Becoming Canadian: Pioneer Sikhs In Their Own Words

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Section 2

The Sikhs who left India for Canada in the 1920s and 1930s came from the northern province of Punjab, from rural farming villages. They were unskilled and uneducated, and they worked on family-owned farms. At the time they left, family fortunes had risen to an all-time high. There was plenty to eat and living conditions were very good. This was because Sikhs who had come to Canada earlier had sent a good portion of their earnings back to India for their families to acquire more land and to upgrade their housing.

Ranjit S. Hall: "The trip over was rather interesting..."


But all of India was under British colonial rule and domination, so Indiansí rights and freedoms were limited. According to Mr. Gurdave S. Billian, who emigrated in 1932, " The British were the boss, they ran things, ran everything, even in the villages they picked the head guy. " Many Sikhs actively opposed this domination. Mr. Kuldeep S. Bains describes a political gathering in his village, " There was a big movement going on for independence, everybody was following Gandhi, Nehru and some were even following Subhas Chandra Bose, he was a little more radical in the Congress party at that time. I remember in 1937, we had a conference for about a week. There must have been about a hundred thousand people coming from all over, the near by places. The final speaker was Nehru. Some of the radicals and the Congress people were all together. Day and night the conference was going for seven days and Nehru came for about a half a day there. This was in Mahalpur, itís a big village, you couldnít accommodate those people in any hall, this was in the open air, in the summer time. " Even though there were concerted efforts for independence, relief was not in sight. Canada represented a chance for a brighter a chance for a brighter social and economic future.

The journey to Canada was made in four stages: the train from the village to Calcutta, the boat trip from Calcutta to Hong Kong, the stop over in Hong Kong and the final boat trip from Hong Kong to Canada. Travel began with a prayer at the village temple for a safe journey. Then the emigrants would take the train from the village to Calcutta. This train journey, from 1000-1500 miles long, taking anywhere from two to six days, was itself a traumatic experience for these people, who had seldom seen unfamiliar faces expect when they went to a neighboring village for a wedding or religious festival. Mr. Dedar S. Sihota, who in 1936 at the age of twelve made this journey with his father and brother, tells what happened: " We traveled by train for about two days. It was from Jullunder to Calcutta. We traveled third class, as most Indians traveled in those days. I
Mrs. Gurdial Oppal
Mrs. Gurdial Oppal
remember getting up to sleep at night, up on the upper luggage compartments, where we would just curl up and go to sleep, otherwise the trains were really packed. It was a very interesting trip for us, for many years afterwards, I could remember the names of all the stations we stopped at along the way because it was something new and existing. "

The train ended its journey at the Howrah train station outside of Calcutta. Here officials from the nearby Sikh temple often met the weary travelers. Mrs. Gurdial K. Oppal, who made the journey in 1934, remembers: " These people were so caring, the Gurdwara people would be standing there waiting at the station, waiting to take us to the nearby temple, so we had a safe place to stay. They did not take any money, they would take us to the temple just to help us. "

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