Integral part of Canadian society, Sikhs migrated to the country in six waves
Widespread legalised discrimination occurred in Canada against Sikhs as anti-Asian sentiment regarding them as alien and inferior was endemic from the 1850s
The largest Sikh diaspora in Canada is vibrant and prosperous despite facing challenges and pressures of assimilation and discrimination. Their accomplishments and contributions are notable. Canadian Sikhs make over 2% of the population and are one of the largest non-Christian religious groups in Canada. Like Jews, Sikhs are distinguished as an ethnic group globally. About 30 million Sikhs worldwide make Sikhism the fifth largest religion.
Sikhs began to migrate overseas in the late 19th century as they were involved in the armed services for the British Empire. In both World Wars, 83,005 Sikh soldiers were killed, and 1,09,045 wounded.
Six battalions of Sikh regiments were raised in the Second World War and in 1945, 14 of the 22 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Sikhs, a per capita record. They commanded respect for their valour.
The presence of Sikhs in Canada can be traced back to the Sikh wife of Charles Metcalfe, who served as governor general of the province of Canada from 1843-45. He had signed the Treaty of Lahore with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1809 on behalf of the British East India Company.
As the first Sikh man in Canada, prince Victor Duleep Singh, the grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was posted from December 1888 to February 1890, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as an aide to Sir John Ross, the commander of British forces in British North America.
In June 1897, Sikh regiments along with troops from other Commonwealth countries came to Canada to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. In the first decade of the 20th century, Sikh migrants reached Canada, peaking up to 5,500 and worked in the lumber mills and logging industry but their wives and children were not allowed until about 1920.
Legalised discrimination to keeping Canada white
A widespread legalised discrimination occurred against the Sikhs as anti-Asian sentiment regarding them as alien and inferior was endemic from the 1850s to the 1950s. The prejudice, discrimination and ethnic stereotypes depicted them as peasant-origin, poor, illiterate, diseased, morally lax, politically corrupt, and religiously deficient.
Employers paid Asian workers less than others and Asians were excluded from most unions. South Asians, Chinese, and Japanese did not have the right to vote, practise law or pharmacy, be elected to public office, serve on juries, or have careers in public works, education or the civil service. They had difficulty being served in hotels and restaurants, and in being admitted to theatres and swimming pools. Attempts were made to exclude Asians from public schools, and restrict the sale of land to them. Anti-Asian, Sikhs and Chinese riots occurred, the most serious riots were in Vancouver in 1887, 1892 and 1907.
An order-in-council banned immigration from India in 1907. Chinese immigration was stopped by a “head tax” by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. In March 1907, to keep Canada white, BC Premier Bowser introduced a Bill to disenfranchise all “natives not of Anglo-Saxon parents” and in April, Sikhs were denied the right to vote.
In 1908, the federal government passed a series of ordinances, by which Indian immigrants entering Canada had to arrive directly and with continuous journey from the country of their nationality, even though there was no direct shipping route between India and Canada, and had to have 200 Canadian dollars (CAD), while the Europeans had to have only 25 CAD.
The Immigration Act, 1910, came under scrutiny when 39 of 376 Indians passengers (340 Sikhs) arriving on the Komagata Maru ship in 1914 succeeded in challenging the racial policy and obtaining habeas corpus against the immigration department’s order of deportation.
After two months, the ship was escorted out by a Canadian navy ship; the ship arrived on September 24 at Budge Budge Ghat near Calcutta, 20 passengers were killed and nine injured after British police opened fire.
I was the first to repeatedly ask in the House of Commons for the government to offer an apology or redress. Later in 1906 and 2015, two prime ministers offered apology to redress the racist immigration policy and the Komagata Maru tragedy.
New tolerance toward immigrants
The Sikh’s political activism started when they rejected the government’s plan to relocate members of the community to British Honduras (now Belize). In 1913, the Gadhar Party was founded in Canada and the US to gain independence of India from the British. In 1914, Mewa Singh killed inspector William Hopkinson who was using agents to divide the Sikh community. Mewa Singh was executed in January 1915. In 1918, the population of Sikhs reduced to about 700.
Signing of the United Nations Charter in 1944 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 brought Canada’s discriminatory policies to light. Through the lobbying by South Asian groups, Asians got the right to vote in 1947. The ban on Chinese and South Asian immigration was repealed though only wives and children of existing Canadian citizens were eligible for immigration.
