Pioneers from another place and time

A Tribute to the Kauldher-Ahira Family and a South Asian Immigration Experience.

Where does your immigration story begin? Most Canadians have one.

The reality of our country’s history is that it was built on immigration. We have learned that waves of immigrants have propelled throughout history because of the demands of industry, development and sociocultural “evolution.” For the most part, just as easily as immigrants were desired they were also disposable.

We should not ignore the fact that Quesnel’s own history and development was and is by no means immune to the outcomes and opinions of immigration policies which hindered or promoted immigration.

Most immigrants reluctantly assimilated themselves to Western Canadian ideals just to prove they were worthy of this opportunity. Worthy of what it meant to be Canadian, regardless their skin colour, ethnicity or religion. For they possessed what they felt any immigrant did and that was the dedication to build something out of nothing and most importantly make a foundation for the future.

The inspiration for this article comes from an oral-history workshop I attended, put together by an organization whose aim is to collect oral histories of the South Asian immigration experience in Ontario, with further plans to collect histories from the west to the east coast of Canada. This project was launched in time to mark the designation of the month of May as South Asian Heritage Month. This year marks its tenth annual commemoration.

The initial narrative of this project revolves around the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. A direct challenge made by Indian immigrants opposing the Continuous Passage Act, a discriminatory policy enacted by the Canadian government, which resulted in violence and racial retaliation.

However, it is important to note that the South Asian, primarily Sikh influence, in British Columbia can be traced back to the late 1800s in Vancouver, with religious institutions making their appearance as early as 1907.

Since attending this workshop, I began to think more about my own experiences. Where does my immigration story begin? What does my immigration story represent? How is my history being represented? Whose story is missing? These are critical questions everyone should be asking when we discuss the ways by which history is spoken of, re-told, written and re-written.

Unfortunately, the Komagata Maru is not where my immigration story begins. My history, the Kauldher-Ahira story, begins in 1967 in the heart of the Cariboo.

During 1962 – 1967, Canada’s immigration policies eliminated most forms of discrimination from the selection process by introducing the points system and sponsorship initiatives. The points system was an attempt to eradicate racism from the immigration system and focus on labour skills, education and family-unification. These new policies made my family desirable immigrants. However, in my eyes, their character, principles and personal ambitions have made them pioneers.

At the height of protests against the war in Vietnam, and the mini-skirt becoming more popular and shorter, my aunt, Mohinder “Mindi” Kauldher, arrived in Quesnel as a new bride to a well-known business man, the late Gurmail “Gerry” Ahira. Originally from Mahilpur, in Hoshiarpur district-Punjab, she would not only experience culture shock, but also an opportunity to become a community builder. As one of the first Punjabi-Sikh women to come to Quesnel during the 1960s, her presence in the community is still appreciated and respected. Mindi continues to stay connected to most of the community which has migrated to the Lower Mainland, where she also resides. To hear more about her personal experiences, visit the Quesnel Museum, where you will find a recording of her oral history.

By 1970, my grandfather, Ujjager Singh Kauldher was sponsored to Canada by my aunt. He temporarily left behind his wife, Amar Kaur, and two children, Kuldip Singh and the late Surinder Kaur, who would join him two years later.

At this time, Mohinder Singh, the second eldest of his children was studying engineering in Halifax.

Since 1967, the unskilled, millworker element of the Punjabi Sikh community has remained large. However, one should not easily overlook South Asian labour contributions in this country, let alone this province. Pioneers have risen from the railroads to the lumber mills.

Upon his arrival in Quesnel, my grandfather began looking for a job. He would soon realize that he was one of the few, if not only, men to be wearing a turban. It is a symbol not only of his religious observations, but also a cultural practice varying from region to region in India. He would be lying if he said his decision to wear his turban did not make it difficult to find employment, or face stares or discrimination from the locals. Nonetheless, he persevered and became part of a long line of South Asian pioneers who made their place within Canada’s forestry industry.

My grandfather is often given respected attention during the month of November for his contributions during WWII. However, I want you to see, if you have not already, the man behind the stern voice, but soft smile. After shaking his hand, you will know that those are the hands of a pioneer. He is resilient, just like every pioneer that has come before him. It is an amazing skill to be able to adapt and change to the world around you, when your life consists of two worlds, culturally colliding yet collaborating with one another. (Image 3)

You may be asking, where exactly do I come into the picture? Well that would begin in 1983, when my Kuldip married Anita Toora, from Delhi, India. By this time, Quesnel’s South Asian community was booming. If you want to know more about this lovely lady, and what it would have been like coming as a young bride from a cosmopolitan city such as Delhi, to smalltown Quesnel, I suggest you visit the museum and listen to her story. Take a moment to also see her wedding sari, which is on display. (Image 6)

Now it’s time for some serious talk. What part do you and I play in preserving this history, and telling this story?

In 2008, initiatives were taken by members of Quesnel’s South Asian community, City Council and the Quesnel Museum to come forward with their stories and experiences by starting an oral history project. A fair amount of work has been done, but there is still much more to do, from conducting interviews, collecting pictures, to transcribing interviews. There is also a very important step still in the works, and that is applying for funding or grants to film interviews and create an interactive exhibit.

There are many more stories in Quesnel’s South Asian community that are just as important as this one. There are also stories that are dramatically different. Not all of our members are Sikhs, or from Punjab, but rather come from the larger diaspora. I encourage members to come forward and share their stories. Share stories that are not just about being South Asian or even Canadian, but what it means to be part of the Quesnel community, and how that has shaped your life.

There is much more to Canadian multiculturalism than allotted months in a year dedicated to educating the public about racial and ethnic groups that have made this country. There is much more to South Asian Heritage Month than “Saris and Samosas.” Our love and appreciation for one another needs to come from a deeper understanding. That calibre of understanding is only revealed when we are willing to un-learn and re-learn about ourselves.

Here is your invitation to this experience. Open up your mind to the concept that the pioneer is not just someone who is Euro-American, or even a man. Just as stories change as they are told over time, so does the definition of a pioneer.

Always Remember, stories shape who we are and how we understand and interact with other people. You have to be careful with the stories you tell and the stories you are told.

Amrita Kauldher is a Quesnel Indo Canadian Oral History Project participant.


-Submitted by Amrita Kauldher