British Columbia

Sikh temple celebrates 100 years of acceptance in Vancouver Island ghost town

As the only thing left standing in the abandoned lumber town of Paldi, B.C., the 100-year-old Sikh temple is a symbol of co-operation.

Lumber brought workers to Paldi, B.C.; goodwill kept them together

A school photo from 1938 shows a mixed class of Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Caucasian children.

Long after the houses fell into ruin and families moved away, people with roots in a ghost town west of Duncan, B.C., on Vancouver Island still visit the only remaining structure.

Empty fields of grass flank the long gravel road leading to the Sikh temple in a town unique for its harmonious blending of cultures at its conception in 1917.

"The Japanese, the Chinese, the white boys, everybody got along. It was like one big family. Anyone who needed help, everybody helped each other," says Sirjeet Bawa, who was born and raised in the lumber mill town.

As the only thing left standing, today the 100-year-old Sikh temple is a symbol of what the town stood for. Each year, the July 1 weekend Jor Mela, or festival, became a hub for South Asians across the province.  It was never just a party for Sikhs, but for all residents of all the cultures living in Paldi. This year is no different: more than a thousand people will return to celebrate 100 years.

People with roots in the community still visit on weekends for worship. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Acceptance in a time of prejudice

At a time when diversity and inclusiveness were sources of tension across many parts of the world, Paldi was one of a kind – if stories of racism and conflict exist they are difficult to find.  Even in the '20s, '30s and '40s, children of all backgrounds played, ate and worked together with the Sikh temple standing as a backdrop.

There are few who embody the spirit of the multiculturalism of Paldi more than Joan Mayo, who married Rajindi Mayo, the eldest son of the town's founder Mayo Singh.  An interracial union in the early 1950s was not widely accepted, but 66 years later you can find Joan at ease within the temple. She is loved and respected in the community for writing a book on the town and fighting to keep the history alive.

Joan and Rajindi Mayo were married in the early 50s. Joan vowed to keep Paldi's history alive and wrote a book about the town. Today, she's an active participant in the temple's celebrations.

It wasn't until shortly after the couple's wedding that Joan Mayo truly understood the respect her father-in-law carried. He founded the town as an Indian immigrant nearly 30 years before South Asians were given the right to vote.

On the day of Mayo Singh's funeral, Joan stood back and watched the rituals of a ceremony foreign to her.  

As the procession neared the temple, she saw a middle-aged Caucasian man take off his hat and bow his head. 

"That simple show of respect in 1955 of a white man to an elderly East Indian, touched my heart, caused the tears to well up in my eyes."

The town was chosen for its proximity to the CP Railway line. ('Paldi Remembered')

Named after a village in India

Paldi is named after a village in India of the same name and was founded after Mayo Singh began searching for timber on Vancouver Island.

In Paldi Remembered, Joan Mayo writes, her father-in-law ultimately chose the location for the new sawmill because of its proximity to the Canadian Pacific Railway line and Sahtlam Creek.

Clarence Martin, Toemon Urabe and Basant Singh in front of one of the last trains to leave Paldi.

"Anywhere there's a mill there's always a school, so that's why it became a little village," says Joan.

And where there's a village of Sikhs, there's always a temple.

Paldi's Gurdwara was built in 1919 and soon became one of the most important fixtures of the community, even surviving several town fires.

After the mill eventually closed, people continued to live in Paldi while working at lumber operations in Lake Cowichan and Nanaimo.  But when the community's school closed down in 1969, most families moved away, 

For Bawa and his brother Bhajan, visiting the temple on weekends for worship is a way to keep the memories alive.

As they celebrate 100 years with another festival, they take comfort in knowing a key piece of history remains and continues to represent what the town once stood for.
 

Bhajan (far right) and Sirjeet Bawa (top left) seen here at Paldi with their parents and siblings.
Kapoor Singh, Doman Singh and Mayo Singh — pillars of B.C.'s lumber mill industry.
Mayo Singh stands in front of a pile of lumber at the mill in Paldi.
A group of former Paldi residents take a walk down memory lane. (Mike McArthur/CBC)
Piles of wood where buildings once stood dot the ghost town. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

About the Author

Anita Bathe

Co-host, CBC Vancouver News at 6pm

Anita Bathe is co-host of CBC Vancouver's flagship newscast. She remains committed to working in the field, telling stories that matter and giving citizens a voice. Bathe is a multiple RTDNA award winner, a recipient of the Jack Webster Fellowship and she's won several BCAB awards for her in-depth reporting on breaking news.

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