Pioneer Interviews

 

Index of interviews featured below:

NARANJAN SINGH GILL(village Nathuwala Jadid)
The Patriarch and his Family

Sardar Naranjan Singh, was the only child of Sardar Vir Singh Gill and Sardarni Ind Kaur Gill. He hailed from the village Nathuwala Jadid, District Moga. He came to Canada in 1906 on a ship via Mexico/USA. He arrived in Canada with Gajan Singh Gill (father of Ganga Singh Gill-Montreal), Santa Singh Nambardar (Nathu Patti, Dhudike), Sewa Singh Gill (father of Kari Singh Gill, Dhudike), and Mewa Singh Gill (Nathuwala).

Naranjan Singh Gill went back to India in 1920 and was given return papers to go back to Canada. He returned to Canada in 1926 with brothers Phangan Singh Gill and Dhaman Singh Gill (uncles of Mohinder Singh and Gurdev Singh Gill, M & G Bros. Farms, Abbotsford). Dhaman Singh passed away enroute in Malaysia. Phangan Singh was sponsored by Naranjan Singh in 1929 from Malaysia.

Naranjan Singh had three sons and three daughters: Mohan Singh, Indar Singh, Karnail Singh, Jai Kaur, Rai Kaur, Har Kaur. His son Karnail Singh passed away at the age of six. Jai Kaur was married into village Paj Garai. Rai Kaur was married into village Mahianwala Kalan. Har Kaur was married into village Natheawala. Naranjan Singh sponsored his younger son, Indar Singh (father of Kalvin Gill, Dr. Kuldip Kaur Gill, Jerry Gill, and Stan Gill--Mission BC) in 1927. In 1930, Naranjan Singh also sponsored his four nephews from village Dhudike: Indar Singh Gill (father of Nash Gill) see interview below, Joginder (Shah) Singh Gill (father of Avtar Singh Gill), Darbara Singh Gill (Cloverdale Fuels), and Ganga Singh Gill (Montreal).

Naranjan Singh lived in Ladner, Vancouver, Pitt Meadows, New Westminster, and finally settled in Mission. While in Vancouver, he worked for Yukon Lumber on Kent Street. During the great depression, he was the only one in the family who was currently working and was the only provider for the family. He went back to India in 1949 and bought property (250 acres) in the province of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.). This land was farmed by his grandsons, Mohinder Singh Gill and Harjinder Singh Gill.

Naranjan Singh Gill passed away October 10, 1955 in Punjab. His son, Mohan Singh Gill (father of Mohinder and Harjinder Singh Gill) was sponsored by his younger brother, Indar Singh Gill in 1952. He arrived in Canada in the company of Kartar Singh (Mahianwala Kalan) and Paul Singh Gill (Dhudike). Mohan Singh sponsored his wife, Harnam Kaur, and his two sons in 1956. Mohan Singh Gill passed away while visiting India in 1963.

Mohinder Singh Gill passed away in India while visiting there in 2006. His wife Balwant Kaur and three children (Gurnaib Singh Gill, Sukminder Singh and Darshan Kaur) along with numerous grandchildren are settled in Abbotsford. Harjinder Singh Gill and his wife Harpal Kaur currently reside in Abbotsford BC with their family as well.

Naranjan Singh's family still lives in Abbotsford and performs sewa at the Abbotsford Khalsa Diwan Society Gurdwara Sahib. They are proud to be the descendants of Naranjan Singh and to have humbly devoted their time to the Gurdwara Sahib. They are very pleased to see that the Gurdwara Sahib has received the recognition from the Federal Government as a National Historic Site.

* This interview was given by Sukhminder Singh Gill (great-grandson) and Harjinder Singh Gill (grandson) of Late Sardar Naranjan Singh Gill

PAUL SINGH DHALIWAL
A Witness to the Journey from Past to Present.

Paul Singh Dhaliwal, who is in his ninetees, came to Canada in the year 1932. From his port of landing, Victoria, he took a small boat to come to Vancouver where he halted for three days and then got a ride to Abbotsford where he joined his uncle. As soon as he was in Abbotsford, one of the first things he did was to visit the Gur Sikh temple. He stayed with his uncle for a month and then moved to a lumber company based in Squamish, an area then known as Green Lake. Following his stint at the Lumber company, he moved back to Abbotsford, and later to Vancouver where he settled for about six years.

