Late Narain Singh & Maha Kaur Dosanjh
Date of Birth:
Family Resides in Ladner, B.C.
The very first wave of working-class Sikh men arrived in Canada in 1904, from Punjab, India to establish themselves in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. By 1906, there were only 1,500 Sikhs living in Canada.
Narain Singh’s Long & Arduous Journey
Narain Singh Dosanjh (Papa) was part of this early group of Punjabi-speaking Sikh settlers who immigrated to Canada in 1907, at the tender age of 16. As per Indian tradition at the time, he committed to and ceremonially married Maha Kaur Dosanjh (Mama) in his youth. He then left her and his loved ones behind in the village of Dosanjh Kalan, India to establish his family roots and build a life of opportunity in Canada. Narain Singh was a non-English speaking labourer who came to the country without any resources or support network. He came to Canada with the intention of financially supporting his extended family back home and eventually bringing his wife to Canada once he had accumulated enough savings.
Hardship, Isolation & Re-Location
When he first arrived in Canada, steady employment was difficult to find for Narain Singh as Sikh immigrants faced many challenges including racial discrimination, and both language and cultural barriers. He was also politically powerless. In 1907, the Government of B.C. passed a bill which denied Sikhs the right to vote. It was a time of hardship and isolation from the broader community for Narain Singh and the Sikh pioneers who were not embraced by the locals. Although these early days were dark and difficult times, Narain Singh was both tenacious and highly-determined to assimilate into this new world and inevitably to succeed for his family. It was around this time that he decided to re-locate to the U.S. to earn income by taking a job building the railway lines in Stockton, California for one year. He made his way back to Canada in 1908, when he heard about the potential of employment opportunities with the opening of Fraser Mills in New Westminster, B.C.
A Sign of The Times: Government Bans Sikh Immigration
Narain Singh moved back to Canada at a time when the anti-Asian sentiment was overt and ever-increasing. Historical archives report that local politicians denounced Indian immigrants as a “burden to the city” and proclaimed they were “destructive to the British way of life in the province.” Local newspaper articles urged action to restrict Indian immigration with articles that read, “Get rid of Hindoos at any cost.” (Sikhs were often mistakenly referred to as Hindus.) Sadly, in 1908, the government banned all immigration of Sikhs from India to Canada. An important note, up until this point, only three of the Sikh men were able to bring their wives with them and aside from rare photographs, there is little or nothing written about these pioneer women in our history.
Finding a Place to Call Home in the Fraser Mills Community
In 1909, the Fraser River Lumber Company (which became the Canadian Western Lumber Company) decided to recruit an inexpensive, and unskilled labour force of Sikh, French-Canadian and Japanese workers. Fraser Mills was located along the banks of the Fraser River and was considered the largest mill in the Pacific Northwest at the time. The municipality of Fraser Mills was formed in 1913, and the subsequent settlement became Maillardville. (Now a part of Coquitlam.)
Narain Singh was relieved to find steady work and a safe place to live as part of Fraser Mills. He knew he finally had a home where he could bring Maha Kaur and raise his future family. Fraser Mills was known to be a Sikh-based community unto itself which remained close and continued to support and care for each other over the years. Narain Singh worked diligently as a mill worker at Fraser Mills and earned 10 cents per hour when he started and often worked over 12 hours per day. With Narain Singh’s exceptional strength and steadfast work ethic, he soon advanced and became a respected Foreman at Fraser Mills. Although he was relatively short in stature, Narain Singh simply commanded respect with his dignified presence and muscular physique.
Working Hard to Assimilate into a New World
There were only five Sikh families living in Fraser Mills at the time: Narain Singh Dosanjh, Kabul Singh Dosanjh, Dalip Singh Dosanjh, Lal Singh Sekhon and Shiv Singh Rai. These families kept largely to themselves within both the job site and within the wider community. They developed a close network of mutual support based on work and faith. At the mills, the men mostly laboured pulling, piling, and moving lumber on the green chain, all difficult tasks that demanded their physical strength. These men quickly acquired a reputation as hard-working, reliable and ethical employees. An early-twentieth-century Vancouver mill owner described Sikhs as “steady and attentive workers with a keen desire to learn.” However, Sikh workers still earned significantly lower wages than white workers who refused to accept occupations that were designated as “Asian or immigrant jobs.”
The Sikh Community on the Rise
At the same time, the small but tight knit Sikh community was well-connected, adapting to a new world and continuing to depend on each other. The Punjabi community began to effectively gather, rally and thrive and Narain Singh was a quiet but strong figure. The Khalsa Diwan Society non-profit organization was founded in Canada in 1906. In 1908, the Sikhs built the very first Sikh Temple in North America at 2nd Avenue in Vancouver, B.C. The 2nd Avenue Gudwara became a vital center for spiritual and social life for local Sikhs and the forefront for social justice activity for the community at large. Wherever Sikhs gathered in sufficient numbers, new temples were soon established which served beyond their religious functions, The Gurdwaras also provided free kitchens for communal meals and temporary lodging for those in dire need. (Circa 1940 – Narain Singh, Maha Kaur and their children Sarjeet Singh, Mindo Kaur and Jeeto Kaur are all pictured in the historic photo of the 2nd Avenue Gudwara which is featured above. Sarjeet Singh is believed to be the only living member pictured.)
