The first people from India to migrate to British Columbia were Sikhs from Northern India (mainly from Punjab). These men were actually on an official trip as part of the Hong Kong army regiments who were travelling through Canada in commemoration of the Queen Victoria of England’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Following this initial visit, a second contingent of Punjabi soldiers visited British Columbia in celebration of the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Arriving in Victoria on the Empress of Japan, on June 3, 1902, and led by Sardar Major Kadir Khan Bahadur, it was this group of South Asians who became intrigued at the possibilities of residing in British Columbia. Even in terms of the hospitality and reception they received, the larger British Columbian community tended to treat the Punjabi soldiers with respect, as the local papers exclaimed “Turbaned Men Excite Interest: Awe inspiring men from India held the crowds.”
The robust and agriculturally rich landscapes were very appealing to those Punjabi soldiers because it reminded them of the terrain in their homeland of Punjab. And thus, the first period of significant migration of Indians from the Punjab area commenced between 1904-1908. Within these four years, approximately 5,000 Punjabi men (women were a rarity) arrived in Canada to begin their new lives. At this earlier point in the history of South Asian migration, the Canadian government did not pay much attention as it was too busy restricting Chinese migration to Canada with regulations such as the $500.00 head tax, etc. However, although the initial two years of rapid South Asian migration into Canada tended to remain unnoticed by the larger Caucasian community, such sentiments did not remain.
Almost all the men who arrived in British Columbia worked in such labour industries including: forestry, fishing and railway. And because the Canadian government was preoccupied with restricting Chinese and Japanese immigration at the time, these South Asians were quite easily able to find such work. On average, these men earned from $1 to $1.25 a day, which was less than the pay received by Caucasian workers. Some workers however, did pay their South Asian workers up to $1.50 to $2.00 a day. Because wages were so low for them, most South Asian men lived together and there were often between twenty to fifty men living under the same roof. These homes were commonly referred to as bunkhouses.
As South Asian migration into British Columbia increased, so did the racial tensions which had for those early years remained very nominal, if not nil. It was in the year 1906 when some 700 South Asians had arrived, that the Canadian government was finally forced to take notice. Furthermore, because employers preferred to hire Punjabis due to their work ethic at lower pay, many Caucasians resented their presence in Canada. A great deal of racial chaos ensued from 1906 onwards as South Asians were laid off from work, were barred from entering public facilities, evicted from their homes, physically abused by people and the police and emotionally abused by the local press and media. The formation of racist and exclusionary groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League aimed to discriminate and mistreat the South Asian community, as well as the Chinese and Japanese communities. The 1907 riots led by the League is demonstrative of the challenges these immigrant communities faced as their homes, businesses, and livelihoods in general were meaninglessly destroyed. And yet, despite the great discrimination and abuse these South Asian men dealt with, the community still forged on as they began to solidify their permanent presence through the creation of the Khalsa Diwan Society in 1907. Such an overarching committee, followed with the building of the first Sikh temple in North America (West 2nd Avenue, Vancouver) provided a place of communal consciousness, camaraderie, and even practical help by providing food and housing.
In order to attempt to hinder South Asian migration to Canada, the government implemented the infamous “continuous journey” regulation on January 8, 1908, which decreed that migrants could only arrive at a Canadian port from his or her country of origin. Another significantly barring regulation demanded that all incoming migrants from Asia must be in the possession of $200.00, which was an inconceivable amount. In comparison, European migrants were only required to have $20.00 in their possession.
