Sikh farm workers at a threshing machine in Delta circa 1910-1919. South Asian workers were paid one-third what would have been paid to a worker of European descent. (Photo courtesy of the Delta Archives, CR-61 Item No. 1989-56-59)

North Delta history: South Asian settlement throughout the 20th century

Since 1904, Metro Vancouver has been home to a growing community of South Asian immigrants

By Nancy Demwell

The first immigrants from India to Canada entered the port of Vancouver in 1904. This was the year that the Chinese head tax had risen to 500 dollars, and as a result, importing cheap labour from China became no longer profitable. Steamship companies and enterprising B.C. employers encouraged immigration from India to fill jobs in the lumber industry, agriculture and in canneries along the Fraser River.

In the next four years, over 5,000 immigrants from India, mainly men, entered the port of Vancouver via Hong Kong. However, after the race riots in the city’s Chinatown and Japanese town in 1907, the Anti-Asiatic League was able to convince the federal government to impose a ban on immigrants from India.

The immigration ban came as a 200 dollar head tax and an amendment to the Immigration Act which required all immigrants to have “continuous passage from their country of origin.” This amendment was specifically directed at Indian immigrants who had no ships coming directly from India to Canada. A group of enterprising Punjabis commissioned a ship, the Komagata Maru, to bring them directly from India, but upon arrival to the Vancouver harbour on May 22, 1914, they were not allowed to disembark and were eventually turned away after a bloody battle during which 22 people were killed.

In 1919, the wives and children of immigrants from India were allowed to immigrate to Canada. Despite this provision, the South Asian population in Canada had dwindled to 1,300 by 1923, although the Greater Vancouver area still retained the largest South Asian population in North America.

In 1921, six persons of South Asian origins lived in North Delta on Peck Road (now 104th Avenue). They worked seasonally as farm labours and at the St. Mungo Cannery. Work was difficult to find and prejudice was high.

While seeking employment in the forest industry, South Asians would have to sleep in barns or in tents because they were not permitted in hotels or bunkhouses. Christians frowned upon cremation and wouldn’t allow the practice within the limits of the townships or permit burial in Christian graveyards, so Sikhs would have to travel into the wilderness to cremate their departed loved ones.

Turbans were thought not suitable for the workplace and most Sikh men entering Canada in these early years cut their hair and didn’t wear a turban. Baba Nand Singh wore his turban at his workplace at the Mohawk sawmill in New Westminster and his boss didn’t like it, threatening to fire him.

One day, his boss slipped and fell in the Fraser, which was running fast with the spring runoff. Singh whipped off his turban and threw the end to his boss, saving him from drowning. His boss modified his thinking and allowed turbans to be worn at his sawmill.

In the 1930s, work was scarce and many Punjabis returned to India. In 1947, the continuous passage clause was revoked, and South Asians were given the vote. By 1961, the South Asian population in Canada grew to over 6,000. Changes to immigration law eliminating quotas of immigrants by country in favour of the point system for assessing immigrants, had increased South Asian immigrants by 1971 to over 67,000.

North Delta saw an increase in its South Asian population in the 1970s. These were not new immigrants, but like other families in the 1970s living in Vancouver, they moved to new housing developments in the suburbs of North Delta to accommodate their growing families.

From the 1980s through to present day, between 20,000 and 30,000 persons of South Asian descent came to Canada annually. However, there has been a change in their point of origin, with fewer people immigrating from the Punjab.

Delta has approximately 14,000 people of South Asian descent living here now, most of whom reside in North Delta. They choose to live here for the same reasons we all do: it’s a nice middle-class community with good schools, good community resources and nice neighbours. Our South Asian neighbours add to our already diverse multicultural mosaic, which enriches all of our lives.

Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.

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