Sikhism is the fifth-largest world religion with an estimated 27 million followers worldwide. It arose in the 15th century in the Punjab region of what is now Pakistan through the teachings of Guru Nanak. Sikh people are often, seen as both a religion as well as an ethnic group.
Thus, the religion is identified primarily with Punjabi people and culture. Guru Nanak travelled widely across India and incorporated both Hindu and Islam traditions into his own distinctive ideology.
His primary teachings were that:
Salvation is possible for all through devotion and the maintenance of a moral and selfless life.
His ideas were expanded on by nine subsequent gurus who lived between the 15th and 17th centuries. Sikh traditions teaches that the same light (jot) resides in all these ten gurus and Sikhs adhere to the teachings of all of them. One of the Sikh gurus, Guru Arjun collected Sikh scriptures into a single volume named the Adi Granth, which is the main spiritual base ofSikhism. Oppression by Muslim Mughal emperors and the unsettled conditions in Punjab cleared the way for an increases militancy and ethnic consciousness among Sikhs. In those times of turbulence, the 10th Guru, who was both a spiritual and military leader developed the Khalsa. Men who were initiated into this were given the surname ‘Singh’ which means lion and were expected to follow the five kakas (K’s):
to keep their beard and hair uncut
(kesh) to wear a comb
(kangha) to wear a steel bracelet
(kara) to weara soldier’s breeches (kachha)
to carry a dagger (kirpan)
Thus, these traditions were born out of battle and instability and our very important to the Sikh identity.
Sikhism in Canada
Nearly half a million Sikhs consider Canada home, making the country one of the most important Sikh diasporas in the world. Only India, the United States and UK have larger Sikh populations than Canada. In 2011, Sikhs accounted for 1.4% of Canada’s population.
In British Columbia, Sikhism is the second most followed religion after Christianity. Making Sikhs an important part of the Canadian demographic.
Sikh migration to Canada began in the early 20th century. From the very beginning, they faced profound racial discrimination. Perhaps, the most infamous incident occurred in 1914 when the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship carrying Sikh immigrants was refused entry into Canada. The 376 passengers of whom 340 belonged to the Sikh faith spent two months offshore before being sent back to Calcutta (now, Kolkata) in India. The second major wave of Sikh immigration happened in the 70s and 80s and coincided with the rise of Sikh nationalism and the Khalistan movement gaining steam in India. The Khalistan movement calls for the establishment of an independent Sikh nation.
Canadian Sikhs supported this movement both philosophically and financially thus, many Sikhs in Canada feel divorced from their Indian identity which makes being Canadian even more important to them.
In the century that has passed between that incident and today, Sikhs in Canada have been continually targeted both by government laws and mandates as well as by the personal prejudice of white Canadians.
Like many other minority groups between the 1920s and 1960s, Sikhs in Canada tried to adapt to society by adopting mainstreams practices instead of maintaining their traditional, religious practices. For example, men broke from practices that prevented them from cutting their hair and adopted Canadian dress codes.
An example of the institutional discrimination that the Sikh community has faced is Quebec’s Bill 21 that prohibited the wearing of religious symbols at work like the turban worn by Sikh men.
Other discrimination faced includes the banning of the ceremonial dagger (kirpan) that all Sikh men are supposed to carry. Most recently, was the ‘clean shave’ requirement mandated by the City of Toronto.
This mandate required all security guards to the fitted for N95 respirators that seal directly on the face. Facial hair which is religiously required for Sikh men was not permitted under these new rules. Thus, over a hundred Sikh guards who had courageously served the community through the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic for over two years faced the loss of their livelihoods. While, this mandate was repealed and the city apologized to and reinstated the guards who had lost their jobs. We have to wonder why this mandate was passed in the first place and if the Sikh people hadn’t been advocated for-so eloquently by the World Sikh Organisation, would they have bothered repealing it. The city of Toronto had faced a similar issue at the beginning of the pandemic when it sidelined Sikh RCMP constables for the exact same reason. When they faced outrage, these officers were reinstated and allowed to return to active duty in October, 2020.
With a recent example of the discrimination inherent in the no shave mandate, we have to wonder why city officials thought it was appropriate to pass a measure like this for the second time.
While, Sikhs in Canada have faced discrimination. It is important to remember that they are an important part of Canadian society. With increased Sikh representation in the uppermost levels of Canadian government and their presence in all major parts of Canadian society from the law, education to entertainment. The Sikh community’s flourishing in Canada is a great example of the wonders and benefits of an accepting, multicultural society.
However, when even such an important and established part of the Canadian diaspora faces such obvious discrimination, it is a sign of the work still left in ensuring that Canada is a safe, welcoming place for all its citizens.
World Sikh Organization (2022). https://www.worldsikh.org/