2017 is a significant year for Canadians across the country. It is the year our beautiful nation turns 150 years old. Canada is famously known as being welcoming, peace-loving, multi-cultural, and just plain nice. And many of us would also agree that our leader, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau is the embodiment of all the positive attributes Canada is always given by the rest of the world.

The Sikh community in British Columbia has helped to shape Canada as a country and the general immigration laws in Canada. As members of the Sikh community celebrate this momentous occasion, we should take a moment to think about and appreciate our collective history.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia (2013), the first Sikhs came to Canada in the 20th century, when Canada was still under British control. Some of these people visited Canada as part of the Hong Kong military contingent en route to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The first immigrant Sikhs to settle in Canada arrived in 1904 and established themselves in British Columbia (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013).

As immigration expanded in Canada and as more immigrants made their way to Canada, the country created a number of laws and policies in order to restrict different groups of people entering Canada. Part of those changes required Indians to pay a “landing money” fee, and in 1908, the Continuous Journey rule was imposed by the Order in Council which increased that fee from $50 to $200 (Passages to Canada).

The most famous of incidents occurred on May 23 1914, when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, having sailed with 376 Indians. Upon arrival, 352 of these individuals were refused admittance to Canada and were forced to sail back to India where they faced violence and turmoil (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013).
Then in 1919, further immigration restrictions were put in place after World War I because of fears of communism and “enemy aliens”. This caused many to become suspicious and act discriminatorily towards individuals of different backgrounds (Passages to Canada).

Despite this discrimination and the negative attitudes, Sikhs in British Columbia quickly established a strong community which centred around their religious institutions (gurdwaras) (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013). In 1907, the Vancouver Khalsa Diwan Society (commonly referred to as the “Ross Street Gurdwara”) was founded (www.kdsross.com). Shortly after, many more gurdwaras were established in Surrey, Abbotsford, and other surrounding cities (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013). Through these gurdwaras, Sikhs provided much help to fellow community members in need and they also fought hard to rescind immigration bans Canada put in place (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013). In the 1920s, the gurdwaras reached a significant development, when wives and children of legal Sikh residents of Canada were allowed to entry into Canada (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013).

In 1947, the Government of Canada, which was under the rule of the Late Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, created formal Canadian citizenship which formed a status separate from the United Kingdom. Under the Citizenship Act of 1947, people who were previously classed as British subjects were allowed to be classed as Canadians, and those who were not naturalized in Canada, remained classed as “aliens” (Passages to Canada). In 1962, the Government of Canada, which was under the rule of the Late Right John Diefenbaker, introduced further changes to immigration policies. Canada eliminated significant racial, religious and ethnic barriers to Canadian immigration and applicants were now assessed based on skill, regardless of race, ethnicity or origin (Passages to Canada).

In the 1950s and 1960s, Sikhism in Canada began to change its character alongside the changing immigrations laws and policies in Canada as well. During this time, more Sikhs immigrated to Canada as immigration laws became more relaxed and racial restrictions were removed (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013). Due to this change in the laws and policies, in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Sikhs (some very highly educated) came to and settled in Canada. As the numbers grew, more gurdwaras were also established across the different cities in Canada (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013).

From the years 1968 to 1979 (and later from 1980 to 1984), the Late Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau served as the Prime Minister of Canada. He was loved and respected by the world and known for many memorable and significant reforms. In 1971, the Government of Canada introduced an official multiculturalism policy for Canada (Passages to Canada). This policy recognized the many different cultural groups that co-existed and contributed to Canada. Five years later, in 1976, the Government of Canada introduced a new Immigration Act. This Act reflected progressive attitudes toward immigration, and reinstated Canada’s commitment to accepting refugees, and defining Canada’s immigration goals; non-discrimination was stated as one of these main goals (Passages to Canada).

Every country has its own rules and policies when it comes to immigration, however it can be agreed by most that the current Government of Canada, which is under the rule of the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, holds true to what the Late Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau introduced for Canada. On May 18, 2016 the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau formally apologized in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident (CBC, 2016). He stated very eloquently “Canada does not bear alone the responsibility for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers, but Canada’s government was without question responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely, for that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry,” (CBC, 2016).

Further to this apology, the Honourable Rona Ambrose stated “we take these actions [to reinstate change in the government] because we want to live up to our own values. We cannot change the past but we can demonstrate that Canada has changed,” (CBC, 2016).

It is no secret that Canada is truly an amazing place to immigrate to. It is also no secret that our positive reputation across the world is what draws many people into its borders. This is demonstrated in the 2016 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration. The Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, revealed various immigration statistics pertaining to Canadian immigration. In 2015, Canada admitted 271,845 new permanent residents, which was an increase over 2014 (260,404). In 2015, a total of 15,489 individuals were admitted by utilizing the super visa which allows parents and grandparents of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to visit Canada for up to two years at a time, with the visa being valid for 10 years. And in 2015, a total of 9,411 people were admitted as government-assisted refugees, which was 45% above the planned admission range of 5,800 to 6,500.

As the Sikh community celebrates Canada’s birthday, we should take a moment to look back and remember the history of Canada, and what sacrifices took place in order to shape such a multicultural, hospitable, warm, peaceful, loving, and welcoming place to live.