Crowds watch on as members of the Sikh community meet the Prince of Wales at Qualicum, BC, in 1919. A decade earlier the scene in the state was very different, with concerns over the increasing levels of Sikh, Chinese and Japanese immigrants sparking anti-Asian riots in Vancouver in 1907.
Small numbers of Sikhs had begun to arrive in Canada when hostile feelings towards Japanese immigrants were still acute. For many months they had an ‘exceedingly unpleasant time’ at the hands of white Canadians. Workers in particular felt that the Asians coming to Canada would work for lower wages and take their jobs in factories, mills and lumber yards.
According to a report in The New York Times (5 June, 1910), the Canadians ‘objected from the first to the coming of the Hindus, objected strenuously, occasionally with physical force. There was no room for more Asiatics, they said. They wanted British Columbia to be a white man’s country.’
In 1907 the BC legislature passed the Natal Act. Patterned and named after laws enacted to separate races in South Africa, the new act stated that prospective immigrants had to be able to write in a European language to be admitted; businesses were barred from employing anyone who could not write a European language. When the lieutenant-governor refused to sign the Natal Act on 7 September, riots broke out.
That night 8,000 members of the Asiatic Exclusion League, a group dedicated to removing all non-Asians from Canada, marched in downtown Vancouver beneath banners reading ‘Stand for a white Canada’. The mob pillaged and burned homes and businesses, and many innocent people were beaten.
In the same year, Canada found other ways to block immigration from India. The government made immigration unattractive by passing several bills limiting the civil rights of Indians; despite being British subjects, they were barred from voting, holding public office, serving on juries, or practising as pharmacists, lawyers, and accountants. The effect of these and other measures was dramatic: while 2,623 ‘Hindu’ immigrants were allowed into Canada in 1907, only 6 were admitted in 1908.
With immigration curtailed, some of the pressure subsided on those Sikhs who were already in the country. While some busied themselves in the pursuit of a quiet life of semi-prosperity, saving their money to buy land back in Punjab or to start a business, others were plotting for the overthrow of British rule in India.
Royal BC Museum