According to Paul, the Abbotsford Gur Sikh temple was very different then. The front portion of the Gurudwara was constructed first followed by the back portion. Then there was the Nishan Sahib which was a cedar tree’s pole. “It was really tall. There was an iron staircase which was attached with the Gurudwara. After the world war, in the nineteen forties, hydro suggested that the cedar pole might fall down hence should be brought down, which was later accomplished.”, claims Paul. There were only four Gurudwaras then in the Vancouver area vis-à-vis: Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster and Abbotsford. “I have always been associated with the Gur Sikh temple. Even now I go to the Gurudwara”, says Paul. There was no Nagar Kirtan organized in the early days as the population was small. Dasam Padshah, Guru Gobind Singh’s Gurpurab was celebrated in Vancouver; Vaisakhi in Victoria and Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab in Abbotsford.

In Abbotsford, the Gurpurab was celebrated in the Gur Sikh temple. Every family used to visit the Gur Sikh temple – even those who lived in Mission. At that time there were very few Sikhs and even fewer among them were rich – Mr. Mayo and Mr. Kapoor being among them. No one in the community had much money, and used to live in bunk homes set up by the mill owners. Even though the people had little money they still gave to the Gur Sikh temple. Even the Sikhs who lived and worked in remote areas contributed by mailing donations to the Gur Sikh temple. It took many years for the Indo Canadian communities to obtain the right to vote and citizenship. It was in the year 1947 that the community got citizenship.

Paul went back to India in the year 1947, when he got married and stayed until 1949. He returned to the city of Mission in the year 1950, where his six kids were born. He is now settled in Abbotsford.

According to Paul, life was very different during those times, and required more physical effort to sustain oneself. “I have struggled all my life. But especially in those days all of them had to struggle very hard to sustain themselves”, says Paul smilingly. Paul worked for 10 cents an hour at the saw mill and there was no help from the government. He stresses on the fact that life has become very easy to live now. There was a mill that moved away from Mission. It seems that the mill owners first said that they will move the mill upstream and a ferry will take the workers there. But after six months the company sent letters to the workers notifying them about the closure of the mill. Mill workers, many of whom were from the Sikh community were left with no work. That was a very tough time for the community, according to Paul. Many moved to Abbotsford, which greatly helped the community.

Paul nostalgically says, “During those times every one knew each other in Abbotsford and Mission and were very fond of each other”. Paul is proud at the progress made by the community. He adds proudly, “Later on, our kids studied and got into universities and did very well for themselves”.

“I will like that the whole of Canada knows about this Gur Sikh temple”, says Paul. "Everyone around the world should know, learn and able to see through this Gur Sikh temple, our history of success". An honest man, Paul has worked very hard in his life. He believes that Waheguru has been very kind to him and the Sikh community. The community should always listen to the Gurbani and respect one’s elders.

 

INDAR SINGH GILL *
A Pioneer and an Entrepreneur.

Indar Singh Gill came to Canada in 1930 at the age of 17, leaving behind a wife and an 8 month old daughter in the care of his parents. The economic hardships faced in India due to poor cultivation and lack of irrigation made many seek a better life in Singapore, Malaya, or East Africa. It was Indar’s Taiyaji Niranjan Singh Gill, already settled in Canada, who gave Indar the ticket to a better future. Niranjan sent five sponsorship permits from Canada to the village of Dhudike and it was decided then that Indar would travel to Canada with his 13 year old younger brother Joginder and his cousins Darbara Singh Shergill and Saudagar Singh Gill.

Horse carts were used to travel from the village of Dhudike to Ludhiana, where a train to Calcutta would cost them 14 rupees each. Once in Calcutta, the steam ship of the Jardine Company of Hong Kong would be waiting to take them to Hong Kong for a cost of 44 rupees each, during the course of 18 days. Travelling from Hong Kong to Victoria was to be done by the way of another steam ship, The Empress of Japan owned by the Canadian Pacific Company, for a fare of $90 US. This part of the route was to take approximately 2.5 months.

Indar left India on Diwali day after working all night irrigating the family farm by hand, packing his possessions into a metal trunk purchased from Moga for 3 rupees, which the family still has to this date. This trunk carried his money, passport, clothes, two blankets, 10 pounds of Indian butter and flour. On December 12th 1930, at 6:00 p.m. Indar Singh Gill arrived in Vancouver, BC. As he excitedly took in the view of his new home, Indar couldn’t help but notice the ‘W’ shaped red rotating lights above the Woodwards store and the tallest building being the Marine Building.

