200 years of Sikh-Canadian history on display in Woodstock, Ont., museum exhibit

A new exhibit at a national historic museum in Woodstock, Ont., showcases more than 200 years of Sikh history in Canada.

The exhibit runs from mid February until the end of Sikh Heritage Month in April

A young student standing in front of a Sikhs in Canada exhibit at Woodstock Museum.
Grade 11 student Savrup Kaur Saran of Woodstock, Ont., says she was surprised to learn how far back Sikh history in Canada goes. (Isha Bhargava/CBC )

Learning just how deeply her Sikh heritage is embedded in Canadian history is a pleasant surprise for Savrup Kaur Saran of Woodstock, Ont. 

An exhibit showcasing more than 200 years of Sikh history in Canada gave Saran a sense of representation that she hasn't felt in a long time, she said. The Grade 11 student moved to the small southwestern Ontario city from Brampton during the pandemic. 

"It makes my identity feel seen," she said. "Back where I used to live, I was always seen so I could reflect myself in my peers and community members, but over here I can't really do that."

The new display at a national historic museum in Woodstock called 'Sikhs in Canada,' is a timeline of the journey and achievements of Sikh Canadians dating back from early immigration in 1809, to present day pop-culture figures including Lilly Singh and Rupi Kaur. 

Produced by the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, the exhibit breaks down the timeline of two centuries into decades highlighting different historical events.

"It looks at their long history, much longer than people would think South Asians have been in Canada, and the discrimination and challenges [they faced] when they first arrived, but also the absolute champions that have been," said Woodstock Museum's curator Karen Houston.

A panel from the exhibit highlighting the struggles of Sikh Canadians in the early 1900s.
A timeline showcasing the contributions of Sikh Canadians and the discrimination they faced during the First World War. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

Connecting the past and future

The display is a great way for the city to honour and connect with the influx of its growing Sikh and Punjabi-speaking population that's migrating from the Greater Toronto Area, Houston said. 

"We knew there was a large population moving to Woodstock in the north part of town and we thought 'Wouldn't it be nice to introduce people in the area to the background and the culture of some of their neighbours,'" she said.

The exhibit brought a sense of pride and nostalgia to Darshan 'Woody' Bedi, who saw his own contributions highlighted from his time on the committee that helped build the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, commonly known as the Dixie Gurdwara, in Mississauga in 1978. 

"It's wonderful for people to learn what we are and what we've achieved within 200 years," he said. "Our pioneers worked really hard so it's definitely a good achievement for our ancestors." 

Darshan 'Woody' Bedi points to 1978 at the Woodstock Museum exhibit.
Darshan 'Woody' Bedi points to 1978, the year that stood out to him because he was part of the committee that helped build the Dixie Gurdwara in Mississauga, Ont. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

Bedi has lived in Woodstock since 1988 and has witnessed the city's demographics transform drastically in recent years, he said. 

"The population of the Sikh community has changed since 2016. The first wave of Indians came because we got three acres of free land to open up a Gurdwara, which is bringing the community to Woodstock," he said.

The amount of time Sikh Canadians have lived in this country is a lesser known fact to many people, Houston said. The first Sikh temple in Canada, built in 1911, still stands in Abbotsford, B.C.

"It's really interesting just how early it is because we've always heard that the Chinese came and helped with the railroads, we've known about the runaway slaves, but this isn't necessarily something dealt with a lot in Canadian history," Houston said. 

Two panels representing the past and present of Sikhism in Canada at the Woodstock Museum.
Panels representing the timeline of Sikhs in Canada dating from the early 1800s to present day. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

An event that stood out to Saran was the 1960 appointment of Davender Kaur Bains as the first female Sikh president of Toastmasters in Victoria, B.C., she said.

"I also enjoy public speaking and to see that reflected in history definitely pleasantly surprised me," she said. "It's clicking to me that our story is full of so many prominent people."

Saran said she hopes the exhibit can educate others on the long-standing challenges and achievements of Sikhs and to remind them that Sikh history is a part of Canadian history.

The display runs from Feb. 20 until the end of Sikh Heritage Month in April. 


Isha Bhargava is a multiplatform reporter for CBC News. She's worked for Ontario newsrooms in Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at or on Twitter @isha__bhargava