Lisa Smedman

Subjects of the Empire - Lisa Smedman

Subjects of the Empire
A century ago, the arrival of large numbers of "Hindoos" threw Vancouver into a panic. Today, the descendants of these immigrants look back with pride at their forefathers' tenacity and triumphs.
Lisa Smedman, Vancouver Courier
Published: Wednesday, August 08, 2007
One hundred and one years ago, the "Hindu invasion" predicted for months by Vancouver newspapers came to pass. On Sept. 1, 1906, the Vancouver Daily Province reported the alarming news that 100 "Hindus"--part of a group of 300 men from India who had arrived on the steamship Tartar the day before--were roaming Vancouver's streets.

The men, the newspaper said, had set up camp "with pots, pans and various impediments" just outside Stanley Park near the Barclay Street home of Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, a prominent lawyer and former Conservative MP. Vancouver's mayor, Frederick Buscombe, visited the squatters and ordered them to move on.

"His remonstrances were met by a storm of jabbering and, as not a man of the crowd spoke English, were futile," the Daily Province reported. "The Hindus simply squatted down and evidenced no intention of moving."


A century ago, the arrival of large numbers of "Hindoos" threw Vancouver into a panic. Today, the descendants of these immigrants look back with pride at their forefathers' tenacity and triumphs.

They eventually did move, however--to Second Beach, only to face the wrath of Superintendent of Parks George Eldon, who told the newspaper he feared their campfires would spread to the park.

"At this writing the police have rounded up this bunch, and the entire lot are decorating the immediate vicinity of the police station," the newspaper added.

Buscombe criticized the immigrants for arriving in Vancouver "without any provision as to work or food."

He told reporters he was "thoroughly disgusted" and that it was "a disgraceful state of affairs."

One year later, Vancouver erupted in a riot that saw a white mob rage through the "foreign quarter" of town. The primary targets of the Sept. 7, 1907 riot were the city's Chinese and Japanese immigrants, but the violence was inspired by a similar event, three days previously, in Bellingham, in which a mob attacked East Indian sawmill workers. The effort to "move [the Hindus] on" was successful; more than 100 East Indian workers fled north, to British Columbia.

Unfortunately, it didn't prove any safer here.

Newspaper reports of "indigent" immigrants from India begging in the streets continued in the years that followed. Yet most of the immigrants--mostly Sikhs from what was then the province of the Punjab, in British-ruled India--found jobs, primarily in the logging industry.

In the early 1900s, Vancouver was a sawmill town. Mills lined Burrard Inlet and False Creek, as well as the banks of the Fraser River in New Westminster and Coquitlam. Despite the transcontinental railway, completed two decades earlier, the mills faced a severe labour shortage.

In July 1906, sawmill owner E.H. Heaps told the Vancouver Board of Trade that the head tax imposed on the Chinese--which had been raised to $500 three years' previously, a sum equivalent to more than a year's salary as a millhand--had "crippled" the sawmill industry. Labourers needed to be "brought in from outside points," he told the board. Perhaps French-Canadians could be brought in, he suggested.

Although French-Canadians started filling the gap at sawmills in Coquitlam in 1909 (the year the first of them settled in what became known as Maillardville), most of the mills relied on East Indian labourers, who in those days were collectively referred to as Hindustanees. On Nov. 23, 1906, a Daily Province survey of local mills found "Hindus" working at Pacific Coast Mills, Rat Portage Lumber Company, Emerson Mill and E.H. Heaps & Co. as lumber pilers, shingle weavers and general labourers.

The Rat Portage manager noted that his 14 Hindu employees were "about on a par with the Japanese and the whites that could be secured for similar work..."

"On the whole," he added, "they were preferred to white unskilled labor, which it was regretted could not always be depended on, for that sort of work. The Hindus, like the Chinese and Japanese, could be depended upon to give no trouble and to stay at their [jobs]."

While white labourers--and a few of the Chinese--were paid $2.50 a day at Rat Portage, Hindus were paid $1.50 a day "for the same labour."

Despite the discrepancy, it was an attractive wage. On Oct. 1, 1906, the Daily Province interviewed Henry N. Gladstone, a Britisher who had lived for 15 years in India. He explained that the Sikhs were willing to do "coolie labour" in Canada because they could earn far more than they could in India.

"At home they get about 10 shillings a month and save money on it. If they get $1.50 a day here they will soon make a fortune, and go home again. A couple of hundred dollars is a fortune to them and living as they do they can save in a very short time."

The exchange rate of British shillings to Canadian dollars (as listed in an immigration handbook published in 1900) meant that a $1.50 per day wage, combined with the mills' six-day work week, resulted in a monthly salary equivalent to 148 shillings per month--15 times the average monthly wage in India.

