The Camera Never Lies: The Sikh Canadian Experience

This year marks the 100th anniversary of an important milestone in Canada’s history. In 1913, the number of immigrants to Canada peaked at 400,000. It was a high-water mark until the onset on fighting in Europe brought an end to the biggest boom in Canadian immigration, before or since. For thousands of Sikhs, this is the era that started their family experience in Canada.

The strange rituals and the peculiar pattern of life of the Sikhs (referred to as ‘Hindus’ by the white Canadians) who had settled in Canada over a century ago inevitably drew the attention of their white neighbours. The New York Times (5 June, 1910) had this to say on the matter: ‘Everywhere in Vancouver one sees Hindus. With their many-coloured turbans, their silence, the grave dignity that even the poorest, most wretched of them never lose, they provide an Oriental note in the beautiful little city…’

The Sikhs’ arrival in Canada began with the first wave of immigration in 1904-08. Approximately 5,000 Indians, virtually all of them male Sikhs from the province of Punjab, came to British Columbia to labour on railway constructions, in the lumber mills and in forestry.

Even though they were unskilled and uneducated, they were favoured by some employers because they were a cheap source of hardworking, reliable labour.

The Sikhs started to congregate regularly for worship, using their houses for this purpose. In 1904, Bhai Arjan Singh was the first Sikh to bring a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib to Vancouver. Two years later, the Khalsa Diwan Society was established as the first Sikh organization in Canada.

In 1907, the Boston Daily Globe reported how large crowds at Nelson, British Columbia, watched on as a Sikh soldier, Sunder Singh, formerly a sergeant in the 33rd Burmese Regiment, was cremated.

In little time, the community was confident enough to conduct its celebrations out in the public. This postcard shows one such religious procession taking place in downtown Vancouver. Notice the distinctive turban badge with quoit, double-edged dagger and crescent of the Dogra class of the 45th Rattray’s Sikhs worn by the man to the left of the drummer.

1. Article – Canada’s immigration peak is worth marking (The Globe and Mail):

Postcard captioned: ‘Hindoo Religious Procession Vancouver B.C. 23.’ (Toor Collection)

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