The National Historic Site of Canada, the Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford opened its doors for the Sangat, ie. congregation, in the year of 1911. The Gurdwara is situated on the busy South Fraser Way street in Abbotsford. It was not only one of the first Sikh Gurdwaras to be built in North America, but also the longest standing, hence it came as no surprise when it was declared a National Historic site by the Government of Canada on July 31, 2002.
Identifying buildings and structures of special interest lie at the heart of Canadian heritage ministry, and designation is always taken with care and thought. Once the Gur Sikh Temple was declared as a national heritage site, much work was put in to preserve, renovate and modernize the structure of the Gurdwara. It took nearly five years to bring the Gurdwara to a presentable state. The large scale celebrations for honoring the Sikh temple were held on April 1, 2007, as community members, community leaders, and politicians joined the then Premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, in recognizing the Gur Sikh Temple as the National Historic Site of Canada.
There were many who worked laboriously in order to make that historic day of April 1, 2007, a reality. One of them was Nachittar Singh Sangha, who became the elected President of the Khalsa Diwan Society in 1998. With the support of the Khalsa Diwan Society, Nachittar and the committee realized the community’s desire to bring the Gur Sikh Temple back to its pristine glory as it had now been declared a national historic site of Canada. Thus, Nachittar and his committee decided to renovate the Gur Sikh Temple. In the words of Nachittar, “For our committee we had meetings and we decided that we should preserve our heritage, the Gur Sikh Temple is our heritage, our pioneers worked very hard to build this temple. At that time they were being paid pennies per hour but they preserved the ethos of our culture and our religion and established the Sikh temple at that time. It made sense to us to renovate it and preserve it for the future generations.”
To begin with, the committee members began examining the potential of the site and also requested that the Canadian government assist by providing a grant for the renovation of the Gur Sikh Temple, with the condition that the Khalsa Diwan Society would thoroughly foresee all renovations. During this time, Nachittar came to know that Sheila Copps, the then Minister of the Canadian Heritage, was visiting Richmond. It thus struck Nachittar, to share the idea of Sikh Heritage site with the Canadian Heritage Minister.
Nachittar’s meeting with Sheila Copps proved to be fruitful as he expressed his desires and his visions on the future of the Gur Sikh Temple in which he urged her to visit. In addition, Sheila Copps also assured Nachittar that even with the support of the Canadian government in terms of funding, that the site would remain under the control of the Khalsa Diwan Society. Sheila Copps declared that the Gur Sikh Temple was to be preserved for the community, not for the government and that the ministry had no intention of making such claims over the property.
This assurance from Sheila Copps gave clarity to Nachittar and his committee members. After a meeting with the senior members of the Gur Sikh Temple, in which their formal approvals were given, the Khalsa Diwan Society and committee proceeded to formally apply for a grant from the Canadian government. Following the application, the committee members invited the minister to visit the site. Many people from Abbotsford supported the cause. Shiela Copps visited the site and observed the site closely. The committee members also showed pictures of the early Sikhs to the honorable minister. After observing every aspect of the Gur Sikh temple, Sheila Copps suggested to the committee to apply for the National Heritage Status for the temple. This committee supported the idea and agreed to apply for the historic site status for the Gur Sikh Temple. Also, Paul Singh Gill and Balwant Singh Gill from the Guru Nanak Sikh temple, Jarnail Singh Kendal from the Ross Street Gurdwara, and Rattan Singh from the Akali Singh temple came forward in support of this good cause. The committee received supporting letters from the Federal Government, BC Government, a number of MLAs, MPs, as well as community members urging that this site is to be declared as the Canadian National Historic site. The approval from the Ministry came forth soon and the news was communicated through a phone call to the committee. Fortunately then, Prime Minister Jean Chretien heard of this wonderful development and his office suggested to Sheila Copps that he wanted to take part in the designation of the temple. This was to be the first time that the Prime Minister was to come to the temple.
On the day of the designation of the Gur Sikh Temple as a National Historic Site, a number of people from far and near Abbotsford came to the site. A massive stage was set up outside the Gur Sikh temple. Prime Minister Jean Chretien came along with Herb Dhaliwal, who was the minister then. Sheila Copps and George Ferguson, the Mayor of Abbotsford, also participated. At that function, on the 31st July of 2002, Prime Minister Jean Cretian declared Gur Sikh temple as the Canadian National Historic Site.