Taraknath Das, a "local leader of the Hindus," told a Daily Province reporter on Sept. 14, 1907 that it was difficult to find housing for new arrivals.

"Personally, he had tried to secure houses for them, but the owners would not rent them to Hindus," the paper reported. "At present 150 are living in a 10-room house on Second Avenue, 250 at the Maple Leaf boarding house, and 150 in tents."

The problem wasn't a new one. A year earlier, on Nov. 23, 1906, the Daily Province reported that 100 Hindus who'd been living in a home on the "cemetery road" (Fraser Street) had been "thrown into the street."

According to the paper, Attam Singh, a "respectable Hindu" had rented a house from W.H. Mason & Co. , agents for the New Westminster owner. After nearly 100 immigrants crowded into the house, stables and renovated "chicken houses," neighbours complained. The owner, at the urging of South Vancouver's municipal council, ordered her agents to repudiate the lease and refund the rent. The municipality sent a constable to evict the men.

Realtor H.B.A. Vogel lived just down the road, near the municipal hall at what is today modern 41st Avenue and Fraser Street. He complained to the Daily Province that it was "inhuman and disgraceful" for the immigrants to be tossed out into the cold.

"When I came home last evening I saw the Hindus all camped along the road, shivering in the frosty night air," Vogel told the newspaper. "I took action at once by arranging to house a number of them for the night. Today we fixed up temporary shelter for the poor fellows, and they will stay at my place until they find some better housing. I do not care what the members of the council think about it."

Vogel, however, was a man of his times. He added, "I am against the Hindus being allowed in the vicinity at all, but in the name of humanity we must keep them from freezing to death."

Barely two weeks after the eviction, the Daily Province of Dec. 7 reported that a barn in which Vogel had quartered 15 of the men had been torched. The fire was set around 10 a.m., while the immigrants were at work, and destroyed all of their possessions. An outraged Vogel offered a reward of $100 for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist.

In the early 1900s, immigrants from a variety of countries formed organizations to help others from their homeland. Vancouver's Sikhs were no exception. In 1906, they founded the Khalsa Diwan Society. Its members started a gurdwara (temple) in a rented house in Vancouver's Fairview.

By 1908 a permanent gurdwara had been built at 1866 West Second Ave. in Fairview. It became the community hub not just for Sikhs, but for East Indian immigrants of all faiths.

In December 1908, members of the temple formed the Guru Nanak Mining and Trust Company, named after the founder of the Sikh religion. Its stated aims included buying land that unemployed members could farm, setting up a hostel for students, opening a market to import Indian goods, and investing in the mining industry.

The photocopied names of the company's original 251 members are preserved in the book Canadian Sikhs (Part One) and Komagata Maru Massacre, by Kesar Singh. They lived in Vancouver, New Westminster, Victoria, Nanaimo, Portland and California--as well as a host of smaller towns in B.C., including Millside (in Coquitlam), Eburne (modern Marpole), Barnet (for which the Barnet Highway is named), North Vancouver, Abbotsford, Harrison Mills, Haney, Revelstoke and Golden.

Wherever a sawmill, mine, land clearing or track laying project needed labourers, the Sikhs could be found.

According to a much-repeated tale, East Indians first developed an interest in Canada when a Sikh regiment passed through this country by train after participating in Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897. An early telling of this story can be found in the December 1911 edition of the magazine The Aryan, published in Victoria.

"They spoke of the great prairies, which were like the plains of the Punjab, and the immigration commenced," editor Sunder Singh wrote. "The Sikhs were farmers and their intention was to get on the land."

Most of the early Sikh immigrants, however, settled west of the Rockies.

Other accounts place the first arrivals much earlier. According to Ajit Gharlay, president of the Golden Sikh Cultural Society, Sikh immigrants were working at a sawmill in Golden as early as the 1880s, and built a gurdwara there.

Immigrants from India came to Canada by steamship, typically after connecting with the Canadian Pacific Railway's Yokohama-to-Vancouver line. They were firm in their belief that, as subjects of the British Empire, they had the right to travel its dominions without restriction. They soon learned that North American customs officials didn't see it that way.

A taste of the struggles that lay ahead came as early as 1899, when two "Hindoos" hoping to connect in Victoria to a boat for the United States were delayed after American customs officials "classed them as immigrants such as Chinese or Japanese," and refused them entry, the Victoria Daily Colonist of May 14 reported. The two men, originally from northwestern India but travelling for the previous two years, argued that they were "well provided with money" and furthermore, that they were British subjects. Their arguments fell on deaf ears.

Events in Britain's other dominions helped nudge East Indian immigrants toward Canada. In 1901, Australia passed its Immigration Restriction Act, which required would-be immigrants to prove their literacy by writing out a 50-word dictation in a "European language." Many of those from the Punjab were illiterate. If any were fluent in English, the immigration officer could deny him entry by choosing another language for the dictation test.