Due to the depression, all sawmills had shut down, thus eliminating all employment possibilities. Indar had the desire to work so sought out any jobs which were available. He found the opportunity to work for Sher Singh Ahluwalia in Kamloops, picking tomatoes and harvesting potatoes for three months. He made a total of $54 CAD that summer. Upon his return to Vancouver Island, Indar began working for Great Central Lake Sawmill for 18 cents an hour, working six hours a day four days in a week. In July 1932, Indar started working for Babul Singh Kapoor at Kapoor Lumber Company at Sooke Lake, near Victoria. Babul paid Indar 15 cents an hour for 6 days of work a week and a provided a place to stay in the bunkhouse located on site. Supplies were bought every 6 months from Victoria, by walking 20-25 miles since not many cars were owned. In 1935, once all expenses were paid to his Taya ji, Indar sent his first gift back to India of 60 rupees to his grandfather to buy a horse.

From the start of World War II in 1939 until its end in 1945, there were no ships surviving the German and Japanese submarines so travelling back to India was impossible. The restrictions placed on Indian immigrants were relaxed in 1947, with 150 people being allowed to emigrate per year from India. Indar was kept from seeing his wife for 17 years, until his visit back to India in 1947 but in the meantime, there was correspondence via letters. In 1949, Indar along with his wife, Kartar Kaur Gill, and son Nachhatter Singh Gill, travelled via steam ship through Honolulu, Hawaii to San Francisco, purchasing western clothes for Kartar along the way. Then aboard the Great Northern Train, they entered Canada in White Rock on November 25th 1949, to then reside in Mission, B.C. Indar’s two daughters, Malkit Kaur Brar and Baljit Kaur Khangura were both born in Mission.

In 1951, Indar started his own business under the name of Indar Fuel Company, where he delivered wood and sawdust to people to burn in their homes for heat. He had a number of trucks which he used to pick up raw material from Albert McMahon’s mill in the east side of Mission at Suicide Creek. In 1958, the appearance of natural gas brought the end of his company so in 1959 he purchased an old sawmill in Mission on the Fraser River. This mill was destroyed near the end of 1959 due to fire, so in 1960 construction of the new modern Fraser Valley Sawmill started. This mill employed 30-40 workers who helped produce 60,000 board feet of lumber per shift, to be exported to the United States, Japan, and the Great Britain. The sawmill was never rebuilt after the fire on October 9th 1964. Then in 1979, Indar built a shake and shingle mill in Fort Langley called Langley Forest Industries Ltd., which still operates to the present day. In the 1980’s, he became involved in raspberry production and land development, after serving as President of the old Sikh temple in Abbotsford in 1951 again in 1979.

The Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple was one of many, under the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver. Each gurudwara had an allotted religious function which would be celebrated each year, such as Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s birthday at the Abbotsford gurudwara in November, Vasaikhi in Victoria, and Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s birthday in Vancouver. Indar’s son Nash S. Gill recalls visiting the Abbotsford old gurudwara and describes the surroundings as, “the road in front of it, South Fraser Way, was just two lanes and it had a gravel shoulder. They did have stairs going down to the South Fraser Way… I also remember the flag pole that they had and it was a wooden flagpole, and I believe the flag pole was some 70 ft high, it had a red light on top of it.” The gurudwara was surrounded by fruit trees, with pear trees on the west side and the parking lot located on the east side of where the gurudwara is now present. Nash also recalls “chopping up firewood and then carrying it into the basement of the gurudwara and piling it up to be used for heating and for stoves that were used for cooking the langar.” While sitting in the darbar sahib (main praying hall upstairs), the men would sit on the right side and the ladies on the left with a sheet to cover their bare legs due to their attire of dresses. The priest of the gurudwara resided on site and conducted all the ceremonies required, such as waking and doing prakash of the Guru Granth Sahib. This priest also worked for Indar Singh Gill as a truck driver delivering the wooden sawdust. The gurudwara was run by volunteers at that time who would do sewa like, the maintenance, cooking and serving. There were no committees present to handle the affairs until Abbotsford became incorporated as a branch of Khalsa Diwan Society with the opening of the new gurudwara.

The Gill family had many celebrations of their own at the Abbotsford gurudwara, starting with the wedding of Nash to Rajinder. After meeting Rajinder in India on a visit in 1969, Nash sponsored her to come to Canada in 1972, and then on June 18, 1972, they were married. The gurudwara was packed with people sitting and standing wherever room was available. Besides being the first place visited by Nash’s sons after birth, the Abbotsford gurudwara was also the site of Nash’s son’s engagement, making it the first ceremony held after renovations were complete in April 2007.

