With hard-earned acceptance, Sikh community flourishes on both sides of border - Salish Current
June 23, 2023
With hard-earned acceptance, Sikh community flourishes on both sides of border
Catherine Skrzypinski

Following a parade of colorful floats comes the heart of the annual Vaisakhi celebration: the Sikh tradition of langar, a community meal that welcomes everyone. Vaisakhi parades have been held in Vancouver since 1979 and in Surrey — said to be the largest such event outside of India — since 1998. (Catherine Skrzypinski photo © 2018)

June 23, 2023
With hard-earned acceptance, Sikh community flourishes on both sides of border
Catherine Skrzypinski

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As a child in the 1990s, Rajveer Chohan has vivid memories of giving back to her neighbors. Dressed up in her best salwar suit, she would climb into her father’s van carefully — not to scuff her shiny Mary Jane shoes — with heaping food containers of fresh baked chole bhatura, an Indian breakfast dish of spiced chickpea curry and deep-fried bread. 

Her parents made sure she covered her braided hair with a dupatta, a shawl-like scarf, so they could pay their respects at the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship and education. Then, a caravan of cars filled with Chohan’s siblings, cousins and elder relatives would follow the van to the Vaisakhi parade in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“We would find a spot along the parade route, give away our home cooked meals and spend the entire day at Vaisakhi,” she said. “Our tradition is deeply rooted in the community and our strong Sikh faith.”

Chohan, a marketing and communications manager, was born and raised in Vancouver. She has lived in a multigenerational home all her life.

The heart of the Vaisakhi celebration is the Sikh tradition of langar, a community meal that welcomes everyone. Volunteers serve vegetarian food to attendees like basmati rice, chickpeas, dal, lentils, saag and roti, or round flatbread. 

“My grandma would always hunt down the best eats at Vaisahki,” she said. “Once the most important float would pass by — the one holding the Sikh holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib – we would slowly make our way to my home, where everyone would gather for chai, or black tea with whole milk, sugar and spices like cardamom.”

Vancouver’s Vaisakhi colorful parade travels most years through the streets of South Vancouver, winding through the city’s historical Punjabi Market area on a spring weekend where the weather could change instantaneously from sunny skies to drizzle. 

After a three-year absence because of pandemic restrictions, around 300,000 people came out this year on April 15 to celebrate the spring harvest, said Jag Sanghera, parade marshal

Vaisakhi parades have been held in Vancouver since 1979 and across the Fraser River in Surrey since 1998. The Surrey Khalsa Day Vaisakhi Parade that took place April 22 attracted more than a half million people, considered by parade organizers as the world’s largest Vaisakhi parade outside India.

Bellingham: riots, then reconciliation

When current Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu moved his family to Bellingham from Canada in 1988, he thought he was one of first Sikh pioneers to settle in the city.

An arch erected in Bellingham in 2017 in memory of immigrants from India driven out by mob riots in 1907 also calls out the courage, work and resilience of all immigrants. (Catherine Skrzypinski photo © 2023)

But in 1907, lumber mill workers had issued a warning to more than 200 Indians to leave Bellingham before Labor Dayand, on Sept. 4, a mob attacked and imprisoned the migrant workers in Old City Hall, now the Whatcom Museum. 

Within a week, all the Sikhs in Bellingham departed either for San Francisco or Vancouver, B.C., on one train that traveled along the Pacific coast. (For more, watch “We Are Not Strangers,” a documentary about the 1907 Bellingham riots

“No Sikhs dared to come live in Bellingham for 75 years, even though there was a big community across the border in Abbotsford, Langley, Surrey and Vancouver,” Sidhu said. “Sikhs knew they were not welcome in Bellingham.”

When Sidhu settled in Whatcom County with his wife and three children they were one of 10 Sikh families living in the area, compared to more than 200,000 Sikhs in B.C. in the late 1980s. 

During this time, Sikh farmers from California began moving north to Whatcom County for less-expensive agricultural land in prime condition for raspberry and blueberry cultivation, Sidhu said. 

