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Heritage History Of Sikh Diaspora In Canada And USA


Jun 9, 2011
The following excerpts from the lecture by S. Kuldeep Singh sheds light on the history of Sikh immigrants in both these North American countries, with elaborate citations of records and the information on significant political interventions.


(A lecture delivered by S. Kuldeep Singh at the Oakland University Students on March 7, 2002. He is also the founder Chiarperson of the World Sikh Council)

The Government of India sent Sikhs Lancers and Infantry Regiment to London, to attend Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. These Sikh Soldiers returned to India by way of Canada. They traveled from Montreal to Vancouver by train. On the way they saw fertile land, great rivers and lakes, open skies, mountains, forests and wild life. These beautiful sceneries attracted them. These land hungry sons of Punjab, who were also fond of hunting wild animals, decided to settle here to fulfill their dreams. Some of these soldiers deserted the army and stayed behind. Others went back and later, returned to Canada in small batches. Listed below are some interesting facts, which were demonstrated to the students, by showing the old recorded pictures and statistical records, through a slide-projector -
  • The first East Indian Immigrants in Canada went to Port Moody, east of Vancouver in 1904

  • And from 1905-1908, about 5000 Immigrants entered Canada

  • First Sikh died in Vancouver in 1907; Cremation was not allowed; Sikhs took the dead body in the middle of night to a distant forest and cremated it there

  • First Sikh Place of Worship was inaugurated on January 19, 1908

  • First Sikh Amrit (Baptism) Ceremony was held on April 4, 1909 when 8 Sikhs and 2 Canadian ladies took Amrit. The following officiated as the Five beloved ones (Panj Pyarey) with Professor Teja Singh (M.A.L.L.B.) as the head priest:-
Bhai Amar Singh
Bhai Gurdial Singh
Bhai Dharam Singh
Bhai Hira Singh
Bhai Waryam Singh

Following people took Amrit:-


1. Channan Singh Dharam Singh
2. Puran Singh Puran Singh
3. Chirag Singh Daya Singh
4. Birbu Singh Prem Singh
5. Mastan Singh Sunder Singh
6. Sunder Singh Vir Singh
7. Munsha Singh Gayan Singh
8. Jhanda Singh Jhandha Singh
9. Annie Wright Labb Kor
10. Winnifred Wright Prem Kor
  • First Sikh Wedding Ceremony was held in Vancouver when Bhai Gayan Singh (Ex Munsha Singh) married to Bibi Labb Kor (Ex Annie Wright) on April 4, 1909 in the afternoon. This was also the first Sikh, who got married to a white Canadian.

  • Legislation was passed in 1908 & 1910, which virtually put a stop to East Indian Immigration.

  • In 1914, a Sikh named Baba Gurdit Singh chartered a Japanese ship, the "Komagata Maru" and brought a group of 376 east Indians to Canada. All except 30 were Sikhs.

  • On April 4, 1914, the chief secretary, Mr. Steven of the British Governor of Hong Kong gave Gurdit Singh permission to leave for Canada.

  • The ship left with 165 passengers. On April 8, 111 passengers boarded the ship at Shanghai. On April 14, 86 passengers boarded at the port of Moji. And at Yokohama, another 14 passengers boarded, totaling 376 passengers.

  • The news was published in the British Press. The Vancouver daily ‘Province’ published the inflammatory news under the heading " Boat Load of Hindus on way to Vancouver". The British Columbia Press began giving such headings to their articles as "Hindu Invasion Of Canada."

  • On May 21 (Tuesday) 1914 Komagata Maru anchored at the Port of Victoria. There were seven Sikhs who wanted to board the ship to talk to the passengers. An immigration guard chased them away.