Canada was a place where prejudice and discrimination was present in the early 1900s and well into the 1950s. Nash believes the Abbotsford Sikh Gurudwara being designated as a National Historic Site is “a feather in the cap of the Indo-Canadian community.” The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is the only existing original temple in Canada, mainly due to the “good roof on it”. During Indar’s presidency of the gurudwara in the late 70s, putting a new shingle roof on the gurudwara turned out to be maybe the leading factor in its preservation. Indar had the new shingle roof placed at a cost effective price and installed by one person. Nash describes the procedure: “One person went up and it’s a very steep roof so they tied a rope to him and then kind aofanchored him by taking it around the other side so he wouldn’t fall off and he had the roof put on".

Indar Singh Gill had the determination and courage to go from a sawmill worker to owner during his stay in Canada. He was a man whose first priority was his family. Nash says, "He wanted to raise his kids, he wanted his kids to have good education, and he wanted them to have an easier life than he did, he wanted them to live nicely, and he would forego a lot of his own luxuries for the sake of his family".

*This interview was given by Nash Gill on behalf of his father late Indar Singh Gill.

 

THAKUR SINGH BANGA *
The man, his family and the Gur Sikh Temple

Thakur Singh Banga came to Canada in the year 1906. During his early days he spent some time in Vancouver Island, New Westminster and Abbotsford. His fourteen year old son, Nand Singh Banga and his younger brothers Pritam Singh and Hardit Singh joined him in the year 1920. They began working along with their grandfather. The family also worked in Coombs on Vancouver Island and later moved over to the mainland Vancouver to work for the Mohawk Lumber Company in the city of New Westminster. Bimb’s grandfather Thakur Singh, his father and uncle, his mother, his three sisters and two brothers, along with his uncle Pritam Singh’s three sisters and two brothers all lived together in the two houses, which were constructed very close to each other, spread in about 4 acres. In 1938, Bimb’s mother went back to India along with her three daughters and son Mohinder Singh to stay. Bimb and his elder brother Ajit Singh continued to stay in Canada with their younger Uncle Hardit Singh, who had earlier returned from Punjab and their grandmother. The family from Canada all got along very well with cousins in India. They returned to Canada after enjoying their stay in India for some time.

The Banga family had a long association with the Gur Sikh Temple. Bimb’s grandfather, Thakur Singh, while working for the Thretheway lumber company at the end of Mill Lake Road carried lumber with other men after their shifts to the Gur Sikh temple site and helped construct the Gurdwara. This was done so that everyone in the community had a place to come, whether they were living in Langley, Chilliwack or Mission. The Banga family used to come to Abbotsford from New Westminster quite often where they met Sunder Singh and Harry Singh. Harry Singh and his brothers became great companions to enjoy Abbotsford with and gelled well with the Banga brothers. Together they used to visit the Gur Sikh Temple every Sunday. They spent most of their Easter and summer holidays in Abbotsford, and looked forward to their visit to the Gur Sikh Temple. Sunder Singh’s boys would pick them up from Queensborough and then they would all enjoy working in the farms of Sunder Singh or Harry Singh. According to Bimb, “We enjoyed it out here in the country and went to the Gurdwara, Gur Sikh Temple every Sunday. When there was a service at the Gurdwara we definitely went there and enjoyed the congregation which gave a feel of a close knit family of Sikh people to us, here in Abbotsford. There were only a few families that lived in Abbotsford and Chilliwack, Mission and we all got together at this one Gurdwara. This was the closest Gurdwara for this area and everybody knew everybody. And, my Dad right from the days when he lived in Queensborough, in New Westminster visited the Gurdwara to help in cooking and the service there for all the years I can remember as a child”.

When the Banga family moved to Abbotsford to live in the year 1951-52, they leased Harry Singh’s farm for two years. The family bought cows and some of the equipment and established their dairy farm. Unfortunately, Harry Singh passed away and his children for some reasons did not lease the farm back to them. The Banga family’s friend Ken Neil from Mission, Canadian Canners, suggested to him to use some of his land he had for dairy farming. He also built a barn for the cows. The family moved to Mission and remained involved in the business of dairy farming until the year 1958. Even when they were in Mission they continuously visited and participated in the activities of the Gur Sikh temple.

According to Bimb, one of the leading Sikh couples who supported every one in Abbotsford, were the Tayaji and Tayiji of the Thandi family. “I learnt most of my farming skills from Tayaji. From his way of farming, running the machinery, planting, spraying, literally everything. And we enjoyed that life. They were like our parents”, recalls Bimb. Bimb believes that it is crucial for the coming generations to learn about Tayaji and Tayiji and pay their tribute to what they did for the Gur Sikh temple and our community in Abbotsford. They donated lumber, their time, andmoney to make sure that the Gur Sikh temple was kept in good shape and order.

