Gurmej Kaur Khunkhun
Village Haripur, Jalandhar, Punjab
Gurmej Kaur Khunkhun was born in the village of Haripur, Jalandhar in Punjab, India. After she got married in 1969, her husband received a letter from his sister residing in Vancouver, BC to apply to come to Canada. In those days, one needed only 50 points to immigrate to Canada. As such, in 1972, Gurmej’s husband came to Canada as a visitor and was picked up by his cousin sister at Vancouver airport. He met a few people in Vancouver and together they shifted to Prince George, BC to work in a mill. However, he fell very sick and developed an allergy to cedar. His cousin sister then got him back to Vancouver and got his treatment done. The doctors suggested that he move to Kamloops, BC because the weather there would be more conducive to his health. After a while, he then relocated to Williams Lake, BC and finally to Kelowna, BC. In Kelowna, he started working at a farm and in the meanwhile, Gurmej, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law got their immigration stamp in India to come to Canada. Her husband too received his immigration status within this time frame.
On Feb 4, 1976, Gurmej and her daughter came to Canada by taking a flight from Delhi to Vancouver. Gurmej’s daughter was only 3 years old at the time and due to the travel and homesickness, she got a high fever while on the plane. She got worried as to where they were going and started missing her extended family in India. Upon landing, they were interrogated for almost three hours by the immigration staff. They raised the objection that her daughter is not well and has to be hospitalized, but Gurmej explained that it’s just the travel and the home sickness that made her develop a fever. Her husband and his cousin sister came to pick them up at the airport and stayed with them for a week before moving to Kelowna. Gurmej recalls that it was snowing a lot back then and took them 8 hours to reach Kelowna from Vancouver. Upon reaching the rented house where Gurmej’s husband used to live, her daughter started saying that this wasn’t their home and wanted to go back to India. She really missed the traditional village setting and things in which she grew up.
In April 1976, Gurmej started working in a nursery. Since her daughter was too young to join school, she used to leave her daughter at their neighbour’s place. Their neighbours were of European descent; however, their daughters used to play with Gurmej’s daughter and also kept her company. She recalls that it was funny seeing them play because neither understood each other’s language. To learn English faster, the neighbours suggested that Gurmej and her husband buy a TV and through watching English cartoons, their daughter could pick the language faster.
After five months, they received a telegram that Gurmej’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law were moving to Canada. Given this, they bought a new duplex house so that they could live together. They also bought a car, which she describes as a very long two door car. After her in-laws moved with them, the ladies started working in an apple orchard, thinning apples. Gurmej recalls that there used to be a 12 foot long wooden ladders at work and she used to be scared climbing them. She used to have her mother-in-law or sister-in-law hold the ladder for her when used to be up picking apples, but they had to quickly resume their own work before their boss saw them helping Gurmej. In those days, the working environment was tough with a lot of restrictions, and despite so much hard work they were paid only $10 per bin. Gurmej even fell four-five times from the ladder, but eventually learned to balance herself. Her husband used to earn $2.50 per hour and they together managed to earn $50 a day. In 1980, they found another job and started working at Dandy Orchards, earning $6 an hour. It was 100 acres of land and they used to work in the cherry and apple plantations. Their boss used to provide incentives to the top performer through the “200 bucket club.” This meant that whoever used to do the maximum amount of picking and grading would get a t-shirt and recognition. Gurmej won every year and really enjoyed working there. The owner used to treat them just like family because they had been working there since a long time and they often used to cook chappatis, fritters and other food items for get-togethers at work. She worked there for almost thirty years and due to an injury, had to leave work and take retirement.
Gurmej also recalls that in the late 1970’s there used to be only fifty Punjabi families in Kelowna. There was no Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) and often times had to bring the holy book (Guru Granth Sahib Ji) from the nearest gurdwara in Kamloops to perform weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. For Gurmej’s sister-in-law, they had to take space in a church to perform the marriage ceremony in 1977. There wasn’t any Punjabi clothing store either and only one store that sold Indian groceries. After collecting money from the community, the first gurdwara was built in Kelowna in 1980.
Gurmej shares that the European descent people really used to love the Punjabi families here in Kelowna. They had some European descent friends as well and they really used to love Gurmej’s mother-in-law. But her mother-in-law used to find their way of expressing their love very awkward and didn’t like them holding her hand or hugging her. Gurmej and her husband used to find this very funny.
Gurmej is now retired and lives in Kelowna spending her time volunteering at the gurdwara.