Immigration to Canada increased steadily in the years that followed, with 2,100 East Indians arriving in 1906 and more than 2,600 arriving in 1907.

Canada, however, soon came up with legislation equally as devious as the Australian act. In 1908, Canada introduced the "continuous journey" regulation, which required immigrants to arrive via tickets booked in their homelands. The government then pressured steamship companies to stop selling through tickets from Calcutta.

On paper, the continuous journey regulation also applied to immigrants from Europe, but it was only put into practice when immigrants from India tried to enter Canada.

A second regulation was more blatantly race-based. Immigrants from India were required to arrive with a minimum of $200 in their pockets--four times the $50 minimum for immigrants from Europe.

In October 1913, 39 immigrants from India successfully challenged the continuous journey regulation in B.C.'s Supreme Court. Emboldened by this legal decision, businessman Gurdit Singh chartered a ship named the Komagata Maru to carry 376 would-be immigrants, most of them Sikh, to Canada from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama. The ship arrived at Vancouver on May 23, 1914.

Only 22 of those on board--men who could prove they'd previously immigrated to Canada, and were returning--were allowed to disembark. Immigration officials refused to let the rest land, despite passengers' protests they were British subjects.

For two long months, the Komagata Maru sat in Burrard Inlet. Indian immigrants on shore raised thousands of dollars to maintain the ships' charter and purchase food for those on board. A legal battle, using one of the passengers as a test case, was fought and lost.

Enraged passengers eventually seized the ship from its Japanese crew. In response, the Canadian government sent 150 armed police aboard a tug named the Sea Lion to board the ship and force it out to sea. The passengers responded by hurling lumps of coal, and drove the Sea Lion away.

Finally, the Canadian warship HMCS Rainbow was sent in. Despite being threatened by its guns, the

passengers refused to sail until the Canadian government provided them with provisions for the

return voyage. The ship at last departed Vancouver on July 23.

Upon arrival in India, the Komagata Maru was met by a British gunboat. Those on board had been deemed dangerous political agitators. After the ship docked, a scuffle with police left 20 of the passengers dead and nine wounded.

More than 90 years after the Komagata Maru was forced out of the harbour, Harbhajan Gill stands in the wheelhouse of the Sea Lion, looking out at the bow of the 130-foot-long, wooden-hulled vessel that was launched in 1905. As president of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation dedicated to keeping the memory of the 1914 incident alive, Gill purchased the tug last October for $752,000--a figure the foundation came up with because it represents $2,000 for each of the 376 passengers from the ill-fated journey.

How does it feel to own one of the vessels that forced immigrants like his grandfather from entering Canada?

"It's good to be giving something back to the community," says Gill, who plans to turn the Sea Lion into a floating display once it's returned to its berth at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. "The story [of the Komagata Maru] is so interesting. It's something that needs to be put out to the public."

Gill has no direct connection to the Komagata Maru. His grandfather was in Vancouver in 1914, but wasn't part of the "shore committee" that raised money to help the passengers. Yet he's passionate about preserving a physical legacy--a place where future generations can "feel the history." That's just as valuable, he says, than any formal apologies the Canadian government might offer.

"Apology comes and goes," he says. "We want to teach the kids for the future generations."

Gill's grandfather, Rattan Singh, came to Canada in 1906 at the age of 25. He left two younger brothers--Kirpal and Mehar--to look after the family farm. He also left a wife and three-year-old daughter behind in India.

Rattan Singh originally resided in Vancouver. "He was only two blocks away, in 1907, when the Vancouver Chinatown riots happened," said Gill.

The middle brother, Kirpal, died in 1908. Gill's grandfather wanted to return to India for the funeral, but couldn't. Around 1908 or 1909 he purchased a truck, and began selling firewood in North Vancouver. He returned to Jhinghran, the village of his birth, in 1915. He and his wife had three more children. He came back to Canada in 1930, and brought his oldest son (Gill's uncle) to this country in 1932. They worked in a mill at Honeymoon Bay, on Vancouver Island.

Gill's uncle returned to India in 1936. Gill's own father came to Canada in 1960. He worked in a sawmill in Avola, near Kamloops.

"[The immigrants from India] sacrificed a lot," said Gill, 52, who was born in India. "When my father came, in 1960, he left three kids back home. He was running a good farm, he could survive in India at that time, he had a house built by his father [and] he had land. There wasn't really reason to come here, but he wanted to give [his children an] education."

Despite the rhetoric that East Indians would never "assimilate," it was the whites who threw up barriers. On Nov. 19, 1906, the Daily Province reported that "Hindus" who had formerly served with British infantry or cavalry units in India hoped to join New Westminster's militia. White soldiers responded by threatening to quit if the "swarthy newcomers" were admitted to their unit. The Sikhs of Millside told the newspaper they would be forced to apply to Ottawa to form their own company.

