Becoming Canadian: Pioneer Sikhs In Their Own Words


Section 1

As British subjects, Sikhs had the right to vote in all elections. This was viewed as posing a threat to the existing government, since it meant that a significant block of votes - there were 5, 000 Sikhs - might go to another political party more sensitive to human rights, immigration and fair play. So in 1907, the government of British Columbia passed a bill to disenfranchise all natives of India not born of Anglo-Saxon parents. Sikhs were denied the municipal, the provincial and then the federal right to vote, even though they were British subjects. The implications of these actions were far-reaching. Until 1947, South Asians would remain excluded from the political process in British Columbia and from becoming Canadian Citizens. They could not vote for or become school trustees or trustees of improvement districts; neither could they be elected from provincial public
Aftermath of anti-Asian riot
Aftermath of anti-Asian riot
office or serve on juries. Although exclusion from the voter’s list did not legally restrict Sikhs from public service, this became the rule. Public works contracts specified that they not be employed. The same restriction applied to the sale of Crown timber, and many professions such as law and pharmacy were informally closed to them.

The loss of the vote and its implications probably did not bother the Sikhs, since most were uneducated and unable to take full advantage of such rights and privileges. But the next move was devastating. Fed by the strong anti-Asian feelings among trade unionists, politicians and the media, the Canadian government adopted a new policy and issued an order-in-council on January 8, 1908 designed to stop all immigration from India. All immigrants seeking entry had to come to Canada by continuous journey and with through-tickets from the country of their birth or nationality or citizenship. At this time, there was no direct
New Sikh immigrants
New Sikh immigrants
passage from India to Canada. An immigrant from India also had to have this possession $200, while immigrants from Europe needed only $25. They were obliged to undergo medical and sanitary examination upon arrival in Canada, and their landing in Canada was subject to favorable labor conditions prevailing at the time. The harsh effect of this legislation was dramatic: from 1908 to 1920 only 118 immigrants from India entered Canada.

In 1908, there was even an effort to deport all those who remained in Canada to British Honduras in order to effectively rid the country of " hindoos " in order to " keep Canada white. " H. H. Stevens, the leader of the Asiatic Exclusion League and a city of Vancouver alderman, said in 1907, " We contend that the destiny of Canada is best left in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon race, and are ‘unalterably and irrevocably’ opposed to any move which threatens in the slightest degree this position…. As far as Canada is concerned, it shall remain white, and our doors shall be closed to Hindoos as well as to other Orientals. " The federal government paid a delegation to go to British Honduras and investigate employment opportunities, economic conditions and possibilities of settlement for all of British Columbia’s Sikhs. This delegation consisted of J. B. Harkin of the Interior Ministry of the federal government, William Hopkinson, a Vancouver immigration official and interpreter, and two local Sikhs, Nagar Singh and Sham Singh. When the Sikhs returned and reported back to the community about the unsuitability and poor living and economic conditions of British Honduras, the local Sikhs unanimously rejected the proposal and steadfastly declared their intention to stay in Canada. This plan was probably far too extreme ever to have succeeded, but it does give an indication of the intensity of the anti-Asian sentiments of that time and the stance of all levels of government on the issue.



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