Honoring Punjabi Community contributions while Shaping B.C.’s South Asian Museum


The announcement of a new South Asian Museum by the BC government is great news for the South Asian community. It has generated a lot of discussion. The BC and federal governments have offered $10 million each for it.
An engagement process is being organized under the auspices of the BC Government’s Ministry of Sports, Culture, Heritage, and Tourism. An advisory committee consisting of representatives of our community is getting input from the community.
As a continuation of this process, a forum was held at India Cultural Centre of Canada Gurdwara Nanak Niwas, 8600 #5 Road, Richmond on Sunday, May 26. Jinder Oujla, a member of the Advisory Committee, led the discussion.
I would like to suggest that the contributions of the Punjabi Community in the growth and development of Canada and our community deserve due consideration for the proposed museum.
Historically, Punjabis were the first people from India to come to Canada. It has been reported that the first Punjabi settlers to Canada came through Washington/Oregon/California states of the United States to Golden, BC via Columbia River which flows through Golden. They worked in a sawmill there till 1927. They even built a Gurdwara there. This was the first Gurdwara built in Canada.
In 1927 the mill burnt down. In 1885 Canadian Pacific Railway had completed its rail link with the rest of Canada. It has been reported that after the mill burnt down, a lot of its Punjabi workers moved to the Vancouver area, and some returned to the States.
I had an opportunity to work in a sawmill in Donald (near Golden) for about six months in 1966 before going to a university. I found out from the residents in Golden about members of our community living and working there earlier. The local hospital had their records.
The second wave of visitors from India to Canada came after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in London in 1897. Queen Victoria had invited several Sikh soldiers for the celebration in London. Before returning to India, these young Sikh soldiers traveled by train from Montreal to Vancouver on CP Rail before returning to their villages in Punjab. They were very impressed by the beauty of Canada. Some of them came to Canada in early 1900s to work and live here. They were followed by others later.
The third wave of Punjabis from Punjab came in the 1970s when a large number of young, well-educated people decided to come to Canada. More and more Punjabis came to Canada in the 1980s and 1990s etc.
About 15 years ago we saw a wave of international students, most of them Punjabis, made Canada their first choice. Thus, Punjabis in general and a majority of them Sikhs, have been at the forefront all along.
The Punjabi community must also be recognized for its contribution to the union movement and the lumber industry in BC and Canada. The Sikh soldiers made countless sacrifices during the two World Wars. Their sacrifices deserve a place in the proposed museum as well.
Finally, Punjabi language and literature have played a very important role here in Canada. As such, it would be only appropriate to give some recognition to the Punjabi language and literature in the proposed museum. These are just some of the suggestions that the Advisory Committee might like to consider.
The Indian subcontinent is very large and diverse. The main purpose of this proposal is not to minimize or ignore the contribution of other communities but to give due recognition to the Punjabi community for its contribution to the growth and development of Canada.
Consequently, every effort should be made to make it as inclusive of this vast region as possible. Of course, it is going to be a very challenging task.
(Balwant Sanghera is a retired School Psychologist and Community Activist. Sanghera is a recipient of the Order of British Columbia, Queen’s Golden, Diamond and Platinum Jubilee Medals and many other honours. He is President of the Punjabi Language Education Association- PLEA Canada)