This article is part of community-wide centennial celebrations honouring the building of the National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple (est. 1911). These centenary celebrations bring to the forefront the efforts of those first Sikh pioneers who helped to build our community. This month we are writing about two Sikh soldiers whose legacy will inspire future generations.
It was only three years ago that the grave of Private Buckam Singh (1893-1919) was discovered at Kitchener, Ont.
He was one of the nine Indo-Canadian Sikh soldiers who was enlisted in the Canadian army. David Gray, an Ottawa based filmmaker uncovered this forgotten piece of Canadian history while making a documentary on labourers from China and India who worked in quarries near Victoria, from 1904-1920. Gray stumbled upon some military records and was surprised to find nine names with Singh as a last name who were enlisted in the Canadian Army.
Gray later went on to make a documentary called Sikh-Canadian heroes of the First World War. (http://arcticgrayhound.ca/filmmaking.html). The documentary describes the experiences of the Sikh soldiers including their recruitment, battle experience and travels.
Buckam Singh served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion during WWI in the legendary battlefields of Flanders (Belgium) in 1916. He was shot twice during the war. The second time he was shot he received treatment at a hospital run by one of Canada’s most famous soldier poets – Doctor Lt. Colonel John McCrae. Though he recovered from his wound and returned back to England to continue his duty, he developed tuberculosis and died at the young age of 25 in 1919 at the Kitchener military hospital in Ontario.
His grave is the only known grave of a Sikh soldier in Canada.
Due to the immigration rules during those times, Buckam Singh was never able to re-unite with his family to Canada. He died fighting for the universal right of freedom, even though his adopted country at the time did not afford him the same levels of freedom other white members of the community enjoyed.
Lt. Col. Pritam Singh Jauhal, now 91 years old, is a man of principles, truly humble and still holds in this heart and spirit the pride that a true Sikh soldier possesses.
Col. Jauhal has 13 medals, including the Africa Star with the Eighth Army clasp. There were five awarded by the British government, one by the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam and seven by the Indian Government.
He served with the Eighth British Army under Field Marshal Montgomery in the Middle East Forces during World War II. He served his country for 39 years and put his life at risk.
Still, in November 1993 he was denied permission to enter the Newton Legion Branch Lounge because he wore a turban.
Brenda M. Montgomery, Web Mistress and member of the Legion, interviewed Col. Jauhal and wrote in an article: “Fellow veterans and, I am sad to say, Canadians, worked hard to keep a rule that one must not, no not ever, must be forbidden to wear head gear of any kind in a Legion because, in part, one was symbolically in the company of the Queen and men’s head gear was doffed in the Sovereign’s presence out of respect.
“Col. Jauhal wore his turban into battle, in the field, all the time. He wears it out of respect to his religious beliefs. He will die with it. And he will be buried with it. And so he would have died in battle as he fought. With his turban.”
This incident compelled Col. Jauhal to take action against all those responsible and he took the issue to every door he could. He even wrote to the Queen, and the case received a lot of national and international attention.
As a result, the Legion held an emergency meeting of its executive and amended the dress code, allowing Sikhs with turbans in all 1720 Legion branches across Canada.
Racism is not an old and bygone story, it still prevails in today’s modern world. What we need to think about is how to rise to the challenge of our conscience and treat all humanity with respect.
We are all so proud to be in a country where we live alongside great soldiers like Pritam Singh who have so much to share and teach us.
This month, let us not only remember all the great soldiers who fought for us, laid down their lives and saved many, but also salute them because they did that regardless of their colour, race or religion.
Navneet Sidhu is the Coordinator at the Center for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley