Secret Life of Canada

Meet Private Buckam Singh, one of the first Sikh soldiers to serve Canada

Pte. Buckam Singh is recognized as the first Sikh man to enlist with the Canadian army during the First World War.

Pte. Buckam Singh served in combat on the fields of Flanders in 1916

Canadian historian Sandeep Singh Brar (at microphone) rediscovered Pte. Singh's story when he found his war medals in a British pawn shop and then went on to locate his grave in a Kitchener, Ont., cemetery. (Carmen Ponciano/CBC)

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on.

Pte. Buckam Singh's military contributions to Canada weren't widely known until almost 100 years after his service — but he has since been recognized as the first Sikh man to enlist with the Canadian army during the First World War. 

Pte. Singh volunteered to fight for Canada despite the government's restrictive immigration policies against South Asian people.

Here are five things we learned about the soldier, whose service and sacrifice we celebrate this coming Remembrance Day.

1) He was unable to immigrate with his family

Singh was born in India and moved to Canada when he was 14 years old. When he arrived in 1907, it was a tumultuous time in the country for South Asian people. 

At this time, over 98 per cent of South Asian immigrants to Canada were Sikhs. They became a target of hate groups like the Asiatic Exclusion League.

The Canadian government resisted South Asian immigration, but due to a labour shortage, British Columbia accepted Sikh labourers. Unfortunately, the immigration restrictions meant Sikh men like Singh were not allowed to immigrate with their families — a deterrent to discourage their migration.

Sawmill workers in B.C. This photo of a group of North Pacific Lumber Co. workers is among the rare photos of Sikh men in Canada at the time. (Vancouver Public Library)

2) Sikh Canadians were some of the earliest South Asian immigrants

In 1908, the Canadian government passed a law that stipulated all immigrants had to come to Canada by "continuous journey and through tickets from the country of their birth or nationality or citizenship." This meant coming to Canada would be almost impossible for most Sikhs, as there were no direct ships that sailed between India and Canada.

Sikh immigration fell from 2,623 people in 1907 to just six the following year, and the impact on the community's immigration numbers would be felt for the next 40 years. 

Damage to property of Japanese residents following Anti-Asiatic riots on September 8 and 9, 1907. (Library and Archives Canada)

3) He was wounded twice

Despite the forced separation from his family due to restrictive immigration policies, Singh enlisted to fight in the First World War in 1915. He would become a member of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He as one of just nine Canadian Sikhs to fight in the war.

Singh was shipped out very quickly. He served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders in 1916, and was wounded twice in separate battles.

4) He was treated in the hospital run by Lt. Colonel John McCrae

Injured from a gunshot wound, Singh was treated at a hospital run by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, the physician who would go on to write one of the most famous wartime poems: In Flanders Fields.

By 1917, as he was waiting to be sent back to the frontline, Singh developed tuberculosis. He was admitted to a Canadian-run military hospital and underwent surgery to remove fluid from his lung.

5) He was laid to rest with full honours, but never saw his family again

Singh was sent back to Canada to recover after his surgery. After arriving in Halifax, he made the long train journey to try to recover in Ontario. Sadly, he succumbed to the tuberculosis on Aug. 27, 1919, in Kitchener, Ont. 

He had no family or community around him.

Singh was buried by the Canadian military with full honours and laid to rest at Mount Hope Cemetery in Kitchener. His grave is one of the only resting places of a Sikh Canadian soldier from the First World War.

Minister Harjit Sajjan, local politicians and members from the Canadian Armed Forces were among 12 groups that laid wreaths to honour Pte. Buckam Singh and other Canadian soldiers in 2017. (Carmen Ponciano/CBC)

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