The Banga family is very pleased that the Gur Sikh temple is now officially declared as the National Historic Site of Canada. Bimb sharing his thoughts says, “I hope this historical site, will give a little bit of insight to all the people not just some of the East-Indian people but all the people of Canada or whosoever comes onto the history of it. An in depth look at what the site really means to everybody here in Abbotsford and whosoever, and whoever grew up with in that environment of that temple”.

*This interview was given by Bimb Banga on behalf of his grandfather late Thakur Sing.

ISHAR KAUR MAHAIRHU
Granddaughter of Thakhur Singh Banga.

Ishar Kaur was born on the 15th of October, 1934 in Burnaby. She was a year old when her family went back to India and only returned back from India after getting married in the year 1956. Her father, brothers, uncle had all moved to Canada by then. She did not feel much difference coming from India to Canada. Washrooms were outside the homes in India and here they were inside. This was the only noticeable difference in her view.

As soon as she came to Canada her family visited the Gur Sikh temple. The family did not have a car hence they did not frequently visit the Gurdwara. The first time when she visited the temple was on a big occasion- the birthday celebrations of Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji were taking place here in the Gurdwara. That was in the month of November in the year 1956.

She very clearly remembers her father doing sewa in the Gurdwara. “He would do langar sewa. In those days everything had to be done by oneself, there were no machines to help you", remarks Ishar. Where everyone used to cook is the same place where there is a kitchen in the Gurdwara now. They used to use coal, then. "There were many ladies who used to help make langar. Among them taking the lead was the Tayiji of Thandi family", according to Ishar. There were few families in Abbotsford and Mission. The Gurdwara was the focal point for everyone. Everyone use to celebrate occasions there together.

Ishar is able to recollect that there was a tall cedar Nishan Sahib.

"I will like to see that the Gur Sikh temple, which has now been considered as the National Historic Site, to be remembered for times to come. It represents our history and the land where our ancestors settled in the early years", says Ishar.

 

FAMILY OF DHARM SINGH GILL
Journey from Dhudike to Abbotsford

Rajinder Singh Gill’s family of Aldergrove is a prosperous farming family. A pioneer of their family Dharm Singh Gill’s uncle Jeewan Singh arrived on the Komagata Maru ship to Vancouver. When the ship was turned back and was on its way back to Hongkong uncle changed ships to begin his journey back into Canada. After staying in San Francisco for a while he took a train to Calgary. His journey was full of adventures as he had to jump off the train while trying to avoid the train guards. After wandering for many days, he arrived in Calgary. But it was at Golden where according to Rajinder, there was a Gurdwara, that he was able to find work. After getting well settled in Canada he decided to call Rajinder Singh’s Gill’s grandfather, Dharm Singh Gill to Canada in the year 1928. For some time his father stayed with his uncle.

Dharm Singh Gill workedg very hard in Canada. He got his resident status due to the efforts of Dr Pandia (see BC Personalities section), who was a lawyer in Vancouver and a great supporter of the Indo Canadian community. According to Rajinder, his father, Zora Singh told him that there were at least 250-300 men who were illegally living in Canada. It was due to the efforts of Dr Pandia that got them legal status to live in Canada. Dharm Singh Gill was blessed with a baby boy in India, Zora Singh Gill, father of Rajinder in the year 1929. Zora Singh grew up in Dhudike, got married and was blessed with two sons. It is interesting to note that it was not until 1954, when Dharm Singh traveled to Punjab, that he met with his son, daughter in law and his two grand children.

It was in the year 1959, that Dharm Singh Gill called his son to come to Canada from Dhudike in Punjab. Rajinder Singh had grown to be nearly sixteen years of age and began working for a saw mill. The family moved into farming and today owns a farm, in Aldergrove. Not a day passes by in which they do not think about the Gur Sikh temple, and its betterment.

The Gill family has had a long association with the Gur Sikh temple. All the family events have been celebrated at the Gur Sikh Temple. Dharm Singh Gill, who is known as Baba ji, led a wonderful life. According to Rajinder he was very good friends with everyone, especially with Paul Singh Dhaliwal. All his friends were very fond of him and so was he. He was very adaptable and everyone in Abbotsford knew him well. He was always proactively involved in doing the sewa of the Gur Sikh temple. He was often seen doing the chavar, fly whisks sewa at the Gurdwara. He was also seen lighting incense in the Gurdwara. There was another important person, at that time, Baba Nand Singh. He along with Dharm Singh worked together in the Mohawk Mill, at New Westminster. At the mill, there were two brothers Pritam Singh and Nand Singh, all these friends along with one more, used to work in a ship for a white man, who used to limp a little. He once fell in the water from the ship. Baba and his friends using the turban saved his life and pulled him out of water. That white man, said to my Baba and Pritam Singh, that I always insisted on wearing a hard hat, but from now onwards I will not, thus accepting turban as a permitted part of the uniform.

