British Columbia

Project aims to preserve 'rich and robust' stories of B.C.'s Punjabi pioneers

Although Indo-Canadians have been part of the province for more than a century, a local researcher says little has been done to preserve their history and stories. 

Punjabi Legacy Project has already collected hundreds of stories about immigrants' experiences

Baljit Kaur was interviewed for the Punjabi Legacy Project. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Although Indo-Canadians have been part of the province for more than a century, a local researcher says little has been done to preserve their history and stories. 

The Punjabi Legacy Project is now trying to remedy this by raising awareness during April — Sikh Heritage Month in B.C. — and has already recorded 300 stories of men and women who came to Canada from India's Punjab region.

"We thought there was a gap in Canadian history … [history] on South Asian Canadians was actually absent," said Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley and one of the driving forces behind the project.

According to its website, the Punjabi Legacy Project aims to collect historical and contemporary perspectives on a range of experiences including racism, employment, immigration, family settlements and discriminatory legislation. 

Bains has spent the past two years travelling around B.C. to places with large Punjabi populations like Vancouver, as well as smaller Punjabi communities in places like Golden and Prince George.

She says many of the people the project interviewed didn't initially believe they had a story to tell. But that soon changed.

"By the time half an hour went by, they had lots to tell. And their stories were just as rich and robust as anyone else's," Bains told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.

"Once we started this work we realized we had just scratched the surface."

Satwinder Bains (second from left) conducts interviews for the Punjabi Legacy Project. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

From surviving to thriving

After India became independent in 1947, education among its population was on the rise. Young, educated Southern Asian men and women began immigrating to Canada in the 1960s and '70s with more frequency, according to Bains. 

"But the barriers were so great. The gatekeepers were so strong," she said, adding that one of the greatest barriers was racism — which Indo-Canadians still face.

Opportunities were also limited, with many immigrants from India becoming labourers — working at places like mills — despite having substantial education.

But Bains says there has been a shift in the community from surviving to thriving. 

She says a lot of South Asian students making the transition from high school to university have spent very little time interacting with their cultural history.

"There's still some insularity. The work of this project was to reduce that insularity … to reduce the idea that these histories are actually not part of Canadian society."

Bains hopes to publish the research as both a social history book available to the general public and as an academic textbook.

She has also applied to the provincial government for funding to create high school and college curricula around the topic.  

At the moment, the research is focused on B.C., but Bains said she hopes to later expand the project to other provinces.

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With files from Daybreak North

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