    These seven Sikhs were:

  1. Bhai Bhag Singh, President of Khalsa Diwan Society.
  2. Bhai Balwant Singh, Priest of Gurdwara
  3. Bhai Mit Singh, Secretary, Khalsa Diwan Society
  4. Hassan Rahim, United India League
  5. Baboo Harnam Singh, Director of Guru Nanak Mining & Trust Company
  6. Bhai Rattan Singh
  7. Bhai Uttam Singh Hans
Naval guards surrounded the ship. Chief Inspector Malcolm Reid and Inspector Hopkinson were inspecting the boat. They allowed the pilot of the ship Captain Yammato and Dr. Raghunath to land but no one else. After some time, 22 men were allowed to land who could claim Canadian domicile. Deportation orders were given to the rest of the passengers. Malcolm Reid threatened Gurdit Singh to pay the charter dues immediately otherwise the ship will be impounded. He also told, that the passengers do not fulfill the following two conditions:

  1. They were without the money to qualify them to land.
  2. They did not come directly from the port of their country. Because the direct passage rule applies.
Inspector Reid would not allow passengers to land. All were imprisoned in the ship. He would not allow the coal cargo to unload also. That would have brought them some revenue. Passengers were starving without food and water. The Mayor of Vancouver, the government of Canada and that of BC, Local MP Steven all were on the side of Malcolm Reid. Everyday the song, " White Canada Forever" was sung by the people at the seashore. Sikhs of Vancouver collected $20,000 and the shore committee gave 10,000 Hong Kong Dollars to pay the charter dues, but of no avail.

The Premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard MacBride, stated categorically: " To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country. " - The Times, London May 23, 1914

Mr. J. Edward Bird, the attorney of Khalsa Diwan Society representing the Kamagat Maru and shore committee was not allowed to see his client Gurdit Singh.

A board of inquiry was set up with Mr. Reid as Chairman and four of his assistants as members. Bird called this board "PROSECUTORS ARE THE JUDGES"

Kamagata Maru began the return voyage on July 24, 1914 at 4:30 A.M.

After this, violence broke out in Vancouver. Bela Singh Jain an informer and agent of Hopkinson pulled out two guns and started shooting at the Khalsa Diwan Society Gurdwara. He murdered Bhai Bhag Singh, President of the Society and Battan Singh on Sunday September 6, 1914. Bela Singh was charged with murder, but Hopkinson decided to appear as witness in his case. On October 21, 1914, Mewa Singh, Granthi of Khalsa Diwan Society shot William Hopkinson in the Assize court corridor with two revolvers. Mewa Singh was hanged on January 11, 1915. In the court of Judge Morrison, Mr. Wood the attorney of Mewa Singh in his statement said, " The Sikh community felt that Hopkinson was in part responsible for the failure of the plans to land the Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru. He was born in India (English Father and East Indian mother). He could speak Indian languages fluently. He established a ring of informers to report about the activities of the Sikh community. Bela Singh Jain was his chief informer and an employee of Immigration department. He acted as a victorious lord over his community and was backed by his boss Hopkinson". Mewa Singh made a historical statement in the Court:

" My religion does not teach me to bear enmity with anybody, nor had I any enmity with Mr. Hopkinson. He was oppressing poor people very much. I, being a staunch Sikh, could no longer bear to see the wrong done both to my countrymen and Dominion of Canada. This is what led me to take Hopkinson’s life and sacrifice my own life. And I, performing the duty of a true Sikh and remembering the name of God, will proceed towards the scaffold with the same amount of pleasure as a hungry babe goes towards his mother. I am sure God will take me into His blissful arms."

None of the passengers, who were from Hong Kong and Singapore, were allowed to land in Hong Kong or Singapore. The ship finally arrived at the Budge Budge harbor about 27 Kilometers downstream from Calcutta on September 29, 1914 at 11:00 A.M. The passengers were ordered to board the train that would take them to Punjab. The Sikhs refused to obey, as they wanted to stay in Calcutta to pay back the funds that they owed the owner of the ship. They left the ship in procession with Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji in their midst. The Police and some army fired at them killing 18 men and wounding 25. Gurdit Singh and 28 more people escaped. The rest were rounded up and sent to Punjab.

