Indo-Canadians: The Depression

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

During the 1940s, South Asians in Canada began to establish their livelihoods despite deep social and economic disturbances.

Unemployment was common and the average British Columbian’s wage had dropped over 20 per cent. White employers were willing to accept Asian workers, which produced insecurities amongst the mainstream community and led to the enforcement of a British Columbia minimum wage law. However, even this law was flawed in that 25 per cent of the employees would be paid 25 per cent less – and these were invariably Asians.

As in the previous decade, South Asians preferred to live in extended families. Staying under one roof and an extensive system of mutual support helped them during the Depression period. Still, they felt the pinch because of the comparative higher living expenses.

Even in this down phase, South Asians adjusted rather well. A few families returned to India and waited there until the Depression was over, returning to Canada around 1934. Those who were unemployed kept themselves preoccupied with tasks such as tidying up the Sikh temple and maintenance, etc.

South Asians could not bring relatives to Canada due to immigration restrictions. Thus they adopted an alternate, but illegal means of bringing them here – by smuggling men across the Washington-British Columbia border. The Canadian government became aware of this and tightened its immigration regulations. Thereafter, South Asian men who stayed outside of Canada for even three days longer than the three-year limit were denied entrance.

A controversy surfaced in 1937, when there were almost 300 illegal South Asian immigrants in B.C. The community was alarmed by an RCMP investigation which uncovered the passport fraud in Bombay, India. The Vancouver Khalsa Diwan Society formed a committee, collected funds and hired a lawyer.

During this same time, Canada had international concerns to deal with in Europe and Japan, and was negotiating a preferential trade agreement with India too. Therefore, Canada decided not to worry about the relatively small issue of illegal South Asian immigrants.

The government agreed not to deport any illegal South Asians who were willing to come forward and register.

The deadline was Jan. 31, 1940, and 225 people registered instead of the predicted 60.

These individuals could stay in Canada but were not allowed to bring their wives and children here. That issue, and the right to vote, would be the next challenges faced by South Asians in the following decade.

– Rimple Mohindra, Centre for Indo Canadian Studies, UFV

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