Century of Struggle and Sucess
The Sikh Canadian Experience

Part III
Community Strength

From the very beginning Sikhs soon realized that in this new and strange world with its hostile government they would have no one to rely upon for support other than themselves. The community remained very tight knit from its very beginning. When the first Sikh died in 1907 the community gathered to cremate the body as was their custom, except there were no crematoriums. The mayor of Vancouver refused to allow any cremation within the city limits. Christian missionaries were trying to force the idea of burial while at the same time not allowing any Sikh to be buried in any 'White man's' grave yard. In the middle of the night Sikhs had to resort to taking the body to a distant forest to carry out their religious services and cremate the body in the morning. This made the community realize that they needed to have their own place of worship where they could carry on their religious ceremonies and customs, which are such an integral part of being a Sikh.

The first Gurdwara founded in North America was The Vancouver Sikh Temple on West 2nd Avenue opened on January 19th, 1908, in 1912 the Victoria Temple was built. Two more Gurdwaras were built that same year in Abbotsford and New Westminster. The Mayo Lumber Company founded by Mayo Singh built a Gurdwara on Vancouver Island in 1918.

"The Asiatics have come into British Columbia in such numbers that there are Hindu temples in Victoria and in Vancouver. The Hindus are a source of trouble. They are not suited to the country. They are immoral and quarrelsome and have not the stamina enough to become good workers. Some of them, however, make money. There are several real estate officers here conducted by Hindus, who are well enough off to keep automobiles. This very success constitutes a danger." (Mayor Beckwith of Victoria)

"The Temple cost nearly $10,000, and is a monument to religious zeal and faith of a people far from home, in a strange land which has not treated them justly and among a people to whom they are united by but two bonds. The first of these is their attachment to the throne and empire of the British people who delivered India and the second is their unconquerable conviction that 'God hath made of one flesh all the nations of the earth.' It is the last rather than the first which makes the Sikh tolerant of the abuse and misrepresentation to which he has been subjected by the people who send missionaries to show him the way to salvation." (Walter W. Baer, Canadian Courier)

The newly founded Khalsa Diwan Society ran all of these Gurdwaras. The Society had independent committees in each Gurdwara, which coordinated events. For the major Sikh religious festivals during the year, the Society devised a method of rotating between which festival was held in which Gurdwara. The entire Sikh community would then make the journey to the specified Gurdwara for that festival. This resulted in the donations being spread evenly among all the Gurdwaras.

To further guard community Sikh interests, the leading intellectual of the time Professor Teja Singh established the Guru Nanak Mining and Trust Company in December 1908. The organization had 251 members and a board of directors of the leading Sikhs of the time. The goals of the Trust were to look after the economic welfare of Sikhs by investing in businesses, real estate & farms, banking and building homes. Most Sikhs took it upon themselves to look out after their fellow Sikh and this really helped strengthen the community by providing the immigrants with a social safety net.

"We all really cared and looked after one another. Of course we played jokes on each other, but only in good humour, never to hurt the other person's feelings. We would all share any newspaper that we would get. Sometimes we would even get a newspaper from India. One of the good things about our people at that time was that if someone had just come from India, we would help that person find a job. We would go from one mill to the next asking, and until the job was found, we would pitch in and pay their room and board. If someone was visiting from another area even then, we would not let them pay. If a fellow villager from India came, they would ask if he owed anyone money back home, or if anyone there needed any money. If there was a need of money they would give him their cheques and tell him to send the money to India and he could pay them back slowly." (Sardara Singh Gill)

This strong sense of community was the key to the survival of the Sikhs during the worse economic times of the Depression years in the early 1930's. Mills were being closed and workers were loosing jobs. The Gurdwara helped provide the lifeline of many unemployed Sikhs because the community decided to be self-sufficient during these hard times rather than depending on government handouts.

"Our temple committee openly stated that Sikhs will not ask for relief, as the other people were asking. We will take care of our own people, we don't need your handouts. We looked after our people first class. We never let the food supplies run out at the Gurdwara, I know that. There were piles of flour sacks. The wood was always piled high. There was plenty of tea, cans of milk, boxes of butter, salt, spices, peppers. There was one man, Chinta, and whenever he would come to the Gurdwara he'd bring two pounds of hot peppers. He'd say, 'I only have these pepper, that's all I can give. I hope you'll remember me for that!' That's how we managed during those tough times, by sticking together." (Lachman Singh Thandi)

The strong sense of community would be one of the primary reasons for the famous and tragic Komagata Maru challenge of 1914. To directly challenge the continuos passage rule, prominent Sikhs at great expense chartered a Japanese freighter to bring Sikhs to Canada. The ship picked up passengers from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama as well as a load of coal to sell from Japan before finally arriving in Vancouver on May 23, 1914 with 376 Sikhs. Immigration authorities would not even let the ship dock so it had to be anchored in port, where it would remain for two months before being forcefully escorted out of Canadian waters by a Canadian Navy cruiser with orders to blow up the ship if it resisted. All of this while a ship full of Chinese immigrants was allowed to land without any problems. The local Sikh community unsuccessfully appealed to all levels of government with legal challenges and promised to even pay the required $200 per person. The community would end up spending over $70,000 on food supplies, charter costs and all other expenses for the ship and the unfortunate Sikhs on board.