By Jim Coyle | The Star, Canada
Gian Singh Sandhu recalls the day with a shudder of bone-chilling clarity.
He was 27, newly arrived in Canada from India, landing with his wife and three children in his new home of Williams Lake, B.C.
It was just before Christmas 1970. Snow was knee-deep. It was -30 C. For the five newcomers, Sandhu said in an interview this week, the country was white in more ways than one. It “was like another planet.”
Which is not so very different, he laughs, than how 1970s Canada regarded Sikhs, widely reviled — as were most people of brown skin — as “Pakis,” their turbans and beards a magnet for attacks and venomous hisses to “go home.”
It all sounds to modern ears as outmoded as it is appalling.
After all, Canadians are accustomed to ads for Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi. This is a country with more Sikh ministers in its federal cabinet than India, where Punjabi is the fourth most spoken language, where Jagmeet Singh was elected last year to lead the federal NDP.
In Whitehorse, a clip showing local man Gurdeep Pandher teaching Mayor Dan Curtis (who’d donned a turban for the occasion) some Bhangra dance moves went viral last year. And in Toronto, turbaned Nav Bhatia is the No. 1 superfan of the NBA Raptors.
Still, reaching that status took time for members of one of the world’s newest and smallest religions.
And Sandhu, now 74 and living with his wife Surinder in Surrey, is an engaging guide in chronicling the journey in his book An Uncommon Road: How Canadian Sikhs Struggled Out of the Fringes and into the Mainstream, to be released this spring.
The book is the tale of an immigrant’s arrival in a strange new world, of hostility and insult, of persistence through ups, downs and heartaches, and, finally, of security and finding a place to call home.
In that sense, it is as a story as Canadian as, oh, chaat, dal and paneer.
For Sikhs in Canada, now numbering almost 500,000, largely in B.C. and Greater Toronto, “it’s been quite a challenging history, no question about it,” Sandhu said in an interview.
The first Sikh settler in Canada was said to be Capt. Kesur Singh in 1897. In the early 1900s, Sikhs began arriving in British Columbia, working in logging, lumber mills and farming.
At first, only men were allowed, the better to ensure they left the country. Politicians said openly and proudly that they believed Canada to be “a white country.”
“My God, those early folks really fought the challenges,” Sandhu said. “They must have had determination that an average person cannot even imagine.”
In 1914, the Japanese steamer Komagata Maru was turned back from Vancouver along with the more than 300 prospective immigrants, most of them Sikhs, on board. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized in the House of Commons in 2016 for that outrage, a measure Sandhu said “was huge within the community.”)
For much of the 20th century, Sikhs, a small and visible minority, endured the racism endemic in society. Progress came in small steps. Then, in the late 1960s, the federal Liberal government opened the doors to diversity with changes in immigration regulations.
For that, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau remains, for generations of Canadians like Sandhu, the man who made it happen. And as it happens, Sandhu met Trudeau before he was in Canada a year.
It was during a visit by the Queen to Williams Lake on the royal tour of 1971.
“I was new to the country, and here comes the prime minister’s entourage and he stops the car on seeing my turban, and on a few of the people standing beside me. You wouldn’t believe it! He stops the car, gets out of the car, walks over to me and said: “Sat sri akal (a Punjabi greeting).
“And I thought, Wow!”
For Sandhu, the most difficult challenges for Sikhs came, globally, after the Indian army’s attack on the Golden Temple in 1984 and — after the retaliatory assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi — the slaughter of Sikhs across the country and the fury and rifts it caused in the diaspora.
He was at the heart of a rupture in Williams Lake between moderate and fundamentalist Sikhs and allegations of spies from India and competing factions in gurdwaras.
As something of a born-again Sikh, baptized and taking up the visible articles of faith in his late 30s, Sandhu’s support for an independent Khalistan as president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada even got him blacklisted from India.
“Our goal was always to speak up for those who couldn’t — or wouldn’t dare, for fear of reprisal and persecution,” he writes in the book. “If their voices were raised in favour of the formation of an independent Sikh nation, it was, and would be, our duty here in the West to aid them.”
For all that, it was after the Air India disaster of 1985, when the bombing of a plane leaving Canada killed 329 people, most of them Canadians of South Asian descent, that times were most difficult, Sandhu said.
“The Sikh community basically came under the cloud of suspicion, every one of us,” he said. It “pushed us more to the fringes than anything else could have done. Working our way back into the mainstream was a big challenge.”
The consequence of insecurity and threat is often a retreat into insularity. The trouble with that is the community is not able to make itself known.
Sandhu recalls being told once, across a table, that with his turban and beard he looked like Iran’s late Ayatollah Khomeini.
“I almost fell out of my chair. I said, tell me what I have done wrong?
“He said, ‘You haven’t taught me who you are.”
“That was a question that needed to be answered. So education is what takes a lot of fear of the unknown away.”
Now, when racism arises, it can be handled from a new position of belonging and confidence, he said. Rather than retreating the question becomes “how do I find a resolution to this, how do I really educate those people?”
Through the 1990s, there were court challenges in Canada for the right to wear the turban in the RCMP and to carry the ceremonial dagger known as a kirpan — two of the five “Ks” practised by observant Sikh men.
Sandhu, who has visited India after the lifting of the ban against him in 2016, said his book is the story of a “despised other” growing into a political force and becoming fully incorporated part of the Canada.
In this country, having Hockey Night in Canada broadcast in Punjabi is a powerful symbol of that belonging.
“Seniors who did not understand hockey before when they saw kids watching it, now they are glued onto the TV,” he said. “It’s amazing. That’s what I call mainstream.”
Sandhu remembers what he told an immigration officer who asked why an Indian air force officer would want to come to Canada in the first place.
“My answer was, Canada is a place, from what I have read, that provides opportunities to everyone.”
Now, after a career as a successful lumbering entrepreneur, an active life serving his community and as a member of the Order of British Columbia, he still believes that.
“I am so grateful. I am so indebted. I would say to God, ‘I made the right move at the right time’. This is my home.”
The article, entitled ‘Sikh immigrant’s story is as Canadian as chaat, dal and paneer’, appeard at TheStar.com. See here. Gian Singh Sandhu became the founding president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada in 1984 and remains active in that group today. Having emigrated from India in 1970 to Williams Lake, B.C., he is also a proud Canadian and was recognized in 2002 with the Order of British Columbia. He lives in Surrey, B.C.
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