THE KOMAGATA MARU:
A flashpoint for the community was the arrival of a ship called the Komagata Maru that had set sail from Hong Kong on April 6, 1914 with 165 passengers on board. It had picked up other passengers along the Pacific route in other ports and set said from Yokohama, Japan with 376 passengers. The passengers were planning to arrive on Canadian shores to challenge discriminatory laws that prevented people of Indian origin from immigrating to Canada. The law demanded that anyone arriving in Canada had to have traveled on a continuous journey from his or her land of origin. Knowing that no ships sailed directly from India, the law in effect served its purpose.
The ship arrived at the Victoria quarantine station on May 21, 1914 and two days later it anchored in the middle of Burrard Inlet. Canadian officials did not allow the passengers to leave the ship and only 22 returning passengers were allowed to go to shore, while deportation orders were prepared for the rest. For 63 days the passengers stayed on the ship with dwindling food and water while the local community challenged the government in court by donating hard earned money to the cause. Public sentiment was on the side of the government and much animosity was shown towards the passengers by the press and the public. The shore committee, made up of local Indian leaders that had been doing the negotiations with the government, fought hard for their right to stay, only to lose the battle in the courts. On July 23, 1914 the ship set sail back to the far east, their dream unfulfilled.
As the only early Sikh temple that has survived intact, the Abbotsford Heritage Sikh Temple has become imbued with symbolism. For the Sikh community the building is a gift given to them by the settlers. It signifies their sacrifices, their perseverance against many odds and their resilience to carve out a place for themselves and their families.
On November 16, 1918 a giant flagpole called the “Nishan Sahib” was erected to carry the Sikh flag – it stood 70 feet high and was fashioned from the wood of a single tree. In 1957, this flagpole was removed due to the encroachment of the highway and was replaced with a metal version. This new flagpole was a gift from Mrs Hernam Kaur Thandi of Sumas Prairie.
The Thandi family has a long and committed relationship with the Sikh temple. Sunder Singh Thandi arrived in Canada around 1907 and worked at the Tretheway mill on Mill Lake until the 1930’s when the mill closed. At this point, he bought land on Sumas Prairie where his house still stands today. He owned about 450 acres in the area buying it for $1.50 an acre. He helped build the massive staircase at the Heritage Temple, completed on June 25, 1939. He also bought and donated land across from the Heritage Temple to the Khalsa Diwan Society to build a new larger temple, which was completed in 1983. The Heritage Temple was enlarged at the rear in 1932 to extend the prayer hall, and a second addition was built in the late 1960’s. The Heritage Temple fulfilled many needs of the young immigrant community – it met their religious needs, their ability to congregate, provide assistance to each other and provide free food and shelter to those in need.
Indo Canadians make up approximately 15% of Abbotsford’s total population. Of the 23,190 visible minorities identified in the 2001 census, 73% (17,005) classified themselves as South Asian. The most frequently identified ethnic origin was East Indian with 87% (14,755) and Sikhism was the most common religion with 89% (15,070). Immigrants make up majority of the South Asian population at 63% (10,655) and 95% (10,140) of these immigrants are born in India. Canadian-born South Asians made up 37% (6,230) of the population, of which 95% (5,930) are born in British Columbia. English and Punjabi were reported by 36% (6,250) of respondents as being the most commonly spoken languages in the home. 51% (8,740) of respondents spoke only Punjabi at home and 9% (1,485) spoke only English at home.
Today the grand old temple is restored to its former glory by the governing body of the temple, The Khalsa Diwan Society of Abbotsford, BC.
Sikh community members in Abbotsford today consider it their duty to preserve the Gur Sikh Temple for future generations. The Temple is an important touchstone to their past; its preservation also represents one of the first steps in documenting the history of the Sikhs in Canada. In 2002, the Khalsa Diwan Society asked the Historic Sites and Monuments Board to consider the Temple for National Historic Site designation. In July 2002, the Society received notice of the designation which was carried out by Prime Minister Jean Chretien. A Parks Canada’s news release published that year stated: “The Sikh Temple is the oldest surviving example of the temples which formed the religious, social and political centre of pioneer Canadian Sikh communities. Architecturally, it is an adaptation of traditional Sikh forms to Canadian conditions which nevertheless embodies the fundamental beliefs of Sikhs and their early experience as immigrants in Canada.” In 2003, the Khalsa Diwan Society undertook the restoration of the Temple, restoring it to its original frame, and officially reopened it on April 1, 2007.
Today, the Temple encourages visitors to visit and guided tours are organized. It functions fully as a centre for prayer and congregation for the Sikhs and as a site for all Canadians to visit and learn about Sikh history.