Aerial view of Camp Vernon, where Sikh soldiers Gill and Sangha trained during World War Two.

Sikh Heritage Month

Since 2019, April has been recognized as Sikh Heritage Month in Canada. The Sikh population in this country numbers more than 500,000 people, one of the largest in the world outside of India. Sikh Canadians have greatly contributed to the country’s social, economic, and political history, and to its cultural fabric.

World War One

One aspect of history in which the contributions of Sikh Canadians is often overlooked is their service during the World Wars. Despite being denied the rights of citizenship, ten Sikh men did serve during World War One—and, tragically, most of them did not survive (to learn more, check out the documentary Canadian Soldier Sikhs under the “Resources” section below).

World War Two

Meanwhile, during World War Two, Sikh men were conscripted; however, Vancouver’s Khalsa Diwan Society, which represented the Sikh population in British Columbia, intervened on their behalf, and called on community members to refuse service until they were granted full franchise rights.

However, some Sikh Canadians did decide to enlist, and were trained at Camp Vernon. The book Becoming Canadians: Pioneer Sikhs in Their Own Words, by Sarjeet Singh Jagpal, describes the experience of Phangan Gill, who was trained in Vernon before heading to Halifax for advanced instruction. Due to a finger injury, he did not go overseas, but was stationed at Exhibition Park in Vancouver, where he witnessed the internment of Japanese Canadians.

Darshan Sangha was also trained at Camp Vernon, and was the only Sikh in his troop. Sangha was later released from the army, and returned to working in a mill. Like many Sikh men, he felt that the war was not his to fight.

Eventually, the Canadian Government relented on compulsory service for Sikh men, and in 1947, Chinese and South Asian Canadians were given the right to vote.

Resources

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

recognition, resilience, resolve

May 17, 2021

May is Asian Heritage Month, and this year’s theme is “Recognition, Resilience, and Resolve.”

Vernon is home to hundreds of individuals of Pilipino, Vietnamese, Japanese, Pakistani, Chinese, and Korean descent. The city also has a large Indo-Canadian population.

First Sikh Immigrants to Okanagan

The first immigrants from India began arriving in the Okanagan Valley at the turn of the 20th century; three Sikh men arrived in Rutland in 1909, and others followed in 1913.

“Little Evidence of Discrimination”

Most took up jobs in the lumber industry, with plans to eventually return to India. It was not until a few years later that some decided to settle their families permanently in the Valley.

By the 1970s and ‘80s, the East Indian population in Vernon had increased significantly. A 1976 report on the ethnic composition of the Okanagan Valley suggests that Vernon had “little evidence of discrimination.”

And yet, the report also states that “East Indians claim that their members have been beaten by white men for no apparent reason. They are afraid to take part in public events because of bad experiences.”  

 

A 2006 photo of the North Okanagan Sikh Temple and Gurdwara. The temple was built in Vernon by the North Okanagan Sikh Cultural Society in 1987

 

Traditional Indian clothing for rent or sale for attendees of Bollywood Bang charity event

“We Mainly Kept to Ourselves”

In 1997, a researcher interviewed several Indo-Canadian families living in Vernon, and found that 17 out of 20 of those interviews lived in one high-density neighbourhood, often in duplexes. Some of the reasons the families cited for living there were the lower cost of housing and the proximity to friends.

However, the researcher concluded that this collective housing was also a reaction to feelings of alienation from the larger community.

One interviewee suggested that “people looked at our turbans and the traditional outfits that our women wear with disgust and suspicion. We kept mainly to ourselves.”

Celebrating Indo Canadian Culture

In 2021, the treatment of Vernon’s Indo Canadian population has certainly improved, largely through efforts to introduce Sikhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Indo Canadian culture to a new generation of people through public events like the Diwali Festival.

The wildly popular Bollywood Bang event, spearheaded by Vernon City Councillor, Dalvir Nahal, attracted hundreds of people and contributed thousands of dollars each year to local North Okanagan charity organizations.

In the 2020 provincial election, NDP candidate Harwinder Sandhu faced horrific racism during her Vernon-Monashee MLA campaign, with her signs defaced by swastikas and misogynistic words. Despite this opposition, Ms. Sandu was elected in a clear statement by the majority of Vernon’s citizens against this kind of discrimination.

The resilience and resolve of MLA Sandu, Councillor Dalvir Nahal, Activist Min Sidhu, and the many other Indo-Canadian men and women who have come before them have contributed to Vernon’s recognition of this diverse cultural group, even if work remains yet to be done.

 

Gwyn Evans