Canadian Sikh Heritage | Karm Rai (nee Koka)
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Karm Rai (nee Koka)

Karm Koka was born in Agassiz, BC in 1927.  Ran Singh Koka, Karm’s father, was the first member of the family to leave India to come to seek a new life in Canada. By the time Karm was one year old her family had moved to Sardis. They lived in Sardis for approximately seven years and then moved to Chilliwack. In 1950 the family moved to Port Moody.

The family’s constant moving as young children was due to Ran Singh having to change jobs quite often (between farming and labor jobs, etc). At the turn of the century Ran Singh had lost his much of his family due to the plague so he no longer had any reason to stay in India and decided to move elsewhere. Urged on by his brother and sister-in-law in India, in 1905 at the age of 15, he and two other men stowed away on a Japanese cargo ship and eventually arrived in Vancouver.  Rai believes a lot of emigration at this time was due to the avoiding of the plague or losing family due to the plague. Once the ship docked at Vancouver the three men separated as they tried to hide, Rai’s father on the other hand, ran into the forest and hid there. They never met one another again. When Ran Singh came to Canada he described his living condition as being worse than that of animals but he could no longer bear to live in India without his family. He either asked people he met for food otherwise he would eat leaves and berries. He worked for a short period on the railroad in Agassiz. During this time an elderly Caucasian couple, originally from England, stumbled upon him and as it was cold and raining outside took him into their home. He lived with them until he returned to India in 1922 to be married. He returned in 1925 and he and his new wife Mrs. Harnam Kaur found a home of their own.  This couple “thought the world of him” and they served as his dear friends and mentors for the rest of his life.

Karm is particularly proud that her father kept his turban for his entire life (c.1890-1967) despite the pressure on Sikh immigrants to assimilate.  During the 1930s Rai’s father did various labor jobs, mostly in agricultural work in addition to owning his own farm, with his pay being between $.10 per hour at the lowest and $.25 cents per hour at the highest. Despite these minimal earning, Ran Singh always donated much of his earnings to the Abbotsford gurdwara. There were very few Indo-Canadians during this time so it wasn’t until the 1940s that the Koka family had people to visit regularly as the areas of Abbotsford and Mission became populated with Indian families. In 1935 or 1936 Ran Singh bought their first family car and so they were all able to travel more frequently and over larger distances to be closer to the Indo-Canadian community.  They had originally used a horse and buggy. When the car finally broke down, he removed the engine and modified the front portion so he could hitch horses to it.

Karm can still remember the time when South Asians were not allowed in restaurants, movie theatres and could be denied service in shops. For example, one story that Karm recalls in particular was in the early 1930’s when one day Ran Singh met up with a friend. After they had spent several hours together Ran Singh said, “We better get going to have lunch at home.” And his friend replied, “No let’s try this café here,” to which Ran Singh replied, “[t]hey won’t let you in.” But the friend decided to go anyway and sure enough the café owner wouldn’t even let them through the door. While in school Karm recalls how one of their teachers in particular refused to mark their things or even speak to them. As for the children, some simply tolerated them while others were blatantly racist. They were often called dirty ‘Hindus’ while others threw rocks. After some attempts to try and talk to parents and teachers of the bullies, one day, Karm, at 12 years old, finally grabbed hold of the meanest child and beat him. When the police arrived they let this assault slide as she was younger than the boy she was beating. She can also recall that there was a Japanese girl in her class who was treated very badly by students and teachers and during WWIII she was taken to an internment camp. Karm explains that racism was less experienced by well-known Indian immigrants who had made a name for themselves. Once her father owned his own farm and was employing Caucasians, people began treating him much better.

Both of Karm’s parents spoke Punjabi at home so Karm grew up being fluent in both English and Punjabi from a very young age. This ability often made her a translator between her parents and the people who worked for them although her parents were quite fluent in English. Although Harnam Kaur did not work outside the home she was very involved with the Abbotsford Gur Sikh temple and always helped during fundraising campaigns. Because they lived in Chilliwack they only came to the Abbotsford temple during important events and winter snow often stopped them from going to functions in the winter. When she was young, Karm explains how the religious events, weddings and funerals were conducted very simply. For a wedding, a small ceremony was conducted, the couple would be gifted between $1.00 and $5.00 by each guest, followed by langar and it was over.

During the Great Depression, Karm remembers the small adjustments that the family had to make. For example, family began to make all their clothing including dying the fabric. At most, each sister (Lucky and Karm) had two, possibly three dresses. During WWII they were always short of workers for the farm so they had to do a lot of the farming themselves. Often soldiers from a nearby army camp would come and work on their land. Karm learned to drive a car and tractor at 14 years old to help her family. In addition she worked with the family horses which they used for plowing. She also milked ten cows an hour by hand. All the Koka children wore Western clothing because they knew there would be no acceptance of them by mainstream Canadians if they wore Indian clothing.  According to Karm if the first pioneers didn’t mix or assimilate with the Western people they couldn’t survive. Karm also recalls the chaos that ensued on their family farm in Chilliwack during the great flood of 1948 where Ran Singh was forced to move over 300 cattle’s they owned to another farm in Sumas, Abbotsford. It was a month before the family was able to move back to Chilliwack.

In the March, 1949, Karm Koka became Karm Rai when she married her husband Gian Singh Rai in a double wedding alongside her sister Lucy at the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple. Both the weddings were arranged by a mutual family friend who was also living in Canada at the time. After their wedding, Karm and her husband Gian lived with Ran Singh Koka on the family farm but shortly after they moved to New Westminster, staying for one year. From New Westminster, the couple then moved to Port Moody as Gian Singh searched for work at a local mill. In order to help with the family income, Karm began selling stitched Indian yarn goods.  In 1963 she and Gian Singh moved to Surrey and have been living there ever since.

After completing her psychiatric nursing degree, Karm began work as a mental health nurse first for a senior’s home and then worked at the Riverview hospital mental health facility beginning in 1964. Karm would continue to work there for the next 20 years despite the initial and blatant discrimination she faced in her workplace as the only Indo-Canadian working there.

Karm and Gian Singh have one son and two daughters and both very proud of the accomplishment sand strides their family has made much in part because of the pioneering effort of both Ran Singh and Harnam Kaur Koka.