Since moving to Canada from India in 1983, I had wanted to learn more about the origins of the Indian community. Most of the people that I met at University were second-generation Canadians whose parents had come from India in the mid-sixties and early seventies. I knew there had been an earlier wave of immigration, mostly to British Columbia. Most Canadians seemed to know little about this, and there was little mention of the early arrivals by the second-generation community.
Over the years I worked on several films dealing with immigrant issues and this early history kept re-emerging. In 1986, the Air India crash which claimed the lives of over 300 Canadians of Indian origin, threw a harsh spotlight on the Indian community in Canada and specifically the Sikh community in British Columbia. The militant Sikh nationalist movement in the state of Punjab in India received some support from the community in Canada. The Air India bombing was suspected to be part of that struggle. Two years earlier, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, in retaliation for the Indian Army╝s attack on the holiest Sikh shrine, The Golden temple. In the eighties it seemed that the Sikh community was always in the spotlight.
However for me, this was not just Sikh history, it was part of my history as a person from India. The early immigrants Canada to from India were largely Sikh, but the response to them was as Indians. They considered themselves as Indians and played a critical role in the struggle for Indian independence. I also realized that without their ground breaking struggle, it would have been impossible for me to immigrate to Canada.
But the history of the Indian community, of the Sikh community, remained largely hidden from the public. As a filmmaker, trying to understand my own place in Canada meant that I had to learn more about this history.
The KOMAGATA MARU incident fascinated me and I have been developing a film around this critical event in the history of Canada and India.
When the opportunity came to do Passage From India for "A Scattering of Seeds," it provided an opportunity to seek out some of the early families whose ancestors had settled British Columbia. I was joined by researcher/writer Nisha Pahuja. Nisha's parents came to Canada from India in 1971, when Nisha was two, so her collaboration on this project brought in another layer of understanding and a different perspective.
As Nisha spent hours on the phone, which she unabashedly loves to do, remarkable stories began to emerge, not just from Vancouver but all over British Columbia. Prem Gill, in Vancouver did additional research and played a crucial role in seeking out additional people.
In October, I went to Vancouver to attend the Vancouver International Film Festival with my film SHOOTING INDIANS: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas. This trip gave me an opportunity to meet people who would potentially be the subject s for the film. Most of the old-timers the first generation that had come had passed away. However, their children were still around.
The meaning of the old phrase, "you have to know where you come from to know where you are going" soon struck home. Many families knew very little of their own history. In some cases the impact on kids who were third-generation was painful - they didn't see themselves reflected in the Canadian history, their parents knew little of their own family history and had passed little on to them. At other times there was a recognition of the history but no interest, some saw themselves as simply Canadians. They were fully assimilated yet the notion of the extended family was still extremely strong. Then in some families I felt a degree of awkwardness when they discussed the rural and working class roots of the first generation.
Everywhere I went there was tremendous generosity and openness, some people like Kam Power of Abbotsford , driven by our research, did some of her own research on her grandfather by going to the local archives, and gained some insights into her family history.
Over three generations the community had done well for itself in spite of the pervasive racist policies f the government. Most families lived in large suburban homes and worked as professionals in a wide range of fields. Some were now the owners of saw mills their ancestors had worked in as wage labourers. A few had become economically and politically influential in the British Columbia landscape.
After a long search, I met Belle Puri a well known CBC Vancouver reporter who had now become a producer. I was struck by her knowledge of her family history and her understanding of it, in spite of the fact that her maternal grandfather Bagga Singh had died before she was born. I felt Belle had a very clear sense of herself as a British Columbian whose roots were quite deeply integrated in history. She was proud of the contributions that people like her grandfather made in building British Columbia.
Being a media personality, Belle was not at all daunted about being in front of the camera. Her family seemed quite remarkable and open as well. Her mother Nsibe, had passed down a lot of stories about her father to Belle. Belle also spoke of the possibility of including other people in the film who were part of the larger family who knew Bagga Singh.
I returned to Toronto, feeling quite thrilled but, I still wanted to get stories from people, personal incidents that would give a sense of what it was like for people before 1947.
