Century of Struggle and Sucess
The Sikh Canadian Experience

Part II
The Family

The unjust continuous journey law of 1908 combined with the $200 per person requirement virtually eliminated Sikh immigration to Canada. It was a plan to undo the damage of having let 5,000 Sikhs into the country already. From 2,623 immigrants allowed into Canada in 1907, only 6 were allowed in 1908. In fact Canada would not see new Indian immigrant numbers approaching the 1907 level until 1966, 59 years later when 2,233 East Indians entered the country. In July 1911 a Vancouver Sikh, Hira Singh arrived back in Canada with his wife and three year old daughter, the first women to come to Canada. At the docks both wife and daughter were arrested and faced an unjust deportation.

"It is not desirable that any considerable increase in the Hindu population of Canada should be permitted, but as a certain number have been allowed to come in, it is grossly unjust not to allow their wives and families to join them. There is no other part of the world where such inhumanity would be possible. Small wonder is it that the Sikhs are throwing away the medals, which they once wore with honor but which now represent to them a uselsess sacrifice. Since going to press we learn that the Ottawa Government have ordered the Sikh lady and her child to stay as a matter of grace. The order-in-council debarring Hindu women from entering the country still remains in force." (The Colonist, July 30th, 1911)

In contrast that same year saw 1,037 Japanese and Chinese women allowed into Canada. By denying Sikhs their wives and children it was hoped that within a few years most of the Sikhs in Canada would return to their homeland. Between 1904 and 1920, only nine women were allowed to immigrate to Canada. The community sent a deputation of prominent Sikhs to Ottawa to plead the case of family reunification with the government. The meeting on December 11, 1911 with Minister of the Interior, the Hon. Robert Rogers resulted in personal assurances that the families of East Indians would be admitted into Canada. Another deputation traveled to England in 1913 to meet with the British government. These deputation's would receive only hollow promises as Sikh spouses continued to face almost impossible conditions it reuniting in Canada.

"There are today a number of women and children who are living lonely, wretched lives in Calcutta, whose husbands and fathers are waiting their arrival here. The steamship companies dare not bring them here, as the federal authorities will not allow them to land. In Hong Kong there are a number of relatives of men already here, and they are not allowed to come forward." (Victoria Daily Times, July 26th, 1911)

Three of the leaders of the Vancouver Sikh community of the time, Bhag Singh, secretary of the Guru Nanak Mining and Trust Company, Balwant Singh Atwal religious leader of the Sikh Gurdwara in Vancouver and Hakim Singh Hundal travelled to India between 1909 and 1910 to bring their wives and children to Canada. Upon their return journey the families were detained and questioned at Hong Kong. The men were able to prove that they were previous residents returning back to Canada and were allowed to complete their journey. Their wives and children and in the case of Hakim Singh Hundal his aged mother were denied entry into Canada and no steamship line would sell them a ticket to Canada. Eventually they were able to get tickets for San Francisco and made the journey there. Here they were denied landing rights and deported back to Hong Kong. After three more months of waiting the wife of Bhag Singh Harnam Kaur and wife of Balwant Singh Atwal, Kartar Kaur were able to sail to Canada arriving on January 21st 1912. The aged mother of widower Hakim Singh Hundal and his four sons would be forced to spend another two years living in the Hong Kong Gurdwara awaiting passage to Canada. Once in Canada the two women and their children were again detained and faced deportation. Only after numerous appeals to all levels of government and courts as well as thousands of dollars in expenses and bail money were the two women allowed to stay. The government made it very clear that they were not setting a legal precedence but letting the women stay as 'an act of grace'.

Shortly thereafter Kartar Kaur gave birth to a son. Baby Hardial Singh Atwal born on August 28, 1912 became the first Sikh born in Canada, it was truly a time of celebration for the entire community as there had been no children in the community for so long. The husbands longed for their wives, sons and daughters that they had left behind so many years ago. Would they ever see them again they wondered?

"When I came in 1921, there were no boys in this area (Vancouver). Two boys lived in Abbotsford, Pritam Singh and Nand Singh. Then when four of us boys landed together the Canadian Sikhs were so happy. They kept saying, 'Our boys, our boys.' They couldn't do enough for us. I felt so much love for these people, they treated us so well. Whenever I went to the 2nd Avenue Gurdwara, they treated me so special. The first time I stood in line to eat roti in the langer, one old-timer took me by the arm and took me in to the centre of the hall in front of everybody. He said to me, 'My son, we want you to serve us roti so that all of us can get to see and meet you. You'll get to know us and we'll get to know you.' When I went around serving the roti they made us feel so special. They were such loving people."(Gurbachan Singh Johl)

In these early years, Sikhs usually went back to Punjab to marry before returning to Canada alone because there were no Sikh women in Canada. This would mean many long years of separation before husband and wife would see each other again.

"I came to Canada as a student (1929) I was alone and couldn't call her over because I stayed here illegally. At that time, there were scores of men who were my age who had also left their wives behind. We were lonely but we were helpless. My daughter was only seven days old when I left India; my son was two years old. We could only exchange five or six letters in a year because it took a long time for them to arrive. My wife sent me pictures of my children. After I became a legal resident, I couldn't go back because of the pressure of business. My son came to Canada in 1949 when he was 20 and we went to India in 1951. So much had changed. When I saw my wife, all the members of the family were delighted. We had been separated for 22 years. When I left, we were youngsters. When I came back, we were all grown up. My daughter was married and had one child. I brought my son and wife back with me but my daughter stayed in India because she had her own family." (Dharam Singh Parmar)

The first Sikh wedding took place in April 1909 when Gayan Singh married a Canadian, Annie Wright. It is interesting to note that Annie Wright underwent the Khalsa baptism ceremony, becoming a full Sikh by religion, had her name changed to Labb Kor and was only then married to Gayan Singh. Another milestone would be the first wedding in Canada between two people who were Sikh by birth, this would not occur for another 32 years until 1941.