A Sikh boy looks at a memorial for Canadian soldiers for the First World War. – Photo courtesy author
A Sikh boy looks at a memorial for Canadian soldiers for the First World War. – Photo courtesy author

When it comes to the history of Canada’s South Asian community, Sikhs form a significant portion of the mosaic.

Every year, Canadians participate in the Remembrance Day ceremony and pay special tribute to those compatriots who died defending their country during the wars.

Until recently, nothing much was known about handful of Sikhs who joined the Canadian army and fought during the First World War

This year on Remembrance Day another little known part of Canadian history was brought to light by the hour-long documentaryCanadian Soldier Sikhs: A Little Story in a Big War.”

The documentary reveals the fascinating and untold story of those Sikh immigrants who enlisted in the Canadian Army during the World War I, reminding Canadians of the many challenges faced by ethno-cultural groups in the process of making Canada their home.

They were volunteers who fought, and some died, for a country that was not only discouraging and preventing South Asians from immigrating to Canada but were also denying them Canadian citizenship.

With a long military tradition Sikhs have always been at the forefront in serving their country. Over 65,000 Sikh soldiers fought in WWI as part of the British Army and over 300,000 Sikhs fought against German and Japanese tyranny in WWII.

While searching for information on a group of 40 Sikhs who came to Victoria, British Columbia in 1906 -1907 for his film “Searching for the Sikhs of Tod Inlet,” David Gray discovered that eight Sikhs, with the surname Singh, had enlisted in the Canadian Army in the First World War. Two additional Canadian soldier Sikhs have since been found. This part of Canadian Sikh history was virtually unknown and thus of great interest to the Canadian Sikh community.

The film goes back in time to observe the soldiers on their journey. From the enlistment process and training, to their transport to France by ship and their return to civilian life, the documentary features the struggles these Sikh soldiers faced and the battles they fought, including those during which two of the men were killed.

The film also follows one injured soldier back to Canada on a hospital ship and to Kitchener’s TB hospital.

The gravestone of Private Buckam Singh. – Photos courtesy Sikh Museum
The gravestone of Private Buckam Singh. – Photos courtesy Sikh Museum

He was 25-year-old Private Buckam Singh, who came to Victoria, British Columbia from Mahilpur village in the Hoshiarpur District of Punjab in 1907 at age 14 and eventually moved to Toronto area in 1912/1913.

He fought for Canada, came back and died alone in Kitchener, far from his birthplace in 1919 in a community that did not know the funeral rights of Sikhs. His grave in Kitchener is the only known First World War Sikh Canadian soldier’s grave in Canada.

His family, who lived in Punjab, British India, knew nothing about his time at war. They just received a notice when he died.

While he never got to see his family again and died forgotten almost 93 years ago, his heroic story has only recently been reclaimed and celebrated.

About five years ago, Sandeep Singh Brar, a historian from Brampton bought a Victory Medal that led him to a Kitchener cemetery, where he found the tombstone of Private Buckam Singh. With the discovery of the Victoria Medal of Private Buckam Singh a heroic story of bravery and adventure has been uncovered.

He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915. He served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders during 1916.

Buckam Singh, whose grave drew little attention for almost 90 years, now attracts hundreds people every year for Remembrance Day Sikh prayers at the Kitchener cemetery.

Images of his war grave, a remembrance service almost 90 years after his death, and the story of how his war medal was discovered, bring a personal touch to the film.

The film ends with the story of the soldiers’ return to civilian life, the tracing of their descendants, and the visit to the European grave sites of two of the Canadian Sikh soldiers.

Singh who died alone without his family has once again been reunited and embraced by his fellow Sikh Canadians after a separation of nearly a century.

