Gian Singh Johal who immigrated to Canada in 1906, is a true Sikh pioneer whose footprints led the entire Johal family on a steady path from Jandiala in Punjab, India to Vancouver and Victoria, Canada and the United Kingdom. Gian Singh was amongst the first Sikhs to arrive in Canada. He was instrumental in helping establish the Johal family’s strong roots in these countries well over a century ago – to now 113 years and counting. Today, there are over 600 descendants of this particular Johal tree family flourishing in Canada, UK and the US, which is living proof of his personal commitment, courage and enormous sacrifices.
The earliest Sikh settlers migrated from the Punjab area to Canada between 1904-1908. These were mostly Sikh men who arrived to fill labour intensive jobs in BC’s forestry, fishing and railway industries.
Shortly after Gian Singh immigrated, the Canadian Government implemented the Continuous Journey Regulation in 1908, prohibiting the immigration of anyone who did not arrive in Canada directly from their native country. This change to the Immigration Act made it near impossible for those coming from Asian countries, like India, to enter Canada legally as immigrants. Some considered this new act “a policy of exclusion” which indirectly banned Sikh migration to Canada. It’s important to note these changes came at a time when Canada was accepting massive numbers of immigrants from India specifically. Sadly, there was an intense Anti-Asian sentiment in the public as immigration from India was characterized as “the Indian invasion” in media reports of the time.
This decision impacted Gian Singh and his countrymen as they were separated from their families in India for many years with little or no support in Canada. Yet they continued to persevere and rally for changes by establishing the Khalsa Diwan Society of which Gian Singh was an original founding member. Today, critical conversations are continuing about these “forgotten few” Sikhs, like Gian Singh, who immigrated prior to the Komagata Maru incident as their stories are relatively untold and are an important yet lost piece of the Canadian record.
The Johal family is committed to sharing Gian Singh Johal’s story. In 2006, before many Sikh pioneer archives were initiated, the extended Johal family honoured their “Baba Gian Singh’s legacy and contributions at a prayer celebration at the Sikh Temple on No. 5 Road, in Richmond, BC. Also, in 2006, a family representative began the comprehensive documentation and development of the Johal family’s 100-year journey history through various interviews and conversations with elder family members. This is their story.
Babaji Gian Singh Johal: Ahead of His Time
In the early 1900s, Gian Singh’s older brother Jawala Singh Johal (Wife: Harr Kaur Johal) was ready to board a ship bound for beautiful Vancouver, B.C., when he received a telegraph to return home due to an urgent family matter. This incident would change the course of history for a young Gian Singh. It was then that Gian Singh took his brother’s place on an unknown and uncharted journey to Canada. Along with about 700 fellow Sikh pioneers who immigrated to Canada in 1906, Gian Singh made the long and difficult expedition via steam ship from India for the promise of a better life for him and eventually, for his entire extended family.
A Promise Kept
With this opportunity, Gian Singh made a life-long vow to his brother Jawala Singh that he would carry on his mission by dedicating his life to helping his brother’s family immigrate and safely integrate into the new country. Gian Singh also vowed to never marry, accepting his brother’s children and grandchildren as his very own.
A Time of Great Struggle for Sikh Settlers & Back Home
Gian Singh worked hard as a labourer in local saw mills in Vancouver in order to send funds to help raise the children back home and to maintain the family estate in India where they all lived in one home known as “vadda ghar” or large house. The Johal women (daughters, daughter-in-laws and children) cohabitated as one family, often cooking meals together, sharing chores and running vadda ghar as their shared home. It’s important to also recognize the sacrifices and hardships of the Johal women, especially those who were separated from their husbands and brothers for many years as they awaited opportunities for themselves and their children to be finally welcomed into Canada. In some cases, the children grew up without their fathers for pro-longed periods until they were eventually re-united in their new country.
On average, Gian Singh and his fellow Sikhs earned about $1 to $1.25 a day, which was less than wages earned by non-minority workers. Because wages were so low, Gian Singh and the other Sikh men co-located together in bunkhouses to save money and to partake in community cooking. As South Asian migration into BC increased in the years following Gian Singh’s arrival, so did the racial tensions as Sikh men were barred from entering public facilities, evicted from their homes, physically abused, and were characterized negatively in the local press.
Founding Khalsa Diwan Society: Activism & Steadfast Devotion to Sikh Faith
Despite the great rampant discrimination these Sikh men faced, they forged on as they began to solidify their permanent presence and voices within the community. An important piece of history, Gian Singh was one of the early founding members of the Khalsa Diwan Society (KDS) which was formed in 1906 to help establish a Sikh temple in Canada and became an critical organization that would enable them to face Sikh-related issues collectively. Gian Singh Johal is pictured with activists Natha Singh, Gurdit Singh and other early members of the Khalsa Diwan Society which is on display at the Gudwara Nanak Niwas in Richmond, BC. (See photo below.) Gian Singh and a small group of Sikh activists organized and lobbied the government for many years to make necessary changes to the Immigration Act, in order to help re-open the doors for Indians safe entry into Canada.
