Global Sikh Art and Culture Gallery 

The Sikh Foundation of Canada hosts The Sikh Centennial Gala annually to honor individuals who inspire the Sikh community with their dedication to the Sikh ideals of equality for all, an honest work ethic, and altruistic community service. The 2024 Sikh Gala recognized supporters, sponsors, donors, and contributors to the new “By the Five Rivers Permanent Gallery of Sikh Art and Culture” at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The project will refurbish and expand the existing South Asian Galleries to include another 2,300 square feet of gallery space dedicated solely to Sikh Art and Culture. In addition to viewing objects of Sikh culture, heritage, historic art, and contemporary art, museum visitors will be able to opt for guided tours of galleries along with a series of talks, and performances.

“History of Sikh Canadians is the History of Canada” is The Message of the Evening

Attendees of the “glamorous black tie, red carpet” Sikh Gala festivities included parliamentary officials, donors, and art patrons, the ROM Director and CEO Josh Basseches, the Minister of Canadian Heritage Honorable Pascale St-Onge, and Suresh Bhalla who coordinated fundraising efforts that raised $16.6 million in community funding, and the Department of Canadian Heritage who pledged $6 million in government funding. 

Speakers for the evening of the Sikh Gala included Sikh art collectors, financial contributors, and political figures. Inspiring speeches riveted the audience with their message of solidarity and cultural collaboration, honoring Indigenous people, European, Asian, and Sikh immigrants whose contributions, perseverance, and foresight made Canada the nation it is today.

The importance of these collective speeches with their all-inclusive attitude, delivered in English, French, and Punjabi, cannot be overstated. In a world climate riddled with the strife of warfare, it is refreshing to hear from a population that honors equality and every element of its ethnicities. 

Jenith Gharwal Master of Ceremonies greeted and welcomed the audience with a synopsis of the Centennial theme:

“I am honored as this is a historical event and I am proud to be your MC tonight for the Sikh Foundation of Canada's Gala and dinner. I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you and to say thank you on behalf of everyone for joining us tonight in support of the creation of By the Five Rivers Gallery of Sikh Art and Culture. I would also like to give a heartwarming thanks to our sponsors the BVD group. Our first speaker for tonight will be Dr Parvinder Khanuja a renowned collector of Sikh art, and he is the proud and sole sponsor of the Sikh Gallery at the Phoenix Art Museum. As well, he is the earliest supporter of the Sikh Gallery of Art and Culture here at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum).” 

Speaker Parvinder Singh Khanuja an international collector of historic Sikh art greeted the audience and described his contributions of historic art:

“Thank you, Honorable Prime Minister, respected officials, members of the community, and supporters of the Sikh gallery. I am honored to be amongst you all in this historic journey. Suresh Bhalla who has been involved with Sikh art in ROM is creating a legacy for the community by helping to create a Sikh Gallery at one of the most prestigious museums in the world. He and all of you, with persistence and true love for our heritage, are at the cusp of history. I congratulate you all, for all of you have answered the phrase, “If not us who will do the work,” so our future generations, and the world, will know our history and culture.  I have been collecting Sikh-related artifacts for nearly 20 years. I present to you three of them and hope to share our artifact with the ROM in the future.”

Dr Khanuja presented and described his contribution which included three pieces of historic Sikh art:

  1. “The first one is by an unknown artist from approximately 1830 it's a beautiful painting heightened by gold and silver with Persian script showing Maharaja Ranjit Singh with his Elder son Kharak Singh and his Prime Minister Dhian Singh as we all know Maharaja Ranjit Singh, also called the “Lion of Punjab,” ruled from the borders of Afghanistan to Kashmir to Sutlej River. He ran a secular kingdom in which there was representation of all religions and also included French, Italian, and American Soldiers and administrators.”
  2. “The second painting is that of a younger Ranjit Singh likely from 1800 to 1820 and this is again in his youth.”
  3. “The next painting, lastly, we have a locket called Navratana meaning nine precious stones belonging to Maharani Jindan wife of Ranjit Singh and mother of the Last Maharaja Dilip Singh. Rani Jindan was endowed with great beauty and spirit. [Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie] had this to say about her, and I quote, “Rely upon it she's worth more than all the soldiers of the state put together!”

