Sikhism in Canada

Sikhism, a major world religion, arose through the teachings of Guru Nanak (c. 1469–1539) in the Punjab region of India. There are about 27 million Sikhs worldwide, making Sikhism the fifth largest religion.

The emblem of the Sikh religion, the Khanda comprises a double-edged sword, a circular weapon called a chakkar, and two kirpan.

Sikhism, a major world religion, arose through the teachings of Guru Nanak (circa 1469–1539) in the Punjab region of India. There are about 27 million Sikhs worldwide, making Sikhism the fifth largest religion. Sikhs (disciple or "learner of truth"), like Jews, are distinguished both as a religion and as an ethnic group. Though in principle universalistic and open to converts regardless of background, Sikhism has been identified primarily with Punjabi people, events and culture.


The mainstream Sikh tradition teaches that there were 10 gurus born between the 15th and 17th centuries: Guru Nanak's ideas were expanded by nine subsequent gurus or teachers. Sikhs believe that the same light (jot) that resided in Guru Nanak was within all 10 gurus. Guru Nanak travelled widely and incorporated many ideas from the Hindu Sant (saint) tradition, the Hindu Bhakti (devotional) tradition and, indirectly, some of the Muslim Sufis (see Islam) into his own distinctive theology. He believed in monotheism (one God) and rejected Hindu notions of caste as they pertained to having access to liberation, idol worship and bodily mortification, as well as the belief in salvation through ascetic isolation from worldly affairs. Guru Nanak and subsequent gurus upheld the householder as the ideal; individuals were called to contribute through family and societal obligations. Guru Nanak claimed that salvation was accessible to all through devotion to God and the maintenance of a moral, responsible and selfless everyday life.

Guru Angad (c. 1504–52) consolidated Nanak's teachings, and in doing so standardized and popularized Gurmukhi script, today the most common script used in written Punjabi. He is also believed to have strengthened the unique Sikh practice of Guru ka langar, in which Sikhs repudiate one aspect of caste by eating together. Guru Amar Das (c. 1479–1574) further organized the church and is said to have fought against purdah (seclusion of women) and sati (widow burning); Guru Ram Das (c. 1534–81) founded Amritsar, Punjab, now the centre of the Sikh faith. Guru Arjun (c. 1563–1606) collected Sikh scriptures into a single volume, later termed the Adi Granth, which became the main scriptural base of Sikhism.

Oppression by the Muslim Moguls and unsettled conditions in Punjab gave rise to increasing ethnic consciousness and militancy among Sikhs. Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the 10th and last human Guru, was both a spiritual and a military leader; he became Guru after the death of his father, Tegh Bahadur (c. 1621–75) at the hands of the Mogal government. In 1699, he is thought to have brought Sikh theology to its final development by creating the Khalsa, a term variously defined as “the pure” or those under the direct authority of Guru Gobind Singh as opposed to other political or religious leaders. A novel rite of initiation, amrit pahul (initiation of the sword) was inaugurated by the Guru and those who took part in the initiation ritual were known as amritdhari ("nectar bearing"). The men who did so were given the name "Singh" (lion) and in time, as members of the Khalsa, were directed to observe the five kakas ("Ks"): to keep their hair and beard uncut (kesh), and to wear a comb (kangha), symbolizing neatness, a steel bracelet (kara), soldier's breeches (kachha) and a dagger (kirpan). Most Sikh males, regardless of whether or not they are initiated into the Khalsa are known by the name Singh, while, since the beginning of the 20th century, Sikh women are also given the name "Kaur." Some Sikhs known as Sahijdharis, literally meaning "those who take time" may wear some of the five Ks, most generally cutting their hair, yet have firm beliefs in the ideals of Sikhism. In most Sikh families a variety of identities exist side by side. Some members of the family may be Keshadhari, (one who does not cut their hair but is not initiated), Amritdhari (formally initiated into the Khalsa order) or Sahajdharis.

