December 3, 2019

To Gian Singh Sandhu, Success Means Not Taking a Back Seat to Anybody

While the majority of the 27 million practitioners of Sikhism live in India — most living in the state of Punjab — half a million Sikhs reside in Canada.

In fact, 1 in 20 British Columbians is Sikh. And according to Gian Singh Sandhu, founding president of the World Sikh Organization (WSO), so is 1 in 4 Surrey residents.

Sikhism is one of the (if not the) fastest-growing religion in Metro Vancouver. As the Vancouver Sun noted a few years ago, “B.C. is the only province in Canada, and one of the few jurisdictions in the world, in which Sikhism can claim the status of being the second largest religion.”

Yet, what do we really know about Sikhs — in India, in Canada, and particularly in Metro Vancouver? (By “we”, we’re implicating anyone who hasn’t done anything more than skim Wikipedia. Sorry.) What is your understanding of the massacre at Darbār Sahib, aka ‘the Golden Temple’, and the loss of thousands of Sikh lives at the hands of the Indian military? If you consider the phrase Air India, does your brain immediately implicate Sikhs as a whole, instead of a small number of radical extremists? Time to peel back the layers.

Sandhu, now 50 years in Canada and both a typical, and unique, example of the immigrant experience in this country, helps us with this exercise.

He explains what life was like in post-partition India of his childhood and youth, and what it was like growing up in a Sikh family (hint: it seems pretty familiar). And what it was like trying to get to a country which, in introducing a point system to its immigration policy in 1967, ensured that many of the Sikhs who would arrive in large numbers to BC — and also Alberta and Ontario — would be educated, and often quite literate in the English language.

Sandhu himself thrived, first via assimilation in Williams Lake in the 1970s and ’80s (as a young professional, he was told “if I didn’t wear a turban, I could be a supervisor tomorrow”). Without a turban, he was called out as a phoney by his peers. Wearing a turban, he endured the stares, and occasionally the slurs.

He became an ardent advocate for the growing Sikh community, co-founding the WSO at a time when the very concept of Sikhism was under attack, alongside its people.

So he and Gord talk about that. But they also explore some of the unique world view of Sikhism, such as their worship of The Word and a universal God who governs an egalitarian world. It’s an approach that has led the majority of mainstream Sikhs to support the struggles of other, similarly maligned or disadvantaged minorities. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and most prominently, same sex couples. It’s a field rarely plowed by adherents of other religions. But it’s the work many Sikhs do. And in pursuing this egalitarian acceptance, at least according to Singh, there is no quarter.

This conversation is by no means exhaustive, but it’s illuminating. Begin here — then, visit Surrey. Talk to a Sikh. Ask to visit a gurdwara. Learn about how 19th and early 20th century prejudicial immigration policy led to the Komagata Maru tragedy. Read Sandhu’s book An Uncommon Road: How Canadian Sikhs Struggled out of the Fringes and into the Mainstream (which he fails to flog in this episode, so we will.)

Do all that, and you may begin to fully understand what it means to be a Sikh — and yes, a Canadian, a British Columbian, and a Metro Vancouverite — today.

(Coming soon— Gian passes the torch to Sukh Paji…)

Gord with Sukh Johal and Gian Singh Sandhu at VPL Inspiration Lab

To Gian Singh Sandhu, Success Means Not Taking a Back Seat to Anybody

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