The founding members of KDS which included Gian Singh, went on to build the very first Sikh temple in North America at 2nd Avenue in Vancouver, BC, in 1908. As an active member of the temple’s leadership committee, Gian Singh helped establish the Gurdwara and also served as its President. Gian Singh was known to volunteer countless hours of service or “seva” behind the scenes at the 2nd Avenue Gurdwara. This temple was a monumental place for all new Sikh immigrants at the time as it provided a place to: gather and worship the Sikh faith, to rally around immigration issues, to hear the latest news from back home, meet and greet other new immigrants, and to host many celebrations such as weddings and births. The temple even provided food and shelter for new community members who needed it most through its free kitchen. A devoted Sikh, Gian Singh practiced gurbani (prayers) every day and devoutly kept his turban and beard although there was continued pressure to assimilate into Canadian culture and local dress. Although the 2nd Avenue Gurdwara no longer stands today, the City of Vancouver proclaimed it a historic site in 2011, and dedicated a momunent to mark the place where the temple once proudly stood. (Gian Singh is pictured on the monument marker. See photo below.)
Gian Singh lived in Vancouver and Victoria for few years before eventually moving to Calgary, Alberta where he used his savings to purchase and operate his own farm for about 10 years. It was during his time in Alberta that he developed his passion for horses. To meet the financial needs of the family back home, he was forced to sell his beloved farming operation and eventually move back to Vancouver. In 1919, Gian Singh finally returned to his beloved homeland India and remained there for approximately two years before returning to Canada.
Changes in Canadian History Help Change of Fate
By April 2, 1947, South Asians were finally granted the right to vote and to become Canadian citizens which was a cause for celebration for all Sikh pioneers like Gian Singh. This marked the end of the 40-year struggle and a moment in history that is often omitted and ignored in the Canadian narrative. By 1951, there were 2,148 Sikhs in Canada.
Another important piece of Canadian history, the government also initiated a quota system which allowed citizens to sponsor a direct family member from India for legal immigration. (By 1957, the quotas of Sikhs allowed from India increased to 300 per year.) With this decision, Gian Singh knew that he could finally help fulfil his brother’s life wish as it would become easier to sponsor key members of his brother’s family for work purposes in Canada.
Here are the family members Gian Singh sponsored to immigrate to Canada first:
- Jawala’s second son, Late Chanan Singh (Wife: Late Dhan Kaur) immigrated in 1952 – Richmond, BC
- Jawala’s fourth son, Late Jagir Singh Johal (Wife: Late Mohinder Kaur) immigrated in 1952 – Victoria, BC
- Jawala’s youngest son, Late Gurnam Singh (Wife: Late Swarn Kaur) immigrated in 1956 – Richmond, BC
- Jawala’s oldest son, Late Gujjar Singh (Wife: Late Basant Kaur) sent their eldest son Late Gurdev Singh Johal (Wife: Harbans Kaur) who immigrated in 1959 – Richmond, BC
- Jawala’s middle son, Late Najer Singh Johal (Wife: Late Gurpal Kaur) sent his eldest son, Late Gurcharan Singh Johal (Wife: Gurmej Kaur) who immigrated in 1959 – Richmond, BC
The remaining family members, listed in birth order, joined their family members in Canada in subsequent years:
- Children of Late Gujjar Singh (Wife: Late Basant Kaur)
- Daughter: Late Gurdev Kaur (Husband: Minder Singh Bassi) – Surrey, BC
- Daughter: Harbans Kaur (Husband: Gurdial Singh Gill) – Surrey, BC
- Daughter: Balbir Kaur (Husband: Late Amrik Singh Shergill) – Surrey, BC
- Daughter: Surinder Kaur (Husband: Minder Singh Gill) – Surrey, BC
- Son: Tarsem Singh (Wife: Surinder Kaur) – Surrey, BC
- Daughter: Gurdeep Kaur (Husband: Harjeet Singh Jawanda) – Surrey, BC
- Son: Jagtar Singh (Wife: Balvinder Kaur) – Surrey, BC
- Children of Late Chanan Singh Johal (Wife: Dhan Kaur)
- Son: Late Resham Singh (Wife: Late Pritam Kaur) – Victoria, BC
- Daughter: Late Resham Kaur (Husband: Late Ajit Gill) – Richmond, BC
- Daughter: Gurmej Kaur (Husband: Late Mohan Basi) – Burnaby, BC
- Daughter: Late Nasib (Thejo) Kaur (Husband: Late Gurnam Singh Sanghara) – Richmond, BC
- Daughter: Balbinder Kaur (Husband: Late Hardev Singh Sandhu) – Richmond, BC
- Daughter: Surinder Kaur (Husband: Mohan Sandhu) – Richmond, BC
- Children of Late Najer Singh Johal (Wife: Late Gurpal Kaur)
- Son: Late Pritam Singh Johl (Wife: Harjinder Kaur) – Surrey, BC
- Daughter: Late Balwant Kaur (Husband: Late Piara Singh Sanghera) – UK
- Children of Late Jagir Singh Johal (Wife: Late Mohinder Kaur)
- Son: Sarjeet Singh Johal (Wife: Arjinder Kaur) – Victoria, BC
- Children of Late Gurnam Singh (Wife: Late Swarn Kaur)
- Son: Ranvir Singh (Wife: Paula Kaur) – Richmond, BC
- Son: Ravinder Singh (Wife: Surjit Kaur) – Richmond, BC
(Photos below: Double weddings of Johal brothers Tarsem Singh with Surinder Kaur and Jagtar Singh with Balvinder Kaur at Ross Street Temple, Vancouver, 1970s)
An Unbreakable Bond from Canada to India
Although the patriarch of the Johals in Canada was Gian Singh, the patriarch of the family in India became Gujjar Singh, after Jawala’s passing. In fact, Gian and the other early settlers stayed deeply connected to their roots in India through Gujjar Singh’s steadfast leadership and guidance. Gujjar Singh, the eldest of Jawala’s children, was known as “Master” as he was a highly-respected headmaster of a local school in Jandiala, Punjab and his wife Basant Kaur was a loyal homemaker. Sadly, Basant Kaur, passed away suddenly from illness after her children were born. It was Gujjar Singh who pushed past his own grief and dedicated his life to ensuring everyone was well taken care of back home. He ensured the Canadian-based family members were aware of and understood the needs of the extended family in India.
