explorASIAN Festival Blog

Saturday, March 29, 2008

100 South Asians who are making a difference in British Columbia

An era of influence

Randy Shore and Kim Bolan
Vancouver Sun
Thursday, March 27, 2008

Looking back over the 82 years since he arrived in B.C. from Punjab, India, Jack Uppal is amazed at his community.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have expected to have this many of our people here and doing so well. I never would have expected this at all," the successful Vancouver businessman and community leader said this month.

Just a baby when he and family joined patriarch Dalip Singh here in 1926, Uppal remembers how difficult some of the early years in Canada were.

There was discrimination. South Asians were denied the right to vote. It was almost impossible to sponsor relatives to join you in Canada.

But there were opportunities galore and community members made sure they capitalized on them with hard work and ingenuity.

Uppal owns Goldwood Industries, a lumber company in south Vancouver.

He thinks he has probably helped "thousands and thousands" of other Indians immigrate to B.C. by offering them employment and sponsorship.

"Every morning, I get up and I first thank God and then I thank my dad for coming out here and having me and my brother and my mother come out here to have the opportunity to live in such a wonderful place like Vancouver, Canada. And we have had the opportunity to prosper. It wouldn't have happened in any other country."

But it was not always easy.

The first South Asians to lay eyes on this province were the officers of a multi-ethnic contingent of the British army on their way to celebrate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee.

The loyal Sikh regiment was a favourite of Queen Victoria and frequently travelled throughout the colonies, according to historian Satwinder Bains, of University College of the Fraser Valley.

What those officers saw in 1897 was a vast land bristling with virgin timber, sparsely populated - a land of unimaginable riches.

A handful of years later some of those officers were back as settlers, as were many of their family and friends, who they had regaled with stories of the potential of this new world frontier.

"The first settlers to arrive in B.C. in 1903 had a very good reception," Bains said. They were considered exotic, but unthreatening. "There were very few."

The earliest Sikh community was founded in Vancouver, but within a few years there were settlements dotted along the Fraser River and as far inland as Golden. Some moved to Vancouver Island. Mayo Singh, who became a successful mill owner, founded Paldi, a small community near Duncan, naming it after his village in Punjab.

Many of the pioneers settled in Victoria and prospered there. At one point the Indian community in the capital was the same size at that in Vancouver.

By 1906, the new immigrants had banded together to form the Khalsa Diwan Society to look after their cultural, religious and political needs. The society bought land at 1866 West Second Avenue in Kitsilano and opened the first temple, or gurdwara, in 1907. Newly arrived men could stay there for free for as long as they needed a place while they searched for work in Vancouver sawmills.

Virtually any place in B.C. there was a mill, there were Indian immigrants working in and around it.

Other Sikh temples were built in places like Abbotsford and Golden.

Only 45 settlers came from India in the first full year of immigration to B.C. starting in 1904. The following year 387 arrived, followed by another 2,384 Indian immigrants the next year. The City of Vancouver had fewer than 6,000 registered voters at that time.

The influx of South Asian settlers was dubbed a "flood," said Bains.

In 1908 the local Caucasian settlers had seen enough and pressured the government to pass the first of a series of laws restricting migration from India.

The Continuous Journey Regulation was passed in 1908, requiring that all would-be immigrants arrive from their homeland by direct passage. Since no ships offered such service between South Asia and Canada, it had the effect of eliminating immigration from the subcontinent.

The Continuous Passage law directly precipitated one of the blackest incidents in Canadian history, the refusal of immigrants aboard the Komagata Maru.

In 1858, Queen Victoria had declared that Indians would enjoy all the rights and privileges afforded to citizens of the British Empire and Singaporean Sikh businessman Gurdit Singh took her at her word. He chartered the Japanese steamer Komagata Maru and arrived in Vancouver with 376 passengers, many of them veterans of the British Army from the Punjab, on May 23, 1914.

They were refused entry and the Canadian government summoned a battleship to back its position.

The Khalsa Diwan Society formed the "shore committee" to provide food and water to those aboard the ship and to try to fight politically and legally on behalf of the would-be immigrants. But after almost two months at an impasse, those aboard were forced to return to India.

