Paldi, British Columbia was established in 1917, about 75 km northwest of Victoria. It was one of the first multi-ethnic, migrant mill towns on Vancouver Island. Sikh entrepreneur Mayo Singh (born Mayan Singh Manhas) founded the community. He named Paldi after his own village in District Hoshiarpur in Punjab, India. (Singh originally named Paldi after himself, calling the settlement Mayo Siding. However, because there was already a town named Mayo in Yukon, Singh changed the name to Paldi in 1936.) Though Paldi no longer has a registered population, it remains a symbol of successful, intercultural living in Canada.
Immigration to Canada by people from India commenced in earnest in 1903, when the first migrants arrived. Prior to that date, in 1897, Indian troops from the British Indian army’s Hong Kong Regiment arrived by ship in the Vancouver harbour. They then travelled through Canada on train to Quebec, boarding another ship to England to take part in Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations. Upon their return to Hong Kong, these wayfaring men shared tales with others like them. They told stories about Canada as a raw and developing colony to men who were stationed in the far-flung colonies of Southeast Asia in service to the Crown, and to their brethren living in Punjab. A long history of travel and settlement in many continents had already prepared the Indian service men for arduous journeys and settlement abroad. At the turn of the 20th century, North America became the new frontier for these men who, for economic reasons, began to migrate to the Pacific Northwest corridor.
In 1906, a 17-year-old Sikh man named Mayan Singh Manhas (later known as Mayo Singh) undertook the difficult journey from Paldi, Punjab, India to San Francisco. He hoped to join his brother Ganea Singh who was already in British Columbia. After working in California to gather some money, he gradually worked his way north, eventually making an illegal crossing at Grand Forks, BC. Like many other Sikh men, Singh worked in the sawmills of BC before he saw the opportunity in buying out a few struggling mills in the Fraser Valley. Looking for more timber, Singh travelled to Vancouver Island in 1916 to search for a claim. In Duncan he purchased timber rights from the Canadian Pacific Railway. Singh quickly chose a mill site in proximity to the railway and Sahtlam Creek, giving birth to the village of Paldi (originally known as Mayo Siding) and established the Mayo Lumber Company Ltd.
By 1920, Mayo Singh’s business had been devastated by two fires, yet he continued to persevere. He hired Japanese, Chinese, European, Indigenous and Punjabi men to work and live in Paldi’s communal, two-story bunkhouses, creating a truly multi-ethnic village. Singh built a gurdwara (Sikh temple) and seeing the need for families to educate their young, established a school. A company store served the community, while cookhouses provided cooking facilities for the villagers. In 1936, a post office opened as well as a Japanese temple/community hall. For himself and his brother, Singh built a home with all the modern conveniences. Villagers built volleyball and kabaddi courts and held week-long tournaments.
In the early to mid 1900s, as the area grew and flourished, so did racism toward the residents of Paldi. “We had to sit upstairs in the balcony of the Odeon Theatre,” said villager Tom Tagami in an interview with Joan Mayo, Mayo Singh’s daughter-in-law and author of Paldi Remembered. “It was not until about 1936 we were allowed to sit among the white people. We couldn’t go into town for a haircut either. The white barbers would not cut Orientals’ or East Indians’ hair. So, my mother learned to cut hair.” Despite all the external challenges, Mayo writes:
With the arrival of several women from India the community really sprang to life. The village of Paldi became a unique cultural mixture of East Indians, Japanese, Chinese and whites. All spoke a form of broken English, unique to Paldi, started first by the men in the workplace and continued by the children who knew only the language of their parents. Any cultural barriers that might have been felt elsewhere were crossed again and again each day. Children ran from house to house and Mayo Singh was looked to as a kindly grandfather.
By 1927, the community boasted a population of 1,500, only 150 of whom were single, working men. Over the next decade, Paldi residents prospered under Singh’s entrepreneurial skills. However, a series of devastating fires and economic downturns forced the mill to close in 1945. Most men were bused to work daily in nearby Honeymoon Bay. Families continued to live in Paldi until the late 1960s, when slowly people moved away, and the town fell to gradual disrepair. Singh, who continued to be respected and loved by Paldi families, passed away in 1955.
The almost abandoned village of Paldi now holds only a few landmarks like the Sikh gurdwara (established 1919 and rebuilt in 1959), a few houses, some house foundations and not much else. In 1942, the Canadian government interned Japanese families living in Paldi, as they did all Japanese-Canadian citizens, at the height of the Second World War. To this day, former Paldi residents regularly return to the town to visit each other. Families still hold ties with others across cultural divides, for example, the Yamadas, a Japanese family that lived in Paldi, has maintained close ties with Mayo Singh’s remaining family members. As well, every year on 1 July, people with familial connections to Paldi gather for the annual Jor Mela (Gathering Fair) that Singh originally established for Canada Day celebrations. The Paldi Sikh Temple continues to function and thrive by holding regular prayer services and a small museum space invites visitors to view old photographs and imagine the stories of life in Paldi in years gone by. In these ways, Paldi continues its legacy of community and intercultural harmony.