Wherever they settle, the Sikhs’ first communal activity is to build a gurdwara (house of the Guru). Since founding their first gurdwara on Eglinton Avenue West in the 1960s, a familiar Toronto scene is Sikh followers entering one of the city’s many temples. Uncut hair and beards and protective turbans are symbols of their religious identity.
Sikhs are the disciples of a world religion that arose from the teachings of Guru Nanak (1469–1538) in Punjab, India. The first Sikh temple in Canada was established in Goldney, British Columbia, in 1908. Other Sikhs came to Canada in 1902 as part of a Hong Kong military contingent travelling to the coronation of Edward VII; they later returned and settled along the west coast of British Columbia.
One of the first Sikhs in Ontario was Jamait Singh Gill, who arrived from British Columbia in 1938. Until the late 1950s there were only about 10 sikh families living in Toronto. Sikhs began arriving in large numbers from the late 1950s to the 1970s, mainly via Great Britain and former British Indian trading colonies in Africa, such as Uganda.
A few of the Toronto community’s founders were Dr. Biant Singh, Dr. Jarnail Singh, and Dr. R.S. Khanna, who established the city’s first Sikh temple in 1968 in a rented hall on Eglinton Avenue West. Businesses that opened in the 1960s included Gill’s Grocery Store and the Sher-E-Punjab on Danforth Avenue, Toronto’s oldest Sikh restaurant.
The early 1970s saw the first major influx of Sikhs to Toronto; many found jobs as labourers, taxi drivers, real-estate agents, and insurance salesmen, or started businesses such as grocery stores and restaurants. The major concentration of Sikh businesses was the Indian Bazaar in the Pape Avenue and Gerrard Street area.
There are now approximately 80,000 Sikhs living in and around Toronto. Early newcomers were often farmers and ex-soldiers, but the more recent settlers are from the professional classes and include engineers, doctors, and teachers.
Sikhs have contributed to Toronto’s cultural life with art exhibits and Indian classical music. The first Sikh Conference was held in 1979, and a heritage conference in 1981 featured an exhibition of lithographs and pictures depicting the history of the Sikhs. Sikh athletes are among the members of Canada’s national field hockey team.
On religious occasions and at ceremonies, Sikhs recite the hymns of the holy Granth, the scriptures composed by the gurus (teacher prophets) and 23 of the other saints from the Hindu and Muslim religions. The Granth is the source of spiritual knowledge and the complete recitation from beginning to end takes 48 hours. The scripture is read continuously by changing readers every two hours. On the last day of reading, the congregation grows in number. The Ragi Jatha (groups of three or four persons) sing the relevant hymns on special occasions. Poets and Dhadis (professional singers who sing about historical events and the brave deeds of martyrs) take part in the function. The celebration ends with a communal meal, Langar.
THE BIRTHDAY OF GURU GOBIND SINGH JI (1666–1708), the tenth guru and spiritual master, is celebrated in the first week of January.
BAISAKHI (NEW YEAR’S DAY) is celebrated on April 13. For Sikhs, the day has an added significance, as it was on this day in 1699 that the community was organized by Guru Gobind Singh. Toronto’s Sikh community usually celebrates with a procession starting at Queen’s Park. Cans of food are donated to the hungry, and blood donations are made on this day.
THE BIRTHDAY OF GURU NANAK, the 15th-century founder of Sikhism, is celebrated in October or November/December.
The Sikh Holy Scriptures arrive in Toronto on the 400th anniversary of the Revelation of Guru Granth Sahib.
EYE ON ASIA, City TV, (Tel. 416-531-9991, c/o CHIN Radio/TV International, 622 College St). Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Hindi/English.
PUNJABI PROGRAM, CHIN 1320 CJMR/AM, (Tel. 416-531-9991, 622 College St). Monday to Friday, 9:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Contact: Darshan Sahota.
CHARDI KALAA, OMNI-TV, (Tel. 416-260-0047, 545 Lakeshore Blvd. W). Sunday, 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Punjabi.
AJJ DE AWAZ, 1320 CJMR AM, Monday to Saturday, 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; 9:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Punjabi.
RADIO INDIA, 530 CJAO AM, Monday to Friday, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
RADIO ASIA, 100.7 CHIN FM, Monday to Friday, 10:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sri Lankan.
ASIAN HORIZONS, OMNI News: South Asian Edition, Monday to Friday, 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
SIKH TEMPLE SHROMANI SIKH SOCIETY, (Tel. 416-463-3132, 269 Pape Ave).
SRI-GURU-SINGH SABHA, (Tel. 905-671-1662, 7280 Airport Rd., Mississauga).
THE SIKH FOUNDATION, (Tel. 416-777-6697, 40 King St. W., Suite 4900). Co-ordinator: Kawal Kohli.