A Historical Tribute to Sikh Pioneers

National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple
And the
The Sikh Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada:

Submitted by the Centre for Indo Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada

A Historical Tribute to Sikh Pioneers

There is a unique Canadian National Historic Site in Abbotsford, BC called the Gur Sikh Gurdwara, designated by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on July 31, 2002. A hundred plus year old religious institution of the Sikhs, built by struggling pioneers (started in 1908 and completed in 2011); this gurdwara is a testament to the pride, vision and steadfastness of a pioneer community at the turn of the last century.

Today the grand old Gurdwara is restored to its former glory by the governing body of the Gurdwara, The Khalsa Diwan Society of Abbotsford, BC. Soon after the announcement of the gurdwara as a National Historic Site of Canada, Parks Canada (the decision maker) stated in its 2002 news release: “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.”

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 Gurdwara: the second floor prayer room housed the sacred text, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 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 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 Gurdwara and covering their head with a scarf.

A Historical Tribute to Sikh PioneersImage courtesy Mr. Naginder Singh Sidhu

The first Sikhs had arrived in the Fraser Valley in 1905, from Punjab in India and settled in the valley by working in the agriculture and forestry industry. Soon after, in 1908, local Sikhs started to build a Sikh Gurdwara in a true community effort, under the auspices of the Khalsa Diwan Society. It would take those men 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 one acre property on a prominent hill adjacent to the mill at Mill Lake where around fifty Sikh men worked. These men and others who worked on the farms in the area used to carry the timber donated by the Tretheway family’s Abbotsford Lumber Company on their backs up the hill from Mill Lake to the Gurdwara site – chosen as a central focal point on the top of a mound in the middle of the growing city. 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 systems for the Sikh gurdwara. The gurdwara was completed in 1911 and officially opened in the New Year.

One hundred years later, in 2011, the community of Abbotsford got involved with high spirits and excitement in anticipation of the many events organized to commemorate the centennial year of the completion of the Gur Sikh Temple, now the oldest standing Sikh gurdwara in the Western Hemisphere. The yearlong events are highlighted online and the link can be seen at the end of the article.

The Mayor of Abbotsford, Mr. George Peary declared the year 2011 as the Year of the Gur Sikh Temple. The Mayor and the Premier of British Columbia Christie Clark joined the thousands of participants in the centenary activities on August 28th, 2011 at the Historic Site along with Prime Minister the Honourable Mr. Stephen Harper who reflected in part of his speech, saying:

A Historical Tribute to Sikh PioneersThe Honourable Minister of Trade Ed Fast, Premier of BC Christy Clark, the Honourable Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper and Past President of KDS Abbotsford Unveiling the Centennial marker

The centennial of the Gur Sikh Temple is an opportunity to remember the brave pioneers from the Punjab who built this sacred place and to celebrate the enormous contributions that generations of Sikh immigrants and their descendants have made to our great country.

It is also an opportunity to reflect on the many challenges the community faced and overcame on the path to becoming full and equal partners in the mainstream of Canadian life.

In every field of human endeavour, business, science, medicine, the arts, even politics – especially politics – Sikhs have succeeded in Canada…Also, successes like the brave Sikh-Canadian members of the Canadian Forces who have served our country so proudly in Afghanistan and upheld the legacy of their ancestors, including the veterans of the British Army who were among the first Sikh settlers in Canada, and builders of this temple.

The Gur Sikh Temple, with its beautiful new centennial monument and museum, is a shrine to Sikhism in Canada. Future generations of Sikh Canadians – and many others – will come here to learn about the courage, hardships and perseverance of our earliest Sikh pioneers. They will learn of an adventurous, proud and devout people, who passed on all these noble characteristics to their descendants and made our Canada stronger and better.

The events of the Centennial year of the gurdwara culminated in the launch of the Sikh Heritage Museum on the ground floor of the Gur Sikh Temple in December 2011. The first exhibition was unveiled by the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, The Right Honourable Mr. Steven Point and was titled “100 Years of Settlement and Integration” paying tribute to some of the earliest Sikh pioneers in the Valley. The community proudly embraced the museum as it provides a rare opportunity for living history; a tangible link to the historic events presented.