Rajinder Singh was married at the Gur Sikh temple. According to him, the Gur Sikh Temple had always been like so, lively and full of sangat. Everyone participated, Bhai Nand Singh got ration for the wedding, Mukhtiar Singh helped too, Basant Kaur, Minder Gill and Gurdial Kaur made langar and helped in the wedding proceedings. There were no caterers at that time there. It was always a joint effort of the community in any event of any family. Tayee used to take the lead and help in making food for the community. Rajinder Singh’s two sons and one daughter got married here too. He thinks that there should be a museum constructed here. “All the important memorabilia of our community has to be collected and put together and preserved for future generations to see it for themselves”, adds Rajinder.

The Gadree Baba’s were in great support of this Gurdwara and used to visit it often. They used to come from California. They found their way to the Gur Sikh temple by looking at the Nishan Sahib, which was a cedar tree trunk. There was a light fixed on the top, which was used to direct the Gadree Sikhs and alert them about the presence of border patrols on guard. These Gadree Sikhs had contributed immensely to the Indian freedom struggle, as is known world over.

There is not a single day when Rajinder Singh Gill's family members cannot be seen in the Gur Sikh temple. Their bond has become stronger every day. He is very happy to know that the Gur Sikh temple, which epitomizes the history of the Sikhs in British Columbia will get its long due representation on the internet. It will help people know and learn about the long history of Sikh families in Canada.

There is interesting anecdote associated with Rajinder’s Uncle Jeewan Singh. During the second-world war, the government had rationed food and other stuff for everyone, especially the Gurdwara at the second avenue. Ghee was an important ingredient for the making of Karah parshad and was required in abundance daily. The secretary of the Gurdwara Naginder Singh Gill, of village Churh Chuk, took Baba Jiwan Singh to the court to meet the judge, and explain to him that we, the Sikhs need Ghee, to make Karah Parshad. Judge asked them to prove that the amount asked for is what they should be allowed to have. At that instance Naginder Singh Gill asked Jeewan Singh who was very fond of ghee to demonstrate it to the judge. The veteran of Punjab ate a full pot (2 pound) of Ghee, which won him and the community the right from the judge to get as much Ghee as much it was required for the karah parshad for the Gurdwara.

 

THE THANDI FAMILY
A saga of leadership and devotion towards Gur SIkh Temple Sundar Singh and Mohinder Kaur (was also known as Harnam Kaur), the Thandi Family of Abbotsford.



Sundar Singh, affectionately known by the Abbotsford families as Taya ji arrived in Canada in the year 1906-1907. He worked in Thretheway lumber mills on the river Fraser. The mill was owned by Thretheway family, and was later named as Abbotsford Lumber mill. Sundar was promoted and was made in charge of fifteen and thirty men. He was called as the ‘boss’, says Sucha Thandi, a farmer of Abbotsford. Sundar Taya along with some more Sikh mill workers thought of constructing a small Gurdwara at Abbotsford. They discussed this idea with Kuhatay Curk. As much as Sucha can recall, 3000 dollars were deposited with the authorities, which was a sizable amount for that period. Sundar taya was instrumental in buying one acre of land. Then he thought of requesting the lumber company for lumber to give towards the construction of the Gurdwara. He inspired every Sikh to give money in kind or cash, and participate in the noble cause. The Thretheway family agreed to give lumber to them, free of cost-a great contribution indeed. Every Sikh, including Taya, cleaned the lumber and painstakingly carried it on their shoulders to the site of the Gurdwara from the Mill.

It is not difficult to contemplate the kind of trouble all these families had to go through since the Gurdwara’s site was located up on a hill. Slowly and steadily, Taya and his friends got involved in building the Gurdwara. In the year 1911, the construction of the building of the Gurdwara was completed and its doors opened for the sangat of Abbotsford. The Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver got associated with this Gur Sikh Temple and shared their title recognizing this Gurdwara as one under their constitution. Sundar Taya was very much instrumental through out this process. Taya went back to India to get married. He was inclined towards doing farming and bought land in Abbotsford on his return.

During his stay in the Punjab, Taya suggested to Sucha’s brother that if he studies and passes grade ten, then it will be possible to get him to Canada. Unfortunately he could not pass with good scores. Taya even suggested the same to Sucha, and also said that if you come to Canada, then he will be able to help him in the farm work. When Sucha Thandi came to Canada in the year 1953, he visited Gur Sikh temple. He saw the building which was same as it is now, but the park at the back was not there. There was a drive way to the Gurdwara.