“My best wishes to you all in this remarkable journey and I'm privileged to be part of it thank you once again.”

Jenith Gharwal MC introduced the first of the Canadian Parliamentary speakers:

“Thank you, Dr Parvinder Khanuja, for your great presentation, your words are true and wise.  Thank you for being here with us tonight. 

Next, I would like to introduce the member of parliament of Mississauga—Malton province, MP Iqwinder Gaheer, who we are proud to note graduated from Harvard Law School before becoming one of the youngest MPS sitting in parliamentary. Today he is also a key member of the Sikh Gallery organizing committee.”

Mississauga—Malton province MP Iqwinder Gaheer greeted the audience and spoke on the history, struggles, and perseverance of Canadas first Sikh immigrants:

“Hello everybody, Prime Minister, my name is Iqwinder Gaheer, and I am the Member of Parliament for Mississauga—Malton. I'd like to thank the organizers for putting the scholars together. In

particular I'd like to thank Suresh Bhalla for spearheading the Sikh Gallery at the ROM. I've had the pleasure of working with this group for a couple of years now, and I can truly say that it's been a long time coming, and here we are at the ROM space in Canada's largest museum to tell our story with our own voices. [He] mentioned a few weeks ago that he wanted me to say a few words. 

I've thought long and hard about what I wanted to say and I stand here in this moment to thank the generation that came before. This is your victory. You didn't do it because you knew this would have been the outcome. You didn't do it because you thought we would come this far this fast. You realized that a better future was possible in Canada, and so you packed your bags and set sail from distant shores. You arrived without knowing the language, and you arrived without having much in your pockets. The enormity of the task that lay ahead didn't scare you, and your life became a constant work in progress. You fell in love with this country, but at the same time you spoke up for what is right, you understood that if you mobilized your voices to challenge the powers that be, challenge yourselves to reach for something more that is better, a more equitable tomorrow would be possible. This is why Sikhs serve with pride in the RCMP and in the armed services. This is why we can wear our kirpans in public spaces. This is why we have Sikhs in government raising their voices because an earlier generation had decided to raise its voice.

No one could have imagined that we would play this role in Canada. We knew that our climb would be steep. The improbable journey of this Community started over a century ago as the first settlers, the Sikh settlers worked in Timber Mills, or picked berries. Those that followed made furniture, and bed sets, and worked in factories. They drove taxis and trucks, and in the mix were a few doctors and lawyers as well.

This group had bent backs, weak knees, and tired hands, but they never bent their values, their morals never weakened, and their resolve did not tire. This night belongs to that generation. As we now look towards, the future, our chorus of cynics, stands ready to tell us that more is not possible, that better is not possible. As we march forward those voices will only grow louder. We must still march on and tell our story, and in doing so, we pass on permission for others to tell theirs. This is the beauty of this country. We realize that although we come from different places, we all wish to head in the same direction, toward a better future. We realize that as Canadians, we are one people with a shared history and a common destiny. I know as we find that better future, as we work towards that common destiny, we will do it together.”

Five of Canada's 15 Sikh Members of Parliament took the stage and two of them spoke to the audience:

  1. Sikh Caucus Ruby Sahota – Bramptom North
  2. Sonia Sidhu – Bramptom South 
  3. Honorable Bardish Haggar – Waterloo
  4. Kamal Khera – Bramington West addressed the audience greeting them in multiple languages stressing the importance of the speaker's stories and sharing that the struggles and achievements of Sikhs are also those of Canada.: 

“Good Evening everyone, Bonjour, Sat Siri Akal, it’s so wonderful to see so many accomplished Sikh Canadians in one room. Allow me to acknowledge the Sikh Foundation of Canada for all that you do in keeping and preserving Sikh Heritage at the forefront through Arts, culture, and history. We celebrate Sikh Heritage in April from Coast to Coast to Coast, but all of you here, and the By Five Rivers Exhibition, is the true testament to the fact that here in Canada we celebrate Sikh heritage not just in April but all year long. We are the largest Sikh diaspora right here in Canada. Sikhs have become leaders in almost every aspect of the Canadian society. Arts, culture, businesses, politics, entertainment, the Sikh Community is everywhere. 