In the meantime the Government of Canada decided to acquit Bela Singh. It was a political decision. In the words of Justice Morrison: " They threatened and killed Inspector Hopkinson…..therefore, justice must acquit a murderer like Bela Singh because he was a stooge of Hopkinson". What a justice!
  • In the 26 years from 1920 to 1945 inclusive, only 675 East Indian Immigrants entered Canada.
  • By the late 1940’s Canada had fewer than 2000 Sikh residents mostly in British Columbia.
  • In 1951, authorization from Ottawa allowed a quota of 150-immigrants/year plus spouses and children upto the age of 21 years. In 1957 this quota increased to 300 persons/year.
  • In the 1960’s ranging from more than 500 in 1962 to well over 2,000 in 1965.
  • In the beginning, Sikhs who came to British Columbia worked at railway construction and heavy labor projects, in lumbering, on dairy farms, fruit farms, in logging operation and small businesses of retail nature. 75% have been occupied in production and processing of forest products. Others have become merchants, teachers, nurses, civil servants, engineers, lawyers and doctors.
  • The official 1961 Census showed 6,774 people of East Indian origin in Canada with 4,526 residing in British Columbia. About 95% of the East Indians in Canada are Sikhs.
  • A million-dollar community center was built on Marine Drive in Vancouver in 1967. There were nearly 10 Gurdwaras in Vancouver by the end of 1967, which have risen to nearly fifty Gurdwaras and Sikh societies now. The total number of Sikh societies and Gurdwaras in Canada has grown to be approximately 110.
  • Sikhs have contributed a lot to the industrial and professional life in Canada. Mayo family in Vancouver, owner of a large lumbering complex has participated in many British Columbia activities. They have encouraged east Indians to improve their knowledge of English.
  • The late Kapoor Singh Sidhu shared the philanthropies between Canada and India. He provided two scholarships to the University of B.C. and two hospitals for his native Punjab province. He established a Foundation with dividends to be equally divided between B.C. and Punjab.
  • Dr. Sadhu Singh Dhami, Sikh scholar from the Punjab, came to Canada as an immigrant at the age of 15. He earned a Ph.D. degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto. He wrote "The Sikhs and their religion: A struggle for Democracy"
  • Dr. Jarnail Singh of Toronto has translated Guru Granth Sahib in French.
  • Sardar Pritpal Singh Bindra of Toronto translated many of Guru Nanak Dev ji’s hymns into English.
  • Sikhs are very active politically. There are a number of Canadian of Sikh origin in political field.
  • Gurbax Singh Malhi is an MP from Bramlea-Gore-Malton area for the past two terms;
  • Mr. Harbans (Herb) Singh Dhaliwal, MP from Vancouver south area and a cabinet minister for the past term;
  • Ujall Singh Dosanjh, Premier of British Columbia;
  • Manmohan (Moe)Singh Sahota is Minister of Environments land and parks in the province of British Columbia;
  • Harbhajan (Harry) Singh Lalli is a member of Parliament from Vancouver