Since 2011, the Sikh Heritage Museum has launched six exhibitions:

· December 2011-June 2012: 100 Years of Settlement and Integration

· July 2012-December 2012: Punjab: The People, the Land, the Legacy

· January 2013-June 2013: Canadian-Sikh Identity: The Turban Challenge and the Evolution of the Sikh Pagri

· June 2013-September 2013: The Spirit of Hola Mohallah

· September 2013-December 2013: Ghadar: 100 Years Later

· January 2014-Present: Challenge and Denial: Komagata Maru 100 Years Later 1914-2014

The links for all images and information of previous, current and future exhibitions can be seen at the end of the article.

The current exhibition running at the Sikh Heritage Museum features the history of the Komagata Maru tragedy of 1914. This dark moment in Canadian history was marked on Sunday, January 26th, 2014 at the Sikh Heritage Museum. The Museum launched its sixth official exhibition since its inauguration in 2011 with an exhibition titled: “Challenge and Denial – Komagata Maru 100 years later 1914-2014.”

The launch was well attended with media and over 100 community members coming together to commemorate this episode. The speakers included BC Minister of Finance, The Honourable Mr. Mike De Jong, Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman, renowned local artist Jarnail Singh and a reading by author Tariq Malik from his book on the Komagata Maru titled Chanting Denied Shores.

One of the highlights of the event included the keynote address by Mrs. Nsibe Kaur, whose father was Bagga Singh, who was a member of the shore committee that raised $60,000 in 1914 to assist the Komagata Maru passengers. Nsibe reflected on her experiences within the community in the early 20th century and the memories she had more specifically of the Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford in her childhood.

Nsibe Kaur’s speech was passionate, and imbibed a great sense of pride for those in attendance, especially when she spoke of Bhai Mewa Singh, saying:

During my childhood my father never elaborated about his own involvement or role but he did serve on committees organized to deal with the situation [Komagata Maru]. He told me many stories about Shaheed Mewa Singh Ji and the huge sacrifice he made – how he gave his life to the people on the ship. My father explained to me it is because of Mewa Singh all of us of Indian descendants are able to live fruitfully in Canada.

My father used to tell me that when Bhai Mewa Singh learned that he was going to be executed he gained five or six pounds because he felt he was doing a good thing and, when the execution was about to take place he was singing a shabad – and, with his own hands he put the noose around his neck. At the final moment, he pushed away the board under his feet and became Shaheed. What bigger sacrifice can you make for your community?

Since the opening of the Sikh Heritage Museum in 2011, over 60 school groups, adult groups, University groups, etc. have toured and visited the Sikh Heritage Museum from all over British Columbia. Hundreds of visitors from around the world have visited the gurdwara and the Museum to pay homage to the pioneers in our communities by visiting the site. Some of the comments by visitors have affirmed the importance of exhibiting the contribution of Sikhs in Canada and worldwide through the Museum:

We came to see this Gurudwara all the way from Toronto. We are proud of our ancestors and we are happy that this Gurudwara has been preserved since 1911.
-K.S.B from Langroya Pind, India

My parents are here from India so I brought them to seek the blessings of Guru Granth Sahib. They are happy to visit this holy place. They say it is amazing how the people contributed to make this Gurudwara in 1911. Kids loved the water fountain.
-Anonymous

So lovely to see all the old photos and history of Sikhs. I have learned a lot. Thank you so much for having this museum!
-S.K.G, Sydney, Australia

I was overwhelmed by the story of the prisoners of the Komagata Maru and the faith of the Sikhs to build this historical Gurdwara. This shows the dedication, determination and belief of Sikhs and Indians. Proud to visit this Holy Gurduwara. Sat Sri Akal.
-S.P.N, New Delhi, India.

Our upcoming exhibition, launching in January 2015 will feature Canadian Sikhs and WWI, to mark the centenary of the war by highlighting the little known stories of the contribution of Sikhs in the World War efforts in Europe and Asia. In the future we hope to present exhibits on Sikh women through the ages, works of young emerging artists and the importance of music and spirituality within Sikhi.

We are proud to work in partnership and under the auspices of the Khalsa Diwan Society, Abbotsford, and to be able to curate these exhibitions with the full support of our community. One of our biggest allies in our voluntary work at the Sikh Heritage Museum has been a local Museum, the Reach Gallery Museum Abbotsford, and its collections manager, Ms. Kris Foulds.

For any additional information on the Sikh Heritage Museum (including tours and visits) located in the National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple, please visit: www.canadiansikhheritage.ca or contact Sharanjit at sharanjit.sandhra@ufv.ca.

Gur Sikh Temple Centennial Celebrations Archive:

http://www.ufv.ca/cics/archive/centennial-archive/

The Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley:

www.ufv.ca/cics

 

 

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