Gudwaras Provide a Place to Unite
In 1912, Gurdwaras were also built in Victoria, Abbotsford and in the Fraser Mills community where Narain Singh was now an active leader. In fact, it was the Canadian Western Lumber Company, which never ended its reliance and support of its valued Sikhs workers, who built a temple for them in Fraser Mills. This was a source of great pride for Narain Singh as he knew that Maha Kaur and the wives of the other Fraser Mills Sikhs would feel at home once they were allowed in Canada. The dramatic and ongoing fight to have the immigration ban rescinded was also organized by the local Sikhs through these temples. Sikhs would regularly hold major events at one temple at a time and the entire congregation was invited to travel between these locations to attend which gave them a place to unite and gather as a collective.
Dark Times for the Sikh Settlers
1914 marked the arrival of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship carrying 352 Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, which was denied entry into the Port of Vancouver and was forced to return to Calcutta, India. The Komagata Maru was escorted out of Vancouver under the guard of the Canadian Navy. Upon arrival in India, they were fired upon by the Indian Imperial Police resulting in the deaths of 20 Sikhs. Tensions were magnified by the prejudiced Canadian social and legal climate which impacted Narain Singh and his countrymen greatly as they worried about their wives ability to safely immigrate to Canada.
In 1914, Mewa Singh of New Westminster, B.C., shot and killed an immigration inspector who he believed was oppressing the Sikh community. Mewa Singh was executed for his actions and was considered a martyr by the Canadian Sikh community. Narain Singh was part of the funeral procession of 400 Sikhs who carried his body four miles from the New Westminster jail to a pyre at Fraser Mills. Since crematoriums weren’t readily available, Narain Singh was responsible for bringing the lumber from the mill for Mewa Singh’s cremation along with many other Sikh funerals that followed in the community. This incident further reinforced the isolation of the Sikhs at the time.
Narain Singh Remains Hopeful About Future Opportunities in Canada
The Komagata Maru incident and the hanging of Mewa Singh, certainly eroded the pioneers’ faith in their adopted home, prompting over 1,000 to return to India or move to the U.S. In 1918, the Sikh population in British Columbia had dropped as low as 500 people, and Narain Singh was one of the few who persevered. For those like Narain Singh who remained, the years between the First World War and the early 1920s brought new hope to prosper with the opportunity to purchase agricultural, commercial and residential land in Canada. Narain Singh worked harder than ever to capitalize on this exciting opportunity ahead which he believed would elevate his status in society as a land owner.
Contributions to the Establishment of Sukh Sagar Gudwara
In happier times the Sukh Sagar Gudwara was opened in Queensborough, New Westminster in 1919, which celebrates 100 years since its inception in 2019. Narain Singh and the Fraser Mills residents played a large role in donating money and resources to help establish and set up the new Sukh Sagar Gudwara. They even moved the furniture, carpet, dishes and other items from the Fraser Mills Gudwara (which closed permanently) to the new temple. The Fraser Mills Sikhs also moved their worship from the original Fraser Mills Gudwara to the new location at Sukh Sagar which served other Sikhs living in the vicinity. Narain Singh wouldn’t know this but Sukh Sagar would continue to play a pivotal role for future generations of his own family as it would become their primary place of worship where weddings, celebrations of his grandchildren and great grandchildren would eventually be held.
Bringing Maha Kaur Home: The Start of Their New Journey Together
In 1919, Narain Singh was hopeful as the immigration restrictions on bringing wives and children from India were finally lifted. In 1920, the first wave of Sikh women and children started arriving from India. After over 20 years of living alone and sending most of his paycheck back home to support his family, Narain Singh was finally able to save up enough money to bring his wife Maha Kaur to Canada via the Empress of France ocean liner in 1929.
When Narain Singh returned home to bring his wife some told him to leave Maha Kaur behind and find a younger wife as she was now over 30 years old and considered “too old” to bear him children. Narain Singh vehemently refused these suggestions as Maha had waited so patiently for him and he would remain loyal to her, above all. Narain Singh had endured many tough times waiting for the day that he would be able to bring his life partner, Maha Kaur home and they could start a family. In January 15, 1930, his eldest son, Sarjeet Singh (Boxie) Dosanjh was born in Canada. Narain and Maha Kaur had two other children, daughters, Mindo Kaur Sanghera (Victoria, BC) and Jeeto Kaur Purewal (Richmond, B.C.).
Maha Kaur’s Story of Lifelong Devotion
When Maha Kaur arrived in Canada, she quickly learned that she had to work hard to adapt and assimilate into Canadian society by wearing “Western” style clothing and not that of Indian custom. At the time, many women were told by their husbands to leave their Indian attire and jewelry behind as it wouldn’t be considered acceptable in Canada. She would wear long dresses with head scarfs as head covers which were part of her Sikh faith. With money being tight, Maha Kaur used her creativity and resources to save the cheese cloths (sacks) that food items like rice and potatoes came in. She would bleach the cotton fabric and then dye the material into different colours and then hand sew shirts and dresses for herself and her children to wear at home. The only special clothing items they would purchase would be for wearing in public to Gudwara events.