Sikhs in Whatcom County work in agriculture, transport and start small businesses. Currently, around 8,000 Sikhs live in Whatcom County, according to the Chardi Kala Project, an umbrella organization with the Chuckanut Health Foundation in Bellingham. 

A century after the riots, on Sept. 2, 2007, the Bellingham Herald ran a full-page apology for the role the newspaper played in the 1907 riots. Then-mayor Tim Douglas declared Sept. 4 as a day of healing and reconciliation in Bellingham to apologize for the violence against the Sikh community.

“They promised that the persecution of Sikhs will never happen again in Whatcom County,” Sidhu said. 

A memorial Arch of Healing and Reconciliation now stands near Bellingham City Hall, made out of 10 tons of solid red granite from India to honor immigrants who moved to the Pacific Northwest from Asia.

British Columbia: choppy waters clear for smooth sailing

Sikhs from the Punjab region of India began to arrive on British Columbia’s West Coast in the early 1900s, said Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, historian at Parks Canada in Abbotsford. For the most part, they found their new home welcoming and inclusive of the rights afforded to them as British subjects in Canada.

During this time, many Canadian employers preferred to hire Punjabis due to their work ethic at lower pay, Sandhra said. As in Bellingham at the time, many workers from Europe resented their presence. 

“By 1907, as the South Asian population increased in Canada, so did overt racism,” she added. “The 1907 anti-Sikh Bellingham riots influenced Vancouver’s 1907 anti-Asian riots, which happened only one month after Bellingham.”

Forty years into waves of immigration, South Asians gained the right to vote and become citizens in Canada in 1947, turning the tide of opportunity, noted Parks Canada historian Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra. She sees the Sikh tradition of service to the community as a contributing factor in acceptance by earlier residents. (Courtesy photo Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra)

As South Asian refugees arrived in Vancouver from Bellingham, the Asiatic Exclusion League paraded through the streets of Chinatown, carrying signs and flags calling for “A White Canada.”

The Canadian government attempted to hinder South Asian migration with the 1908 Continuous Journey Regulation, Sandhra said. That addition to policy allowed Canada to refuse entry to immigrants who had stopped off in other countries on their journey toward Canada.

The Komagata Maru incident in May 1914 challenged this act, as the ship’s passengers — mostly Sikhs from India and British subjects — were denied docking in Vancouver by Canadian authorities. Members of the Sikh community in B.C. raised funds and tried to persuade authorities to reverse their decision.

After months of difficult conditions, the ship and most of its passengers were forced to return to India, resulting in 19 deaths. From the early 1900s to the 1940s, 95% of all South Asian immigrants to Canada were Sikhs, Sandhra said. The first wave of Sikhs in B.C. were resourceful landowners and risk takers, and they adapted quickly to the Pacific Northwest’s agrarian economy. 

Despite the setbacks, the Sikhs in B.C. banded together to form the Guru Nanak Mining and Trust Company in Vancouver to develop agricultural land — one of the earliest entrepreneurial ventures by South Asians in Canada. South Asians, including Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, worked in lumber mills, farms and logging sites across the province.

The tide turned in 1947 when 40 years of lobbying, community rallying, fundraising and protesting resulted in South Asians’ gaining the right to vote in Canada and become Canadian citizens. After 1950, the Canadian government allowed South Asian Canadians to sponsor a wide range of relatives so they can move closer to their families, including mothers and fathers over 65 years old.

Chohan said she can trace her family history from their journey from India to B.C.

“My grandfather moved to Canada in April 1971 and worked on a farm east of Vancouver,” she added. “From there, he took on odd jobs. Eventually, my grandfather raised enough money to buy his own home. He was able to purchase the home we still reside in almost 36 years later.” 

Chohan’s grandfather retired when a mill he worked at closed down in Richmond, she continued. 

In July 1975, Chohan’s grandmother and her four children — including her father — arrived in Canada. 

