Becoming Canadian: Pioneer Sikhs In Their Own Words


Section 1

Probably the first Sikhs to see British Columbia were the Punjabi soldiers
Sikhs just landed in Canada
Sikhs just landed in Canada
from the Hong Kong regiments travelling through Canada after celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London, England in 1887. They were impressed with the majestic landscape, the rich vegetation, and the favorable climate of BC: all quite similar to their homeland, the Punjab province in India. Word traveled fast about the opportunities in this new land and adventurous Sikhs soon started making travel plans.

The Sikhs’ arrival in Canada began with the first wave of immigration in
Railway workers dumping
 truckloads of debris
Railway workers dumping truckloads of debris
1904-1908. At this time about 5, 000 East Indians, virtually all of them male Sikhs from the province of Punjab, came to British Columbia to do laboring jobs on railway construction, in the lumber mills and in forestry. Even though they were unskilled and uneducated, they were favored by employers because they were hardworking and reliable, and because the employers could pay the Sikhs less than White men for the same work.

These pioneer Sikhs did not intend to stay here long since they did not receive a warm welcome from their hosts. Their intention was to make money and return to India. They came to a cold and hostile environment, both literally and figuratively. Besides, language problems, poor education, lack of proper housing and health care, and culture shock, they faced racial discrimination and segregation. There were some anti-Asian feelings at this time: the Chinese head tax had risen in 1903 to $500 per person and all Asians were portrayed in the media as dirty, diseased, uncivilized beings who were incapable of adapting to Canadian ways. They were a blight on the Canadian landscape. Racism and injustice were a fact of life for all Asians in Canada, but for these men, being apart from their families was especially painful. Hugh Johnston writes: " Constantly in the company of their own countrymen - at work and in their lodging or bunkhouses - Sikhs were isolated by their pattern of life as well as by language, culture and the attitude of the host population. Family life, with children going to school and contacts with neighbors, would have reduced this isolation, but this was an adult male population since only nine women immigrated between 1904 and 1920. "



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