When it comes to the history of Canada’s South Asian community, Sikhs form a significant portion of the mosaic.
Every year, Canadians participate in the Remembrance Day ceremony and pay special tribute to those compatriots who died defending their country during the wars.
Until recently, nothing much was known about handful of Sikhs who joined the Canadian army and fought during the First World War
This year on Remembrance Day another little known part of Canadian history was brought to light by the hour-long documentary “Canadian Soldier Sikhs: A Little Story in a Big War.”
The documentary reveals the fascinating and untold story of those Sikh immigrants who enlisted in the Canadian Army during the World War I, reminding Canadians of the many challenges faced by ethno-cultural groups in the process of making Canada their home.
They were volunteers who fought, and some died, for a country that was not only discouraging and preventing South Asians from immigrating to Canada but were also denying them Canadian citizenship.
With a long military tradition Sikhs have always been at the forefront in serving their country. Over 65,000 Sikh soldiers fought in WWI as part of the British Army and over 300,000 Sikhs fought against German and Japanese tyranny in WWII.
While searching for information on a group of 40 Sikhs who came to Victoria, British Columbia in 1906 -1907 for his film “Searching for the Sikhs of Tod Inlet,” David Gray discovered that eight Sikhs, with the surname Singh, had enlisted in the Canadian Army in the First World War. Two additional Canadian soldier Sikhs have since been found. This part of Canadian Sikh history was virtually unknown and thus of great interest to the Canadian Sikh community.
The film goes back in time to observe the soldiers on their journey. From the enlistment process and training, to their transport to France by ship and their return to civilian life, the documentary features the struggles these Sikh soldiers faced and the battles they fought, including those during which two of the men were killed.
The film also follows one injured soldier back to Canada on a hospital ship and to Kitchener’s TB hospital.
He was 25-year-old Private Buckam Singh, who came to Victoria, British Columbia from Mahilpur village in the Hoshiarpur District of Punjab in 1907 at age 14 and eventually moved to Toronto area in 1912/1913.
He fought for Canada, came back and died alone in Kitchener, far from his birthplace in 1919 in a community that did not know the funeral rights of Sikhs. His grave in Kitchener is the only known First World War Sikh Canadian soldier’s grave in Canada.
His family, who lived in Punjab, British India, knew nothing about his time at war. They just received a notice when he died.
While he never got to see his family again and died forgotten almost 93 years ago, his heroic story has only recently been reclaimed and celebrated.
About five years ago, Sandeep Singh Brar, a historian from Brampton bought a Victory Medal that led him to a Kitchener cemetery, where he found the tombstone of Private Buckam Singh. With the discovery of the Victoria Medal of Private Buckam Singh a heroic story of bravery and adventure has been uncovered.
He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915. He served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders during 1916.
Buckam Singh, whose grave drew little attention for almost 90 years, now attracts hundreds people every year for Remembrance Day Sikh prayers at the Kitchener cemetery.
Images of his war grave, a remembrance service almost 90 years after his death, and the story of how his war medal was discovered, bring a personal touch to the film.
The film ends with the story of the soldiers’ return to civilian life, the tracing of their descendants, and the visit to the European grave sites of two of the Canadian Sikh soldiers.
Singh who died alone without his family has once again been reunited and embraced by his fellow Sikh Canadians after a separation of nearly a century.
Mohsin Abbas is Pakistani-Canadian journalist, filmmaker and press freedom activist. He is the editor of Diversity Reporter, a multilingual weekly newspaper for newcomers and immigrants in Canada. Currently he is on a mission, travelling across Canada to document South Asian-Canadians stories. You can share your migration tales by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The gravestone of Private Buckam Singh. – Photos courtesy Sikh Museum