The past is never dead. In fact, it is not even the past.
I have often wondered how the past becomes our responsibility. In what ways do we see the legacy of our past as an inheritance to preserve and pass on? This kind of pondering has been a motivating factor in the work of heritage preservation for me as a Canadian of Indian descent, living and working in British Columbia for the past 44 years.
In the 70s, at the beginning of my journey as an immigrant to the beautiful province of British Columbia, I was mostly preoccupied with survival and learning the ropes of Canadian living. In between the euphoria of experiencing such natural beauty and the experience of overt racism and covert discrimination, I slowly became aware of the existence of past Canadians like me, in snippets and short outtakes. I heard stories here and there of hardships faced by earlier immigrants, of travel to Vancouver Island to see Paldi, a small town with its namesake in the Punjab, of a heritage temple near Lake Cowichan. Through these stories, I realized that there was an old rich and vibrant history of early settlers.
In the evolution of my own experiences of living in Canada, I learned that the legacy of our fore-parents in this particular part of the country was laden with enough history to fill many textbooks. But the sad truth of the matter was that wherever I looked for that written, I found nothing—or perhaps the smallest mention, so small that it did nothing to justify the long and arduous journey of South Asians in Canada and in BC, the successes and the many challenges along the way. I developed a lifelong passion for this history, to unearth and record it so that our future generations may have the luxury of understanding and relating to their past. Too often, what is presented as “history” is in fact only “white history,” and white historians decide what is worth preserving.
As such, we as Punjabi Canadians needed to preserve our own history, our own experiences, our opinions and views, our old photographs, our journeys, our contributions and our challenges.
The Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project (PCLP) was named to express that same desire to leave a legacy of our heritage for all to understand, relate to and reflect upon. It is said that without the foundation of the past, we will be forever buffeted by the winds of change that shake the present. The PCLP is not driven just by the gratification of fortuitous discovery—a photo here, a story there—but the actual concerted effort to develop a connected and systemically organized history that creates a contiguous past and present.
Some of the past is now buried with its storytellers, but there are second and third hand accounts that are evocative in their memory-making ability. As we undertook this work we were witnesses to the faraway look a persongets as they recall a memory that transports them—perhaps to a moment that changed their life forever or to the company of someone who influenced them a great deal. A photo of a woman alone on a ship, on a solitary journey to a faraway land, evokes much empathy for the spirit of these wayfarers of the not-so-distant past.
Collecting, documenting, preserving, archiving, digitizing and making accessible the history of Punjabi Canadians in BC has become a personal responsibility for me. While Punjabi Canadians lived their lives in the same complex and eclectic manner as anyone else, their experiences have often gone undocumented—this project may be the first time that anyone has unearthed their stories from the recesses of their minds and made them accessible to the public. The often dismissed, erased and omitted stories of Punjabi Canadian settlers and immigrants in the annals of Canadian history must not only be recorded but also revived and given the oxygen they need so that they are no longer relegated to an internal dialogue only.
Especially rewarding have been the contribution to the PCLP by everyday Punjabi Canadian citizens, who in their individual tellings have created an aggregate legacy of the stories and timelines that will inform our future. Through the everydayness, we have captured something incredibly extraordinary. While the struggles were many and real, the perseverance and resilience of Punjabi Canadians in BC has been the defining story that provides the link to our past. It is this legacy that we consciously and unconsciously draw upon to continue the work and values of those who went before us.
The PCLP is a platform that can expand into the contemporary moment with the same vision of legacy that we employed to commence this work. The history we imagined is even greater when it is told, but it is we as caretakers who must recognize the weight of the responsibility to illuminate our past.