The Hurdles Faced By Sikh Pioneers In Canada.

July 8, 2008 Source: www.thelinkpaper.ca

The Sikh community's celebrations of its Centenary in Canada in 1997 provided an opportunity for all Canadians to enrich themselves by studding the immense contributions to Canada' national prosperity and well-being and also to the richly populated society in which we all live today, by one of our most distinctive community.

The serving Indian Army Sikhs came to Canada in transit back from Great Britain where they had gone for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, in 1897, of the 60th Anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria. They were members of the Imperial Sikh Lancers and Sikh Infantry Regiment specially invited to join the Ceremonial Parade through the streets of London. Evidently, there was something in British Columbia's natural environments- the mountains, the valleys, the forests and great rivers that reminded them a little of Punjab and made them feel instantly at piece in a land of opportunity, for some of them returned to live here as early as 1899, and their family members and friends followed from 1904 onwards.

The historical link with Queen Victoria-titular head of the British Empire of which India and Canada were then part, and the symbol of British Imperial authority and also the rule of law throughout the British Dominion and Colonies, makes very strange and contradictory, the unhappy travails of the Sikh community over the next few decades in B C.

The BC Provincial Statute passed in 1907, disfranchising all natives of India, not born of Anglo-Saxon parents and the Order-in-Council designed to stop all immigration from India by introducing the "continuous journey" clause and also requiring possession of $200 as a pre-condition of entry, were not merely blatantly discriminatory on their face but also inconsistent with the principle of equality before the law-the law of all British Subjects which was one of the pillars of the Imperial legal system.

On reading the record of the extra-ordinary incident in 1914 of the Komagata Maru, when 376 ship passengers mainly Sikhs who had fought for the British, were confined under conditions of extreme physical hardship on their vessel in the port of Vancouver and denied permission to land for two months before being sent back to India, one is struck by the intellectual courage and the integrity of a British Columbia Judge, Chief Justice Gordon Hunter, who found the legal base on which the Komagata Maru passengers were detained in the port to be flawed and the Order-in-Council to be invalid accordingly.

Unfortunately, Chief Justice Hunter's remarkable display of justice independence in upholding the Imperial Rule of Law against an arbitrary and discriminatory regulation was over-ridden by further Order-in-Council and the judicial intervention came to naught. In later years, on a step-by-step-basis, the worst errors were corrected.

In 1919, the reunification of families was permitted when restrictions on bringing wives, and children under 18 years from India were removed. In 1947, Sikhs were granted right to vote and become Canadian citizens, and the legal disabilities to acquiring and exercising the rights and the duties of full citizenship disappeared.

Since then, members of the Sikh community in Britich Columbia have risen to the highest posts, in elective office at the federal, provincial and municipal levels and also in judicial and other professional activities. The record is one of fine community service and giving back to the larger national community as much and more as one has received oneself.

True that in time, original historical errors were corrected , but one may wonder why there had to be all those years of waiting before the record could be set right. The signal, early contribution to ending historical negations for the Sikh community in Canada, made by the British Columbia Judge more than Century was warmly and generously acknowledged by the Sikh community in its centennial celebrations.

Chief Justice Hunter's initiative then, legally innovative for its time, stands today, even though it was nullified by subsequent executive degree, as a model for the plural society that we have in Canada today-the community of different communities that are in peaceful co-existence with each other and that live and work together in friendly co-operation and in mutual respect for each other's distinctive cultural inheritance. This is what real Canada is?

Lieut Colonel Pritam Singh Jauhal is a retired World War II Veteran.
He can be reached at E-mail: [email protected] or Phone: (604) 581-9383.


07 Jul 2008 by editor

Submitted by Jagpal Singh Tiwana, Dartmouth, Canada

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