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Sikh Heritage Month Bill

Second Reading

Honourable senators, it is an honour to rise today to speak in support of Bill C-376, the Sikh heritage month act. I will begin by thanking Mr. Sukh Dhaliwal who initiated this bill in the other place and the unanimous support he received from all political parties.

As a Sikh Canadian, it is a privilege to bring forward an act that will formalize the month of April as a time to celebrate the culture and contributions of Sikhs in well over a century of settlement in this country. The earliest reference to Sikhs in Canada is in 1897, when Sikh soldiers arrived as members of the British Army. These soldiers were well-known as loyal fighters who were an integral part of the Allied efforts in World Wars I and II. A decade later, the records show a community of 2,500 settlers of Indian origin, almost all of them Sikhs, in British Columbia.

The natural hardships faced by all settlers in Canada were compounded by other barriers. The Bowser Amendment Act of 1907 disenfranchised “all natives of India not of Anglo-Saxon parents.”

In the face of isolation and financial hardship, the early Sikh settlers proceeded to build institutions that would serve the fledging community. The first was the Khalsa Diwan Society founded in Vancouver in 1907. Another was the gurdwara, a traditional place of worship and a social nexus, whose first permanent building was established in 1908. Today, it is the first gurdwara outside of India to be recognized as a national historic site.

While both were Sikh institutions, they served the broader community of settlers of Indian origin — Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. While there were forums for the social and financial issues that faced the community, these institutions were also their primary advocate for human rights.

A landmark in this story is the rejection in 1914 of the Komagata Maru, a chartered vessel carrying prospective immigrants of Indian origin. They arrived off the shores of Vancouver looking for safety, security and prosperity like many other immigrants that came to Canada. However, they were denied entry and were turned back, with many of them not surviving the journey back.

The rejection of British subjects by the Dominion of Canada drew international attention. It saw the beginning of an advocacy campaign by Sikhs settled in Canada for the easing of immigration barriers and for the civil rights of those already settled in Canada.

The campaign, spearheaded and sustained for decades by the Khalsa Diwan Society, gained support in the changing climate of the country, particularly after the war years. An amendment in the Elections Act of 1947 finally lifted the restrictions which had stripped residents of Indian origin, even those born in Canada, of civil rights.

In the intervening years, Sikh settlers had served as volunteers in the Canadian Armed Forces in both world wars. In fact, while Sikhs represented only 2 per cent of British India’s population, they represented 22 per cent of the British Indian army. Over 80,000 Sikh soldiers died during those wars and over 100,000 were wounded.

In the years following the Second World War, a modest quota was introduced for immigrants from South Asia. A points system, along with national policy changes in the 1960s, opened the doors further. These were among the developments that would lead to the creation of a diverse society, regarded across the world today as among the unique social achievements of this country.

The latter half of the 20th century saw a steady influx of Sikhs to Canada, mainly from India. While the majority of Sikh Canadians still then were centred in British Columbia, the new settlers established roots in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and Manitoba, and in smaller numbers in all the provinces and territories literally from coast to coast.

The earliest Sikh settlers were drawn by the vision of a land rich in opportunity with its farms, rivers and forests. They worked as farmers. They laboured in the timber industry, in the building of roads and railways, and some ventured into other trades and trading.

Today Sikh Canadians are engaged in every aspect of public life in Canada — in the fields of medicine and law, in science and engineering, information technology and even in banking. They serve in academic faculties and in the Armed Forces. They are engaged in commercial life in every sector and have taken as well to the worlds of entertainment and sport.

Their love of sports is exhibited at every Raptors basketball game for those of you who watch it, with the only Sikh superfan; and the love of hockey, where there is now a broadcast in Punjabi of “Hockey Night in Canada” watched by Sikh families all over the country, which I can assure you is as animated and exciting as any broadcast you have ever heard.

In summary, honourable senators, the story of the Sikh community in Canada is, in fact, just a story of Canada. It is a story of brave soldiers who fought in both world wars to defend democracy. It is a story of early settlers and pioneers who worked in agricultural lands, mines, lumber mills, and the railroads. It is a story of entrenching equality, fairness and justice in this land. It is a story of becoming contributing members in all walks of life, whether it be in business, arts, sports, media, philanthropy and politics.

It is on behalf of all Sikh Canadians that I present this bill to recognize April as Sikh Heritage Month in Canada.

In the month of April falls Vaisakhi, a traditional harvest festival celebrated by all communities of northern India. Vaisakhi holds particular significance for Sikhs, as it also commemorates the birth of the Khalsa order in 1699, the final stage in the evolution of the Sikh faith, a milestone celebrated by Sikhs the world over.

Sikh Heritage Month will be an occasion for Sikh Canadians to celebrate their history and to affirm their deep attachment to this land. It will equally be an occasion for all Canadians to better understand, through cultural projects and initiatives, the values, culture and contributions of Sikh Canadians who are part of the fabric of this great nation.

Thank you, honourable senators. I hope you will give this initiative your support.

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