Sikhs are one of the most visible minorities. With his beard and turban, a Sikh can be identified in any crowd. Still they are perhaps the least understood as a people. Not many people know about the beliefs, practices and ethics of the Sikhs, and still fewer will understand their significance.
The Sikh religion originated in India in the fifteenth century. Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion, preached oneness of God and brotherhood of man: "One Father and we are all His children." At that time Hinduism and Islam were the predominant religions in India; and relations between the two communities were not very cordial. Guru Nanak preached dignity of man and tolerance for the viewpoint of others: "The World is burning, O Lord, Save it, O Save it, by whichever door it pleases thee."
Guru Nanak was followed by nine successor gurus, when the Holy Book, popularly known as Guru Granth Bahib was ordained as the perpetual Guru of the Sikhs, by the last and tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh. For the Sikhs, Granth is the only object of veneration. That does not make them worshippers of the book, or bibliolator. The book Granth is not the guru. In Sikh thought the Word is the Guru and not any corporeal object.
During the eighteenth century Sikhs suffered great persecution at the hands of the local rulers, but by the end of the eighteenth century they had established their rule in northwest India. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the kingdom collapsed, and it was incorporated into British India. After some lapse of time relations between the Sikhs and the British improved, and they joined the army in great numbers. The valour of Sikh soldiers during the two world wars was internationally recognised. But that itself has created stereotypes. Most people associate the Sikhs with the army and sometimes with violence. This is a very inaccurate picture and misleading.
In essence the Sikhs are a peaceful people, their ethos grounded in the universality of their beliefs-equality of man the Fatherhood of God, to live by honest earnings, to share with those in the community and with those who happen to be less fortunate, tolerance for others, acceptance of the universal values irrespective of their source. Here it will be worth mentioning that the Granth incorporated writings of a number of Moslem and Hindu saints.
The immigration of Sikhs into Canada started at the beginning of the century. They had to face a great deal of opposition and discrimination. In the late forties after the Second World War and the independence of India, most of the legal disabilities that the Sikhs suffered were removed. Later, in the sixties immigrants came to be selected on a point system regardless of race. The earlier immigration was to the west coast, mainly into British Columbia. Before the fifties there were very few Sikhs in Ontario. In 1938 there were only three Sikhs in Toronto. Until the late fifties there were only about ten families. It is apparent that almost all the Sikh population of Toronto has been here for less than twenty years. The earlier Sikh immigrants were mostly farmers and ex-soldiers, but the recent immigrants more often belong to the professional classes-engineers, doctors, etc.
The community is still in the process of settling down. The usual community structures are, as yet, not in place. Wherever the Sikhs go their first community activity is the building of a Gurdwara-Sikh temple, literally, house of the Guru. In Toronto the first Gurdwara was established in 1969. At present there are four Gurdwaras in Metropolitan Toronto with their own buildings. For the Sikhs the Gurdwara is very important. Grounded in the teachings of Granth, their community life is centred round the Gurdwara. To celebrate births, marriages, deaths and their holy days, they gather in the Gurdwara. The Gurdwara is an open place of worship, i.e., any person, regardless of caste or creed, can visit a Gurdwara. The Granth occupies the central place in the Gurdwara. It is wrapped in silk cloth with a canopy overhead. Whenever there is a service, an attendant stands by the Granth. Sikhs treat the Granth (Word) as the True King.
Another aspect of the Gurdwara is the free kitchen-refectory. To every Gurdwara is attached a kitchen where people bring food and distribute it among all. Any person-Sikh or otherwise-can go to the refectory. All are served together, sitting on the floor with no regard to social status. The Gurdwaras provide religious services, but they have not been able to provide those other services that a community needs- socio-cultural activities for the young, counselling services, etc. There is no common forum where the management from the various Gurdwaras can get together to discuss common issues facing the community. To fill this vacuum the Sikh Social and Educational Society was established in 1977. This society is not Gurdwara-based. The objectives of this society are threefold: I) to create a forum where Sikhs from various centres in Ontario and various Gurdwaras can hold multi-religious services; followers of all then meet regularly to discuss the issues affecting the integration, development and progress of the Sikh community; 2) to create structures whereby the Sikh community can interact with society at large and with various socio-cultural and public agencies; 3) to create an environment where young people can take pride in their own heritage, not in isolation but as full-fledged members of the Canadian mosaic.
In pursuit of its objectives the society arranges every year in the month of April a cultural program-dance, folk songs, etc. The function is open to all. The primary objective of the society is to establish structures whereby Sikhs can periodically come together. The first step in this direction was the holding of the Sikh Conference in 1979, at the Inn on the Park, Toronto. The conference was a great success. More than 400 people attended, there was active participation by a number of non-Sikhs as consultants and participants. In a sense it was a multicultural event, with the Sikhs playing the leading role. Then there was the Sikh Heritage Conference held in September 1981. An exhibition of lithographs and pictures depicting the history of the Sikhs. The conference ended with a multi-religious service; followers of all the major religions participated, indicating the openness of the Sikh people.
There is slow and steady progress being made in developing communication between various centres of the Sikh population, creating infrastructures for the Sikh community within the city's social framework. But there is still a long way to go. There are a lot of misunderstandings and stereotypes held about the Sikhs, and the Sikhs themselves hold misgivings and stereotypes about the host society. The process of integration could be somewhat easier if the host society, especially individuals in leadership roles, try to understand the practices and ethos of the Sikhs and not jump to hasty conclusions if they do not approve of the actions of a particular individual. This is equally true for the Sikhs. They should not isolate themselves, but take active part in the social and political activities of the broader spectrum.