Long before I came to Canada, I had heard that there was a strong Punjabi diaspora presence here. But my awareness of the subject was extremely limited until I met a Canadian documentary filmmaker in 2013 in my hometown of Chandigarh, India. He was in India recording some footage of the villages of early Punjabi settlers who had gone to Canada in the early 1900s. I assisted him with his research, travelling with him to villages across Punjab in order to help him while he recorded the footage and collected research materials for his upcoming film projects. This is when I first became acquainted with some elements of the rich history of Punjabi immigrants in Canada.
My interest in this area was sparked again when I began working on the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project (PCLP) with the South Asian Studies Institute at University of the Fraser Valley in 2017. For me, as a new immigrant to Canada, this project turned out to be an important learning experience and a unique opportunity to explore, experience and learn about the early immigrants from Punjab who have helped shape Canadian history and heritage.
As a regional project coordinator, I travelled across British Columbia to meet and interview the families of early settlers, to document their stories and historical artifacts. Directly interacting with some of the Punjabi settlers gave me an opportunity to hear these stories first-hand and provided me a glimpse into their struggles, hardships and challenges. Their stories are indeed inspirational and moving—some of them no less so than the script of a historical drama. The bold risks these individuals took seem impossible by our contemporary standards. Moving to a new country where they didn’t know the language nor the law of the land, with limited financial means and initially no place to stay, all the while carving a name for themselves and the community at large—these are accomplishments worthy of recognition, part and parcel of Canada’s history.
Since I was a new immigrant myself, I connected with this project and these precious stories on a much deeper level. An important conclusion I drew was that the challenges immigrants face today are not even one per cent as intense as what these early settlers went through. Even the journeys themselves were a trial. These days, a person can conveniently purchase an airline ticket in India, fly across the Pacific and reach Canada in as little as 14 hours. But when Mr. Kirpal Singh of Prince George, BC, came to Canada, his journey took months. From his village in Punjab, Kirpal first had to travel halfway across India to reach Mumbai (Bombay, as most Canadians would have called it at the time). Then he set out on a ship and sailed for 14 days from Mumbai to Iraq. After spending a few days there, he travelled to Istanbul by train and then on to Munich. Complications with his visa left him stranded for 25 days, and he had to work as a labourer to make ends meet. Once he finally reached Paris, he boarded a flight to Montreal. And going back to India from Canada wasn’t easy either. I particularly recall Mr. Charanjit Sidhu, of Victoria, BC, sharing that in the 1970s, when the wages here were as low as $1.50 an hour, an airline ticket to India cost $1,200.00—far beyond the reach of many. Stories such as these made me realize and appreciate the value of various conveniences and facilities that we take for granted.
As this phase of the project neared completion, I was deeply satisfied to see it receive the national media attention it deserves. After all, it is imperative that these stories be passed on to generations to come, so that the countless sacrifices these migrants made are not forgotten. An important step in accomplishing this is to raise awareness about the project so that we can share these stories on a national level.
Now that I reflect on it, one of the most essential things I took from the stories of the more than one hundred individuals I interviewed and interacted with was this: with the right mindset, attitude and approach, the sky is the limit. The early Punjabi settlers in Canada accomplished the unimaginable. Stories of individuals such as Mayo Singh, who came to Canada with limited financial means and no knowledge of the language of the land, only to become so successful as an industrialist that he was able to found an entire town, are a true testament to this.
Another essential thing I learned from this project is the fact that knowledge is fluid, not rigid, and will always flow from one discipline to another. Coming from a business background, I had limited expertise in this area. But this project made me realize that history and culture are an inseparable part of business, and vice versa. Knowledge of who we are and where we come from is the groundwork of innovation, creativity and progress.