According to the 2021 Canadian census, Sikhs in Metro Vancouver comprise around 222,165 people, forming 8.5% of the region’s total population. “The South Asian Canadian community’s long history in British Columbia has contributed significantly to the success of this province,” said John Horgan, former premier of B.C.

Not only has the South Asian community grown in population since the 1950s in B.C., Sikhs like herself have seen personal opportunities and their careers flourish living in the province, Sandhra said.

“I feel like Sikhs have flourished in B.C. because of our seva, or selfless services to our communities,” Sandhra said. “We give. We give to community; we give during times of stress, like the 2021 floods in B.C. and Washington state, and during the COVID-19 pandemic. We see ourselves on these Indigenous lands with a responsibility to evolve and move society forward that expresses solidarity, love and humility.”

Chohan said that in her experience, B.C. has done a good job respecting the Sikh community and faith. 

“We have seen an influx of immigration over the years allowing families to be together,” she added. “There are more South Asians that are entrepreneurs and business owners. We are seeing South Asians dominate almost every industry in Surrey and in Metro Vancouver.”

Teaming up for cricket

The Pacific Northwest is emerging as the place to play cricket, with youthful players flocking to teams in B.C. and Western Washington.

Cricket is exploding in popularity across B.C. and several teams are organized in Whatcom County. In addition to delighting fans, the sport gives players an opportunity to explore the various cultures represented in the area. (Surrey Warriors photo)

Cricket is exploding in popularity across B.C., including Surrey, said Parvesh Kumar, captain of the Surrey Warriors Cricket Club. He is a life-long cricket player, and his position is an all-rounder equally skilled at batting and bowling.

“There are a limited number of cricket grounds in Surrey,” he added. “The city is accommodating teams, but we need more facilities, especially a stadium. Cricket matches take place all day in Surrey.”

Around 80% of cricket players in Canada are immigrants, while 20% were born in Canada, Kumar said.

“Cricket has given me and my teammates an opportunity to explore different cultures here in Canada,” Kumar said. “I’ve learned so much about the cultures of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s nice I’m getting to know people through the sport.”

People in Washington state are also embracing the sport, as Seattle now has a professional cricket team. The Seattle Orcas will kick off their inaugural season in Major League Cricket in July 2023.

“The Seattle area has tens of thousands of cricket-loving fans, with a good chunk of them playing on local teams,” wrote venture capitalist Soma Somasegar in a March 2023 LinkedIn post. “That combination of grassroots support for cricket and the fantastic community of sports lovers in general made my fellow investors and I know the Seattle area was the perfect home for a team.”

The tech boom in Seattle contributed to the rise of cricket in the Pacific Northwest. Engineers from South Asia who now work at companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce introduced their American-born children to the sport. 

In Whatcom County, a number of teams play in the NorthWest Cricket League, including the Azad Cricket Club, Bellingham Daredevils, Bellingham Blue Star, Bellingham Rising Stars, Belleview Smashers, the Punjab Kings and the Punjab Lions.

The Azad Cricket Club play against the Sher-E-Punjab Warriors Saturday, June 24, at Bender Field in Lynden, while the Bellingham Daredevils face off against the SCC Rovers Sunday, June 25 at Bender Field. (Not sure how the game is played? Watch Western Washington University president Sabah Randhawa explain rules and scoring [2:34])

Sikhs embrace the future

As a millennial, Chohan said she’d like to see more South Asian Canadian women breaking stereotypes and barriers in B.C. She thrives on connecting women in media, communications and in technology in the Metro Vancouver area to foster connections and support.

“I hope that I am inspiring others by doing what I love to do,” she added.

Sandhra is also a sessional instructor of history at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford. She said she thinks the Sikh community in B.C. is at a “really exciting juncture,” as Generation Z is now leading conversations about how to represent Sikhs in Canada during the 21st century. 

“I’m excited to be a part of this movement, and to hopefully mentor and provide space for younger Sikhs along the way,” she said.

— Reported by Catherine Skrzypinski 

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