Immigration after 1945 was still biased in favour of the Europeans, the government allowed a small quota of immigrants from India, and Pakistan. This new wave of immigration re-awakened prejudices. Organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Native Sons of Canada and the Orange Order criticised the new immigrants as a threat to Canada’s Anglo-Saxon character.
In 1960, the passage of the Canadian Bills of Rights, provincial human rights Bills, and the creation of human rights commissions mitigated Anglo-Saxon racism. It was the birth of new tolerance toward immigrants. In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms extended equality and freedoms to others as well. It led to eliminate racial discrimination and help improve the justice system, police services, and new immigrants to acquire the skills to integrate into the economy and society.
Canada home to second largest Sikh population after Punjab
Sikhs started migrating in large numbers after the quota system was dropped in 1962.
Of the six major waves of immigrants to Canada, it was the 1970’s wave, called Recent Immigration Patterns, in which most Sikhs migrated to Canada, until recently.
By 2001, the proportion of visible minorities had increased to 13.4%; 16.2% by 2006; 19% by 2011; and 23% (8.3 million) by 2021; about 15 million people are expected to be visible minorities by 2031.
Canada used to have two pillars of foundation – English and French; but now the third pillar seems to be immigrants. The main driver of growth of population is immigration.
Canada is now home to the largest national proportion in the world (2.5%) and the second largest Sikh population after Punjab.
Canadian Sikhs are affected by events concerning Sikhs and Sikhism in India like the nationalist movement for Sikh rights and an independent state. Specifically, after the attack on Golden Temple, backlash and riots against Sikhs after the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
The injustice that no one was ever charged further alienated Canadian Sikhs from the Indian government and fuelled separatists. The Air India Flight 182 tragedy was regarded as an act of revenge against the Government of India. Heightened Sikh consciousness has led to an increase in their faith, even among second and third-generation Canadian Sikhs.
Sikhs faced a ban on wearing the turban, kirpan, and beard on many jobsites, including Courts and Transportation Canada, and at the airport security, Sikhs felt insulted when they were asked to remove their turbans. In 2004, the Québec Court of Appeal struck down a decision, ruling that community safety was more important than individual rights and the ceremonial dagger violated the “weapons and dangerous objects” of the student conduct code. But in a Supreme Court decision in 2006, religious tolerance was to be encouraged in Canadian society and that a total ban infringed on the guarantee of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Integral part of all walks, but not organised as diaspora
The contribution of Sikhs in economic, political, social, and cultural fabric of Canada has been significant. Sikhs have become an integral part of all walks of life – police, armed forces, banks, finance, media, transportation, hospitality, philanthropy, arts, sports, education, construction, development, and every other industry. Sikhs own large real estate, businesses, mills, agricultural farms. Sikhs hold prominent professional positions – doctors, engineers, judges, lawyers, managers, corporate heads, scientists, professors, actors, and public servants. Sikhs are community-minded and donate more than their share for natural disaster victims and the needy. Sikhs participate in all political parties at all levels of governments. Since 1950, after the election of Niranjan S Grewal as mayor of Mission, there is no political office (except the Prime Minister) that Sikhs never held. Sikhs are influential and hold balance of power.
Unfortunately, despite ample progress and accomplishments, Sikhs have never organised themselves as a diaspora; in building worthy institutions; selecting and following strategic leaders; getting rid of ego and jealousies; controlling drugs, gangs and violence; in strengthening ties and contributing to the development of their villages in India.
In 2001, I was invited to speak at Harvard university where I highlighted the political participation and integration of visible minorities in North America. Many of the issues that I raised as a member of Parliament benefitted the diaspora and other visible minorities. These included recognition of international credentials; apology for the Komagata Maru tragedy of 1914; de-hyphenation of Canadians so that every Canadian is treated equal; inquiry of the Air India bombing so that the blame of terrorism hanging over the head of every Sikh be cleared and the few responsible be punished; corruption in Canadian missions abroad; dual citizenship; ending black lists; recognising the articles of Sikh faith; and accomplishments of Sikhs; celebrating Baisakhi in Parliament; allowing the turban in RCMP; ending discrimination (including with taxi drivers); restoring provincial human rights commissions; removal of head tax from immigrants and as a result the right of landing fee was reduced to half, strengthening Canada-India relations, among others.
The writer, an alumnus of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, is three-time MP in Canada( 1997-2006). He was elected to Canadian Parliament just after five years and eight months of immigration to Canada, a record. He served as deputy house leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for foreign affairs. His wife Nina Grewal was 4-time MP and both were the first married couple to concurrently serve as MPs in Canadian history. Views expressed are personal.