Punjabi Sikhs in Brampton
By: Alisa Samuel
Published on: September 07 2022
Brampton is a large suburban city in the province of Ontario. The 2021 census tells us Brampton is home to 656 480 people. Sikhs make up roughly 20 per cent of the city’s total population.
I’ve lived in Brampton all my life. As a Canadian born of Indian descent, I’m interested in how my hometown has changed over the years. Brampton’s ongoing influx of Punjabi Sikh immigrants has changed the way the city looks and feels. Here, there are Indian sweet shops and grocery stores, traditional clothing boutiques, religious temples, and Punjabi language speakers on almost every street corner. In a sense, Punjabi newcomers from India aren’t too far from home in Brampton.
One thing to note: not all Punjabis are Sikhs and not all Sikhs are Punjabis. Punjab is a cultural region that was split up during the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Punjabi is the language of this region now in both countries. To be Punjabi is to be part of an ethnic group—not a religious one. My Christian parents, for example, are Punjabi people who natively speak Punjabi because they grew up in Lahore. Lahore is the capital city of the Punjab province in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Guru Nanak founded Sikhism around 500 years ago in a village near Lahore.
The first Sikhs
The story of Sikhs in Brampton begins with the first settlement of Sikhs in British Columbia. As part of the British Hong Kong army, Sikh soldiers living under Crown rule travelled to Canada in the early 1900s. The army came to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and Albert Edward’s coronation. The soldiers would return home to India with tales of this promising new world called Canada. Inspired by what they heard, the first Sikh immigrants arrived in British Columbia between 1902 and 1904.
By 1908, before the Canadian government banned South Asian immigration, a Sikh community of nearly 5 000 immigrants had been established. Canada’s immigration rules relaxed after the end of World War II.
Currently, Brampton has one of the largest Punjabi Sikh populations outside of India. Sheridan College’s Davis Campus on McLaughlin Road illustrates this fact. International students account for 30 per cent of the school’s overall population. Of that 30 per cent, around 65 per cent are from India. The Davis campus offers multiple student services in Punjabi.
A Punjabi Sikh learner and their family back home will sell off assets and land to fund the trip to Brampton. To them, schooling in the city means consequential work opportunities and potentially Canadian citizenship at last.
Sikhs contribute greatly to the city’s economic and social development. According to their religion, Sikhs must earn honest livings and serve others without reward. Guru Nanak saw mankind as one whole. Therefore, he teaches his followers to work practically towards a universal human society.
Many Sikhs in Brampton today are municipal politicians, real estate agents, small business owners, truck drivers, healthcare providers, and farm workers.
The Khalsa Sikhs
We recognize Sikhs by what they wear. Some Sikhs wear turbans to maintain their hair. In a practice known as kesh, Sikhs let their hair grow long without ever cutting it. Kesh is to show respect for the Creator God in the Sikh religion (Waheguru). You might even notice that almost all the Sikhs you meet and know wear a plain iron bangle, or a kara. The kara visually reminds Sikhs to stay committed to their community and the eternity of Waheguru.
When Sikhs are old enough to seriously understand the teachings of their gurus, a small number of them might get baptized. Baptized Sikhs become members of a special group called the Khalsa. They not only wear kesh and the kara, but also the kaccha, kanga, and kirpan. The kaccha is cotton underwear that represents the virtue of self-control against unmarried sex. The kanga is a comb that Khalsa Sikhs use to brush their hair with twice a day. The kirpan is a medium-sized knife that they always carry to show their defensive concern for the weak, poor, and oppressed.
Together, the kesh, kara, kaccha, kanga, and kirpan are called the “Five K’s” of Sikhism.
The troubled Sikhs
Sikhs have had their fair share of challenges in Brampton. In December of 1988, the Peel board of education classified the kirpan as a weapon rather than a symbol of faith. A few months later, Sikh teenager Sukhdev Singh Hundal was suspended from Central Peel Secondary School for wearing a kirpan on school grounds.
Soon after the Peel Board’s decision, Harbhajan Singh Pandori, a supply teacher at Hundal’s high school, stopped teaching.
Sikhs believe in putting up a righteous fight. When they couldn’t wear kirpans in the classroom, Pandori filed a complaint with the human rights commission. He argued that Sikhs were being discriminated against for exercising the practices demanded by their religion. Freedom of religious expression is a constitutionally protected right in Canada. In the summer of 1990, an Ontario judge ruled that kirpans could be worn in Peel schools.
A recent example of the Sikh community’s negative experiences in Brampton takes place in 2014. That year a flyer targeting mass immigration was distributed throughout the city. The flyer showed a photo of Sikhs in traditional garb under a photo of white people from the distant past. It asks: “Is this really what you want?” with “this” being a mostly brown Brampton.
Brampton has gained a reputation for being a “ghetto.” Punjabi immigrants can get by without learning or speaking English. The city has high car insurance rates because of new driver crashes and fake claims. Sikh human-trafficking gangs are on the rise. Cash-strapped international students live in overcrowded illegal basement units. Most retail businesses pander to South Asian tastes and holidays. Non-white residents are choosing to leave because of the growing divide between brown people and everyone else.
Some Sikhs in Brampton also support the Khalistan movement. They want an independent country for Sikhs to be made from the north Indian Punjab state.
It’s not unusual to see large stickers of guns and Jarnail Singh plastered on the rear car windows of young Sikh newcomers. Jarnail Singh was a Sikh militant. He violently campaigned for a separate Sikh homeland throughout the late 70s and early 80s.
The Indian government has formally raised concerns over Khalistani elements in Canada. In March of 2021, pro-Khalistanis attacked participants in a Brampton rally organized by Canadian Indians calling for stronger India-Canada ties. Earlier this year, Deepak Punj, the Hindu host of a Punjabi-language radio show in Brampton, was physically assaulted near his studio for criticizing the anti-India sentiment of the Khalistan movement. The city, in this way, has become a hostile place.
The question arises: how will Brampton’s race-related success and social turmoil play out? Punjabi Sikh immigration clearly lays the groundwork for the city’s future.