Saturday, 20 July 2024

Canadian Sikhs | A vocal minority today, Indians first arrived in a hostile Canada in 1902

IANS | Updated on Saturday, September 23, 2023 22:23 PM IST

NEW DELHI: Shortly after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s much talked-about India visit for the G20 summit, the tone and tenor of the relations between the two nations changed in the aftermath of the assassination of prominent Khalistan supporter Hardeep Singh Nijjar, causing a fissure between communities -- in both Canada and India.

This development necessitates understanding how the Indian diaspora in Canada has evolved and come to affect not only bilateral associations, but also polarise the Canadian Indian community to the extent of inciting concern by governments.

As it has come to light, at least 21 pro-Khalistan separatists are sheltered by Canada.

The situation took an unforeseen turn after the elimination of proscribed Khalistan Tiger Force leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia on June 19 this year.

In July 2022, National Investigation Agency (NIA) accused him of conspiring to murder a Hindu priest in Punjab and declared him a “fugitive terrorist.” NIA also published his Surrey residential address and announced a reward of USD 12,000 for information that could lead to his arrest.

As per a Washington Post report, “Nijjar’s family and friends say he advocated for a peaceful and democratic path to a Sikh homeland.” Prior to his death, he was organising a referendum among the Sikh diaspora to gauge support for Khalistan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reportedly “weaponised the radical Sikhs against their parent country and polarised the Indian diaspora in Canada for political motives.”

The proclamation that pro-Khalistan supporters will hold demonstrations outside Indian diplomatic missions in Canada on September 25 by targeting the Indian national flag and nationalist Indians in Canada, speaks of a grave and a compounding situation.

The Indian community in Canada appears to be split into Sikh radicals and nationalist Indians who are labelled as RAW agents and harassed.

The reason matters escalated to this point -- threatening India’s national security from a distant foreign land and thus creating diplomatic tensions -- is because the foreign land of Canada has had a long history of Indians residing there for nearly two centuries.

As the largest non-European ethnic group, Indians are among the most rapidly growing communities in Canada. The North American country is home to the seventh largest Indian diaspora. Ontario and British Columbia have the maximum concentration of Indians, followed by Alberta and Quebec.

It was in the late 19th century that the Canadian Indian community came to be, spearheaded by Punjabi, predominantly Sikhs (most of whom were farmers), and fewer Hindus and Muslims. Many of them were British Army veterans, as Canada was a part of the British empire.

In 1858, Queen Victoria declared that, throughout the Empire, the people of India would enjoy "equal privileges with white people without discrimination of colour, creed or race."

Upon retiring from the army, some soldiers joined an Indian diaspora which was inclusive of people from Burma, Malaysia, East Indies, the Philippines, and China. They found work with the police force and some became night-watchmen. Some even began small businesses of their own. These jobs earned them great wages compared to Indian standards.

In the early 20th century, the government established measures to curb the number of Indians immigrating to Canada. This policy was enforced to make sure that Canada retained its European demographic, as was the system in America and Australia for immigration.

It has been a trend throughout history that the majority of South Asian Canadians have been Indians/of Indian origin.

1902 was a significant year, when Punjabi Sikh settlers first arrived in British Columbia to work at the Columbia River Lumber Company.

In 1903 was what may be termed as the first major wave of immigration from South Asia to Canada when many men arrived in Vancouver. These migrants had heard of Canada from British-Indian troops in Hong Kong, who had travelled through Canada the year before for the coronation of Edward VII.

In 1905, the early settlers built the first Gurdwara in British Columbia and North America; but it was destroyed in a fire in 1926.

The second Gurdwara in Canada was built in 1908 in Vancouver for the growing number of Punjabi Sikh settlers that worked at sawmills close by. This Gurudwara was demolished in 1970 and relocated.

The oldest Gurdwara in Canada is the Gur Sikh Temple in British Columbia. Built in 1911, this Gurudwara was designated as a national historic site of Canada in 2002. This is Canada’s third-oldest Gurdwara. Eventually more were built.

However, it was no smooth sailing after arrival for Indian immigrants in Canada. Racism welcomed them.

Most British-origin Canadians feared that migrant workers would work for lower wages and an influx of immigrants would threaten their jobs. Hence, a series of race riots targeting Indians (and other immigrants, mainly the Chinese, and Black Canadians) ensued.

1906 and 1907 saw heavy immigration from the Indian Subcontinent to British Columbia. An estimated 4,700 people had arrived. There was also an influx of Chinese and Japanese immigrants at this time.

More immigrants came the following year, taking the figure to 5,209. The government then began checking migration. Most of the few arrivals then were single men, many of whom returned to South Asia, while some went in search of opportunities southward to the US.

As India was getting closer to Independence in 1947, many of British Columbia's anti-South Asian legislation were withdrawn. The Canadian-Indian community’s right to vote was restored.

1950 was an eventful year in Indo-Canadian history when 25 years after settling in Canada, Naranjan ‘Giani’ Singh Grewall became the first person of Indian origin in North America to be elected to public office against six other candidates.

Grewall was re-elected to the board of commissioners in 1952 and by 1954, was elected and became mayor of Mission, a city in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

In 1951, the Canadian government enacted an annual immigration quota for India allowing 150 in a year. The figure stood at 100 for Pakistan and 50 for Sri Lanka.

In 1967, all immigration norms in Canada based on specific ethnic groups were scrapped. Immigration from European countries to Canada was declining since their economies were booming post war.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Indo-Canadian community began urbanising as tens of thousands of immigrants moved from India into Canada each year, contributing to nearly 20 per cent of the population.

In 2015, Canada had introduced an express-entry system that offered permanent residency invitations to highly skilled workers, even if they have not secured a job in there.

The spike in migration between 2017 to 2021 coincided with the tenure of Donald Trump, the US President, when his anti-immigration stance had in part won him the 2016 election.

By 2017, India was the country to give maximum international students to Canada. Much like the historical immigration pattern, most Indian migrants came from Punjab, aside from Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana.

In 2019, the number of permanent residents declined significantly owing to travel disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But there was a significant jump of 198 per cent the following year when restrictions were lifted.

In recent times, Indian immigrants to Canada have tripled since 2020, about close to two million mark.

Further, Canada plans to welcome 1.45 million new immigrants in the next three years.

Indians are the largest group to receive permanent residency in Canada and there has been a 260 per cent increase in the same. Except in the wake of the pandemic in 2020 and 2022, the number of Indian immigrants has seen a constant rise each year since 2013.

Further, Canada is a hotspot for Indian tech workers too. As per a recent report, India is the country with most tech workers who moved to Canada between April 2022 and March 2023.

IANS previously reported that Canada's immigration-friendly national policy and labour cost advantage attracted more than 32,000 tech workers, with 15,097 coming from India.

Given such a dense connect with Canada, India’s strained relations with the country is of great concern, especially with regard to the millions of immigrants and all aspects related to them.

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