A continuum of religious observances was established among Sikhs. Amritdharis are required to observe a more onerous devotional practice and a more restrictive moral code (rehat maryada) than those Keshadharis who have not been initiated through amrit pahul, while Sahajdharis may reject the external signifiers despite being devoted Sikhs. All are nevertheless considered Sikhs in that they subscribe to the core teachings of the gurus.

Mainstream Sikh tradition holds that Guru Gobind Singh, seeing impending death, permanently passed on the spiritual leadership of the faith through the Adi Granth scripture, naming it the Guru Granth Sahib. The writings of the Guru Granth Sahib are the moral foundation and teachings of Sikhism. After Guru Gobind Singh's death, Sikhs continued to have a turbulent history. As the Mogul Empire weakened, military and political conflict in Punjab escalated, to be subdued partially by the rise to power of the Sikh, Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1780–1839), who consolidated much of Punjab and Kashmir. Sikh converts increased dramatically during this period, as they did after Punjab was conquered by the British in 1846. Sikh men soon were an important part of the British Indian army, and thus migrated in small numbers throughout the British Empire.

Sikhism in Canada

Canadian Sikhs are one of Canada's largest non-Christian religious groups and form the country's largest South Asian ethnic group. The vast majority of Sikhs live in Asia and approximately 2.6 per cent live in North America. Census figures suggest that there were 455,000 Sikhs in Canada in 2011, more than double the 1991 population estimate of 145,000. Immigration has been a key factor in the increase of Sikhs in Canada: Sikhs accounted for approximately five per cent of the 1.8 million new immigrants who came to Canada during the 1990s, and today almost half of Canada's Sikh population lives in British Columbia.

The first Sikhs came to Canada at the turn of the 20th century. Some visited Canada as part of the Hong Kong military contingent en route to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897) and the coronation of Edward VII (1902). The first immigrants then arrived in 1904 and established themselves in British Columbia. More than 5,000 South Asians, more than 90 per cent of them Sikhs, came to British Columbia before their immigration was banned in 1908 (see Immigration Policy). This population was soon reduced to about 2,000 through out-migration. Despite profound racial discrimination (see Komagata Maru), Sikhs quickly established religious institutions in British Columbia. The Vancouver Khalsa Diwan Society was created in 1906 and through its leadership Sikhs built their first permanent temple or gurdwara ("gateway to the guru") two years later. By 1920, other gurdwaras had been established in New Westminster, Victoria, Nanaimo, Golden, Abbotsford, Fraser Mills and Paldi. Each was controlled by an independent, elected executive board.

From the beginning, gurdwaras were the central community institutions of Canadian Sikhs. Through them, Sikhs provided extensive aid to community members in need. The dramatic fight to have the immigration ban rescinded was also organized through the temples. Temples were the focus of much anti-British revolutionary activity under the banner of the Ghadar Party, an organization that was founded in the United States in the early 20th century and quickly gained support in Canada as well.

Canadian Sikh Religious Institutions

Canadian Sikh religious institutions reached another stage of development in the 1920s, when wives and children of legal Sikh residents were allowed entry to the country. Sikh religion provided the basis for a strong collective identity between the world wars, so that very few Sikhs renounced the faith or married outside it. The main religious revision of the period 1920–60 was a tendency among second-generation men to become Sahajdharis — to cut their hair and beards to conform to Canadian dress codes. Some women wore dresses instead of the traditional Punjabi suit, the salwar kameez. Initiation into the Khalsa through amrit pahul became very rare.

Adapting Canadian Sikhism

Sikhism in Canada began to change its character in the 1950s as Immigration resumed. Through the 1960s, more Sikhs immigrated to Canada as immigration laws were relaxed and racial quotas were removed. Many postwar immigrants were more urbane, educated, westernized and religiously untraditional than those who had come before them. The democratic control over temples soon reflected this division between the immigrant Sahajdhari gurdwara members and the establishment of alternative gurdwaras managed by Keshadharis in Vancouver and Victoria.

