There is a unique Canadian National Historic Site on South Fraser Way, in Abbotsford, BC called The Gur Sikh Gurdwara (temple), designated as such by Prime Minister Jean Chretien on July 31, 2002. A hundred year old religious institution of the Sikhs, built by struggling pioneers (started in 1908); this temple is a testament to the pride, vision and steadfastness of a pioneer community at the turn of the last century.
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”.
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 resported 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. The community was disenfranchised in 1907 and the fight to get the vote was fought long and hard (until 1947 when the vote was finally granted). The ASM news (Sept 6, 1944) reported that every one of BC’s East Indian community was personally interviewed for petition purposes. Naginder Singh Gill, secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Society, Abbotsford told them this was being done in preparation for a campaign to secure organized support for provincial recognition of the group’s claim to the franchise.
A flashpoint for the community was the arrival of a ship called the Komagata Maru that had set sail from Hong Kong on April 6, 1914 with 165 passengers on board. It had picked up other passengers along the Pacific route in other ports and set said from Yokohama, Japan with 376 passengers. The passengers were planning to arrive on Canadian shores to challenge discriminatory laws that prevented people of Indian origin from immigrating to Canada. The law demanded that anyone arriving in Canada had to have traveled on a continuous journey from his or her land of origin. Knowing that no ships sailed directly from India, the law in effect served its purpose. The ship arrived at the Victoria quarantine station on May 21, 1914 and two days later it anchored in the middle of Burrard Inlet. Canadian officials did not allow the passengers to leave the ship and only 22 returning passengers were allowed to go to shore, while deportation orders were prepared for the rest. For 63 days the passengers stayed on the ship with dwindling food and water while the local community challenged the government in court by donating hard earned money to the cause. Public sentiment was on the side of the government and much animosity was shown towards the passengers by the press and the public. The shore committee made up of local Indian leaders that had been doing the negotiations with the government fought hard for their right to stay, only to lose the battle in the courts. On July 23, 1914 the ship set sail back to the far east, their dream unfulfilled.
As the only early Sikh temple that has survived intact, the Abbotsford Heritage Sikh Temple has become imbued with 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. The Indian 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. 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.
Indo Canadians make up approximately 15% of Abbotsford’s total population. Of the 23,190 visible minorities identified in the 2001 census, 73% (17,005) classified themselves as South Asian. The most frequently identified ethnic origin was East Indian with 87% (14,755) and Sikhism was the most common religion with 89% (15,070). Immigrants make up majority of the South Asian population at 63% (10,655) and 95%
(10,140) of these immigrants are born in India. Canadian-born South Asians made up 37% (6,230) of the population, of which 95% (5,930) are born in British Columbia. English and Punjabi were reported by 36% (6,250) of respondents as being the most commonly spoken languages in the home. 51% (8,740) of respondents spoke only Punjabi at home and 9% (1,485) spoke only English at home.
The Abbotsford Post, Friday August 2, 1918
The ASM News, July 2, 1958
The ASM News, Sept 6, 1944
Satwinder Bains is the Director of the Centre for Indo Canadian Studies at the University College of the Fraser Valley