The film would be woven with three strands: the history of immigration from India and the challenges faced by the first immigrants in Canada; a personal history of the community through anecdotes of second generation people; and the mains spine of the story would be Belle's family. An ambitious plan for less than 24 minutes of finished film.
In between interviews with Belle, we went on a road trip first to Kamloops, in the British Columbia interior, for an interview with Gurbachan Heed who had lived there since she came in 1932. She had as is the norm in South Asian homes, laid out a fairly elaborate tea for us. Samosa, Indian sweets and savouries.
Gurbachn Heed lives on Singh street, named after the family farm which at one time ran the entire length of the road and perhaps the only street in Canada to have a Punjabi name. Now she has 100 acres of apple orchards. In the background new condominiums developments loom above apple trees. She talked about life on the farm. She spoke of the interaction between the Sikh community and the Japanese and Chinese workers they would at times hire, the setting up of the local Sikh gurdwara. The early life on the farm in the thirties, the depression.
After yet another shoot with Belle's family, we headed out towards Vancouver Island. Before we took the ferry we met with Sadhu Binning. Sadhu in an amazing poet, who I feel has managed to distill the essence of the Indian experience in Canada in his poetry. His book No More Watnao Door is published both in English and Punjabi. I wanted Sadhu to recite his poetry and hoped that we could use it in the film. Sadhu patiently recited his poems a number of times. Then it was time to dive down to the ferry.
On Vancouver Island the first stop was Duncan, and an interview with Karm Singh Manak. Nisha had warned me that Karm is very particular about his bridge games every night so we only had about an hour. The entire extended family was there. Tea, cookies and samosas were served. Jeff blushed yet again as he was asked the inevitable. Karm Sing Manak spoke at length about the struggles at the saw-mills and the struggle to get the franchise for Indians. At the same time he talked about his non-Indian friends and the support he got from them.
On the way back to the main highway we looked carefully for the dirt road leading to Paldi. this time we got the turnoff and there it was. A small gathering of neatly kept houses, and a fairly large Gurdwara. Mayo Mills which bore the owner Mayo Singh's name is long gone as are the bunkhouses that housed the workers. As we walked around the deserted streets the rain clouds parted and a perfect rainbow appeared.
One of Mayo Singh's son-in-laws still lives in Paldi lives and manages the estate. He told us that there were 18 families who still lived there. In it's heyday, Paldi was a multicultural mix of Chinese, Japanese and Sikh workers.
We arrived in Victoria soon after five, and prepared for our last interview with Kuldeep Bains, who came to Canada as a young man in 1954. His father however had preceded him and had lived in Canada since the twenties. Kuldeep Bains is the owner of a large travel company. A distinguished man in his late sixties he leads a vigorous life, spending part of his time in Victoria in a modest bachelor apartment with a spectacular view of the Harbour. Even he, had tea and Indian sweets for us.
Our final interview was with Nick Mohammed, who even in his seventies is an impeccably handsome man with a physique of a forty year old. Nick's father came to Vancouver in 1905. He was one of the few Muslims who came from the Punjab at the turn of the century. Nick joined him as a young man in the late thirties. He worked in the saw mills as well and visited the gurdwara often, for social visits. The Sikh community was supportive of all peoples from the Indian subcontinent.
Nick was soon spotted by a school coach as a natural athlete and was encouraged to take up wrestling. He rose to become a national champion and then became the first person of Indian origin to represent Canada at the 1956 Olympics. He just lost getting a medal, placing fourth.
What struck us all in these interviews that in spite of the openly racist laws of the period, none of these old timers harboured any bitterness. They spoke passionately about Canada and were able to separate the government policies from the interactions with ordinary Canadians. At times they even laughed at the indignities they and their parents had to suffer, but at the same time they refused to be victims. They used the law to fight back and quietly supported by many white Canadians around them. Their lobby to get the franchise was so discreet that we could not find it reported in the newspapers of that era.
After all these wonderful interviews with people so in touch with their heritage and history, the task of choosing which moments to use in whittling it all down into one sliver of a documentary was quite a challenge in post-production.
All in all, making this film allowed me the rare privilege of meeting people who have endured many challenges with courage and dignity . They have paved the way for people like me to come to Canada.
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