A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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PASSAGE FROM INDIA
Immigration History

In 1897 Queen Victoria invited her loyal Indian troops to attend her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London. These soldiers crossed Canada on their way home, and returned to India with stories of a land waiting to be settled by British subjects like themselves. The stories eventually travelled to the village of Saraba in the Punjab and encouraged a man named Bagga Singh to leave his home for the promise of Canada in 1913.

The first Sikhs had come to Canada in 1902 as part of a Hong Kong military contingent travelling to the coronation of Edward VII. Some returned to Canada, establishing themselves in British Columbia. More that 5,000 South Asians, over 90% of them Sikhs, came to British Columbia before their immigration was banned in 1908. From then on, the population gradually dwindled to about 2,000 through out-migration. Almost all of those remaining were Sikhs(1).

Despite profound discrimination, Sikhs quickly established a strong community in British Columbia, the centre of which was their religious institutions. The Vancouver Khalsa Diwan Society was created in 1907. Through its leadership Sikhs built their first permanent gurdwara, or temple, the following year. By 1920, gurdwaras had been established in Bagga Singh's town of New Westminster, as well as in Victoria, Nanaimo, Golden, Abbotsford, Fraser Mills and Paldi(2).

The Canadian Sikh community developed around the gurdwaras. The name gurdwara for a Sikh place of worship literally means "door of the Guru." It was through the gurdwaras that Sikhs provided support and aid to community members in need. These temples organized the Sikh communities in their dramatic fight to have the immigration ban rescinded. By 1920 Sikhs in Vancouver alone had contributed $300,000 to charitable causes in India and to the defence of Sikhs in Canada(3).

Canadian Sikh religious institutions grew considerably when wives and children of legal Sikh residents were allowed into Canada in the 1920s. Entire families - men, women and children - all participated fully in both temple and home observances(4).

Sikh religion also provided the foundation for a strong collective community identity between World War I and World War II. Very few Sikhs renounced their faith in favour of assimilating into the Canadian society, and very few married outside the Sikh community. The main religious change during the period from 1920 to 1960, however, was a trend among second generation Sikh men to become Sahajdharis, which involved cutting their hair and beards(traditionally left to grow long) and conforming to Canadian dress(5).

The Sikh community and Sikhism in Canada underwent further changes when immigration resumed in the 1950s. Many postwar immigrants were more urbane, educated, westernized and religiously untraditional than those who had come before. In the 1960s and 1970s tens of thousands of skilled Sikhs settled across Canada, especially in southern Ontario from Toronto to Windsor. As the size of the Canadian Sikh community grew, gurdwaras were established in every major city eastward to Montreal(6).

In 1991, Census figures estimated that there were 145,000 Sikhs in Canada, but this is considered to be somewhat low. Population estimates at the end of 1993 put the size of the Sikh population in Canada closer to 180,000(7).

Endnotes:

1-7 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

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