This has not always been easy, it has been a long road forged through the struggles and pains of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors who faced open hostility, violence, or even attempts to erase Sikh Identity and culture. We should never forget that the contributions of our people are so many and touch every corner of our country. It's really important that we are sharing these stories and achievements too so that they are never forgotten. Events like these are important because it is a living representation of this work in action to ensure that Sikh stories are Canadian stories. Sikh contributions are seen as Canadian contributions, and Sikh accomplishments are known to be Canadian accomplishments because we fundamentally know that Sikh stories and values are Canadian stories and values.”

  1. Honorable Sadar Harjit Sajjan – Vancouver South, Minister of National Defense and a member of Parliament, greeted the audience, acknowledged some with nicknames, joked a little, and gave a bit of his background. He went on to talk about how the revolutionary vision of Guru Nanak, Guru Hargobind, and Guru Gobind Singh mandate taking responsibility and how this attitude enabled Sikhs immigrants to strive for the success that they continue to enjoy asan integral part of Canada:

“Thank you. Before I begin, coming to this event is almost coming full circle for me. In 1999, when I was a young Captain, with no grey in my hair, no grey at all ha, [smiling], the Sikh Foundation honored me with the award during that time, and many people gave me the award, it made me realize what the success of our community, you know just seeing it and what can be accomplished with that success, and that’s what I see today. And Subhi, I just want to acknowledge you and thank you for your mentorship and all those years. I think we met before I got into politics and before you were a senator, because we rarely had a chance to meet when we were in Ottawa, we were too busy with the work. But I want to thank you again for the mentorship. 

And speaking of young mentors I have to acknowledge Nav who's over there. Nav thank you for you are younger, your golf game is okay, but you are, he is, younger, but one of my mentors. And I got to share a story about you Nav, sorry. Talk about Sikh heritage and culture, Prime Minister you remember when we were at the White House, we had a private reception with President Obama before we had the dinner. So, I’m talking with President Obama, and he comes up to me and actually remembered I had served with the US Military and then he starts talking about how Sikhs are warriors and our message, and here I’m in this wonderful conversation about him and Nav comes in, “Hey Basketball!” I didn’t even hear what you said about basketball. Immediately President Obama just turns and starts talking. “Like Nav”, I said, “I’m out of here”, so I went and talked to Michele Obama instead, which was a better conversation [grinning]. But that’s Nav for you.

Ladies and Gentlemen, everyone that needs to be acknowledged has been acknowledged, and before I have the opportunity to introduce the Prime Minister. I just want to share some reflections with you, because like I said this comes full circle for me. I had no idea where I was going to go back then, but you motivated me to be able to do more. 

Since we just celebrated Vaisakhi as Kamal and Iqwinder just talked about Sikh heritage month, we talk about Vaisakhi as the Creation of the Khalsa, a momentous time for Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa so that Sikhs stand out, no Sikh can hide, and you push yourself to do more. The message of the Khalsa and Guru Gobind Singh was always what Guru Nanak ji started back in 1469, the message of Ik On Kaar, and every Guru has since passed on that message. We talk about the martial race like I talked about with President Obama, but the true warrior was Guru Nanak and that revolutionary message of God that we are all equal. It doesn’t matter what religion, you shouldn’t be forced to have a religion, but if you do, respect your religion. Equality of women, imagine what a revolutionary message that sent. He traveled and preached that message at a time when equality was not welcome and hit the status quo pretty hard. Atrocities that were taking place against our people [happened] because that message was liberating people. Guru Hargobind Ji created the concept of Miri Piri, the spiritual warrior. You have a right to also not to be spiritual, but where we focused is, you have also a responsibility to fight for equality, and for justice. Then fast forward to when Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa.

When I was growing up it was not easy obviously when you look different, as Iqwinder has talked about, you have struggles. You have to personally face those struggles coming into a new country.  You know what that meant. So why would Guru Gobind Singh give us this identity? Some people would say, “You are kind of backward”. No, He was a visionary. Because when he created this responsibility, you had to choose this identity. What he gave was, through those struggles it made you build confidence. And through that confidence, you were able to succeed. So, I remember in 1999, and at that dinner, I don’t know who it was, somebody said at that dinner, I remember it to this day, “Sikhs are a minority with a majority complex”. 

