Growing up Sikh in Terrace, Chetanveer Singh Dhillon noticed a gap in the mainstream telling of the city’s history, that he says leaves out his community. He’s looking to fix that with a documentary video called the Sikh History Project.
“There’s nothing to signify the Sikh Punjabi community that’s been here for more than half a century. The Sikh community has been here for a long time and has always been a significant community,” Dhillon told The Terrace Standard.
“Our stories have never been told or heard about, it’s been a little bit washed away.”
He said there’s an attitude among some in Terrace that Sikhs are new to the community, when that’s not the case, adding that many Sikhs moved to the area around 50 years ago to work in the lumber mills.
Dhillon’s project will take a deep dive into Sikh and Punjabi demographics in Terrace through interviews with people from each generation on Terrace Sikhs, from elders in the community to the younger generation.
“We had a much larger community back in the day before the lumber mill was closed down,” he said, explaining the rise and fall of Sikh demographics in the city.
The first Sikh to reside in Terrace according to his research was a man named Isher Singh, a retired truck driver who moved to Terrace around 1952 and passed away in Dec. 1955. There was a boom in Punjabi immigration to northwest B.C. to work in the lumber mills in the 1970s after Pierre Trudeau opened things up for immigrants from India in 1972.
The first Sikh Temple in Terrace, called the Medeek Temple, was built in 1978. There are now two temples in the city after the Walsh Street Sikh Temple broke off from the original one over theological differences in the early 21st century.
There were 675 Punjabi speakers listed in the 1991 census, accounting for almost 6 per cent of the population.
That number dropped to 350 according to the 2001 census, accounting for just under 3 per cent of the population. Dhillon said there was concern the Sikh community would disappear along with the closure of the Skeena Cellulose sawmill in the early 2000s. At the time that seemed to be a trend across northern B.C. “In Fort St. James 20 per cent of the population was Sikh and the population slowly dwindled. They eventually closed down and sold the Sikh temple there,” he said.
Thankfully, the number of Punjabi speakers in Terrace rose again to 475 people in 2021, accounting for 4 per cent of the city’s population and is continuing to grow with new immigration, Dhillon said.
“Seeing new immigrants coming here we’re happy a lot of them are getting jobs and buying houses so that fear has passed.”
Dhillon said he got the idea for the project during a conversation with Heritage Park Museum curator Kennedy Neumann this summer in speaking about the museum’s primary focus on pioneers and colonial history.
The project is now supported by the Heritage Park Museum and Skeena Diversity Society. He hopes the project will inspire members of other diverse communities to document their histories, too.
“Our goal is not to just to talk about us. Canada is a multicultural country with various ethnicities. So, with this project we hope to motivate other communities to tell their stories if their have not been heard,” Dhillon said.
“We would love that if other communities come out to tell their stories.”
He said as well as raising awareness among residents about the role that Sikhs have played in Terrace history, it’s also important for the younger generation and newcomers to know their own local heritage, that they have a place here.
“It’s a big conversation with our own community, too,” Dhillon said.
“When people see the interviews in the years to come it will make a big impact. It will be a legacy they can be proud of.”
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