Mohsin Abbas is Pakistani-Canadian journalist, filmmaker and press freedom activist. He is the editor of Diversity Reporter, a multilingual weekly newspaper for newcomers and immigrants in Canada. He can be reached at: editor@diversityreporter.com

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Comments (20)

ray
November 15, 2012 1:16 am
this is not something to be proud of. It is someting to be ashamed. South asians were slave to the british in their own home, they were treated less than animals by their british masters in hundustan, yet they were fighting for the british cause and are still proud of.
Edwardian
November 15, 2012 11:44 am
That is our history whether someone likes it or not. They were volunteers and not conscripts. If you are so ashamed then what did you do on the 150 years of our first war of independence, 1857. I am sure you were not even aware of the date or year i.e 2007 which passed by you. Take interest in history than commenting unnecessary
Ahmed j
November 13, 2012 5:39 pm
A good article. The West and our people must know the contribution made by our troops who fought the enemy in their own very backyard. 1.3 million Indian troops were part of the Indian Army in the WWI who fought in France from August 1914 to November 1918. The class composition of the largest recruited groups is as under. Punjabi Muslims 136,126 Sikhs 88,925 Gurkhas 55,589 Rajputs 49,086 Jats 40,272 Other Hindus 38,546 Hindustani Muslims 36,353 Pathans 27,857 Dogras 23,491 Brahmans 20,382 This composition rose in number in WWII. It is the responsibility of our Army to rediscover our past and military historians to highlight these events.
montogom
November 14, 2012 9:58 pm
I guess the difference is their mother tongue was hindi or hindusthani and came from U.P.
Frank Ross
November 13, 2012 8:41 pm
Thank you Dawn and the author for bringing good stories from Canada.
Manu Singh
November 14, 2012 5:20 pm
Very true
Fahmeed Idrees
November 13, 2012 3:41 pm
Salute to men who fought for freedom of the world. People of Indo-Pak have sacrificed a lot even at that time in foreign lands. Yet history mostly remains silent on the courage of these brave sons of our region. For a long time they were not even accepted as Canadian or US citizens and were treated as aliens in their adopted countries of residence.
iqbal
November 14, 2012 2:25 pm
it was not victoria cross but a war medal
rich
November 14, 2012 7:23 am
wish they find his family in punjab, and give them his victoria cross that would be a perfect end Richie Rodrigues Mumbai
B. Ally
November 14, 2012 6:11 am
He was forgotten for long and now he will long in the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen Good deeds never go to waste.
Raj
November 14, 2012 3:38 am
He was Private Bukkan Singh not Buckam Singh.
Raj
November 14, 2012 12:35 am
Mohsin Abbas: Thanks a lot for posting this. Great job.
Usman Chaudhry
November 14, 2012 9:20 am
Whats the difference between Punjabi Muslims and Hindustani Muslims? Wasn't Punjab part of Hindustan back then?? :P
muhammad shakeeb
November 14, 2012 7:57 pm
its really nice and better than that is true this story is not based on imaginary words thats why it touches our heart...... :)
arif
November 14, 2012 9:11 am
I AGREE
arif
November 14, 2012 9:12 am
GOOD - AGREE WITH YOU
Virendra gupta
November 14, 2012 11:16 pm
You are right if you take Hindustani to mean all of Indian subcontinent. May be the British were trying to make a distinction between Muslims who lived in Punjab vs. other parts of India at that time. After all Brits were great at separating groups. Unfortunately, the subcontinent remains riddled with such distinctions which is the main cause of much of the ethnic and religious animosities in the lands.
SHAH
November 14, 2012 3:50 pm
i agree and support you stories from from our independence from britsh raj should be highlightened!!!!!! i think dawn should always work on this
Raj
November 14, 2012 2:39 pm
My mother's ancestor village is Mahilpur. I was born in Mahilpur. I spoke to my Mama Ji who is in the eighties about this case. He also lives in Canada. There are about 10,000 people from Mahilpur are settled in Canada. Private Bukkan Singh Bains' family has been identified. Private Bukkan Singh's brother's great grandson is settled in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. Sikh community is a very prosperous community in Canada. Regards, Raj, Calgary Canada.
Vic
November 14, 2012 1:24 pm
Great information, any links for the reference
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