'One big community': Toronto Sikhs to celebrate Vaisakhi together for the 1st time since pandemic

For the first time in almost three years, the Sikh community will be gathering at Nathan Phillips Square to celebrate Vaisakhi — an important event that marks the start of the harvest festival in the Punjab region of northern India.

For many Sikh immigrants, this will be their first celebration away from home

Thousands took part in Vaisakhi celebrations at Nathan Phillips Square on April 30, 2017. The event will take place this Sunday for the first time since the pandemic. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Gurpreet Singh has been in Canada since 2020, but Sunday will be the first time he'll celebrate the annual Sikh festival of Vaisakhi with the local community.

The 22-year-old international student came here from India during the first year of the pandemic.

But on his first Vaisakhi away from his family, instead of being part of the usual crowds of thousands in bright traditional clothing, he spent the day at home, talking to his relatives in India and exchanging sweets with the few friends that he could meet. 

"I excitedly video called my family back home. Everyone was in beautiful attire ... Everything seemed very exciting," he said.

"I'm missing those events. I'm so far away from family right now, I'm living with my friends and so they are my new family now," said Singh.

Gurpreet Singh, a 22-year-old international student from India, will be celebrating his first Vaisakhi away from home this year. (Submitted by Gurpreet Singh)

For the first time in almost three years, Toronto's Sikh community will gather at Nathan Phillips Square to celebrate Vaisakhi, a spring harvest festival and a new year celebration for people of the Sikh faith. The event typically draws crowds in the thousands and usually includes parades where people march from the Canadian National Exhibition grounds to Toronto city hall. 

Millions of Sikhs around the world celebrate Vaisakhi, traditionally on April 14, especially in India. But for many immigrants living in Canada, this will be their first time celebrating the holiday away from home.

Before coming to Canada, Singh and his family would celebrate Vaisakhi by travelling to Anandpur Sahib, a historic city that is extremely important to the Sikh faith, located 200 kilometres away from his hometown of Tarn Tarn, Punjab.

Singh recalls celebrations there as spirited and energetic with large gatherings dressed in traditional attire.

He's excited to celebrate his first Vaisakhi in Canada and hopes to have a memorable experience this Sunday.

Sikh men preparing for Vaisakhi celebrations dressed in traditional clothing carrying swords and flags. (CBC News/ Meg Roberts)

"I'm expecting an energetic environment. I want to feel the energy in the people, which I have felt when I was back home," said Singh.

Many other international students share the same story, says Manjit Singh Parmar, secretary of the Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council.

Parmar, who is also the organizer of Sunday's event, says he expects many international students to be there.

"This will be a focus for them to come together and celebrate," he said. 

"It might be a little bit different than how they celebrate back home but they'll be here among the community they're currently growing up in and trying to be a part of."

Challenging 2 years for Sikh community

The past two years have been challenging for the Sikh community with limited access to its temples, known as gurdwaras, and the cancellation of annual events due to public health measures. 

"So it was a tough situation, especially for senior citizens as it was part of their daily routine to go to gurdwara every day," said Parmar. 

Parmar added that the measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 were the responsible thing to do to keep everyone safe at that time, but now that they're being lifted, the community is trying to bring some normalcy back this year. 

This year's event will not include the usual parade, and celebrations will be limited to the gathering at Nathan Phillips Square. 

"We are not holding any event at the CNE, which looking at the current situation of the pandemic is a wise decision and a responsible thing to do."

Volunteers preparing food and refreshments, which will be offered for free to everyone attending the event. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The event will take place at 11 a.m., starting with prayers led by a Sikh priest, known as a granthi, and religious discussions, followed by hymns from Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book in Sikhism.

They will also be hosting langar seva, the Sikh tradition of serving meals free of charge to everyone.

Parmar said Sikhism teaches the equality of all humankind, and he encourages people from all backgrounds and religions to come out and celebrate.

"It's a day of coming together," he said.

"We'll be showcasing our religion and people will be bringing their greetings from their respective communities and all of us will be celebrating as one big community."


Satbir Singh Aulakh

Journalist, The Fifth Estate

Satbir Singh Aulakh is a journalist with CBC's investigative documentary program The Fifth Estate. Born and raised in Punjab, India, he is a former international student in Canada. He can be reached at