North America’s Oldest Gurdwara Offers Insight into the Complex History of British Columbia’s Early Sikh Settlers

Driving down South Fraser Way in Abbotsford, BC, you’ll notice a dark orange flag outside what looks like a typical frontier heritage home, with unassuming square windows and beige siding.

But inside it is revealed to be a Gurdwara, with a raised stage to accommodate the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, facing a large hall that can accommodate hundreds of people.

This building is the Gur Sikh Temple, built by Sikh settlers who arrived in British Columbia over 100 years ago. It is the oldest existing Gurdwara in North America.

According to Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, coordinator at the University of the Fraser Valley Institute of South Asian Studies and co-curator of exhibits at Gurdwara’s Sikh Heritage Museum.

The Gur Sikh Temple looks like a settler house from the outside while it houses a Gurdwara on the inside – a contrast that captures the experiences of settler Sikhs as they arrived in Canada and sought to assimilate while maintaining their South Asian identity, says Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

“Externally it has a false facade and a gabled roof, but inside it pays homage to every typical Gurdwara,” she said.

She added that the settlers wanted to adapt Canadian characteristics on the outside – including wearing Western clothing – without compromising their identity, culture, religion, languages ​​and food.

“Anything you can wear…consider it your own”

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 Chrétien on July 31, 2002.

It was built in 1911 by Sikh men who worked at the Abbotsford Lumber Company. Wanting a common 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 back, consider it your own,'” Sandhra said.

Lob Singh (left), one of the Abbotsford Lumber Company’s Sikh employees, is pictured in 1915 at left, next to an unidentified Japanese man. George Ziegler, one of the factory’s German employees, is pictured on the wagon to the right. (Submitted by Sharanjit Sandhra)

After working 12-hour shifts at the mill, the men hauled the timber over half a kilometer to where the Gurdwara would be built. All the wood for the building was transported this way.

But the lumber company’s support didn’t last.

In 1930, one of the company’s founding members also became a founding member of the Abbotsford Ku Klux Klan, and he fired between 40 and 50 “Orientals” as a show of “goodwill” toward white workers, according to an article. of newspaper.

A news article dated July 9, 1930 reports the dismissal of some company employees for accommodating white men. (Submitted by Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra)

Built on the highest hill

Despite the challenges, Sandhra says the Gurdwara is a great example of embracing a new culture while holding your head high.

“When these Sikh men built this Gurdwara, they are also fighting the systems of racism,” Sandhra said.

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

On November 16, 1918, as the Gurdwara began to attract people from across the border, a 70-foot-tall flagpole was erected to hoist the Nishan Sahib, or Sikh flag, signifying the presence of the Sikh community in the neighborhood. The flag is also visible from the Canada-US border, about eight kilometers away.

On November 16, 1918, a 70-foot tall Nishan Sahib was erected outside the Gurdwara to signify the presence of the Sikh community in the city. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

“The Sikhs, who came from America, followed the light bulb over this original Nishan Sahib and walked from America to this Gurdwara,” Sandhra said.

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, labor exploitation, colonialism and colorism – which are still relevant today, she adds.

“So this Gurdwara was not just a place for Langar [communal eating], it was not just a place of 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 free of charge upon request.

Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, co-curator of exhibits at the Sikh Heritage Museum, says if the walls of the Gurdwara could talk, they would echo the rich history the place has known. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

On a school visit, Gurkirt Kaur Manhas, a year 12 student at LA Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, said the Gurdwara gave her insight into her own past.

“It’s like a personal connection where I not only learn as a student in the Punjabi class, but it’s a family connection where I learn more about my relatives, about my pioneers,” Manhas said.

Armaan Singh Thandhi, a fellow student, said he felt an affinity with the Gurdwara and its historical significance.

“It represents the pressure they faced not only to provide for their families and to build a community, but also to project an image and convince a country that was initially not receptive to them that we could bring members to the fabric of Canadian society,” he said.

Sandra agrees.

“These walls, if they could talk, would share and echo all of these stories.”