Sikh Heritage Month: The South Asian pioneers of Fraser Mills

April 11, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

Narain Singh Dosanjh was only 16 years old when he made the gruelling month-long voyage by sea from India to Vancouver in 1907.

The boy had little more than pocket change but sought a better life in Canada, where he planned to find well-paying work to support his family back home. It took him 22 years to save enough money to bring his wife, Maha Kaur Dosanjh, to live with him in B.C.

When Narain arrived he was confronted by racism and, speaking little English, struggled to find work and an affordable home. Some nights he would sleep in boxcars. In 1908, the Canadian government implemented the “continuous journey” regulation to restrict further South Asian immigration.

Narain first took a railway job in California but in 1908 returned to New Westminster, where a mill settlement was expanding and cheap immigrant labour was in high demand.

It didn’t take long for Narain to become a foreman. Over the next decades he and four other “pioneer” families at Fraser Mills — a settlement which became Maillardville, now part of Coquitlam — helped hundreds more Sikh families plant deep roots in B.C.

Discussion about Sikh history in B.C. often turns to the Komagata Maru incident but the descendants of Narain and Maha Dosanjh fear that other important stories, including those of the first Sikh settlers in B.C. at Fraser Mills, are at risk of being lost over time.

Their first-born son, Sarjeet “Boxie” Singh Dosanjh, 89, and his wife, Gurdev Kaur Dosanjh, 75, have made it their mission to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“All those five families lived like one family,” Gurdev said. “They were close-knit.”

Sarjeet and Gurdev said the pioneers, most of whom came between 1904 and 1908, were self-sufficient and careful with their money. The woman grew their own vegetables, milked their own cows and churned their own butter. They would only buy sugar, rice and flour for their roti, and spices from a specialty store in Vancouver. Maha bleached and dyed material from flour and rice sacks to sew Indian dresses.

They said men from the Punjab kept coming to the mill looking for work but didn’t speak English, so Narain, who knew a bit of English and had gained the respect of his bosses, asked to become foreman on the green chain, where lumber was graded and sorted.

“He was on the friendly side. He got used to everybody, got to know the manager and superintendent,” Sarjeet said. “They started hiring foreigners, like Punjabi people, and there were quite a few hundreds of them after that.”

Sarjeet believes up to 700 men worked under his father. The days were long and they were paid less than their European-settler colleagues.

“It was hard work,” Sarjeet said.

But the families supported each other and eventually built a Gurdwara at Fraser Mills, with lumber paid for by the company, who came to cherish the Sikh workers.

Gurdev said Narain and Maha strived to make coming to Canada easier for families from the Punjab.

“That was a big thing,” she said.

Narain died from a heart attack aboard a ferry to Victoria in November, 1966, and Maha died the following March.

Sarjeet and Gurdev said they believe Narain and Maha’s sacrifices gave their descendants comfortable lives, free of discrimination or struggle.

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