You have a responsibility when you succeed, to make sure that you do more for others. That is what you are doing today. All have you have contributed so much to making the By the Five Rivers Exhibit come to life. You have taken your success, your wealth, and sharing it not only with all Sikhs, but you will also be sharing it with all Canadians who come through here [the ROM] who can learn about who we are. And I just want to say thank you for that opportunity. But that’s one thing that you always, taught me back from 1999, is when you succeed, make sure that you share, and you are demonstrating just that. So, thank you for this.

 I also want to just take an opportunity to talk about what, [and] when, it comes to fighting against the status quo, and how important it is to fight for equality. That fight is not over. And that’s something I’ve seen with our Prime Minister, continuously and one of the reasons why I was very passionate about getting into politics at that time because I knew that I had a leader that’s going to continue to fight for everybody’s rights. Yes, we have the charter that was put into place. Without it, I think we wouldn’t have not only just our community but many others, the success that we have today. But that fight, it is not over, and we see this continuously. I remember when the Prime Minister decided that he was going to make the apology for the Komagata Maru in the House of Commons. Just imagine the vindication that has created, with that one apology. I remember it almost put tears in my eyes. But imagine all the people who were on the Komagata Maru at that time, who were at a part of the British Empire at that time, forced to leave by the military that they had served in. What were they thinking at that time? And then 100 years later, would they think that in 100 years the regiment that pushed them away, that a Sikh would be commanding that regiment? I had that privilege in just an opportune time. 

But these opportunities take leadership. So Prime Minister, I just want to take this opportunity to thank you for your personal leadership to continue that fight of equality. Because we still have to fight today, not just in Canada but around the world. We have that responsibility. So, thank you for this and it is my great pleasure to introduce a good friend of all of ours, somebody who’s always been a great champion, the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada.” 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the stage and greeted the audience in English, French, and Punjabi. He spoke first of the RCMP investigation of Hardeep Singh Nijjar murdered June 18, 2023, in the parking lot of a Gurdwara in BC, PM and subsequent arrests made saying: “Good evening, everybody, Bonsoir, Sat Siri Akal, it’s so great to be back here at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Thank you Harj (Harjit), Kamal, Iqwinder for those remarks. Ruby, Bardish, Sonia, thank you very much for all the work you’ve done as part of our caucus.  I need to begin somewhat awkwardly perhaps, but importantly, to acknowledge the arrests that were made in relation to the murder of Mister Nijjar. As the RMPC stated, the investigation remains ongoing as does a separate and distinct investigation not limited to the three people arrested yesterday.”

MP Trudeau reiterated this in French and went on to stress the importance that democratic principles, law, and justice have in being able to feel safe:
 “This is important because Canada is a rule of law country with a strong and independent justice system as well as a fundamental commitment to protecting all it citizens.” Many Canadians, particularly members of the Sikh community are feeling uneasy and perhaps even frightened. Well, every Canadian has the right to live safely and free from discrimination and threats of violence in Canada. Let us not allow events to change us. Let us remain calm. Let us remain steadfast in our commitment to our democratic principles and our system of justice. This is who we are and what we do as Canadians. It is really really great for me to be here with you all tonight for this momentous occasion. Around this room are a remarkable group of community leaders, innovators, and artists from across the country. Suresh, Parvinder, all the different leaders here tonight who made this evening possible, thank you for your vision.” 

PM Trudeau repeated this in French and continued in English telling the story of the determination of the first Sikh war hero in the Canadian army stressing that Sikh history is Canadian history. He went on to talk about how funding the museum for Sikh heritage is an important part of the vision for Canada going forward:
  “As my friends underscored, Sikh Canadians have been an important part of our community and our country for generations. In the early 20th Century, the first Sikhs arrived in British Columbia from Punjab. Thousands of Sikh Canadians have brought Canada and the Sikh community closer ever since. Their stories are in communities across the country. The one that is on my mind tonight is Buckam/Bukkan/Bukam/ Singh.