Following its declaration as the National Historic site of Canada, the Gur Sikh Temple now had to be renovated. Such a task required a significant amount of resources. The committee thus went ahead and applied for funding. The feasibility study and budget estimates were done and a target of $1,750,000 was set to be achieved. The government looked at the budget and gave their feed back to the committee. They revised the budget down to $1,250,000 and proposed to put in 50% as a grant. The committee started the renovation work. According to the ministry, it was probably the first time that it had released any funding prior to the community money having been spent. Usually, according to Nacchittar, the government would see the bills, and then send the 50% of those bills, not 100%, but fortunately, the committee was able to get 100% paid upfront. The first issue which arose with the reconstructions were the costs, as from 2004-06, the constructions cost gradually increased. Another issue which emerged were the requirements the government had, versus those of the committee’s. Hence, the government appointed an expert from Victoria to visit the Gurdwara and approve the progress. It was only after his consent that the next stage could be begun. Such issues occupied the minds of the committee as well as supporters of the endeavor.
As the renovations began, it was soon discovered that one side of the temple was sinking because of the sawdust underneath. To salvage the situation, the committee had to hire professionals to lift the building up and then take everything from the ground underneath, out. In addition, it was further discovered that most of the parking lot was in a similar situation. This was due in part when in the early days, many members of the community had saw-dust trucks, hence many of them brought in saw dust and filled the pond that was there earlier at the site of the parking. This was usually done on Sundays.
Three additions to the structure of the original Gurdwara were also made. Such expansions were built on sawdust. When the renovators began digging, they had to continue doing so for 13-14 feet. They went down to take sawdust out and refilled it with gravel, sand, and Petron. The Gur Sikh temple was fortunate to have many members of the community as truck owners and drivers, hence, much work was done free of cost. By the time the Sikh temple had been restored to its original glory, project costs had reached $2,500,000. But surely it had been spent for a very good cause. The site of the Gur Sikh temple was now in good shape for another hundred years.
According to Nachittar, the restoring of the Gur Sikh Temple as a National Historic Site has been a great experience, as he claims “it has been an unforgettable experience for me. I will remember it all my life, and feel very fortunate that I was part of this project. Everyone will have a different view but I am very positive and strongly believe that Abbotsford community has done a great job.” Nachittar also has certain visions for the future of the Gur Sikh Temple, for example, he wants to see a Sikh museum at the ground level. He is thus very pleased that such an initiative is taking place to see the project forward:
“I understood from the very beginning that the Gur Sikh Temple is a gift left for us by the pioneers and we should renovate and keep it preserved and pass this on to the younger generation. Our future generations should always be proud that hundreds of years ago our pioneers came here they did not forget about Sikhism And they slept in horse barns and did all kinds of odd jobs, but they did not forget about our culture. We should all be proud of this fact”, says Nachittar.The younger generation can be inspired by the examples of Sundar Singh and Hari Singh and Kharam Singh Thandi. Those Thandi brothers donated this land where the new Gurdwara is built. They donated this land to the Gurdwara across the road of the Gur Sikh temple. They left Canada to fight for the independence of India as Gadree babas. They said if they did not return, then this place should be used to build a new Gurdwara. And that is what the family did. This kind of commitment towards the community is praiseworthy. The family did not think of their own family, they thought of the community, the Sikh community at large. We should feel inspired by their example. Our younger generation should also feel committed towards the community at large and the Sikh community,” adds Nachittar.
The two horses now displayed proudly at the restored Gur Sikh Temple are also play a significant part in the history of Sikh pioneers into British Columbia. It is known that when Queen Victoria celebrated her Jubilee celebration, at that time, Canada was under the English rule, and so was India. The statues are also symbolic in their own right as they represented the very first glimpse that Sikhs had of British Columbia, when first Sikhs to ever enter British Columbia were actually on an official trip as part of the Hong Kong army regiments who were traveling through Canada in commemoration of the Queen of England’s Victoria Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The British brought those soldiers for the celebration and after the celebration, those Sikh soldiers, came to Canada on horsebacks and they traveled through these lands. It is known that they came to Abbotsford too. As such, because of the historical significance of the Sikh soldiers on horses, the Gurdwara committee wanted such statues displaying our history as symbolic markers at the Gur Sikh Temple, as was earlier done at the Gurdwara in Vancouver.
In order to celebrate such a landmark event which was historic not only for the Abbotsford Sikh community, but the Canadian nation as a whole, many events occurred on April 1, 2007. The South Fraser Way, was closed for seven hours in order to allow for the celebrations, speeches, and entertainment to continue and be enjoyed by all. Thousands of Sikhs and community well wishers arrived to take part in the events of the day. To begin the ceremonies, Premier Gordon Campbell cut the ribbon to officially launch the ninety-six year old Gur Sikh Temple as a Canadian historic site.