In the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of skilled Sikhs, some highly educated, settled across Canada, especially in the urban corridor from Toronto to Windsor. As their numbers grew, Sikhs established temporary gurdwaras in every major city east of Montréal. These were followed in many instances by permanent gurdwaras and Sikh centres. Most cities now have several gurdwaras, each reflecting slightly different religious views, social or political opinions, or caste backgrounds. Through them Sikhs now have access to a full set of public observances. Central among these are Sunday services, and in most communities the services are followed by langar (a free meal) provided by members of the sangat (congregation).

Worship in the gurdwara includes prayer, reading of scriptures, singing hymns and meditation. Services are open to anyone who obeys the conventions for entering a temple: removal of footwear, head covering, and members must refrain from smoking or drinking. Smoking is a particular taboo, and it is highly offensive to Sikhs if one enters a gurdwara smelling of tobacco. Although a few Canadian congregations have incorporated chairs and tables, for the most part worshippers sit on carpets, with men and women sitting on separate sides of the room. It is also customary for worshippers to cover their heads while in the temple and to wash their hands and feet before entering the gurdwara. Gurdwara observances are also held to celebrate the various gurus and such traditional Sikh calendrical celebrations as Baisakhi Day, which commemorates the inauguration of the Khalsa. Today, weddings are held in the gurdwara, a hotel, or in a family home, and many Sikhs continue the tradition of arranged marriages.

Perhaps the most important aspects of Sikh religion in Canada are personal and devotional. A daily routine for an observant Sikh includes rising early for a bath, prayers and meditation. Many Sikh families have a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib in their homes and in the morning select a passage and read. A hymn is read at sunset, and a hymn and prayer at night. All Sikhs are expected to abstain from tobacco, stealing, adultery, gambling or worship of idols. While alcohol is strictly forbidden according to the Sikh Code of Conduct, many Sikhs do drink on occasion.

Sikhism emphasizes the importance of family life, philanthropy, service and defence of the faith. Sikh philanthropy has been extensive, especially in support of local gurdwaras and increasingly of pan-Canadian social causes and the arts. Service has been traditionally interpreted in terms of service to the religion and the community, but this notion of service is slowly incorporating a broader perspective of Canadian social issues. Save for a possible resident gyani (title given to a learned Sikh), volunteers take on all the affairs of local gurdwaras, from administration to cooking food at the weekly langar. Some gurdwara management committees may also hire a granthi or caretaker of the gurdwara, many of whom are brought to Canada from Punjab.

Many Sikhs teach their children their culture and religion. Temples offer classes teaching religious precepts and the written language to children; some second-generation Sikhs speak Punjabi from an early age but must be formally taught the unique Sikh gurmukhi written script in order to read from the Guru Granth Sahib.

There have been several attempts to develop a unitary national Sikh religious organization, but this objective has not yet been achieved. National and regional conferences to discuss Sikh issues have been held in several cities, and informal contacts between various regional temple organizations are usually maintained. The primary organizational basis of Canadian Sikhism is the local gurdwara association and some Sikh Canadians also maintain strong religious ties with India. Theologians, teachers, singers and musicians visit Canada, and Indian religious texts are in wide circulation. Sikh Canadians who visit India often go on a pilgrimage to the famous Sikh shrines, especially the Darbar Sahib (commonly called the Golden Temple) in Amritsar.

Relationships between Sikhs in Canada and India

Canadian Sikhs are affected by events concerning Sikhs and Sikhism in India such as the rise of a nationalist movement for Sikh rights and for an independent Sikh state, Khalistan. Many Canadian Sikhs have supported this movement financially, especially after the Indian army's 1984 attack on the extremist Sikh independence sect led by Jarnial Singh Bhindranwali, which had established itself on the grounds of the Golden Temple. During the attack, Bhindranwali and more than 1,000 others died, and a sacred Sikh shrine was seriously damaged. Sikhs in Canada subsequently held demonstrations against the Indian government, resulting in the deterioration of relations between Canadian Sikhs and Hindus.

