Canadian Sikh Heritage | Prem Singh Sandhu
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Prem Singh Sandhu

When Prem Singh Sandhu came to Canada in 1904 he was in his early twenties. He had become a widower at a very early age as his 22 year old wife died due to the spread of the plague in India.  As such, when he left India to come to Canada, he also had to leave behind his three-year-old son Lashman Singh in the care of his cousin brother. Prem Singh never remarried after coming to Canada or in his life time again.

After his arrival in Canada, Prem returned to India for the first time on October 20, 1962. He used to send money to his son and also wrote him letters in the meantime. Although he died in 1972, Prem Singh did send a ticket to his son Lashman to come join him in Canada. In those days one did not require a visa for Canada.  After receiving the ticket, Lashman Singh packed his bags and left for the Amritsar Railway Station, from there he was to catch a train to Kolkata and then board the ship to Canada. While he was waiting at the station for his train, he met an anti-British freedom fighter there who asked him where he was going. When Lachman Singh mentioned that he was going to Canada to meet and work with his father, the freedom fighter convinced him to stay in India and fight for his country. Lachman Singh became very convinced and decided to stay back and participated in the Akal Takhat’s morcha.  He was later sentenced to three years in prison.  Due to this criminal record he was not able to come to Canada after that.

The first member of Prem Singh’s family that came to Canada was his great granddaughter who came on the basis of marriage and later sponsored the rest of the family. During the early 1900’s the Indian community was very close knit and everyone used to help each other in needy times by pooling in money. Prem Singh worked very hard along with others in the mills. During those days, the mill roofs weren’t covered, so sometimes they would work in pouring rain. Also because there was no machinery, they used to pull the big logs of wood with their knees. Prem Singh worked seven days a week with eight-eight hour shift each day. Sometimes these workers used to work 60 hours shift continuously without taking any break or sleeping. If somebody else missed their shift, Prem Singh used to fill in for them, working tirelessly. Prem Singh was such a hard worker that he once even worked continuously for 40 hours. Once after a tireless shift the workers decided to bathe in a nearby river and ended up sleeping at the river bank for many hours. Prem Singh worked in the same mill for all this time he was in Canada. Whenever he used to have some money saved, he used to send it to his son in India.  Prem Singh also donated money to the Gadari Babey for the freedom fighting revolution in India.

Prem Singh stopped working at the mill after a heart attack and bought a delivery truck with his friend and started a delivery company. Prem Singh was also involved in the making of the first gurdwara on Ross Street, where the entire community could get together to pray. There used to be two Guru Granth Sahibs (holy scriptures) placed in the gurdwara. It was really easy to commute to America, as there were no visas required so whenever they used to go to America they used to take stuff for the Punjabi’s living in America as there were no telephones to inform each other what to bring on their visit to America. One story that Prem Singh used to tell his family was that once one of their friends who was in America was really sick and he asked that whoever comes to America to bring him onions as he was craving the taste for home grown onions. Thus, Prem Singh and his friends boarded the train, and brought four onions for him. He was lying on his hospital bed when he started gulping the onions one after other and when he was on his third onion he started having hiccups and the doctors were called but nothing seemed to be working and then all of sudden he sneezed and a huge insect came out of his nose. The doctor later explained that the insect was the reason for his deteriorating  health and the onion was the reason his life was saved.

After he suffered this heart attack he was on disability for some time and the doctors advised him against travel of any sort. This is why he wasn’t able to come to India earlier but then went to India in 1962, after staying in Canada for 58 years. When he left India his son Lashman Singh was only three years old and by the time he returned to India, even Lashman’s children were married. Because he was away from his family all his life he decided to spend his last few years with his family and in his home in India and he never returned to Canada. As a devout Sikh all his life who refused to cut his hair, Prem Singh requested that Lachman Singh not cremate his body upon his death, but rather he wished his ashes to be spread in a river or ocean, so that the fishes and other organisms could feed on his body and this shows his generosity and kind-heartedness. His grandson and his family now live in Abbotsford and they still remember him as a friendly, kind-hearted, generous man who always thought of others before himself.

*This interview was given by Iqbal Sandhu (grandson), Jagtarn Kaur (grand daughter-in-law) and Gurtarn Singh (great-grandson) of Late Sardar Prem Singh Sandhu.