Canadian Sikh Heritage | Mr. Gurdev Singh and Mrs. Pritam Kaur Brar
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Mr. Gurdev Singh and Mrs. Pritam Kaur Brar

Gurdev Singh was born on Janurary 1, 1923 and his wife was born on June 10, 1923. Gurdev Singh grew up in the village of Pattohira (present-day Moga district). Before coming to Canada Gurdev Singh obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree as well as a teaching degree. He had planned to start a law degree however the turmoil caused by Partition in 1947 made it impossible for him to continue his studies. He served in the Indian air force but when India gained its independence from Britain, Gurdev Singh discontinued his work in the army. He then worked for the Maharaja of Faridkot as his head of Aviation but lost his job when the Maharaja’s kingdom was encompassed into India. In addition, he did some farming.  Mrs. Pritam Kaur Brar worked as a headmistress for a high school in Punjab for three years; however, when schools closed during partition Mrs. Brar no longer had a job. Nevertheless, the political instability and uncertainty that followed independence is what coerced Gurdev Singh and Pritam Kaur Brar to seek a new life elsewhere.  Gurdev Singh’s sister had already arrived in Canada and had set up a farm in Calgary with her husband.  Therefore he, Pritam Kaur and their young family migrated to Canada.

The Brar’s came to Canada on June 1st, 1959 each being 36 years of age along with their 2 children (son Shabnam and daughter Rupinder). The couple later had another son, born in Calgary. Soon after arriving Gurdev Singh began work on his brother-in-law’s farm.  Meanwhile, Pritam Kaur began working at a monastic institution where she and other nuns worked to take care of the sick, elderly and orphaned. In particular she worked in the dining room, serving the elderly. Due to this connection with the convent, the nuns allowed Pritam Kaur’s children to attended Catholic school despite them being Sikhs. Pritam Kaur explains that the time she spent in the convent was invaluable. She felt completely respected by the nuns in a way that she was not respected within the wider society; they were very caring, considerate and supportive during all her ups and downs in life.

When Gurdev Singh arrived in Canada he believed that it was a utopia where no one killed or stole anything. Therefore, in his first winter in Canada he was completely shocked when someone stole his shoes. He explains that this incident taught him that Canada was just likely any other place in the world. Moreover, having trouble finding a job and facing racism made Gurdev Singh feel incredibly disappointed in a country he had thought so highly of and had so many expectations of. Meanwhile, his family kept pressuring him to assimilate to mainstream Caucasian society and convinced him to stop wearing a turban so he could get a job easier.  As soon as his hair was cut he realized he was uncomfortable with his decision.  He began growing out his hair again and always regretted what he had done. Furthermore, he found that he was treated no differently by whites whether he had a turban or not.

During this time in the 60’s the Brar’s were only one of about eleven other Indian families in Calgary at the time. Most of these families included those who were doctors, engineers or teachers.  According to Gurdev Singh and Pritam Kaur only two families out of these eleven families were involved in agricultural or mill work. Many Phd scholars had come to Calgary in order to upgrade their education as soon as they realized that they could make more money in the Canadian West for research and writing. Gurdev Brar believes that all the people who had been well educated in India and upgraded in Canada still had immense difficulty getting jobs in the area of their profession. Some had to defer to labor jobs.

Pritam Kaur explains that she always wore Western clothing like the other Indian women in Calgary at the time. The only time they would wear Indian clothes was at special functions and during special occasions. Pritam Kaur continues to note that Caucasian people couldn’t tell the difference between a salwar kameez and sari as they always call both saris. In addition, Pritam Kaur remembers attending expo 1967 in Montreal wearing Indian clothing and receiving a lot of positive attention with people even asking to take pictures with her.  She explains that once there was more Indian immigration in the 1970s and 80s she became more comfortable in wearing Indian clothes again.

Gurdev Singh explains that before independence there had been the ongoing stereotype that Indians were uneducated, backward and inferior; however, with independence in conjunction with the hippie movement and generation of the 1970’s, Indians were treated far better.  Gurdev Singh goes on to say that Alberta in the 1950s had an extensive population of Eastern Europeans as opposed to British Columbia where there were Western Europeans. Eastern Europeans were facing similar issues of assimilation and prejudice and many had less of a feeling of superiority than Western Europeans had, particularly people of British descent. Gurdev Singh found such Western Europeans to be particularly discriminating. For example, when he went to get his education papers processed the office in Victoria refused to do it while Alberta accepted them without a problem.

Gurdev Singh goes on to say that he has found that Western Society puts much more emphasis on material possessions that in the East. Somehow intelligence and worthiness is equated with being rich. He finds that as Indians (in Canada and in India) are gaining more affluence and obvious material symbols of their wealth (big house, expensive cars) Indian culture is gaining more legitimacy in the eyes of the West.

After upgrading his education from the University of Edmonton, Gurdev Singh began working at the Calgary Public Library. This job served as a stepping stone until he became a high school teacher in 1967. Gurdev Singh also encouraged Pritam Kaur to upgrade her education and join him in teaching however she decided against it for the following reasons: she was not proficient enough in English, her youngest son was only one year old at the time and she did not want to leave him with a baby sitter, and lastly because it was difficult for any visible minorities to get good jobs in the 1950s and 60s. Gurdev Singh became a principle in 1979 and worked for an additional 16 years before retiring. After retirement, Gurdev Singh and his wife moved to Abbotsford, BC and bought a raspberry farm.

Gurdev Brar explains that all their grandchildren attend Dasmesh Punjabi School. He explains that his family made this decision because there was no hiding their ‘Indianness’ physically and they should be knowledgeable of their heritage in order to be proud of it and present it well to others unknowing of it. He explains further that no matter how much Indians attempt to assimilate they will still face prejudice and racism. On the other hand if his grandchildren have self-respect and are proud to be Sikhs others will respect that as well. He uses the example of Blacks in America who during slavery were forced to change their language, religion, names and dress but where still treated as inferior to Caucaisans for hundreds of years and still continue to face racism. Gurdev Singh notes the similar situation of First Nations in Canada who were stripped of their culture and now have to recover it. Gurdev Singh believes that everyone should get respect for who they are, not have to change themselves to gain it. He explains he learned these ideas in a philosophy course he had taken, instructed by Dr. Humboldt, a professor from England.  In addition, Gurdev Singh feels that Sikhs as a minority in Canada and in India, need to have a stronger media presence.

Both Gurdev Singh and Pritam Kaur have deep pioneering connections. Gurdev Singh’s brother-in-law’s grandfather (Harnam Singh aka Harry) had come to Calgary sometime after 1906 while Pritam Kaur’s father came to the US in 1923. Gurdev Singh’s father came as a student and decided never to return to India. He divorced his wife in India, married a Caucasian woman and discontinued all contact with his family in India. When Pritam Kaur came to Canada she eventually found his address and the two finally met for the first time. In addition, Gurdev Singh’s brother-in-law’s grandfather came to Donald, BC in 1906. He soon moved to Calgary and after working for one year he purchased land for a farm.

Gurdev Singh served as President of the Raspberry Growers Association of B.C. In addition the Brar’s eldest son Shabnam was very involved in the creation of the Fraser Valley Indo-Canadian Business Association.  The Brar’s also have philanthropic roots as they have donated a substantial amount of money for the construction of the Kalgidhar Gurdwara as well as Dasmesh Punjabi School. Both Gurdev Singh and Pritam Kaur are a true symbol of perseverance and the values that education and hard work bring forth.