Date of Birth:
Village Vangta, Punjab
Balbir Gurm was born in a little village in Vangta, Punjab, India in 1960. Balbir’s great uncle and great aunt decided to move to Canada in 1906 and then her paternal uncle who was very adventurous moved to Canada in 1938. He came here on a student visa to UBC and later sponsored her other uncle and her father in 1960.
Balbir’s father moved to Canada in 1961 by himself. Once he was settled he sponsored her mother and herself. She was six years old when they moved to Vancouver, BC. Balbir recalls that she was very excited to see her father but at the same time was sad to leave her grandparents in India. Balbir was put in to school right once she arrived. She was put in grade 1 even though she was in grade 2 in India. But by the time she was in grade 4, the school decided she needed to move up, so she skipped grade 4 and went on to grade 5.
Balbir faced a lot of discrimination during elementary school. She remembers as a little girl she wasn’t allowed to wear pants in school, she had to wear dresses. It wasn’t until grade 5 that girls were allowed to wear pants. She also remembers how the principal would hit children with a strap. Balbir recalls when she came in grade 1, it was the other Punjabi kids that really supported her and helped her learn English because they could talk in Punjabi and explain things to her. She remembers experiences of discrimination not just in elementary school but on the street and more so in high school where she would be called Paki or Hindu. She found that there was also discrimination against Indigenous people and people from other countries such as Polland.
Balbir believes that our community has issues with gender equality. The girls are more suppressed and the boys have more privileges while growing up. Growing up, girls were not allowed to leave the house or go to the movies whereas the males could. She believes gender discrimination still exists these days, it’s more subtle.
Balbir remembers in the early days, everyone celebrated Gurus’ birthdays and these took place in the Khalsa Diwan Society which was on West 2nd Avenue at the time. She also remembers that everyone celebrated Christmas and would exchange gifts with each other. Balbir recalls everybody knew one another and everybody took care of everyone because not everyone had a car. She remembers when her father bought a car, he would ask everyone if they needed any groceries before heading to Chinatown to grab groceries. In 1970, the first Vaisakhi parade took place and Balbir remembers making plastic flowers with her family and friends to put them on everyone’s car. People across from BC came to attend the parade. Balbir was part of the UBC East Indian Student Association and they had their own float for the parade.
Balbir went back to India the first time in 1987 to visit her husband’s maternal aunt. Since then she has visited India several times, as she’s involved in volunteer work. At that time, she was on the board of the Canada India Education Society and would visit hospitals and nursing schools in Punjab to help them implement changes and bring them up to local standards. Balbir recalls everyone in the Punjabi community would have good relations with the Indigenous people and treated them as their own family.
Balbir shared a story of how her Tayaji (paternal uncle) moved to Canada when he was only 18 years old on a student visa and got into UBC directly from India. He had a long journey to Vancouver; he took a ship from India to Hong Kong and while he was on the ship he got sick. He spent three months in Hong Kong while he recovered. He then arrived in Canada and went to university for a year. Later he discovered he couldn’t financially afford it. He started working in several saw mils on the island and then, later in life, he became the president of the Khalsa Diwan Society. Balbir’s family has always been involved in Gurdwara politics and doing sewa (volunteer work). Because of her family, volunteering has been constant in Balbir’s life.
Another memory Balbir recalls is the Punjabi community being extremely hardworking. She remembers people worked double shifts and would work as many jobs as they could get. Balbir remembers if someone couldn’t find a job they would go to the local farms and berry pick. She believes that even other communities find the Punjabi community to be hardworking people and because of that we have a good reputation.