Here you’ll find the fascinating story of how the Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford became a designated National Historic Site by the Government of Canada.
Here you’ll find the fascinating story of how the Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford became a designated National Historic Site by the Government of Canada.
A 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 busy South Fraser Way in Abbotsford. It is one of the first Sikh Gurdwaras to be built in North America, and also the longest standing Gurdwara. As such, 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 the Canadian heritage ministry, and designation is always taken with much 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 improve the conditions of the Gurdwara. 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.
APPLYING TO BECOME A NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
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, BC. It thus struck Nachittar to share the idea of the 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 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 National Heritage Status for the temple. This committee supported the idea and agreed to apply for this historic status. 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 should be declared as a 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 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 Chretien 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 feedback 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 up front. 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.
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.
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 the next hundred years.
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. 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.
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE
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 had certain visions for the future of the Gur Sikh Temple. For example, he wanted to see a Sikh museum at the ground level, and this dream was realized in 2011.
“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 Ghadari 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.
Abbotsford Sikh Temple: Formally Recognized: 2005/07/25
Construction Date(s): 1910/01/01 to 1912/01/01
DESCRIPTION OF HISTORIC PLACE
The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is a one and one-half storey, wood-frame vernacular structure set on a full raised basement, with a false front parapet, an upper balcony running along three of the facades, and a prominent poured concrete stairway leading to the main central entrance on the upper level. It is located on a prominent knoll on South Fraser Way in the centre of Abbotsford, between the early settlements of Clearbrook and downtown Abbotsford. The Sikh Temple has been designated as a National Historic Site, including the original Temple building with its additions, the present ‘Nishan Sahib’ (flag pole) and the bases of earlier flag poles, including the remnants of the base of the original ‘Nishan Sahib’.
The Abbotsford Sikh Temple (‘Gurdwara’) is a valuable symbol of the early roots of the Sikh community and the larger Indo-Canadian community in this region of Canada. The builders of this temple were part of the initial wave of immigration from India, before a restrictive immigration policy was implemented, making further immigration virtually impossible for the next fifty years. The Sikh population was centred in Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island, and consisted mainly of male sojourners, whose families remained in India. Locally, most of the Sikhs worked for the Abbotsford Lumber Company, once B.C.’s third largest forestry employer. The use of local materials to construct the Temple was significant, representing the Sikh connection to the lumber industry and to the Abbotsford Lumber Company, which donated the lumber for the temple, demonstrating the mutual interdependence of large, isolated industrial plants and their local workforce.
The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is the only Gurdwara from the pioneer phase of Sikh immigration to Canada that has survived, and is the oldest surviving Sikh Temple in North America. Construction started on the Temple in 1910 and was completed by 1912. Built of wood-frame construction, the false front parapet, simple rectangular floor plan and front gabled roof are typical of vernacular commercial buildings of the period. This was a pragmatic adaptation of Sikh traditions using a common frontier style, which expressed the men’s limited financial resources and their desire to integrate with the community. The building is typical of early purpose-built Canadian Sikh temples, containing all the elements of a traditional Gurdwara, including the prayer hall on the upper level and a communal kitchen and dining area at ground level. The utilitarian interior, with tongue-and-groove wooden walls and regular fenestration, became common features of early Canadian temples. The location at the crest of a hill on busy South Fraser Way contributes to the Sikh Temple’s landmark status.
The Temple was the centre of Abbotsford’s Sikh community, serving both religious and social needs and acting as the reception centre for new immigrants. It was enlarged to the rear in 1932 to extend the prayer hall and a second addition was built in the late 1960s, changes which reflect the growth of the Sikh community, particularly once wives and children were allowed to immigrate. A new, much larger Temple was constructed across the road in 1983, but the original Temple was retained as a symbol of the struggles and achievements of the Sikh pioneers.
Source: City of Abbotsford
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Sikh Temple include its:
– original location on a prominent knoll on South Fraser Way
– institutional, vernacular form, scale and massing as expressed by its one and one-half-storey height, full raised basement, simple rectangular floor plan, and informal additions to the rear
– exterior architectural details such as its: false front parapet; front gable roof with generous porch roof, supported by steel posts; wraparound upper verandah running along three sides; a prominent central, poured concrete stairway leading to the main entrance on the upper level; five separate staircases to access the upper level
– wood-frame construction, with horizontal wooden drop siding, and door and window mouldings of dimensional lumber
– masonry elements such as board-formed concrete foundations and brick chimneys
– exterior details of the two rear additions, the first with a dropped roofline and the second with a slightly sloped roof
– regular fenestration, with double-hung 1-over-1 wooden-sash windows
– spatial configuration of the interior, such as the main central entrance opening directly into the upper-storey prayer hall, with a community kitchen and dining hall on the lower level
– interior details in the prayer hall including: narrow tongue-and-groove wooden panelling; picture rails; raised floor; wooden arches and ornate canopy defining the altar; and early pendant light fixture
– the present ‘Nishan Sahib’ (flag pole) and the bases of earlier flag poles, including the remnants of the base of the original ‘Nishan Sahib’.