There were only four families here then, according to Sucha. He adds, “land was cheap, for one dollar you could get an acre. Wages were 10 cents an hour”. The land which is now so expensive was a swamp land, he adds. There were small parcels of lands available then.

Number of Sikhs bought that land. Slowly, as the municipality also expanded, they cleared land of water. This resulted in a swamp land turning into a fertile land to farm. Earlier there were also tobacco plantations in this area, and Sikhs did not work in the tobacco plantations.

Sucha Thandi’s wife’s name is Ossi Kaur. Her family is from Fraser Mill, New Westminster.

There was a Gurdwara there which according to Sucha had similar style of construction as the Gur Sikh temple. Now the Gurdwara does not exist. He recalls that anyone from Punjab was considered as a brother by all the Sikhs. Everyone supported him and his family to settle down. Everyone was very close to each other.

Ossi, was in Punjab, when his father began looking for a bride groom for her. He shared his intention with Tayee who had a photo of Sundar. Unusual for those times, Tayee suggested that the boy and girl see each other, and if they like each other then they could be married. Ossi’s father sent Sher Singh to got Mahilpur to meet Sucha, and if he approved of him then Sucha’s papers to immigrate to Canada could be filed. In those days it was easy to get visa. Sher Sngh met up with Sucha Thandi and asked him how he was related with Taya. Sucha also suggested that he will like to finish his grade twelfth in India. Ossi and Sucha got engaged and soon got married.

Their journey to Canada was full of events. At that time Sucha traveled on Pan America flight that took them to Hongkong from Delhi. From Hongkong they had to take a ferry, President Cleveland. At Hongkong they had to stay for two days. Generally those traveling stayed at the Gurdwara. The Bhai at the Gurdwara gave them a room to stay. The matter was of serious importance as his wife was expecting by then. They stayed at the Gurdwara for one night and then moved to the Granthis house. He was kind after he saw that Ossi was pregnant.

The Granthi’s wife was Russian born and she did a lot for Ossi. They boarded the next ferry to the USA and landed at San Franscisco. In the boast they met with another Punjabi, who seemed to have been lost. After that they took train to Vancouver. They got off at Seattle where the train had to change. By evening they reached Vancouver, waterfront station. They had forty American dollars with them, which they converted into Canadian dollars.

They came over to Abbotsford and went to the Gur Sikh temple to pay their respects. They took a taxi, driven by a Caucasian driver, who assured them to safely take them to Sundar Taya’s farm. The roads to Abbotsford were small. Once you have been on the highway there was a farm of Hari Singh who was from Sucha’s village. There was only one gas station in Abbotsford. They reached home and the very next day went to the Gur Sikh Temple. There they observed that every one knew each other very well. Langar was being cooked and served.

“I found Gurdwara to be simple and felt less people at the Gurdwara as compared to the Gurdwaras in Punjab. There was not that much of crowd in the Gurdwara. Nishan Sahib could be seen from a far off distance. It was made of wooden cedar tree trunk and had a bulb fixed on top of it. It was approximately 70 feet. I attended the first Jor Mela ceremony, which was the ceremony of the Guru Nanak Dev’s Prakash’s Utsav”, recalls Sucha.

The Gurpurab celebrations year around were shared among various Gurdwaras in Victoria, Vancouver and Abbotsford. Since there were few car owners then, everyone gave rides to each other, especially at the time of Gurpurabs. Guru Gobind Singh birthday was celebrated at the Gurdwara at Vancouver; Guru Nanak Dev ji was celebrated at Gur Sikh Temple at Abbotsford.

Ninth Guru’s celebration was celebrated in Victoria. During the Jor Mela celebrations every family in Abbotsford use to come together to decorate the Gur Sikh temple. There were few families in Abbotsford then and they tried to do their best. Thandi family especially was actively involved with the Gurdwara. They contributed the making of the stairs and also help put up the new nishaan sahib. Earlier there was a tall cedar tree which acted as the nishaan sahib. The Abbotsford authorities pointed to the fact that the tree could be of a problem to the traffic and passerby on the South Fraser Way as it might fell on the road. Hence a new nishaan sahib, made of steel was put at the Gurdwara. Usually kirtan was performed in amateurish manner, and was done by the sangat. It was until very late that the ragi jathas began to come to perform kirtan. The stairs in front were made of wood, but then later on, Mohinder Tayee gave money for the construction of new stairs.

