Haq at The Royal British Columbia Museum

Haq at The Royal British Columbia Museum

Above: A group of Pujabi men returning to fight for India’s Independence

By Rita Button
Photos by Rita Button

If you wander into the Royal British Columbia Museum’s Pocket Gallery in Clifford Hall, opposite the coffee shop on the main floor, you’ll find a very large pocket of information presented on its four walls which surround a display of various personal belongings that were once owned by Indar Singh Gill. The display, “Haq and History,” explores the nature of human rights within the immigration experience of the Punjabi people beginning in the twentieth century.

Prayer books & steel bracelets.

Prayer books & steel bracelets.

The video reveals the worry experienced by immigrants. The woman being interviewed tells about noticing women on the streets of Vancouver walking bare-headed, a direct contrast to the women in the Punjabi region who covered their heads with shawls. Trying to fit into her new world, she removed hers and put it in her bag. When her future father-in-law picked her up, she realized she might have made a mistake so she explained that her scarf was in her bag. He waved off the information, letting her know that neither he nor his wife put much stock in that custom.

However, the immigrants were shocked when the Canadian Government removed their right to vote in 1907. Having arrived as British citizens, they expected their rights as British citizens to continue. Finally, they were repatriated in 1947 as a result of pressuring the government to enforce the policy of social justice for all citizens. The installation includes the surfacing of racism in the Komogato Maru incident, a result of the Continuous Passage Act which states that any person immigrating to Canada had to be on the boat continuously—no seaport stops between the country of origin and Canada. Canadian attitudes of the time left nothing to the imagination when the boat, after being in harbour in Vancouver for two months, was forced to return without any of its passengers having been allowed to disembark.

Dishes that Indar Singh Gill used in the voyage from India to Canada.

Dishes that Indar Singh Gill used in the voyage from India to Canada.

In contrast, the town of Paldi, in the Cowichan Valley, where the sawmill was built by Sikhs, is an example of diversity in that Japanese, Chinese, Punjabi and Indigenous people worked and lived together. The Sikh temple still exists in that small town. Unfortunately, Cowichan Valley was too far away for the first Sikh couple from the Rockies to be married so Paldi’s priest went to perform the wedding ceremony. The spirit of co-operation was obvious at this wedding for many different temples sent various religious elements needed for this new beginning in 1972.

Today, celebrations occur in different temples. The Sikhs travel to Paldi for both the Jor Mela, a winter celebration, and Canada Day, but Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab—the celebration for the birthday of the founder of Sikhism always occurs in Abbotsford while the Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s birthday celebration is in Vancouver West. The New Year’s Celebration is always in Victoria.

If you visit the gallery next to the coffee area at the museum in Clifford Hall, you’ll learn more about the Sikh experience than exists in this article and might motivate you to discover more on your own. Maybe the Immigrant Experience might become a future exposition at the museum, a chance to explore the human tapestry of Victoria and Canada.

This Pocket Gallery installation—which is free—is a collaboration of the Royal BC Museum and the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. It is supported by Helijet.

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