As these men settled into Canada, Gian Singh’s commitment was complete as it was now up to these five family members to carry on his pledge and support the remaining Johal family members in India as he had done for many years. This continued until additional family members including their wives, and younger brothers and sisters would eventually be sponsored to immigrate to Canada. Those who would arrive, would also pay it forward by sponsoring the next in-line to immigrate within their families. The legacy of the family support and contribution would continue for many years until all of remaining family members had smoothly transitioned to Canada.
Saying Goodbye and Thank you to Babaji Gian Singh
Sadly, in the end, it was in the act of climbing the stairs to reach the top of the Sikh temple in Victoria that Gian Singh succumbed to a massive heart attack which took his life in 1959, at the age of 74. A husky and powerful man, some of his hobbies included sports such as wrestling and racing horses. Some of his business ventures included owning and operating a saw mill and of course, his family’s passion for farming was always in his blood. Gian Singh has been described by those who were fortunate to know and remember him as a highly-intelligent, adventurous, selfless, hard-working, and charismatic man who was unconditionally devoted to his family and his faith.
The Johal Women: A Force of Strength, Ambition & Caring
Along with the Johal men, the Johal wives and sisters (who eventually married) had a strong bond and helped create a joyful and tight-knit family community. The extended families would meet every weekend at one house in Surrey, Richmond, Kamloops or Victoria, to cook together and celebrate everything from weddings, religious ceremonies to the birth of their children in Canada. They would also travel to the UK to visit family members who had settled there. The Johal women were outstanding caretakers and nurturers, but some also took on jobs outside of the home as they were highly motivated to help build successful lives for their families while maintaining the core values first instilled at vadda ghar. Under these womens’ steadfast care, new generations have been lovingly raised from grandchildren to now the blessing of great grandchildren. We acknowledge their equal contributions and sacrifices to the Johal family legacy.
Greatest Legacy: Roots that Run Deep
On Dec 27, 1981, the family said goodbye to their patriarch in India, as the families received the sad news that Baba Gujjar Singh Johal had passed away. The only comfort was that Gujjar Singh left the earth knowing that his family’s dream was fully realized. Today each branch of the symbolic “five fingers on one hand” exemplifies the love between the family of the five brothers (Johal Grandfathers) which now carries through the extended Johal family tree. The Johal family is now flourishing with over 600 descendants today thanks to the extraordinary dreams and deep roots planted by the Johal forefathers and foremothers who came before.
Today, their children continue to uphold the Johal legacy as respected citizens who contribute to their own communities in countless ways. As we celebrate Sikh Heritage in Canada, the family honours and reflects on the memories of those family members we have sadly since lost. We pay tribute to them and remember their individual journeys as they paved the way to make life easier for us, for our children and for the generations to follow. We remember them with love and gratitude and we dedicate this documentation of the Johal family history to them.
Learn More: Honouring the Pioneer Journey
This story has been documented to honour our past but to also serve as a gift of knowledge for the future. If you have any questions about the Johal family history or wish to publish this story, please reach out to the authour, Karen (Johal) Dosanjh youngest daughter of the Late Gurdev Singh and Harbans Kaur Johal, and the granddaughter of the Late Gujjar Singh and Late Basant Kaur Johal, at (604) 328-5171 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
“To truly appreciate how far we’ve come, we must understand and
acknowledge our roots and the difficult journey of those who came before us.
This meaningful documentation is dedicated to the precious leaves
that have fallen from our beloved family tree. We thank you and we remember you.”
Karen (Johal) Dosanjh