Century of Struggle and Sucess
The Sikh Canadian Experience

Part I
The Struggle Begins

Up to 1950, Sikhs constituted more than 85% of all East Indian immigration to Canada. This is quite amazing, especially when you consider that they only make up less than 2% of India's total population. Unfortunately these Sikh pioneers were not welcomed with open arms by the Canadian government as European immigrants were. That unfavorable attitude towards Asian immigrants can be traced back right to the founding fathers of this county.

"It is not advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle in Canada, producing a Mongrel Race…" (Sir John A. McDonald, 1887)

"The Dominion can get along very well without Chinese labour and Chinese parsimony" (Sir Wilfard Laurier, 1899)

Sikhs were one of the few Asian immigrant communities who were loyal members of the British Empire. The irony was that greater entry restrictions were placed on perspective Sikh immigrants as compared to their Asian brothers, the Japanese and Chinese. While Canadian politicians, missionaries, unions and the press did not want Asian labour, British Columbia industrialists were short of labour and thus Sikhs were able to get an early foothold at the turn of the century in British Columbia. Of the nearly 5,000 East Indians in Canada by 1907, over 98% were Sikhs, mostly retired British army veterans.

"These Hindus are all old soldiers. They know little outside of their regular drill… I would have White labourers of course if I can get them… But I would rather give employment to these old soldiers who have helped to fight for the British Empire than to entire aliens." (The Daily Province, October 1906)

The media meanwhile were busy enforcing racial stereotypes and feeding the flames of anti-Asian sentiment.

"The class of Hindu that have invaded British Columbia, are commonly known as Sikhs, entirely dependent upon their physical capabilities - those who have no set aim in life. They are the coolies of Calcutta. In stature the average Sikh is slender and his body gaunt. The complexion is dark-brown while his hair is long and black. In dress he copies the European with the exception of the head adornment which is substituted by the turban."

"Experience has shown that immigrants of this class, having been accustomed to the condition of a tropical climate, are wholly unsuited to this country and that their ability to readily adapt themselved to surroundings so entirely different inavitably brings upon them much suffering and privation, also that were such immigrants allowed to reach by considerable dimensions, it would result in a serious disturbance of the industrial and economic conditions in portion of the Dominion and especially in the province of British Columbia."

Immigration laws combined with the unions made sure that the few Sikh immigrants already in the country were only allowed to work on low skill manual labour jobs on farms, the railways or in the saw mills. Irrespective of their education or background, machinists, doctors or engineers, it did not make any difference they had no chance of securing a job in their field of study or expertise.

"I operated a resaw on my summer holidays. There were very few of our people who were allowed to operate a machine. When the gora operator would go off to the washroom or to have his smoke, I would operate the machine and I could do it just as well as he could, but he was very conscious of the fact that he better not relinquish the machine to me for too long, because then he might have to relinquish it to me outright somewhere down the road. You sort of understood that there was a level at which you could function, beyond that it was out of your reach." (Dedar Singh Sihota)

"The labouring groups were the Chinese and the Punjabis. The Japanese managed to get the better jobs that involved more technical training. The best jobs, the engineers and people who were the bosses at the mill, went to the Europeans." (Dedar Singh Sihota)

In September 1907 thousands of members of the Asiatic Exclusion League, a group dedicated to removing all non-Asiains from Canada rioted through the streets of Vancouver, beating and looting immigrants. Reacting to the anti-immigrant paranoia the Canadian parliament acted to effectively shut the door on Sikh immigration. They passed a law in January of 1908 requiring 'All immigrants seeking entry must come to Canada by continuous journey and through tickets from the country of their birth or nationality or citizenship.' The government knew full well that there were no direct shipping services between India and Canada as there were between Canada and Japan and China. Another law was passed in June of 1908 required every East Indian to have $200 in savings to land, while European immigrants only needed $25. This was a phenomenal amount considering that average Indian wages were only a few cents a day. Both of these laws were not applicable to any person born in India of European parents, only to native Indians.

"Dear Sir:
We are in receipt of your favor of the 12th instant and in reply beg to state that if the young man whose passage to British Columbia you wish us to arrange is an Indian we regret we cannot undertake same owing to the very strict immigration laws which have been passed recently. There is no direct steamer service to Canada from here and it is therefore impossible for us to issue a through ticket as required by the immigration law. If, however, the young man is European, we shall be pleased to arrange his passage, the second class fare from Calcutta to Vancouver by Apcar line to Hongkong, thence per Nippon Yusen Kaisha to Victoria being Rs. 515/-or 34.68 Pounds. These services are fortnightly.

