The Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project (PCLP), developed in partnership with the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, is built upon the idea that communities’ own self-expressions must determine how a collective heritage is presented. That shared history, assembled from the unique perspectives of individuals community members, is important knowledge for all members of our society.
As a museum practitioner, I was so impressed with the living heritage that people inherit and create – the bonds and connections from early communities that survive and continue to this day. A key part of our work on the project involved visiting the beautiful Rocky Mountain community of Golden, BC, a once a bustling sawmill town which many believe to have been home to the first gurdwara in North America at the turn of the last century, though no trace of it remains. The original location of this gurdwara is also recognized by the local residents as culturally significant. Our project team visited Golden during two rounds of consultations, and on both visits, we were taken to see the site. It’s a place of great significance to the Punjabi Golden community, because it is remembered as the location for the original Golden Sikh Temple. I was moved to hear about the local Punjabi communities’ hope that this place would become a historic site in the future.
Our first visit to Golden required a drive through the snowy Rockies in October 2016. Our second visit, in the summer of 2017, began with a detour to the town of Donald, BC. Today, Donald is a tiny dot on the map between Yoho and Glacier National Parks, and a small easy-to-miss exit off Highway 1. But as Golden residents Swarn and Balbir Patara told us, in the late 1960s, it was not uncommon for a new Punjabi immigrant, upon arrival in Vancouver after a long trans-Pacific journey, to be told to board a train for Donald. He would eventually get off the train and walk into several feet of snow and pitch darkness, until suddenly the lights of the bustling sawmill town ahead lit his way.
Not long before our second visit, in early July 2017, the Punjabi Canadian families with former ties to Golden, BC, held what they called the Golden Glitz and Blitz Bash Reunion in Surrey, where many of them live today. The event gathered 200 people from around the province, most of whom had moved away from Golden for work or their children’s education as the sawmills slowed in the late twentieth century. The project team had attended this reunion, and we met some of the families again in Golden—they had scheduled their annual trips to coincide with our community workshop, so they could share their family histories.One attendee, Mo Dhaliwal (the vice chair of the PCLP Advisory Committee), said that by attending this reunion, the project team witnessed living heritage in the making.
Wherever we went, we heard about a tradition from the early days, when the Punjabi community was relatively small. To celebrate important religious holidays and gather together, people from across the province travelled to different Sikh temples around BC to celebrate different events. Several interviewees recollect the same pattern of celebrations: The Jor mela and Canada Day were celebrated in Paldi (Mayo Lumber Company always used to host the first of July); Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab (the birthday of the founder of Sikhism) was celebrated in Abbotsford’s Gur Sikh Temple; Guru Gobind Singh ji’s birthday was celebrated at the Vancouver West 2nd Avenue Sikh Temple; and Vaisakhi (Sikh new year) was always celebrated in Victoria gurdwara. To accommodate the travellers, Punjabi families opened their hearts and homes to each other. It was an opportunity to reconnect with the larger community and to share stories of resiliency, struggle and growth.
To revive and continue this early tradition and reforge the bonds between BC Punjabi communities, Victoria’s Sikh community hosted a Vaisakhi parade in April 2018. Attended by visitors from all over, it was also intended to share the occasion with the whole city for the first time in history. In May 2018, the Punjabi Canadian community in Golden hosted a Nagar Kirtan, also attended by many travellers. The bonds formed through shared traditions and stories that connect people across the province and with their ancestral home in Punjab are a precious intangible heritage, and witnessing these traditions revived and reinforced is an exciting opportunity for a historian.
This project has been an amazing journey, and the connections we have seen among families and communities, through generations and across great distances, have made clear the importance of continuing this legacy-building project. Our goal community history projects like this is to work on cross-culturally appropriate and relevant communications, explore sustainable community engagement, and create a lasting legacy.