Iconic Sikh photo recreated in downtown Winnipeg

An iconic photo from 1908 has been recreated by a group of Sikhs in Winnipeg's Exchange District to kick off Manitoba's Sikh Heritage Month.

Manitoba's first Sikh Heritage Month looks to connect the past to the present

This iconic photo, Sikhs in Canada, was taken in 1908 by Vancouver street photographer Phillip Tim. (Phillip Tim)

When you look at the photo above, what do you see?

The streetcar stands out pretty quickly. So does the architecture of the early 1900s.

Your eye may be drawn to how well everyone is dressed or even the horse in the background.

But for generations of Sikhs in Manitoba and across Canada, they see something more.

They see pioneers.

They see perseverance.

But most of all, they see pride.

And that is why a group of Winnipeg Sikhs have reimagined this iconic photo more than 100 years later, with the intent of connecting the past to the present during Manitoba's first Sikh Heritage Month.

A bit of Sikh history

"The four men in the right of the photograph probably didn't know they were going to be a part of Sikh heritage down the road," says Imreet Kaur, the government relations and creative director for Sikh Heritage Manitoba, with a bit of a laugh.

And it's true.

The photo Sikhs in Canada was taken by Vancouver street photographer Phillip Tim in 1908 after the four gentleman just happened to walk into the frame.

Even though it was an accident, it forever immortalized a significant moment in time for Sikh Canadians.

"The photo captures resilience, strangely enough," said Parminder Singh Gill, who works for Sikh Heritage Manitoba and was also one of the directors of the updated photo.

When we talked to the youth in our communities, we saw this lack of heritage content pertaining to Sikhs in Manitoba- Imreet   Kaur

"I mean, they're just walking in an intersection, conducting their business, but when I think of 1908, I think of a far more unfriendly period of time, especially for folks who are walking around in their turbans and are so clearly different from every other folk walking on that street."

In the early 1900s, racism against Sikh men was at an all-time high, so in the Sikh temple, a law was passed that all Sikhs had to "present the best version of themselves," Kaur said.

"So just to be walking, with their shoulders spread out in a fashion that doesn't seem weighed down by what we know society was like for a Sikh back then, shows defiance, and that's why 111 years later, we still feel something when we look at it."

The updated photo was taken on a freezing cold day at Hargrave Street and Cumberland Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. (Sandeep Singh)

It's one thing to feel strongly about a photo; it's another to want to recreate it — especially when it's –37 outside.

But Kaur was passionate about making this photo happen.

"When we talked to the youth in our communities, we saw this lack of heritage content pertaining to Sikhs in Manitoba," she said. "We said we wanted to embark on this journey where we are able to produce stories of Sikh heritage, so young Sikhs of future generations could feel that this is their story as well."

One major part of the story was missing from the original photo: Sikh women.

Until 1918, only Sikh men were allowed to come to Canada, which makes updating the photo even more powerful for Kaur, who is in it.

The updated photo reads 'Sikh Heritage Month Manitoba 2019. Community. Resilience. Chardi Kalla.' (Andrew Friesen/CBC)

"It's really disheartening to see that when a female is looking at that original photo, we are absent from that pioneer journey. We have to look at different ways of capturing these images and stories, and now when we look at the photo we created, we wanted to add the contribution of Sikh women because it's so important to have that perspective as well."

The new photo was unveiled at the Manitoba Legislature at noon on Monday as part of Sikh Heritage Month, which has both Gill and Kaur beaming with pride.

"I think we reproduced the photo in such a fun way that those very populations that didn't even know they had an interest in engaging in the heritage of Sikh Canadians will all of a sudden realize how cool it is!" Gill said.

About the Author

Trevor Dineen

Host, Now or Never

Trevor Dineen hosts Now or Never, heard nationally every Saturday and Thursday on CBC Radio One. Trevor is a well known Winnipeg-based radio personality who got his on-air start making traffic both interesting and entertaining on CBC Manitoba. When not behind a microphone, Trevor is a father of two (three if you count his adorable chocolate lab Sophie) and the owner of a pear tree.


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