COLUMN: Sikh’s struggle for the right to vote

This article is part of community-wide centennial celebrations honouring the building of the National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple (est. 1911).
The right to vote was the central issue for Indian immigrants to Canada during the 1930s and 1940s, as the legal equality of South Asians in B.C. depended on it.

This article is part of community-wide centennial celebrations honouring the building of the National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple (est. 1911).

The right to vote was the central issue for Indian immigrants to Canada during the 1930s and 1940s, as the legal equality of South Asians in B.C. depended on it.

By the 1930s a substantial number of families had settled in B.C. and recognized that being able to participate in the democratic process was crucial to their future here. Political parties like the Provincial CCF, the Japanese based Camp, Mill Workers Union and the International Woodworkers of America all supported the Asians’ right to vote. They were also able to get the Canadian Trades and Labour Council to support this issue. However, all initiatives and pleas made to the government were futile.

The outbreak of World War II also did nothing to moderate the government’s position on the issue. The Pearl Harbour incident increased the animosity against Japanese, and the public was unwilling to separate the Japanese from other South Asians.

Efforts made by H.S.L. Polak, a long-term associate of Gandhi, to talk to Prime Minister Mackenzie King also produced no results.

The Asian communities banded together and their efforts to bring in a change increased steadily. In March 1943, a 12-man delegation was sent to visit Premier Hart to discuss the right to vote. The delegation included some important community members along with representatives from various other organizations like the IWA and the CCF.

By now, many South Asians were members of the IWA and some had also been enlisted in the Canadian Army. This showed that they were committed to their work place and their country. The premier, however, still refused to take the matters into further consideration until the war was over.

Though this was a great jolt to the community, it did not inhibit their resolve to keep trying. They opposed the government’s decision on the basis that while they were not given the right to vote, to have them enlisted in the Canadian army, risking their lives for a country unwilling to call them their own, was ethically wrong.

Therefore, the “no vote-no war” policy came into light. The community members even went on to collect information about the living conditions of South Asians, their occupations and their efforts in the war in order to publicize their contributions to the province.

Continuous efforts by CCF and now also the provincial command of the Canadian Legion finally forced the government in 1947 to grant the right to vote to all the Chinese, Japanese, South Asians and native Canadians who served in the army. This was a big achievement because it indicated a change in the racial attitude that had been ongoing.

There were many reasons for the government to extend the voting rights. Firstly, India had gained independence in 1947 and as a consequence many changes were to occur in its socio-economic and political structure.

Secondly, as India and China both became independent economically, Canada had hopes of developing large-scale trade relations.

Thirdly, Canada’s denial of the Asian vote contradicted the United Nations Charter that Canada had participated in establishing.

The Elections Act was hence modified and the amended bill came to the floor of the Legislature on April 2, 1947.

It was passed unanimously and the provincial vote was won at last. Once this was achieved, the federal voting rights came in automatically. It was the biggest achievement of this decade.

The discrimination against South Asians also decreased. Even though economic integration and legal equality improved, there were still barriers to full social and psychological integration. South Asians did their very best to assimilate into the Canadian society. They dressed like Canadians, learned English and chose to have a living style quite similar to their Canadian counterparts.

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