As a child in grade school in South Vancouver, I learned the history of Canada and British Columbia from a Western European perspective. I always felt that I did not belong, and I was othered through most of my grade-school years. I was so racialized that I did not even know that I was being discriminated against.
I share these thoughts to bring attention to the deep-seated discrimination and racism I experienced and internalized as a young child and into adulthood. I did not think that my people—brown people, Punjabi people— were worthy. The message I received and came to believe was that I needed to integrate, to change to “white” norms, because Canada was white and only white people were worthy. During my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, I began to peel away my feelings to understand that the root cause of these sentiments was internalized racism, and this was partially a result of my never seeing settlers of Indian descent represented in any books. The stories of settlers from Punjab were not told in the mainstream community. There was not a single reference to a Punjabi settler in any textbook that I encountered from grade 1 until grade 12. I did not see myself or people who looked like me in textbooks. Nor was there any representation of people from Punjab in popular culture.
Understanding who you are and having your history recognized and valued helps formulate your self-concept and identity. If an individual does not have a good self-concept and does not feel like they belong, they are susceptible to health and social challenges. One way to help immigrants navigate their home and school culture is by creating an environment that nurtures their identities and helps them feel included and supported.
When I was asked to sit on the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project committee, I was so excited and proud about the chance to share my family history. I now know that this history belongs not only to me, but also to the community. In our family we only have one old picture of my great aunt and great uncle who came and settled in Canada in 1905. If it was not for them, my family would not be here. As a child, I heard from my parents that our clan were known to be “old timers” in the Vancouver Punjabi community, but it was not known in the mainstream community. I was called names like “Paki” and “Hindu” and told to go home as I walked home from my high school. I tried to talk back and say that I was not a “Paki” or a “Hindu” but a Canadian of Punjabi descent and a Sikh, but the other kids could not understand. They did not learn that in school or from their families, and they did not feel the need to learn. Nor did they learn that when Sikh soldiers came to Canada as members of the British Commonwealth, some decided to make it their home, and that others returned to Punjab and told their friends and families about the beauty of Canada, inspiring Punjabis to make the six-month journey to Canada. The students in grade school never learned that Punjabis had been here for a long time or that they were as Canadian as any other settler. The only true people of Turtle Island were the Indigenous peoples, but their story was never told either. I wish that our history had been included in the textbooks, so that I might not have been called names that were degrading and othering.
I certainly recall the racism of my childhood days, but I also recall the closeness and support of the Punjabi community. The Vancouver Sikh Gurdwara, located at 1866 West 2nd Avenue, was the first Sikh temple to be built in North America. Built in 1908 under the auspices of the Khalsa Diwan Society, the gurdwara was a place for all brown people.
My memories of that sacred space are vivid. I can still see the women working in the kitchen, the men talking in circles and us children playing as kids do. From upstairs, I can hear the soothing sound of the harmonium and tabla and the whole congregation singing “Jo Mange Takher Apne Te”. I have fond feelings of love and support. The community believed in helping each other and did not believe in accepting help from government. They helped clothe and house everyone in need.
I am thrilled with the work of the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project—the intervention at the Royal BC Museum that inserted us into the “Log that Built BC”; the focus groups in communities across the province. I was involved in the part of the project that recognized sites of historical significance to the community. The sites are marked on a map, but they mus be interpreted so that the public can understand their significance. In the course of this project I have learned a great deal about the settlements in British Columbia, and I look forward to more inclusion of materials and collection of artifacts that reflect the history of all people including the settlers from Punjab! This work will help inform our history and improve our wellbeing.