Karen Dosanjh’s book, Untold Stories: The South Asian Pioneer Experience in BC, was released earlier this year, and details the struggles and successes of the province’s earliest South Asian immigrants. (Contributed photo)

Karen Dosanjh’s book, Untold Stories: The South Asian Pioneer Experience in BC, was released earlier this year, and details the struggles and successes of the province’s earliest South Asian immigrants. (Contributed photo)

White Rock author’s book tells stories of B.C.’s South Asian pioneers

‘These stories belong to the community’ says Karen Dosanjh

A family celebration a century in the making spurred White Rock’s Karen Dosanjh to undertake an ambitious project – documenting the oft-forgotten stories of not just her own ancestors, but those of hundreds of other South Asian families in British Columbia.

In 2006, Dosanjh and her family were celebrating the 100-year anniversary of her grandfather’s journey from Punjab, India to B.C. when she realized the impact that his sacrifices, and those of others like him, had on her family.

“He came to Canada in 1906 and was really instrumental in sponsoring other key members to come here, including my father,” Dosanjh said.

“That’s where my love of documenting and preserving South Asian history started.”

Her interest piqued, Dosanjh set out to interview and learn from a number of other South Asian pioneer families in B.C. – including her father-in-law, whose own father arrived in Canada in 1907.

Those stories were written by Dosanjh and turned into a book, Untold Stories: The South Asian Pioneer Experience in B.C., which was released in the spring, and has since been gaining popularity not just in the South Asian community but beyond – including local schools, she noted.

The book has also been endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, B.C. Premier John Horgan and Canada’s Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan.

Dosanjh has been working with a pair of teachers at L.A. Matheson Secondary – who are creating a teacher’s guide for the book, to better help teachers fold it into their curriculum – as well as the Surrey school district’s Safe Schools program.

“There are a lot of other South Asian pioneer families whose stories haven’t been told. So now it’s less about it being just for (our family), and more for the entire community,” she said.

“I started working with local schools – schools that have a very high South Asian immigrant population – because I thought these students could really benefit from learning these stories and learning about the journey that these early settlers faced. It’s about acknowledging it, and then thinking, ‘What can we learn from it?’”

There is plenty to learn, it turns out.

Dosanjh’s book covers a wide swath of this province’s history, and includes a number of stories that even she didn’t know beforehand – even if many of them are heartbreaking tales of racism and families being split up.

Sections of the book detail the Asiatic Exclusion League, which was formed in B.C. in 1907 with the sole goal of preventing the immigration of Chinese, Japanese and “people of Indian origin” into Canada – and directly led to race riots in both Bellingham and Vancouver – as well as the Continuous Journey Regulation, which aimed to keep South Asian immigrants out of the country by prohibiting entry to anyone who did not arrive in Canada directly from their country of origin.

“The first wave of South Asian immigrants were welcomed in to fill labour jobs in the early 1900s, but then in 1908, the door was closed behind them. Women and children were not allowed to migrate – they wanted the labourers, but not the labourers’ families,” Dosanjh explained.

“So the women weren’t allowed to come until 1929. That’s a big gap, and it’s heartbreaking. I know this because it impacted my grandparents.”

• READ ALSO: Chamber virtual town hall to discuss racism, diversity, inclusion

Untold Stories also describes plenty of personal stories, which were relayed to Dosanjh through the children and grandchildren of those documented in the book.

“The women who arrived here were not allowed to wear their customary clothing publicly – it wasn’t acceptable in Canadian society back then. And the men were forced to conform by cutting their hair and removing their turbans, which were signs of their Sikh faith,” she said.

“These lessons are important for the youth because it didn’t just get like this. It’s been a long journey for South Asian people… look how far we’ve come.”

Interviewing people for the book – often asking them to dredge up painful family memories – wasn’t always easy, Dosanjh admitted, referring to the research process as “mining for gold.”

I had to build trust with these families… These people are entrusting you with their histories, and they’re dusting off things that haven’t seen the light of day for years,” she explained.

“It really was quite a journey for me, and I was incredibly moved by their experiences and what they shared with me.

“I have to be honest, it was a dark journey, but it was also enlightening to see how the community and these families have prospered.”

Dosanjh was also quick to note the juxtaposition of that dark, often sad, past with the present – notably Diwali, which is to be celebrated this month in Surrey. While COVID-19 protocols may leave the annual celebration looking a little different than in past years – during which a portion of the city’s streets have been jam-packed with revellers – it is still a very important event on Surrey’s calendar.

We get to celebrate our language and our culture, and celebrate vibrantly. That was not the case when these elders first arrived,” she said.

It’s for these reasons that Dosanjh, whose day job is vice-president of marketing for a tech company, decided early on in the process that she did not want to profit personally from the book. All proceeds from sales of Untold Stories have been reinvested into the production process so more copies can be printed, or have been used to create scholarships for Surrey students.

‘This was a side project, a passion project that I just felt implored to do. It felt like a calling,” she said.

“But I didn’t want to benefit personally from these stories – these stories belong to the community.”

For information on the book, including how to order it, visit http://aajlegacy.com



editorial@peacearchnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

authorBookshistoryimmigrants

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ed Holden owns and operates The Christmas Store at Potters, located on 48th Avenue in Surrey. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
‘B.C. Buy Local Week’ kicks off with urgent plea to holiday shoppers

‘Local businesses are just hanging on,’ says organizer of the week-long campaign

teaser
Contest-winning Christmas card revealed by Arts Council of Surrey

Watercolour painting by Andre Paulhus to grace cover, with verse written by Andre Paulhus

Surrey-White Rock MLA-elect Trevor Halford and Surrey South MLA-elect Stephanie Cadieux have each been given a portfolio as an Opposition critic. (Contributed photos)
BC Liberals give Halford, Cadieux critic responsibilities

Surrey South and Surrey-White Rock MLAs to help keep eye on majority NDP government

One man is dead after a shooting in Fleetwood Sunday evening. (Shane MacKichan photos)
UPDATE: Police ask for dash cam videos after 29-year-old man shot dead in Surrey

Incident took place near shopping complex at the corner of 152 Street and Fraser Highway

File photo
Man, 68, charged with arson, assault and threatening in Whalley summer fire

David Thind charged in connection with a house fire in the 13000-block of 112A Avenue on Aug. 28

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Fatty Legs co-author responds to Abbotsford class assignment on residential schools

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. (Black Press Media files)
Judge hears Langley development case that could end in mayor, councillors booted out of council

The conflict of interest case was launched by local voters a year ago

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
B.C. man defends his family against intruder, saves neighbour while wielding hockey stick

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

Harbour seals rest on log booms at Flavelle Mill in Port Hardy. With recent announcements the mill will be getting rid of the log booms, Dr. David Rosen sees an opportunity to study how the disappearance of this highly-frequented refuge for the seals will alter their behaviour in Burrard Inlet. (Photo supplied by David Rosen)
What the heck is going on with marine mamals in Vancouver waterways?

UBC researcher asks why they’re returning, and what role we’re playing

Jim Neufeld, 55, was last seen leaving his home in Penticton Jan. 21, 2009. (RCMP photo)
Human remains found off U.S. coast in 2009 identified as Penticton man

Jim Neufeld, 55, was last seen leaving his home in Penticton Jan. 21, 2009

Most Read