Alberta's unexplored Sikh history documented for first time

The role Sikhs have played in shaping Alberta’s history is being documented by a Calgary professor who’s gathering stories and documents from that community dating back the early 1900s.

Not many know Sikh immigrants have been living and working here since before Alberta was a province

An old photo shows men in Sikh dress at the train station in the town of Frank in the Crowsnest Pass. This was taken just after the Frank Slide disaster. (Southern Alberta Sikh History Project)

The role Sikhs have played in shaping Alberta's history is being documented by a Calgary professor who's gathering stories and documents from that community dating back the early 1900s.

The Southern Alberta Sikh History Project is uncovering a chapter of Alberta's past that not many of us know about.

"The third largest concentration of Sikhs in Canada is right here in Calgary and southern Alberta," said Michael Hawley, associate professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University. Hawley has been researching Sikhs for 15 years.

It's a history Hawley says has never been documented.

Michael Hawley, associate professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University, has been researching Sikhs in Alberta for the last 15 years. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"I thought here's something that needs to be told, here's something that needs to be talked about," he said.

He started gathering passenger lists, census information, voter lists, directories, birth registrations, marriage and death certificates along with photographs and other documents.

"I really started to uncover a tremendous history, lots of Sikhs in the Crowsnest Pass as early as 1903, others who came to Calgary as early as 1908," said Hawley, who has also interviewed Sikh families and pioneers to document their stories.

One photo shows Sikh newcomers wearing turbans and traditional dress at the train station in the town of Frank, just after the Frank Slide disaster in 1903.

An old immigration card for Harchet Singh shows the date stamp as May 26, 1932. (Southern Alberta History Project)

Hawley says Sikhs worked as miners, farmers and lumber workers.

"I was down in Coleman looking at the museum and archives and came across a photograph of a fellow by the name of Bishun Singh who worked there in the 1920s and if he wasn't labelled in the caption we would have passed right over him," Hawley said.

That's because like many early immigrants, Singh wore western attire, didn't wear a turban and cut his hair. In some cases people were forced to change their appearance and adapt to gain employment and blend in to early Alberta life.

Singh, one of Hawley's favourite characters, worked at a sawmill in Blairmore and made the local paper there several times, in one case for supplying liquor to miners during prohibition.

Bishun Singh is the man wearing black trousers, a white shirt, suspenders, and a black tie, seated second from the left. This is the only known photograph of this early Sikh pioneer. (Southern Alberta Sikh History Project)

The information Hawley has gathered will be included in a digital archive and made accessible to all Albertans. Hawley also has a Facebook page for his project to share some of the photos and stories he's uncovered.

"It retells how Alberta history gets told. Some of the things I'm finding are simply not part of the historical narrative," Hawley said.

"Sikhs helped to build Alberta. When you think of it that way, Sikhs are as much a part of Alberta history as any other group and it really challenges this idea that Sikhs are migrants or immigrants. No, they were here and they were founders and builders."

Hawley says members of one Sikh family in Calgary are now sixth generation Calgarians.

"The response has been absolutely fantastic. So many people are quite grateful and surprised to hear about this rich Sikh history that's starting to be uncovered," he said.

Hawley's work has been welcomed by the Sikh community in Calgary, who are following his work closely. Many say it gives them an extra connection to the place they were born or now call home.

Khem Kaur lived on the family farms in Kingsland, just south of what is now Chinook Centre in Calgary, and in DeWinton. She was strong-willed, independent, and religious. By the early 1940s, she was the grandmother to six boys and four girls. (Southern Alberta Sikh History Project)

"It's really interesting and intriguing for us as a community," said Roop Rai.

"For me personally, as a Sikh person, to know the heritage of the community that I belong to, in the country that I live in, in the country I'm raising my daughter in.

"For us seeing that someone from our community was here back in the day, we are part of Canada from the get-go, we are part of this country. That sense of belonging, that we're Canadian as anyone else is. That's very empowering," she said.

Rai describes Hawley's work as a gift to the Sikh community and future generations.

Hawley plans to keep his research project going, searching for and adding new information in the years ahead.

He says he may even end up passing it off to someone else in a university setting who can continue his work and continue to build a clearer picture of Sikh history in Alberta.

"I think this is going to be important for future generations, this is going to add value for our children, our grandchildren and for others wanting to understand the history of the province," said Hawley.

Hawley is still looking for new leads and information from the Sikh community.

If you have a story or information you can contact the Southern Alberta Sikh History Project via email.


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. His work is used by mobile journalism (mojo) trainers and educators around the world. Dan is focused on the city’s diverse northeast quadrant and sharing stories from under-reported communities. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at