Despite other efforts to rid British Columbia of its Indian community, for example, by trying to send them off to British Honduras, South Asians refused to relocate and agreed to the conditions for migration which were handed down to them. These regulations culminated into the infamous Komagata Maru (click here for an in-depth article on the Komagata Maru) incident of 1914 in which a boat of Sikhs entered British Columbia via the “continuous passage” journey and were still refused entry into British Columbia. After months of living on the boat, the 376 Sikhs had to return to India where further chaos ensued, resulting in the deaths of many of these Sikh men. The Komagata Maru, just as it is a tragic element of Canadian and Punjabi migration history, is also demonstrative of the determined nature of the Sikh men who would abide by any laws, despite the obvious level of racism, to enter, and become citizens of Canada. Many Sikhs in British Columbia, after bearing witness to the Komagata Maru tragedy, became disheartened, and in their exasperation, relocated back to India after 1914.
The South Asian community at large also protested the discriminatory treatment through any means possible. For example, in November 1909, Teja Singh and Hari Singh presented their case on the restrictions of South Asian migration while in England. Others, such as Guru Dutt Kumar, tried to forge a unified South Asian identity through the newspaper, “Swadesh Sevak,” which was eventually censored. Bhag Singh, the President of the Khalsa Diwan Society, went to India to pressure the government to take action. And even the average South Asian community member took to the streets in order to publicly protest their horrible conditions or by sending petitions to the Canadian, British and Indian governments.
In addition to the discriminatory plight they were forced to deal with, troubles were further exasperated by the lack of presence of family units. This was because Canadian regulations at the time restricted women and children under the age of eighteen from entering Canada, and such was the case that from the time of 1904 and 1920, only nine Punjabi women migrated to British Columbia. Thus, the majority of men were left alone, without their wives and families, and instead living amongst themselves in compact lodgings and bunkhouses. This was not the way those Sikh men had pictured their family lives in British Columbia would begin.
Although many Sikhs did return to the Punjab region in 1914 in order to promote and work for India’s freedom from the British, with movements such as the “Ghadar” movements, another major Sikh migration to Canada did follow in the 1920’s. And since the regulation restricting women and children under the age of eighteen had finally been lifted, women and children accompanied their husbands in order to build the full family unit. The Sikh population in British Columbia began to grow again, although slowly, in the 1920’s as there were just over 1,000 at the time. Adapting to such unfamiliar settings was indeed difficult; however, Sikhs adjusted as best they could through a process often referred to as “Canadianization.” The newly migrated Punjabis tried their best to adapt western ideals including the dress. Rather than wear traditional Indian suits, women often wore dresses, and Sikh men often dressed in formal suits and ties. Economically speaking as well, the South Asian community in British Columbia began to prosper in the 1920’s as they forged a small entrepreneurial class by purchasing sawmills, farms, and engaging the agricultural business, etc. And although racial tensions always would remain at the forefront until later in the 20th century, the South Asian community continued to prosper through community support and the support of institutions such as the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver and Abbotsford, etc.
By the 1940’s however, one subject which remained in the forefront amongst all Indo Canadians in British Columbia was the right to vote. The Indo Canadian community fought for the right to vote on many fronts. For example, in March 1943, a twelve man delegation including members of the Khalsa Diwan Society such as Nagindar Singh Gill presented their case to Premier Hart. For Indo Canadians within the community, without this simple right which all the other Canadian citizens had, they saw themselves as second class citizens. The first minor victory in this battle for the right to vote occurred in 1945 when all those from the Asian and South Asian community who had fought in World War II were granted the right to vote in the provincial elections. By April 2, 1947, all South Asian males were granted the vote both in the provincial and federal elections.
Although one of the first, and largest Sikh communities was established in the Vancouver area, there is a great pioneer Sikh history in areas such as Duncan, Victoria, the interior of BC, and of course, the lower Fraser Valley which includes Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack. As the Sikh community in British Columbia grew in the mid-20th century, so did the establishment of their identity through physical entities such as the Sikh temples. As the first Gurdwaras were built, they became a site of common ground for all Sikh community members to come together, help one another, and provide moral support for one another as they built their lives in British Columbia.
(The historical content and source material has been taken from: Buchignani, N., Indra, D. M., & Srivastava, R. (1985). Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada. Toronto: McClelland)