely proud and cognizant of the pioneering histories and stories all beginning with their baba Shyam Singh Sandhu.