100 Years of Immigration, Integration & Identity
Gur Sikh Temple & Museum:
Arriving more than a century ago, determined Sikh pioneers from Punjab, India came together against many odds to establish a community in Abbotsford, anchoring it with one of the first Sikh temples in North America – the Khalsa Diwan Society Sikh Temple (built 1908 – 1911) in Abbotsford, BC. This significant temple has been designated as a National Historic Site by the Canadian Government and is the only one of its kind in the Americas to be bestowed with this honor.
Today the grand old temple is restored to its former glory by the governing body of the temple, The Khalsa Diwan Society of Abbotsford, BC. Parks Canada’s news release in 2002 stated: “The Sikh Temple is the oldest surviving example of the temples which formed the religious, social and political centre of pioneer Canadian Sikh communities. Architecturally, it is an adaptation of traditional Sikh forms to Canadian conditions which nevertheless embodies the fundamental beliefs of Sikhs and their early experience as immigrants in Canada”. Historic photos that document the establishment of Abbotsford’s Sikh community, family artifacts that illustrate the stories told by pioneers and a glimpse into the Sikh faith provide a fascinating background for the community-wide temple Centennial celebrations.
As the only early Sikh temple that has survived intact through the 1st century of settlement, the Abbotsford Heritage Sikh Temple has become imbued with historic cultural symbolism. For the Sikh community the building is a gift given to them by the pioneers. It signifies their sacrifices, their perseverance against many odds and their resilience to carve out a place for themselves and their families in a very hostile environment. The community members today consider it their duty to preserve the site for future generations. The Temple is an important touchstone to their past; its preservation also represents one of the first steps in documenting the history of the Sikhs in Canada. In 2002, the Khalsa Diwan Society asked the Historic Sites and Monuments Board to consider the Temple for National Historic Site designation. In July 2002, the Society received notice of the designation which was carried out by Prime Minister Jean Cretien. In 2003, the Khalsa Diwan Society undertook the restoration of the Temple, restoring it to its original frame, and officially reopened it on April 1, 2007.
The Centre for Indo Canadian Studies in collaboration with the Reach Gallery and Museum Abbotsford and the Khalsa Diwan Society made this museum project a success. Reach gallery collected all the pictures and information from the community. Funding of $61,950 was provided by the Government of Canada CDN Heritage Legacy Grant. This amount was matched by community donors and hundreds of volunteers from the community helped to set up the museum.
Ninety years earlier, on Feb 26, 1912, amidst much pomp and ceremony the same Sikh Gurdwara was declared open in Abbotsford, BC., and many Sikhs as well as non-Sikhs from all over British Columbia came to take part in the ceremonies. Its outward form, a wood frame building with a false front and a gabled roof, was similar to many buildings in many Canadian frontier towns. However, its interior reflected Sikh traditions and religious beliefs. There were two floors in the temple: the second floor prayer room housed the sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, and provided an open space for worshippers to sit, cross-legged on the carpet. The ground floor contained a kitchen and a dining hall where the “langar” (a communal meal) was prepared and eaten, affirming the equality of those who partake of it,. The Abbotsford Post reported on March 1, 1912 that the members of the congregation “were much impressed with the highly intelligent address delivered by Priest Teja Singh, who spoke in his native tongue and in English”. The newspaper reported that the non-Sikh community present also observed the requirement to remove their shoes before entering the temple and covering their head with a scarf.
The first Sikhs had arrived in the Fraser Valley in 1905, from Punjab in India and settled in the valley by working on the farms and in the forestry industry. Soon after, in 1908, local Sikhs started to build a Sikh Temple in a true community effort, under the auspices of the Khalsa Diwan Society. It would take them four years of hard work and great commitment – both financial and physical to finish building it. The project was spearheaded by Sunder Singh Thandi, who along with Arjan Singh purchased a once acre property on a prominent hill adjacent to the mill at Mill Lake where about fifty or so Sikh men worked. These men and others who worked on the farms in the area used to carry local timber donated by the Tretheway family’s Abbotsford Lumber Company on their backs up the hill from Mill Lake to the Temple site. The foundation stone was laid by Bhai Balwant Singh and Bhai Ram Singh Dhuleta. Records show that in 1910, the Abbotsford Post carried advertisements calling for tenders for steam heating for the Sikh temple. The temple was completed in 1911 and officially opened in the New Year.
On November 16, 1918 a giant flagpole called the “Nishan Sahib” was erected to carry the Sikh flag – it stood 70 feet high and was trimmed from one tree. In 1957, this flagpole was removed due to the encroachment of the highway and was replaced with a metal one. This flagpole was a gift from Mrs Hernam Kaur Thandi of Sumas Prairie (ASM news, 1958). The Thandi family has a long and committed relationship with the Sikh temple. Sunder Singh Thandi arrived in Canada around 1907 and worked at the Tretheway mill on Mill Lake until the 1930’s when the mill closed. At this point, he bought land on Sumas Prairie where his house still stands today. He owned about 450 acres in the area buying it for $1.50 an acre. He helped build the massive staircase at the Heritage Temple, completed on June 25, 1939. He also bought and donated land across from the Heritage Temple to the Khalsa Diwan Society to build a new larger temple, which was completed in 1983. The Heritage Temple was enlarged at the rear in 1932 to extend the prayer hall, and a second addition was built in the late 1960’s.
The Heritage Temple fulfilled many needs of the young immigrant community – it met their religious needs, their ability to congregate, provide assistance to each other and provide free food and shelter to those in need. At that time due to settlement hardships and discriminatory laws that severely restricted immigration from India, this was a bachelor society made up of men who worked long, hard hours to financially support themselves and family members back in India. It would be July 30th 1918, before the Canadian Government received word from the British Ministry of Information that, “Indians already permanently domiciled in other British countries would be allowed to bring in their wives and minor children” (Abbotsford Post, 1918). However, the first wives would not arrive until 1921 and in that year the first Indo-Canadian child was born. The community survived all the hardships because it was built on a foundation of strong kinship ties and was closely knit with many members of the community related to each other.
Between 1907 and 1912, approximately 5,000 men immigrated to Canada. For new arrivals, the Gurdwara provided meals, accommodations and contacts. The Temple became a centre for human rights advocacy in the second decade of the 1900’s when the community fought against legislated racism and discrimination, in labour, immigration and citizenship.
Today, the Temple encourages visitors to visit and guided tours are organized. It functions fully as a centre for prayer and congregation for the Sikhs and as a site for all Canadian to visit and learn about Sikh history.
Satwinder Bains, Director- Centre for Indo Canadian Studies at the University College of the Fraser Valley
Navneet Sidhu Coordinator BC Regional Innovation Chair
The Reach Gallery
Pictures and text adapted from:
Canadian Sikh Heritage