Punjabi Canadian highlights South Asian diaspora’s rich history in B.C.

posted on September 23, 2018

By Gordon McIntype, Vancouver Sun |

Sham Singh, orphaned as a young boy after plague killed his mother and brothers, left Punjab as a teen and took a circuitous route that involved a pistol being drawn to arrive in B.C. in 1906.

Finding the weather too cold, he tried to leave for California, but was told at the border that, as a British subject, he would not be allowed across, so he got a job at a sawmill in New Westminster.

Through hard work and a bit of luck, Singh wound up buying several Vancouver and Richmond properties (including a dairy farm) and helped fund the Arthur Erickson-designed temple at Ross and Marine.

This and 100 other immigrant stories from around the province unfold in the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project, an examination of the Indian diaspora’s place in British Columbian history.

“For me it’s been fascinating to uncover these stories,” Punjabi native and project researcher Ishpreet Anand said. “In India, people don’t know about the history of Punjabis in Canada, so for me it was captivating to discover this.

“I knew about Canada and British Columbia before I arrived, but not about this part of history. I knew people from Punjab and India had been in Canada a long time … but I didn’t know about the fact that some Sikhs came as early as 1897 as soldiers in the British army, for example, and that’s how they discovered Canada.”

For the project, the 24-year-old travelled the province collecting stories from descendants of immigrants. The interviews were filmed, photos and travel documents were scanned.

He originally arrived in B.C. four years ago after attending University of the Fraser Valley’s campus in Chandigarh, India, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business. In Abbotsford he joined UFV as a research assistant.

Despite his background in business, Anand was the perfect choice to carry out the interviews for the Legacy Project, coordinator Sharanjit Sandhra said.

“He’s such a lovely person, his background is business but he’s so diverse and so easy to talk to,” she said. “He makes people comfortable and we decided he’d be ideal.”

UFV’s South Asian Studies Institute, teaming with the Royal B.C. Museum, secured a grant for Anand to travel the province to gather his stories. Back at UFV students, many of them from India themselves, transcribed the tapes.

“They’d say ‘Wow, we didn’t know this history,’” Sandhra said. “These are the stories of the richness of our community in B.C.”

The ultimate goal, Sandhra said, is to embed the stories Anand discovered into school curricula.

They’re not all happy tales, of course.

Immigrants from India weren’t allowed to own land, they faced racism, they faced barriers to immigration itself. They were paid less.

“They were stuck working in the lumber industry, even though they had a background in agriculture or business,” Sandhra said.

And there was the Komagata Maru, a boat carrying 376 Sikh, Muslim and Hindu British subjects trying to emigrate to Canada in 1914, all but two dozen of whom were refused entry. Upon returning to Kolkata (then known as Calcutta) they were fired upon by British police — 20 died.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for it in the House of Commons in 2016.

“That’s a significant story, but it’s not the only story,” Sandhra said. “There are so many other stories across B.C.

“That’s what Ishpreet unearthed.”

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