Maha Kaur Finds Her Place as the Heart of Her Home
In Fraser Mills, community life was naturally structured to resemble village life in India. Since the Sikh men were responsible for working, Maha Kaur, like other women, stayed home to be the homemakers and caretakers. These pioneer women lived a very sheltered life and rarely associated with people from the broader society. They did not drive cars or enjoy individual mobility. However, they were quite happy and content in their new communities as there was a strong familial interdependency and fierce loyalty amongst the women. For Maha Kaur, she also greatly valued living close to Sukh Sagar Gudwara so she could continue her daily “seva” or volunteering at the temple.
Maha Kaur did not learn to speak English fluently due to her isolation in the community and no courses were available to her or others at the time. Narain Singh diligently took care of the “outside” tasks like shopping, banking and other, so learning the new language was primarily Narain Singh’s responsibility. Sustained by her Sikh religion and her community, Maha Kaur deeply cared for her family. She worked hard to feed her children, to look after her home, her husband and her neighbours as well.
Growing up in the Fraser Mills and eventually New Westminster communities were joyous times for the entire Dosanjh family. Under her care, the Dosanjh children thrived being amongst the first few Sikh children born and raised in Canada to attend school at Millside Elementary, F.W. Howie School and to graduate from Duke of Connaught High School in B.C.
A Time to Rejoice: Sikhs Are Given Their Rights
In 1947, Sikhs finally gained the right to vote and to become Canadian citizens. Narain Singh rejoiced at this pivotal moment in Sikh history as their journey was long and harrowing. This marked the end of the 40-year struggle and a moment that is often omitted and ignored in the Canadian record. By 1951, there were 2,148 Sikhs in Canada. By 1957, the quotas of Sikhs allowed from India increased to 300 per year.
Narain Singh’s Well-Deserved Retirement
After 50 years of working in the rain, sleet or snow, Narain Singh retired from his job at Fraser Mills in 1959 at the age of 68. He was well-known and highly respected in the community for his charismatic presence, his steadfast work ethic, physical strength and upstanding character. Affectionately referred to as “Boss” and “Shorty,” Narain Singh was widely recognized for the critical contributions he made to the early saw mill community in B.C. Over the years, Narain Singh accumulated great wealth by investing in farm and commercial land in New Westminster and Delta, B.C. Along with his success, Narain Singh was known to pay it forward by providing extensive aid to others in need in the Sikh community whether by offering job opportunities to the unemployed, by lending money or even by housing those in need.
Sadly, Narain Singh passed away while journeying to Victoria on B.C. Ferries for a family wedding on November 19, 1966 at the age of 75. He will always be remembered for his devotion to his family, his integrity and his wry sense of humour. As one of the respected elder statesmen in the Fraser Mills community, Narain Singh was a true pioneer who payed forward his place as an early immigrant by leading the way for many individuals and families to follow his lead.
Narain Singh & Maha Kaur’s Legacy of Contribution Lives On
Most importantly, Narain Singh and Maha Kaur are fondly remembered for their determination for achieving great success for their children and the future generations of their family to come.
The family named their blueberry business “Papa Berries” in his honour. Today, the farm sits on 52-acres of real estate in Ladner, B.C. that Papa purchased in the 1940s. The family established legacy scholarships at an inner-city school in B.C., in both Papa and Mama’s honour, to recognize the outstanding efforts of students who have made significant contributions to their school community. In 2019, the Dosanjh family will share Papa and Mama’s Sikh pioneer journey with elementary school students in B.C. as part of Sikh Heritage Month.
Today, there are 500,000 Sikhs living in Canada and the contributions of the early pioneers, like Narain Singh and Maha Kaur, in the Indian community will never be forgotten.
In 2012, the City of Vancouver installed a commemorative plaque which serves as an important marker to remember the rich stories of the past, and the struggles and successes of the Sikh pioneer community. Narain Singh and Maha Kaur Dosanjh are both pictured in the historic photo along with their children, Sarjeet, and the Late Mindo Kaur Sanghera and the late Jeeto Kaur Purewal. It is believed that Sarjeet Singh Dosanjh is the only living person pictured in the monumental photo. In January 2019, Sarjeet Singh and Gurdev Kaur Dosanjh visited the site to reflect on and remember the legacy of Narain Singh and Maha Kaur Dosanjh and their incredible contributions as pioneers of the Sikh community in Canada.
“As descendants of Narain Singh and Maha Kaur Dosanjh now thriving in Canada, we stand on their shoulders with great pride and understanding of the enormous sacrifices they made to pave the way for each and every one of us.”
– Sarjeet Singh and Gurdev Kaur Dosanjh and Family
For more information, or to interview Sarjeet Singh Dosanjh (89), or for original photos archives, contact Karen Dosanjh at 604-328-5171 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org