Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to look at history from a different perspective. History was all about what I learned growing up in school. That was what happened in the past, that is what I got tested on and that is what Jeopardy and other game shows on TV asked questions about. My history knowledge was validated by my environment. There were moments where my family alluded to Sikh history and what happened in Panjab. However that did not affect me as I was born and raised in Canada. So what influence does that have on me? Besides, no one else knew about Sikh history, or at least that is what I thought as no one actually got into deep conversations about it around me. I saw pictures at the gurudwara when we went but they were older gentleman fighting with swords. Unfortunately, that’s all I depicted from these visuals. I sat in the langar hall eating my roti and looking around at these pictures. My parents spoke to me about our gurus. I could name and list them off in order. I even read comic books that shared their life stories in a way that I could relate to in a story telling manner. However, after I finished reading my books, I had no one to discuss what I felt or what I thought, besides my parents, or write a book report on what I had just read and how it made me feel.
Fast forward 30 years and here we are today. Wow! Today I’m surrounded by amazing individuals who teach me something new about Sikh history every time that I interact with them. This excites me as our culture and history is so rich and wealthy from a content perspective. In turn, I find myself seeking out knowledge whether it is via Google or other resources that I am slowly becoming aware of. The learning is never-ending and we need to either evoke conversations or continue having them.
One memorable moment for me was last year when I met Pardeep Singh Nagra. The excitement that I see in his eyes and the enthusiasm in his voice as he speaks about Sikhs and our history is infectious. For those of you that do not know, he is the Executive Director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada in Mississauga, a Canadian athlete and human rights activist. He also was the Ontario flyweight amateur boxing champion who was told that he could not fight because he had a beard. As a result, today boxers are allowed into the ring with beards. This is a very brief and high level overview of who Pardeep Singh is. However, what I want to focus on is how he ignited my interest in Sikh culture and history. The museum in Ontario houses some interesting artifacts and every little item has a story. The stories vary from experiences, articles of clothing, handwritten letters and stamps, replicas of transportation modes, figurines, posters and pictures. To have the ability to visualize the stories with these items is like creating a movie that tells the complete story.
Another passionate individual that I have met is Steve Purewal, the founder of Indus Media Foundation Canada. He is the creator of a unique exhibit about the little known story of India’s contribution to the First World War. The exhibit, Duty, Honour and Izzat: The Call to Flanders Fields, commemorates the contribution of the Indian soldiers. This is yet another avenue for sharing about our Sikh history. It was Sikh soldiers who surrounded and protected John McCrae while he wrote the infamous poem Flanders Fields. This is a little known fact but something everyone can relate to. We all have heard in school about November 11, Remembrance Day, Flanders Fields but how many of us knew this fact about Sikhs and their involvement?
This display and platform have intricate facts backed up with evidence collected from years past. The BC Government has awarded the Indus Media Foundation a one-time grant to share South Asian heritage through exhibition displays and learning tools intended for BC schools and community spaces. Panjabis are the largest South Asian ethnic group in Canada. Our roots are deeply embedded in Canadian history. Steve is in the process of updating the BC curriculum to be more reflective of our Canadian history that includes Sikhs.
As I absorbed all of this information that Steve was sharing, Canada Day was upon us. What better timing to be celebrating Canada knowing that our ancestors were amongst the first in the line of fire during the First World War? It was at this time that the Duty, Honour and Izzat: The Call to Flanders Fields exhibit was on display at the Khalsa Diwan Society Vancouver (Ross Street gurudwara). My family and I spent our Canada Day at the Sikh Resource Centre, next to the gurudwara reading and learning. In turn, we also had the honour of viewing and learning even more about the Komagata Maru display. If you have not been, I would highly recommend going for an afternoon and actually taking the time to read and look at all of the hard work that has been put into this informative display.
It was here that I personalized Sikh history. I started reading about Shaheed Bhai Mewa Singh and for some reason it all became real for me. I was able to conceptualize this generation arriving to Canada for a better life, after all that is what my parents did. I envisioned these men coming over from Panjab to slowly start calling their families over or trying to establish themselves to eventually start a family in this new homeland of opportunities. I am confident that we have all heard at least one story about someone that arrived in the late 1800s or early 1900s. If not, these days everyone has the capability to Google or seek out other Sikh resources to learn more.
However, at this time, what resonated for me about Shaheed Bhai Mewa Singh is that he was from the 1900s and his story had roots in places that I could relate to and knew about. Like many other Sikh pioneers, he came to Canada for a better life but at the same time Canada was at heightened levels of racism. As you can imagine leisure and work brought daily challenges and obstacles. The moment that triggered Mewa Singh into overdrive was when he witnessed an informant for the Canadian immigration department walk into a gurudwara in Vancouver and shoot two Sikhs. Soon after, he started to receive threats that if he did not testify in favour of the shooter, he too would face the same demise as those he had witnessed. Mewa Singh did not waiver, he held strong to the truth. The threats continued and even more severe after his truthful testimony. He held Inspector Hopkinson accountable for these shameful deaths, as it was he who persisted with the threats and he who attempted to testify in favour of the shooter’s so called innocence. It was at this particular court appearance that Mewa Singh shot and killed Inspector Hopkinson. In turn, he was tried in court, proven guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Shaheed Bhai Mewa Singh died a martyr as opposed to an oppressed individual.
It is interesting how my current life and interactions took me way back into history. I find this all very intriguing and wanting for me to learn more. This gives me a better understanding of how certain individuals in older generations are the way they are, have the beliefs that they do and how I want for a better life for our future generations. It helps me put current situations and events into perspective. Truly the best moment for me was when my daughter called my husband a few weeks ago from school asking for details about Flanders Field and Sikh soldiers during the First World War.
My husband shared with me that our daughter had started a did you know conversation about Sikh history in her class. Her teacher was truly intrigued and our daughter wanted a few more details than what she could remember. This warmed my heart. My husband and I definitely seek out information and engage with friends and resources in a way that enhances our knowledge and feeds into our curiosity. We have open conversations with our daughters but do not preach. I will be the first to admit that at times I get frustrated with our daughters because I wonder why they are not as curious as we are. Why don’t they ask questions about our culture? And the list goes on. However, a wise friend once shared that children will learn through osmosis and when they are good and ready. By having open conversations in our home, our daughters have an ear to what is being said, my husband and I are always here to discuss and answer questions, but it is up to our daughters as when and where. Evoking curiosity and allowing for the conversations to occur naturally is the best learning that anyone can do or ask for. At the end of the day, Veerhood is about bringing a community of people together to pique curiosity. If what I have witnessed in my home is a little sign of what is possible, I am hopeful for larger scale conversations with more Panjabis.