North America's oldest Gurdwara offers a peek into the complex history of B.C.'s first Sikh settlers

·4 min read
The Gur Sikh Temple opened on Feb. 26, 1912, and instantly became a religious and cultural hub for South Asians from across North America.  (South Asian Studies Institute/Web - image credit)
The Gur Sikh Temple opened on Feb. 26, 1912, and instantly became a religious and cultural hub for South Asians from across North America. (South Asian Studies Institute/Web - image credit)

As you travel down South Fraser Way in Abbotsford, B.C., you will notice a deep orange flag outside what looks like a typical frontier heritage house, with unassuming square windows and beige siding.

But inside, it is revealed to be a Gurdwara, with an elevated stage to accommodate the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, facing a large hall with seating for hundreds of people.

This building is the Gur Sikh Temple, built by Sikh settlers who arrived in B.C. more than 100 years ago. It is the oldest existing Gurdwara in North America.

The contrast between what is on the outside and inside of the building captures the tension those settlers experienced when they arrived in Canada, and sought to assimilate in society while maintaining their Southeast Asian identity, says Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, co-ordinator at the University of the Fraser Valley's South Asian Studies Institute and co-curator of exhibits at the Gurdwara's Sikh Heritage Museum.

Kiran Singh/CBC
Kiran Singh/CBC

"Outwardly it has a false front and the gabled roof, but inwardly it pays homage to every typical Gurdwara," she said.

She added that the settlers wanted to adapt Canadian features on the outside — including wearing western clothing — without compromising their identities, culture, religion, languages and food.

'Whatever you can carry ... consider it yours'

Today the temple continues to serve as a place of worship, but it is also a National Historic Site and museum, as designated by former Prime Minister Jean Chretien on July 31, 2002.

It was built in 1911 by Sikh men who worked at the Abbotsford Lumber Company. Wanting a communal gathering place, the men asked their employer to provide them with wood for a Gurdwara.

"The lumber company said, 'OK, whatever you can carry on your backs, consider it yours,'" said Sandhra.

Submitted by Sharanjit Sandhra
Submitted by Sharanjit Sandhra

After completing 12-hour shifts at the mill, the men would haul the wood more than half a kilometre away to where the Gurdwara would be built. All of the wood in the building was transported this way.

But the support from the lumber company didn't last.

By 1930, one of the company's founding members also became a founding member of the Abbotsford Ku Klux Klan. According to a newspaper report, he fired between 40 and 50 employees as a gesture of "goodwill" toward white workers.

Submitted by Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra
Submitted by Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra

Built on the tallest hill

Despite the challenges, Sandhra says the Gurdwara is a prime example of embracing a new culture while keeping one's head high.

"When these Sikh men built this Gurdwara, they're also fighting the systems of racism," said Sandhra.

She says they chose to build the Gurdwara on the tallest hill they could find as a sign of pride and protest against the systemic discrimination experienced by people of colour.

On Nov. 16, 1918, as the Gurdwara started to attract people from across the border, a 70-foot-tall pole was installed to hoist the Nishan Sahib, or Sikh flag, signifying the presence of the Sikh community in the neighbourhood. The flag is also visible from the Canada-U.S. border, about eight kilometres away.

Kiran Singh/CBC
Kiran Singh/CBC

"Sikhs, who were coming from America, they followed the light bulb on top of that original Nishan Sahib and walked from America to this Gurdwara," said Sandhra.

Over time, the Gurdwara also became a hub for South Asians in North America who protested against colonial rule in India.

"They would come to this Gurdwara space and recite poetry. Poetry became their act of revolution," Sandhra said.

The poems were about racism, labour exploitation, colonialism and colourism — which continue to be relevant today, she adds.

"So this Gurdwara wasn't just a place for Langar [communal eating], it wasn't just a place for a refuge. It was a place of revolution. It was an act of resistance to colonialism."

Past meets present

Today, Sandhra helps provide walking tours of the Gurdwara, which are available for free upon request.

Kiran Singh/CBC
Kiran Singh/CBC

During a school tour, Gurkirt Kaur Manhas, a Grade 12 student from Surrey's L.A. Matheson Secondary, said the Gurdwara gives her a peek into her own past.

"It's like a personal connection where I'm not only learning as a student in Punjabi class, but it's a family connection where I get to learn more about my relatives, about my pioneers," said Manhas.

Fellow student Armaan Singh Thandhi said he feels an affinity to the Gurdwara and its historical significance.

"It represents the pressure they were dealing with not only to provide for their families and to build a community, but also to carry an image and to convince a country that was initially not receptive of them that we could be contributing members to the fabric of the Canadian society," he said.

Sandhra concurs.

"These walls, if they could speak, they would share and reverberate all those histories."

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