This article is part of a 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. The Abbotsford News will be publishing a monthly article to correspond with a decade of Sikh Pioneer and Indo-Canadian history in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, and Canada.
The first Sikhs to ever arrive in B.C. were on an official trip as part of the Hong Kong army regiments who were travelling through Canada in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Following this initial visit, a second contingent of Punjabi soldiers visited British Columbia in celebration of the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Arriving in Victoria on the Empress of Japan, on June 3, 1902, and led by Sardar Major Kadir Khan Bahadur, it was this group of South Asians who became intrigued at the possibilities of residing in B.C. The larger community tended to treat the Punjabi soldiers with respect, as papers exclaimed, “Turbaned Men Excite Interest: Awe inspiring men from India held the crowds.”
The first few Sikhs arrived in the Fraser Valley from Punjab, India in 1905 and settled in the Valley by working on the farms and in the forestry industry. Almost all the men who arrived in B.C. worked in labour industries such as forestry, fishing and the railway. On average, these men earned from $1 to $1.25 a day, which was less than the pay received by Caucasian workers. Wages being so low and discrimination rampant, most South Asian men lived together, with often between 20 to 50 men living under the same roof.
The Abbotsford Lumber Company owned by the Trethewey family, employed many of these Sikh workers who first came to the Fraser Valley. It was the Trethewey family who also donated the lumber, which was carried on the backs of Sikh men, so that they could begin the construction of the first Sikh Temple in the Fraser Valley, today designated as the National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple, located on South Fraser Way.
After 1906, South Asian migration into B.C. increased, and the racial tensions which had for those early years remained at bay also became a reality. That year some 700 South Asians arrived, and the Canadian government took notice. Furthermore, because employers preferred to hire Punjabis due to their work ethics and lower pay, many Caucasian workers resented their presence in Canada. Racial chaos ensued from 1906 onward, as South Asians were laid off from work, barred from public facilities, evicted, physically abused by people and the police, as well as in the local press.
On Jan. 8, 1908, an Order-in-Council required any immigrant entering Canada to arrive on a continuous journey from his or her country of origin. This ban hit the South Asians and Japanese immigrants hardest, hindering the wives and children of even those men who already lived in Canada, from immigrating. As we will see in the next article, the continuous journey legislation formed the backdrop of one of the darkest episodes in Canadian history, The Komagata Maru tragedy.
– Submitted by Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, Centre for Indo Canadian Studies, UFV.