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Reviews

BC Historical News
Becoming Canadians is a superbly illustrated book that succinctly describes the social history of the Sikh population in Canada, focusing on their struggles, hardships, and perseverance to live in British Columbia. The author, Sarjeet Singh Jagpal, outlines the history commencing with the first immigrants arriving in British Columbia in 1904 and ending with peoples' recollections and photographs of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but he leaves his last chapter, "The Challenge Continues," with many unanswered questions that both Canadians and Sikhs must try to solve together. Sarjeet believes that the answers to these questions partially lie with the elders of our communities.

Jean Barman mentions in the foreword to the book that Sarjeet's determination was displayed in his "willingness to listen and his passion to understand that opened up the Sikh community to him" which allowed Sarjeet to successfully develop and write this splendid book. The author spent several years interviewing Sikh pioneers and gathering photographs and documents that delineated their experiences when travelling to Canada and their working, and living conditions in British Columbia.

From the time the first Sikh immigrants landed in British Columbia between 1904-08 the mores for their survival in this country and for them becoming Canadians were established upon hard work and the social cohesiveness of their population, the Khalsa of brotherhood. The key to this idealism lay in their commitment to their religion centering around the gurdwara, their temple. The new immigrants experienced many obstacles in this new land which included new cultures, laws, and language. The gurdwara assisted them in these times. Similar to the Chinese Benevolent societies in BC, the gurdwara provided spiritual salvation, housing, employment, health and welfare to the new immigrants and those who needed assistance.

There was little time for socializing. The men spent their time working, saving money, communicating with family members in India and sending money home to assist with social problems. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that family reunification and community building occurred with the arrival of the wives and children. Prior to their joining of unions and affiliations with political parties, the men experienced racism and poor wages, and working conditions. From their commitment and dedication to their religion and lifestyle they were able to establish a number of robust communities near lumber mills on Vancouver Island such as Paldi, and around Vancouver and New Westminster as well as the fruit orchards and vegetable farms of the interior. Despite the many obstacles and deep racial animosity that these immigrants encountered, many individuals were not deterred from becoming successful business men and community leaders, such as the lumber barons, Mayo Singh and Kapoor Singh.

While racist attitudes towards all Asiatic peoples were prolific in BC during the first half of the twentieth century, there were a few philanthropists, such as Carlton Stone, owner of the Hill Crest Mill near Duncan, who assisted the Sikh work force at his mill. He allowed and assisted them in building a gurdwara that made their life in the new land more hospitable.

Regardless of the restrictions imposed upon them, with examples such as the educated Sikhs not being allowed to enter professional fields early on and not being allowed to vote until 1947, the valiant Sikh communities of Canada have made major contributions to all sectors of society as a result of their strong belief in educating their young people, working hard, and assisting each other in times of need.

In 1947 the Sikhs, after many meetings and petitions with government officials, were granted franchise, giving them a voice withing Canadian society. They were no longer second class citizens. However, another obstacle for them to overcome was the strict immigation laws that had improved gradually from 1947 to 1962, when the quota system was completely dropped.

Some short comings of the book included a number of inconsistancies between pictures and text. Sarjeet should have provided more reasons for the intrinsic and extrinsic factors leading to the immigration from the province of Punjab to Canada. When describing a social history of an ethnic group it would have been beneficial to have a map outlining the route that the pioneer people took and/or charts delineating the regions of Punjab and the number of immigrants that came from each area. Additional charts in an appendix could have provided some statistics of Sikh immigration, people born, and occupations in Canada. Another personal preference would have been for the author to include a chronological chart describing all of the significant events affecting the Sikh people in British Columbia.

Becoming Canadians, despite the minor flaws, was well written using a great combination of quotes from the Sikh elders. Incredible photographs accompanied these oral accounts of events providing much colour, zeal and life to a history about a people. Sarjeet says that "There is no substitute for the living history that only our elders can offer us." This is a must read for interested people who are unfamiliar with the Sikh history in Canada. It was very enlightening. Sarjeet's book provides the voice of the history of the Sikh communities in Canada, one illustrious chapter in Canada's multicultural album.

-Werner Kaschel, BC Historical News


Anthropology, Ethnic Studies
There are some 200,000 Sikhs in Canada today. This rich and fascinating study examines the presence and experience of Sikhs in this country, starting with their first community formation in British Columbia.

Based largely on interviews the author conducted with 37 Sikh Canadians, the book describes how these courageous pioneers traveled from Calcutta to Hong Kong, and then by an ocean liner to Canada; how they struggled to maintain their identity in the face of pressures from the host society to relinquish it; how they won the right to vote, but not until 40 years after their arrival; and, above all, how they persevered and even flourished in the midst of discrimination and prejudice.

As this generously illustrated book makes crystal clear, Canada was, and remains, a racist society.
-Raj S. Gandhi

Social Studies
Becoming Canadian is a rich, intricate history of Canada's Sikhs, told in their own words and illustrated with their precious family photographs and documents, which are published here for the first time. The author, a Canadian-born sikh and a trusted insider, gathered those words and documents and has woven them together with historical background and archival images.

This excellent book has been recommended for use in the Social Studies classroom.
-Social Studies