Canadian Hindu-Sikh relations were further strained when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh security guards 31 October 1984; in India, more than 2,500 Sikhs were reportedly killed in the violent backlash that followed. That no one was ever charged further alienated Canadian Sikhs from the Indian government and fuelled separatist sentiments. On 23 June 1985, Air India Flight 182 was blown up in what was widely regarded as an act of revenge against the government of India perpetrated by Canada-based Sikhs; most of the 329 who died on the flight were South Asian Canadians, some of whom were Sikhs.

Several provincial court cases have heard arguments regarding the issue of security versus religious freedom stemming from orthodox Sikh students who wear a kirpan while in school (see Student Rights). In 2002, the Québec Superior Court ruled that a 12-year-old student named Gurbaj Singh Multanidid had the right to wear the kirpan at school, provided it was sheathed and concealed under his clothes. In 2004, the Québec Court of Appeal struck down the decision, ruling that community safety was more important than Multani’s religious freedom, and that the ceremonial dagger violated the "weapons and dangerous objects" of the student conduct code. However, in 2006 the Supreme Court decided that religious tolerance was to be encouraged in Canadian society and that a total ban infringed on the guarantee of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Several provinces have addressed the issue by limiting the blade size or requiring that the kirpan be hidden under clothing. Sikh MPs may wear a kirpan in the House of Commons, but they are still banned from some courtrooms and Transport Canada bans all "knives or knife-like objects." These events in Canada and India have had an effect on general Sikh religious practice in Canada. Heightened Sikh consciousness has led to an increase in Amritdharis and Keshdharis, even among second- and third-generation Canadians.

Another important development within the Sikh diaspora, including Canada, are independent schools specifically designed to fit the needs of Sikh children. Khalsa schools are funded either exclusively through funds raised by Sikhs, or through a combination of private and public funding available to faith-based schools within some provinces. While most Sikh children attend public schools, Khalsa schools offer Sikhs a religion-based education with a specific focus on Sikh history, culture, and Punjabi language training, while at the same time following each provincial ministry’s curriculum guidelines. Other important initiatives among Sikhs are the growing number of camps for children, youth and women’s camps sponsored by Sikh sangats throughout Canada. These are often known as Gurmat camps, gurmat referring to the “teachings of the Gurus.” While many of these camps are based within local gurdwaras, a number of camps invite attendees from across Canada.

Sikhs and the Internet

Sikhs, along with other religious communities, have embraced internet technology and are using it as a useful learning tool and resource. The most popular websites are found in Canada, the US, or in the UK. There are many sites devoted to Sikh scripture, and specific hymns or verses can be found through sophisticated search engines. Sikh baby names can also be found online. Sites offer online courses in learning to write Gurmukhi along with effective tools for Punjabi language acquisition. Video or audio sharing sites broadcast kirtan (devotional singing), share turban-tying techniques and publicize gatka (Sikh martial arts) events. Ancestral villages can be found through online mapping strategies and family members can communicate daily whether in rural Punjab or in metropolitan cities in Canada or elsewhere. The worldwide Sikh community has never in its history been so connected through mass communication nor has there ever been as much information readily available to anyone interested in learning about the Sikh tradition. With its strong community institutions, group consciousness, and ready adaptation to new technologies, Sikhism has grown in Canada, despite the pressures of assimilation and secularization.

See also Prejudice and Discrimination.

Further Reading

  • Hugh J.M. Johnston, Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family (2012), Doris R. Jakobsh, Sikhism (2011), Gurcharn S. Basran and B. Singh Bolaria, Sikhs in Canada. Migration, Race, Class and Gender (2004), Kamala Nayar, The Sikh Diaspora in Vancouver. Three Generations Amid Tradition, Modernity, and Multiculturalism (2004),Pashaura Singh, The Guru Granth Sahib. Canon, Meaning and Authority (2003), Tara Singh Bains and Hugh Johnston, The Four Quarters of the Night. The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh (1995), Moni Minhas, The Sikh Canadians (1994); Narinder Singh, Canadian Sikhs (1993); ; Hugh Johnston, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar (1989), W.H. McLeod, Sikhs and Sikhism (1999); Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, 2 vols (1977); W.O. Cole and P. Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs (1978); Norman Buchignani and D. Indra,Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada (1985).