April is Sikh heritage month in Canada, where we recognize the contributions of the Sikh community across the country.
On April 13, the Sikh community celebrated Vaisakhi online due to COVID-19. The festival marks the establishment of the Khalsa and the Sikh martial order by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh Ji, who in 1699 fought against oppression of the Mughals in India.
The day was also dedicated to the farmers’ protest in India by Sikh Heritage Month BC.
The organization’s theme this year is “Finding Sehaj — A Journey to Peace and Tranquility” which recognizes the challenges of 2020 and the pandemic, according to the SHMBC website.
The presence of the Sikh community in British Columbia dates back to the late 1800s, with the first Gurdwara in Canada being constructed shortly after.
Sikh immigration continued to grow until the introduction of racial immigration bans and quotas, whereby conditions were imposed mainly to curb Indian immigration to Canada.
Around 380 passengers, mostly Sikhs, aboard the Japanese ship Komagata Maru set sail from Hong Kong to Vancouver on April 4 in 1914. To fulfill the conditions of continuous travel, they were forbidden from deboarding upon arrival. Their food supplies were blocked, and after a hasty court verdict, they were escorted out of Canada.
“When Sikhs come here, they’re very much happy to be a part of Canadian society, they’re happy to take on Canadian citizenship and to operate in Canada as a citizen to give back, to contribute as much as they’re given the opportunity to establish themselves,” says Dr. Kamala Elizabeth Nayar, an Asian Studies instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
“In terms of the presence of Sikhs in the social fabric of Canadian society, I think in the metropolises there is a larger presence and a larger understanding of the Sikh community. Whereas in the smaller towns, there is more intercultural interaction just because it is a smaller community,” says Nayar.
The Komagata Maru incident is a reflection of the immigration laws of the day where there was an implicit intent to stop people coming from the Indian subcontinent. There were also different measures, which discriminated against the Chinese and the Japanese, Nayar says.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that laws favouring immigrants of European descent were modified, and doors were opened for others, she says.
“It would be nice if there were a greater understanding of the religion itself rather than focusing just on the cultural aspect,” says Nayar.
The current theme of Sehaj is a part of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s philosophy, and highlights the spiritual part of Sikhism, that is, remembering the name of the one Waheguru (a Sikh term for “God”) and finding a sense of oneness with them that stabilizes the mind.
The Sikh community is not completely understood, and even in events where they are recognized, they are politicized, says Nayar.
The success of the Sikh community stems from the resilience and perseverance of the community, which have become an integral part of the Canadian social fabric, she adds.
Other events and discussions that were held by Sikh Heritage Month BC include a panel on the Quebec Secularism Bill 21, the inclusion of Sikh educational content in B.C. high schools, and an upcoming presentation of an array of colourized vintage photos of Sikh and South Asian immigrants.