Sikhs Celebrate Hundred Years in Canada



Toronto Star
Saturday, April 12, 1997

Harminder (Harry) Singh Mann likes to live in the past.

His Mississauga home is filled with antiques and artefacts, including a rare handwritten copy of the Sikh holy book, silver swords and portraits of his ancestors.

"It's our rich past that enables us to face the present with pride," says Mann, 40.

It was this conviction that motivated him to help organize activities to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Sikhs in Canada.

"The general perception is that we (Sikhs) just came off a boat and are here to make a quick buck," observes Mann, a lawyer.

"It's important to let the public know that the first Sikhs landed in Canada in 1897. Like every other pioneer immigrant community, these people worked hard, faced enormous barriers and paved the way for us to enjoy the fruits of their labor."

Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike can learn some history during the year's events, says Mann, who helped organize the Centennial Foundation, dedicated to Sikh Canadians celebrating a century in Canada.

In his treasured collection, Mann has a painting of Capt. Kesur Singh, one of the first Sikhs to land in Canada. Singh was a member of a contingent of soldiers serving in the British-Indian army who were invited for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in England.

At the invitation of Canadian soldiers they met in England, a group stopped in Canada on their return to Hong Kong.

Being British subjects, a number of them, including Singh, decided to stay and made their home in British Columbia.

This settlement is being celebrated all over Canada this year. In the Greater Toronto Area, the Centennial Foundation hosts a gala dinner at the Lionhead Golf Club next Saturday.

For T. Sher Singh, a Guelph lawyer and avid student of Sikhism, the centennial celebrations "will be a start of understanding our roots while allowing us to celebrate both cultures, East and West."

Singh, one of the key persons behind the Centennial Foundation and a Toronto Star columnist, says his involvement is about heritage.

"I want my daughter to understand that being Canadian begins with a deep knowledge of our own heritage."

According to Singh, 47, Saturday's event will include a historical exhibit featuring Sikh pioneer towns of Canada, an award ceremony honoring both Sikhs and non-Sikhs who have made outstanding contributions to Canada, traditional dancing and a performance of the play The Komagata Maru Incident.

The play, by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollack (twice recipient of the Governor-General's award), dramatizes events around the 1914 arrival of a shipload of Sikh immigrants on the west coast.

Saturday's gala will also launch events going on throughout the year.

The centennial means Sikhs will have two things to celebrate this month. Tomorrow is Baisakhi, or Solar New Year, a multifaceted festival of entertainment and serious worship. Other communities also celebrate Baisakhi, including Hindus and Jains.

For Sikhs, Baisakhi marks the establishment of the "Khalsa" order (meaning "pure") by the 10th Guru of the Sikh faith called Guru Gobind Singh. Among his numerous writings are the words "Recognize all the Human Race as One."

Mann's father Balwant Singh Mann, a Cambridge University graduate and retired engineer, explains the significance of the two events this way:

"Recently someone asked me, 'Are you Canadian or Sikh?' How can I convince people that I am both?

"If I am a good Sikh," Balwant, 70, continues, "I am automatically a good Canadian because my Sikh values complement my Canadian ideals. These are the values I learned from my ancestors and have passed on to my children and grandchildren. Baisakhi and the centennial celebrations all over Canada are a solemnization of these values."

Reflecting on the negative stereotyping of Sikhs, Harry Mann points out that Sikhs "are peace-loving by nature and have contributed very positively to Canada, both economically and socially."

Violent clashes at a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C., a few months ago should not be used to tarnish the image of an entire community, he says.

"A violent reaction of a few individuals should not reflect on all of us and in order to avoid this in future, we need to educate the host community about who we are and what we stand for."

The Mann household, where four generations live under one roof, is a perfect example of heritage and traditions combined with a progressive Western lifestyle.

Copyright 1997 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.



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