The immigration door, which had only been open a crack, slammed tight to South Asians who could not even bring their wives and children to Canada. Immigration slowed to a trickle of about a dozen men per year through the 1920s, forming bachelor communities throughout B.C.

Some went back to India. But many more persevered and made B.C. their home.

"That first decade was tumultuous," understated Bains. But it was tumultuous for everyone. Chinese immigrants faced similar indignities at the hands of government and sometimes racist mobs.

The South Asian community fought back. Through the Khalsa Diwan Society and some political allies, they organized lobbying trips to Ottawa. Everyone in the community would pitch in money to help.

Jack Uppal remembers his dad and other community leaders being part of those early battles for immigration rights.

"Don't forget, there was no person who was not a son or a daughter of a legally entered Canadian into Canada up until 1950. That's when the first people started to come over in the quota. So when the quota came, it was 50 a year," Uppal said.

"And even when it came to increasing the quota from 50 to 150, I was at the forefront. We used to write quite a brief, for instance. I would write it and they would take it to Ottawa and present it to the government at the time. Having friends in all three political parties also helped me."

Indo-Canadians were also looking for voting rights.

Uppal was called in 1947 to fight in the Second World War for a country that would not let him vote. He had to report to the army camp at Oakridge on 49th Avenue.

"I had told the senior officer that if we don't have the right to vote, we shouldn't be called and he said, 'You are quite right. Your community has been fighting quite hard on this issue,'" Uppal recalled. "I said I would be proud to go if I was a first-class citizen like everyone else. I would be proud to go. But it didn't happen."

It would be decades before the most discriminatory practices of government were lifted. Indians in Canada were granted the right to vote in 1947 and immigration laws finally relaxed in the 1970s.

The result was a renewed enthusiasm for Canada on the subcontinent. In-migration from India immediately vaulted into the tens of thousands per year and settled to about 25,000 people annually right through the turn of the century.

The linguistic and religious mix of today's South Asian community owes much to the "chain migration" strategy employed by the early Punjabi settlers. Most of the early settlers were Sikhs and they in turn brought their family members and so on, building their families and communities in Canada link by link.

While the vast majority of South Asians residing today in B.C. are Punjabi Sikhs, the Hindu community has grown from a few dozen in the early 1900s to about 100,000 today. Similarly, Muslims of South Asian origin number just over 90,000.

Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's reign of terror during the 1970s prompted about 50,000 South Asians resident in that east African nation to flee. But the government of India barred the Ugandan Ismaili population from returning to the motherland.

It was only through the intervention of the Aga Khan, the leader of the Ugandan Ismaili community, and then-Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau that tens of thousands of Ugandan Indians were given passage to Canada.

Political upheaval and migration is a recurring theme in the migration of South Asians to B.C. and it was sectarian violence abroad that fueled the growth of the local Sri Lankan community. Indeed, every country with a significant South Asian community - Fiji, Uganda, Hong Kong and others - has supplied B.C. with another unique facet through immigration.

The result is a wildly diverse group of communities that are as culturally insular - prizing their unique traditions, languages and religious affiliations - as they are confidently and robustly participatory in B.C.'s public life.

South Asians have really shared B.C., said Uppal, who has been a constant observer for eight decades.

"We have helped to build the province of British Columbia, there is no question about it," he said. "I am quite proud of the fact that our people have done so well in every field, almost - but particularly in politics. Here we didn't even have the right to vote and now our people are making the laws."

"I was so proud of Wally Oppal becoming a judge and now of course he is attorney-general. And Herb Dhaliwal and Ujjal Dosanjh and all these others who have done so fantastically well. We have done a lot of good work and for that I am very, very happy."

It is from this perspective that The Sun undertook to identify 100 leading citizens from a truly global mosaic of communities hailing from South Asia. Diversity and inclusiveness are the dual tracks of this list.

From hundreds of names taken from the panoply of South Asian leaders, academics, community workers, artists, journalists, thinkers, speakers and doers, we have crafted a list of influential men and women in British Columbian society.

© Vancouver Sun 2008