Indian immigrants wanted to vote, but in March of 1907, B.C. passed legislation to disenfranchise them. (Chinese, Japanese and native Indians had earlier been disenfranchised.) Any registrar who inserted the name of an East Indian on a voters' list faced a fine of up to $50.

In December of 1910, G.D. Kumar, secretary of the local Hindustani Association, wrote to Vancouver's city council, demanding the right to vote.

"Hindus are British subjects most of whom have fought side by side with the best and bravest for the England's good old flag of Justice and Liberty, and to deny

them this constitutional right of suffrage is a menace to the Empire of which the Hindus form the prepondering (sic) part," he wrote.

Hindus, he added, held nearly $1 million worth of property in B.C., and were taxpayers. What's more, they were allowed to vote in England. "To deny a man the right of suffrage who has the same right in England is absurd," he concluded.

City councillors received the correspondence and filed it. Not until 1947 did East Indians receive the right to vote.

Like the Chinese, early immigrants from India wound up in "bachelor societies." Although many were married, few brought their wives to B.C. It made more sense, economically, to bring over a son who could earn a wage. By the time of the 1911 census, the imbalance was massive--2,289 men to just three women.

Dr. Kaishoram Davischand, a Brahmin, was an exception. He came to B.C. at least as early as 1904. The Daily Province of July 9, 1907, described his wife as "the only Hindu woman in Canada, if not in [North] America." By then the couple also had a child, named Yojie.

By the 1910s, immigrants from India began to buy property and settle down--and to think about bringing their families to Canada. The continuous journey requirement thwarted their plans.

The December 1911 edition of The Aryan featured a full-page ad showing Teja Singh, Rajah Singh and Dr. Sunder Singh, who had gone to Ottawa to plead for their families to be admitted, together with supporter Reverend L.W. Hall of the Presbyterian church.

"When the Canadian missionary goes to India, he is allowed to take with him his wife and children," the text explained. "The Canadian being a British subject he has that right and privilege. When the Hindu comes to Canada he is not allowed to bring his wife and children. He is a British subject, and he may be a Christian, but these matters count for naught with the Canadian government..."

Bhag Singh and Balwant Singh challenged the regulation by bringing their wives and children to Vancouver in January 1912. Hakim Singh tried to do the same, but his four sons and his mother (who cared for the boys since he was a widower) were detained in Hong Kong. They spent months in limbo, until immigration agent Malcolm J.R. Reid recommended they be allowed to enter Canada "purely as an act of grace, and not as a precedent." They were admitted in July 1913.

As a result of these challenges, Henry Herbert Stevens, the MP for Vancouver City, met with East Indian immigrants in Vancouver and Victoria in January of 1912. He estimated there were about 2,500 East Indians in B.C., one-third of whom were married.

"Assuming that there are 800 men with wives in India, I think that not more than 500 of these could show that they are in a financial position to bring their wives or their wives and families to Canada," he wrote in a Jan. 26, 1912 memorandum.

The Canadian government didn't allow Indian immigrants to sponsor their families to Canada until 1919.

Stevens didn't approve of non-white immigration. He wrote that Vancouver's medical health officer had told him East Indians were "uncleanly in their habits, are afflicted with tuberculosis, [and] are addicted to drink...

"I saw these conditions personally and frequently found from four to 10 men living in one room, cooking, eating and sleeping in the same quarters," he added.

In August 1913, Stevens wrote to William James Roche, Canada's minister of the interior, warning that a steamship line offering direct service from Calcutta to Vancouver was imminent. "I am also informed upon good authority that 100,000 Hindoos are ready to immigrate to Canada," he added. "I desire to impress upon the Government the seriousness of this threatened influx and to urge that the strongest possible measures be adopted to stop the same."

The steamship service didn't materialize, nor did the "Hindu hordes." The First World War intervened, Indians hoping to overthrow the British regime while it was weakened by war flocked back to India, and immigration from India to Canada slowed to a trickle. By the 1921 census, there were only 1,016 South Asians in all of Canada.

It wasn't until 1967, when the last race-based policies in Canada's immigration act were removed, that immigrants from India and Pakistan began to arrive in any numbers. Prior to 1967, only about 500 immigrants came to Canada from India and Pakistan each year. Between 1968 and 1972, that number increased to more than 56,000, an estimated two-thirds of them Punjabis.

Back in 1906, when Vancouverites were up in arms about the "Hindu invasion," Vancouver's total population--then overwhelmingly white--was less than 60,000. By the time of the 2001 census, the city's South Asian "visible minority" was estimated at 164,340.

The Vancouver of 1906 could be filled three times over with descendants of those whose arrival caused such fear and outrage a century ago.