With time, the population of Sikh community increased in Abbotsford and Mission. This helped a great deal to the celebrations of the Jor Melas which were celebrated here. The community began celebrating those on a bigger scale. At that time there were few pathis, some of them came from Victoria and Vancouver. At that time it used to take two hours to come from Vancouver to Abbotsford. Sucha Thandi recalls that he had a Plymouth at that time. The Gurdwara had parking where one could park 10 – 12 cars. First he had a truck and he used to first take it to the Gur Sikh temple for matha tekna. There was another person from my village, Master Sudhay, who also had a truck. We both used to go to Vancouver on our trucks. Before proceeding, we used to always stop at the Gurdwara to ask whether they need anything from Vancouver or not.

During the 1920s there were many Gadarites who used to come to Abbotsford from the US. These revolutionaries used to find their way into Canada looking at the light put on the cedar tree, nishan sahib. At the Gur Sikh temple they used to meet, and decide their next course of action, whether it was to go to India or return to the US. For them the Gurdwara was ideal place as it was on a hill top and had a tall nishan sahib. There were many functions of the Thandi family that were conducted at the Gur Sikh temple.

Sucha Thandi’s sons were married at the temple. Sucha feels very happy to know that the Gurdwara has been recognized as a National Historic site. He believes that through this Gurdwara history of our ancestors will be known to the world. The location of the Gur Sikh temple is also very appropriate. It is right at the centre of the city and has a large land. It is on a high ground, hence can be seen and noticed from far. Once can see the whole town from here as well. The Gur Sikh temple and the work being done such as making of a website will help the history of the Sikhs in Abbotsford and Canada be remembered until posterity.

Santokh Singh Gill (village Chuhar Chakk)*
The Humble Pioneer with an Entrepreneurial Vision

Mehar Singh Gill recalls the humbleness and success achieved by his father, Santokh Singh Gill, as we sit in the living room of his home in Coquitlam.  Santokh Singh Gill was a humble Sikh pioneer, who helped his community selflessly, and devoted his time to the Gurdwara and his family.  Mehar Singh recalls, "My father, Santokh Singh Gill, arrived in 1907 by boat.  He didn't know what to expect, he was advised that sawmill work was available.  He was successful in acquiring an "Edgermans" position at a sawmill in Queensborough.  The local sawmills preferred to employ East Indian workers as they proved to be very hardworkers. 

He established himself as a dependable worker- with steady employment and decided he would return to India to get married.  Many other young Sikh men followed suit.  Immigration laws were very stringent, especially for East Indians, Chinese, and other Asians.  It was necessary to apply to the Immigration department upon your return- acceptance was sporatic and time consuming.  A majority of immigrants settled into areas where jobs were more available.  The more popular areas were:  Queensborough, Fraser Mills, Abbotsford(farming), and Vancouver. 

Sikhs established Sri Gurdwara Sahibs in these areas:  Fraser Mills, Abbotsford, Queensborough, Vancouver, and Victoria.  Most of these Gurdwaras were older homes renovated to accomadate the Sangat.  It was a community co-operative effort.  One of the first Sri Gurdwara Sahibs was in Abbotsford.  Streetcars were still in existense for transportation back in those days, and the whole family would pack up and spend most of a day on the occasion at the Gurdwara Sahib.

Life was quite difficult in those earlier years.  The majority of Sikh families had a cow or two and a fair size garden to subsidize family expenses.  Milk from the cows was used at home.  Excessive milk was sold in the neighborhood.  We had chickens, and the excessive eggs were sold to neighbors.

The average house was quite small.  The whole family would share one bathroom.  It was fairly common for 2 or 3 families to share one home.  Heating of these homes was usually firewood.  Firewood was also used for cooking in stoves or wood furnaces for heating.  Wood was acquired from the local sawmills at a very reasonable cost."

In the late 1930's Santokh Singh Gill had his own Wood Fuel Delivery Transport company.  In the 1940's he expanded his business, and hauled lumber in Vancouver and Mitchell Island.  In the 1950's Santokh Singh Gill and his sons further expanded the business by establishing a freight transport company.  Gill Interprovincial Lines Ltd was formed to haul freight to and from Easten Canada.  They had many trucks in the fleet.  This company was the first to transport frozen and refridgerated items in refridgerated containers.

Santokh Singh Gill was married to Sham Kaur Gill(Kingra) from village Samadh Bhai(district Moga).  They had four sons:  Ajaib Singh Gill, Dalip Singh Gill, Mehar Singh Gill, and Piara Singh Gill.  All four sons were born in New Westminster BC.  His many grand children and great-grandchildren live in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and U.S.A.

*This interview was given by Mehar Singh Gill on behalf of his father late Sardar Santokh Singh Gill.

 
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