Century of Struggle and Sucess
The Sikh Canadian Experience

Part IV
Sense of Identity

Sense of identity was probably the core inner strength that Sikh immigrants were able to draw upon to face their many daily challenges. These immigrants felt that it was important to adapt to their new homeland by learning the language, participating in society while at the same time maintaining their cultural and religious identity. While integrating to the best of their abilities, Sikhs continued to proudly practice their religion, hold religious parades in the streets and try to explain their religion to Canadians.

"It is a great joy to me to find that here in this distant land you still keep up your own religious faith and do not neglect your Sikh religion. That is the right thing to do if you want to remain in a distant country with moral character and good social and family traditions such as those which still remain in India itself. I am so glad to find that the Khalsa Diwan Society is the centre of your own life in British Columbia. That is quite right and proper and good. For without that binding link you are bound to fall to pieces. But if you keep this binding force of your own pure religious faith intact, then you will preserve your character also and your family life will be good and pure. You must cling together and help one another. Do not let any member of your community come to grief and ruin through your neglect. Secondly, you must remember that you are guests in a new country and you have to observe the first law of hospitality, which is to accommodate yourselves as far as possible and pay every consideration to the manners and customs of this new country where your children are being born and where you yourselves have elected to live. This is a necessity in every country where people emigrate if good will and friendly feelings are to be observed. This does not mean that you are to alter all your own good customs and manners of living, but rather that you are to seek at every point to find a common meeting place where your own life and the Canadian life coincide. To put what I wish to say in two words, you should do your best to prove yourselves 'Good Canadians'." (Kartar Singh, India and Canada: A Journal of Interpretation and Information, 1929)

Wanting to create the best impression among Canadians of the Sikh people, Sikhs pioneers went out of their way to dress smartly in European clothing. The Sikh Temple Committee went so far as to issue an order that when going out, every Sikh should be well dressed in a three-piece suit, should have and umbrella with him and well-polished pair of shoes. Another injunction added was that if one could afford it they should have a pocket watch too.

Over 90% of the early Sikhs were war veterans and loyal soldiers of the British Army. They had dedicated their lives to serving the British Empire and were proud of their loyalty and accomplishments. That is why they felt that they deserved all the rights of ordinary citizens in Canada, rather than being treated as second class citizens. Their sense of disappointment at the actual realities of their new homeland led to moments of frustration when they questioned whether having been loyal soldiers of the British Army had been worth it after all?

"Our uniforms and medals show that we have fought for the British as mercenaries against our own countrymen and to enslave other Asian nations. The uniforms and medals are symbols of our slavery. I propose that no member of executive of the Sikh Temple should wear any kind of medals, buttons, uniforms or insignias which may signify that the position of the party wearing the article is nothing but a slave of the British supremacy." (Natha Singh, 1909)

On the evening of October 3rd, 1909 the Sikhs made a bonfire and burned their uniforms, medals, photographs and letters of recommendation out of their frustration and sense of betrayal.

In order to 'fit in' as much as possible Sikhs adopted European clothes and relegated their ethnic clothes only to be worn in the Gurdwara if worn at all. Having shed their cultural appearance, some decided to go even further and abandon the visible religious articles of the Sikh faith, the uncut hair, turban and kirpan.

"When we stopped in Hong Kong I bought some dresses. Everybody said that we couldn't land unless we dressed properly. The pioneers insisted that we dress like the other Canadian people. They would not let anyone dress differently, we had to show that we could fit in and be like the white people." (Pritam Kaur Johl)

"My two brothers were working at Sooke Lake in the sawmill. They came to see me the day after I landed in Victoria. First thing in the morning, Bunt said, 'Let's go to town.' We went to town to a Japanese barber. They made me sit down and get a haircut. He said, 'I don't want you to wear this turban around here.' He then took me to buy some new clothes, thicker clothes for winter." (Kuldeep Singh Bains)

"These nephews thought that if I shaved, I would make better progress in Canada. Gradually, they brought up the subject of my hair and beard, and then other things. It was very painful for me. They talked about Indian culture, how backward it was, and so on, without thinking that I could be well-informed about cultures and affairs around the world. In fact, they were generally well behind me. They came to acknowledge this, but all their talk was aimed at inducing me to shave. They wanted me to change my outer form, which was my God-given form. Quite a few times, I reminded them, 'Look here fellows, faith is faith. I don't feel inferior being an Indian or being a Sikh and I never thought it would be my own people who would hate my hair. No white man has done that to me so far.' In the beginning, these discussions were friendly. Then they became more combative. They frustrated me so much that, at one point, I told my brother-in-law, with tears in my eyes, 'I did not know that my hair would be an obstacle and I am greatly grieved.'" (Tara Singh Bains)

The pressures to conform ones physical appearance did came from all sides, not only family and internal pressures, but when trying to get a job, or even going to school.

Vancouver City Schools
Central School
Vancouver B.C.

To whom it may concern: If the three Hindu boys wish to continue school here it will be necessary for them to remove their turbans and conform to the usual customs of the school.

Yours very truly,
William G. Gourie

Sometimes even 'fitting in' physically was not enough in order to be accepted by Canadian society. One still had brow skin and an alien culture, and this was not easily accepted by some. In 1946 when Ajit Kaur and her widowed mother and six children decided to sell their farm in Kelowna and buy a house in the city but they were stopped by neighbors from moving in. The neighbors felt that the 'Hindus' would lower the property value of the area. The family had already purchased the house for $6,000 and had been all set to move in. Ajit Kaur fought the case in the city council and was eventually allowed to move in, where over time she would go on to win the trust and friendship of the many previously angry neighbors.