Yours faithfully,
Thos. Cook & Sons"

Despite a series of setbacks, separated from their wives and children the Sikh pioneers stubbornly persisted and prospered, saving every penny they could from their meager wages, forming collective partnerships and starting their own mills and farms.

"The Sikh is a willing worker; there is not a lazy bone in his body. And in this land of freedom, where white man is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the brown-faced Sikh has been taught to expect no more than mere license to live. They have been here for some time and have saved a good deal of money, and many of them have bought property and have what we call in our free Canadian speech a good stake in the country. Many would like to bring their wives and families from India and settle down to live permanently in Canada. Why they should not be encouraged to do this is hard to understand. They are intelligent men, physically well made. They have few religious or caste prejudices (or perhaps that is not a good word). Time will rub these out of them. They do not worship idols like the East Indians, who practice the Hindu religion. The Sikh religion is practically Christianity, if Christian teachings were followed closely. They are against immoderate liquor. They do not use opium or any of the drowsy syrups of the Orient. They have no more criminal tendencies than other men." (British Columbia Magazine)

"The Sikhs who shivered in our docks a few years ago now own farms, town lots, houses, motorcars, horses engage in dairying have almost captured one branch of the food market and large real estate speculators. Let us be frank about it the reason we want to keep the Hindu out is one part because he is not of our race, in part because he is not of our religion, although some who themselves overburdened with any religion lastly we object in part because he is ready to compete with white people in any sphere of activities in which he can get a foothold and make good." (Colonist)

Even though Sikhs were succeeding in these few professions open to them, they were still barred from most others. The government laws did not allow Sikhs to vote or hold any public office, civil service job, compete for public works contracts, enter law or pharmacy or buy any Crown timber. What was the use of an education if it was only a one way street to the mills?

"Hazara Singh Garcha, who arrived in about 1927, had his Master of Science degree in agriculture in eastern Canada, and he pulled lumber like we did in the mill. At that time no Hindustani could get a job even if he was a doctor, lawyer or engineer. So it didn't matter if you were educated or not, if you were Hindustani you would be working on the greenchain." (Darshan Singh Sangha)

"I'm an idealist, I wanted an education for education's sake. I knew that I wouldn't get a better job. When I was working at Hillcrest, the young guys would laugh and say, "If you go to school, you'll be the most highly qualified lumber worker in the country so why are you going to school? 'The white people aren't going to give you a job in the offices.' I'd say, you guys just drink your booze, and have your parties, sing your songs and whatever else you like to do, just let me live my life. I prefer to spend my money over here. I may never become a worker in this place or get this type of position, but if an opportunity ever came up, it wouldn't be you, it might be me. They made fun of me all the time. Those were the younger guys. The older guys, including my father, were always telling me, 'Get the most education you can, it's the only thing that will stay with you.'" (Ranjit Singh Hall)

With the advent of World War II and the internment of Japanese Canadians, Sikhs were able to prosper. Before going to the internment camps Japanese preferred to sell their homes and properties to their Sikh neighbors who they had known for so long. As the war economy picked up speed and moved into high gear, Sikhs were given positions of greater responsibility on the factory floors across the country as well as sharpening their skills as successful businessmen. Just as the war helped to emancipate North American women, showing that they were capable of doing a mans job, Sikhs were showing that they were just as talented as their European counterparts. One of the last major roadblocks remained the right to vote. The year was 1947, fifty years since the first Sikh immigrants had arrived, yet they were still denied this fundamental right. A right that was long overdue and Sikhs rallied to the cause, holding town hall meetings and lobbying local politicians and the government in Ottawa to try change the law.

"Because he is alleged to have cast a vote in Vancouver, B.C. in the Provincial Election on 28th March, Houssein Rahim, a Hindu, was arrested on a charge of perjury. A warrant for his apprehension was issued on the 29th March, 1912." (The Aryan, April 1912)

"The next day the head of the convention asked Pandia to speak. Pandia pointed at Mr. Mayo and Mr. Kapoor sitting there and said, 'These two men have hundreds of employees working for them. Their workers were allowed to vote and these two mill owners could not vote because they were East Indians'. Right away they put it to a vote and they decided that East Indians should be allowed to vote in municipal elections. That triggered the change, because the law was that if you could vote in the municipal election, that allowed you to vote provincially and in federal elections. And so we got voting rights at every step. From then on we finally got equal rights." (Karm Singh Manak)