It was not easy. The early migrants from South Asia were not welcome to Canada. They not only suffered numerous hardships but were also denied right for a decent living. They had no voting right.
In fact, the concept of the Nagar Kirtan processions, or the Sikh Parades, proved to be an effective tool for the overseas Sikh community to introduce itself as a peaceful and hard-working group that had no qualms of making countries of their present abode as their homes.
The first ever-Sikh Parade or Nagar Kirtan procession was organized on January 19, 1908, along Second Avenue in Vancouver.
It has been this commitment that has helped them to script an unprecedented success story the world over. Though the Punjabis – initially described as Hindus – started reaching Canada in early 1900, they were denied voting right in British Columbia from 1907 onwards. They had to wait for 40 long years to win back the right to vote. In 1947, the requirement to be a voter was changed to Canadian citizenship in addition to being a British subject. It was in 1950 that the first Sikh – Naranjan Singh Grewall – was elected to the City Council of Mission in British Columbia.
He became the first “Hindu” (the colloquial term for South Asians at the time) elected to any political position in Canada. Later, he became the first South Asian migrant to become Mayor of the Mission City Council in 1954. Grewall’s run for a seat in the BC Legislature as a member of the CCF surprised no one. He was first and foremost a man of the people. He lost the assembly election in a close battle.
The Indo-Canadian community was waiting for the break Naranjan Singh Grewall had provided. Once the process of its assimilation in the mainstream politics started, the Punjabi migrant community set its goals high. And before the turn of the century, it had three of its nominees – Gurbax Malhi, Herb Dhaliwal, and Jag Bhaduria – sitting in House of Commons in Ottawa.
And long before their journey to Ottawa started, beginning, though unsuccessful, was made in late 60s and early 70s. In 1970, a new party was born. It was headed by an Indo-Canadian. Called Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), it was founded by Hardial Singh Bains, a trained Bacteriologist. Born in Mahilpur in Hoshiarpur, Hardial moved to Vancouver when he was 19.
Much before Jagmeet Singh became the President of the NDP, Hardial Singh Bains had earned the distinction of leading a national political party in Canada.
After studying in Canada, England, and Ireland, Hardial Singh Bains returned to Canada and spearheaded workers movement. Since the Elections Canada does not allow the use of word “communist” in the name of any party, Hardial Singh Bains got his party registered as Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada in 1974. Before his death in 1997, the Marxist-Leninist Party contested the 1974, 1979, 1980, 1993 and 1997 federal elections. Though the party has never succeeded in sending any of its members to the House of Commons, it fielded its largest number of candidates,177, in 1980. Many these candidates were migrants, including those from India. Amarjit Dhillon, who was the party candidate from Vancouver South, both in 1979 and 1980, polled only 91 and 63 votes. Overall, though the party never aggregated 0.20 per cent of total votes polled, still it never gave up its fight and contested the last federal elections in 2021 by fielding 36 candidates.
It was in 1974 when Hari Singh, a teacher, contested on Liberal ticket from Okanagan-Kootenay. Though it was a Liberal stronghold, but Hari Singh lost. After his defeat, he accused the majority community Liberals of voting against him. Subsequently, the Liberals retained the seat.
Ten years later in 1984, another teacher, Harkirpal Singh Sora, contested from Vancouver South. He too was unsuccessful.
Deepak Obhrai was the longest serving MP from Calgary East. Long before he emerged on the scene, in 1988 this riding had tried to elect Anil Giga, a Liberal, to the House of Commons. He, however, was defeated by Alex Kindy by 18,227 votes.
The Bramlea-Gore-Malton Riding has always remained a stronghold of the Punjabi migrants. The first attempt by the community to get into the House of Commons was in 1988, when the Liberals put up Gurjit Grewal, who lost by 2,185 votes to Harry Chadwik of the CP.
Palbinder Shergill, a young amritdhari Sikh and a practising lawyer, was one of the first Punjabi woman to contest federal elections. She was unsuccessful along with another Punjabi Indo-Canadian candidate from the Surrey Central Riding. The other candidate was Charan Gill who had earlier made an attempt to get into the House of Commons in 1988 but was defeated by Benno Friesen of the PC. He represented the NDP.
-To be concluded
* Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit probingeye.com or follow him on Twitter.com/probingeye