Buckam Singh came to Canada in 1907 during the First World War. He became the first Sikh Canadian to enlist with the Canadian Army. At the time, Sikhs couldn't vote, hold public office, practice law or pharmacy. Although Sikh soldiers were being turned away by the army, Buckam Singh was so committed to serving his new country, he applied time after time. And because of his perseverance, he got to serve. He fought for Canada, at the Battle of Flanders, side by side with his fellow Canadians. He was wounded twice in battle, and at just 25 years old, he passed away while recovering from his wounds. Decades after his passing, Private Buckam Singh’s story still represents the courage, valor, and service, of Sikh Canadians today. If Buckam Singh was alive today, he’d see the barriers he broke, and the progress that generations of Sikh Canadians have made ever since. He’d see gurdwaras built right across the country. He’d see Sikh Canadian lawyers, and business owners, innovators, and artists, armed forces members, and cabinet ministers, sometimes both at the same time. He’d see TV stations, monuments, and museums, dedicated to Sikhs, and he’d see the Sikh Canadian community, nearly 800,000 strong, living open and proud Sikh lives.

The story of the Sikh community is, in fact, the story of Canada. Last month when we released budget 2024 with investments to help protect Sikh Canadian Sikh Heritage and help Canadian Sikhs succeed, we announced, which is why we are all here tonight, why you have to put up with all of us on stage, we announced that we are supporting space right here at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) dedicated to Sikh Arts, culture and heritage, with an investment of $6 million. We will be working closely with the Sikh Arts and Culture Foundation to make this space exactly what we all desire it to be. The Sikh Gallery of the ROM will be the second such gallery after the first permanent Sikh art gallery was established in 2022 in Montreal by my friends Roshi and Baljit Singh Chadha and the Kapany family. Good to see Roshi and Baljit here tonight. In the coming years, we expect to see even more across the country. We are also giving funding to the Indus Media Foundation to complete their short film highlighting the shared military heritage of Canadian and Indian soldiers in the First and Second World Wars.

By preserving this heritage and encouraging others to learn more, we are keeping Sikh Canadian stories alive for the next generation, and to make sure everyone understands that the history of Sikh Canadians is the history of Canada. Alongside this budget, in 2024, we are also building more homes faster, hiring more doctors and nurses, and making dental care and diabetes medication more affordable. We are cracking down on auto theft, and investing billions of dollars into innovation, AI, and manufacturing to grow our economy, and secure good-paying jobs. These are things we do because we believe in investing in the future. We believe like this community does, in the importance of seeing far and working every day to rectify imbalances and ensure fairness for everyone. Those are the values at the heart of what it is to be a Canadian. Those are the values at the heart of what it is to be a Sikh. So that is what we are celebrating tonight as we come together. And that is why we will always stand with you as a community that embodies Canadian values, because Sikh Canadians have helped build the Canada we know and love today, and every day, you make Canada even better. Thank you for having me here tonight. Let us keep working together to make Canada more inclusive, more vibrant, and especially more welcoming for everyone. Merci Beaucoup, Shakkar.”

PM Trudeau shook hands, hugged, and kissed the foreheads, of the members of his Sikh Caucus while exiting the stage.

Jenith Gharwal MC returned to the stage and addressed the audience: “Thank you to the esteemed members of parliament and Right Honorable Prime Minister Trudeau for your support, funding, and kind words. As you can tell I am giving you guys a break from me and from speeches, so please enjoy your dinner and I will see you soon.” 

Canadian Solidarity and Sense of Values

Whatever other festivities the night ensued, the speeches, given at the Sikh Centennial Gala in May of 2024, highlight and hit at the heart of what Canada has become and hopes to continue to do going forward in solidarity, and that is to ensure the equality of all of its citizens regardless of ethnicity. Canadians honor individual heritage and culture, without differentiating anyone's status as a valued, respected, and deserving citizen of Canada.

Sukhmandir Kaur Khalsa

Sukhmandir Kaur Khalsa

Sukhmandir has written hundreds of articles on topics related to Sikhism and has co-written and and edited several books on the Gurmat teachings and Naam Simran meditation. 

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