  • According to the Report of the Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census – 1890, 2000 "Foreign born person" claimed India as their place of birth. Pre- 1907 most of the immigrants were urban, educated Hindus from India
  • Beginning 1907, most of the immigrants were Sikhs and Muslims from rural areas.
- Some Demographic and Social Aspects of Early East Indian Life in the United States by Harold Jacoby
  • Except for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (and perhaps the quasi-statutory "Gentlemen’s Agreement" of 1908 with Japan) the United States had no immigration laws directed against specific national or racial populations. But its immigration laws did spell out a number of physical, psychological, economic and philosophical characteristics which rendered individuals as individuals unwelcome in this country.
- Sidney Kansas, US immigration, Exclusion, and Deportation, New York: Washington Pub. Co., 1928, 5-14
  • Prior to 1907 rejection rate of applicants from East India was 10%
  • From 1907 –1914 inclusive rejections rate rose to 33%
  • In the years 1909, 1911, and 1913 the rejection rate went up to 50% or higher.
  • Far from it being a secretly employed operation, the Bureau openly boasted of its methods and the high degree of success attained. In his annual report of 1910, for instance, the District Commissioner at Seattle reported:
  • "A number of Hindus have applied for admission to the United States through this district during the year just passed. Every Hindu has been rejected by a board of special inquiry on the grounds of belief in polygamy, likely to become a public charge, doctor’s certificate, or as an assisted immigrant."
- Some Demographic and Social Aspects of Early East Indian Life in the United States by Harold Jacoby
  • Between 1920-1930 as many as 3000 Sikhs entered United States.
  • From 1933-1945 only 17 East Indians were officially admitted to United States
  • Census of 1950 identified 2649 East Indians living in the United States.
  • In 1910, overwhelming majority of immigrants from India were Sikhs (nearly 90%); whereas in 1950 they were not much more than 50%
  • First Sikh Organization was The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society organized in the spring of 1912. Later in that year they purchased a house in Stockton to serve as a Gurdwara. A second Gurdwara was established in El Centro in 1948. They participated fully in the revolution to free India from British along with the Ghadar(Revolution) party.
  • Early Sikh immigrants had to face legal, social, economic and even physical barriers to material success. They were not allowed to bring their spouses from Punjab, and if they married an American citizen, she would loose her citizenship by such marriage. The Aliens ineligible for citizenship could not buy, own, or lease agriculture land.
  • Chakravorti drew this conclusion in his Ph.D. thesis in 1968: "Sikh community in El Centro is "dying" in cultural sense, since the hold of its ethnic subsystems is slipping from the second generation."
- Chakravorti, Robindra Chandra, "The Sikhs of El Centro: A Study in Social Integration", Ph.D. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1968.
  • They battled for citizenship and lost. Men and women applying to the county clerk for marriage licenses had to be of the same race, had to look alike, and most often it was Hispanic women who satisfied that requirement. Their offshoots were called Mexican-Hindus.
California’s South Asian population was 1,873 in 1930 Census, 1,476 in 1940, 815 in 1950. Karen Leonard, Professor at University of California analyzed 378 couples. She found that 80.4% were married to Hispanic girls; 12.7% to American Whites; 4% to Blacks; 2.4% to Indians; and 0.5% to American Indians. i.e. Only 74 out of 378 wives were non-Hispanics. The first recorded marriage was in Imperial County in 1916; most Punjabi (or Sikh)-Hispanic marriages took place in 1920’s. The prevalence of the term ragheads led almost all of them to take off their turbans. Many wives preferred them to be turban-less (Sekhon 1983; Garewal 1982; Shine 1983). "Those Hindus learned – one of them stood there and talked Hindu to his brother, Mexican to his wife and English to me." No one used the term Sikh to describe them. They were known as Hindus.
  • A common question at job interviews has been: " Are you prepared to adopt the American dress?"
The real question is: "Are you prepared to cut your hair?"
  • In 1978 an American Sikh citizen accompanying his wife at her naturalization was ordered by the US District Court Judge to remove his turban or leave the court.

- Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, Ohio Volume 108, No. 138, November 15, 1978, Page 1

  • In 1982 an American Sikh was told by his employer to comply with a new safety policy by getting himself clean-shaven.
- San Francisco Examiner, California, August 13, 1982
  • In 1990 a Sikh child in Ohio was not allowed to play basketball in his middle school just because he wears a turban.
Most of the Sikhs started life in America as farm laborers, many of them finally became landowners and successful farmers. In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund became the first East Indian born person to be elected to the US House of Representatives. At present Amarjit Singh Buttar is perhaps the only turbaned Sikh who holds elected public office. He got elected in December 2001 to the Vernon, Connecticut Board of Education for a four-year term. He has also been recently selected as the Chairman of the Board. A number of Sikhs, who came in 1960’s, got higher education at various Universities in USA. Many of them are now Department Heads or Deans at various Universities. A number of Sikhs are physicians of high repute in almost all specialty fields of medicine. Hundreds of Sikhs hold managerial positions in engineering fields in various engineering firms including the technology and automobile industry. Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany is known as the father of fiber optics because of his exceptional research in this field. He also established a Kapany Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1998.

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