The Sikh Motorcycle Club, based in Surrey, BC, touring the Sunshine Coast, 2010 (courtesy Sikh Motorcycle Club).

Sikhism is a major world religion that originated in the Punjab region of Southeast Asia. More than a system of beliefs, Sikhism is considered to have ethnic and political aspects as well, and is strongly identified with the people and culture of Punjab.

Sikh Theology

The first Sikh teacher was Guru Nanak, who travelled and taught around the early 1500s. His theology incorporated some ideas from Hinduism and other traditions, but differed in important ways. Guru Nanak believed in one God, and taught that salvation was accessible to all through devotion to God and a moral, selfless life. Nanak’s teachings were further developed by nine subsequent gurus over the next two centuries. The last of these gurus permanently transferred the spiritual leadership of the faith to the collected Sikh scriptures, which he called the Guru Granth Sahib. Today, these scriptures remain the moral and spiritual foundation of Sikhism, and Sikhs do not acknowledge any living teachers as gurus.

Sikh Religious Practices

Temples have always been the core community institutions of Canadian Sikhs, with the first Sikh temple, or gurdwara (“gateway to the guru”), being established in Canada in 1908. Among public religious observances, Sunday prayers services are central, and are often followed by a free communal meal. Public worship includes prayer, reading of scripture, hymn singing and meditation. It is customary for worshippers to cover their heads, remove their footwear and wash their hands and feet before entering the temple. Males and females are traditionally separated, but men, women and children all participate fully in both temple and home-based observances.

Personal devotional practices are very important to the Sikh life, and include ritual bathing, prayers and meditation. Sikh families may read portions of scripture together. All Sikhs are expected to abstain from tobacco and alcohol as well as from stealing, gambling and adultery.

Within Sikhism there are different levels of observance. The Khalsa (“community of the pure”), established in 1699 by the last of the gurus, emphasized strict adherence to devotional practices and high moral standards. Required practices included keeping one’s hair and beard uncut, and wearing a dagger (kirpan).

Sikhism in Canada

Sikhs are one of Canada’s largest non-Christian religious groups, with British Columbia being home to nearly half of all Canadian Sikhs. The first Sikhs—numbering nearly 5000—arrived from Punjab in the early 1900s. Facing discrimination and an outright immigration ban by 1908, over half of these original Sikhs returned to India or out-migrated to the United States. Canada’s discriminatory immigration policies were fought and challenged, perhaps most dramatically in 1914 when the Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver harbour with over 300 prospective South Asian immigrants. After two months of waiting in harbour, the ship was forced to return to Asia. By the 1920s, Canada was allowing a small number of wives and children of earlier South Asian immigrants into the country, but out-migration continued, and the Sikh population continued to decrease. Still, a number of temples were established in British Columbia during this time.

As immigration laws were revised, the migration of Sikhs to Canada increased in the 1960s. Many of the Sikh immigrants from this time were urban, educated, westernized and less traditional than their predecessors. At times, these differences caused tensions in Canadian Sikh temples, and led to the establishment of more, less conservative temples. Most major Canadian cities now have several temples, reflecting their members’ slightly different religious, social or political leanings. Informal contacts between the temples are often maintained.

Not all Sikhs follow the stricter conventions of their religion and at different times in Canadian history, Sikhs have adapted more or less to Canadian norms, eg, by trimming their hair and beards. Many Sikhs in Canada, however, have and still do hold to the stricter traditional requirements of the faith. The wearing of turbans or ceremonial daggers has caused controversy at times, in both educational and workplace contexts; several courts in Canada have had to grapple with the balance of religious freedom and norms of public safety (which, for example, often ban knives in settings such as classrooms).

Ethnic consciousness and political struggles have been aspects of Sikhism for hundreds of years. The last of the gurus, in fact, was both a spiritual and a military leader. Sikhs were at times oppressed by Muslims, and Sikh-Hindu relations have sometimes also been strained. Canadian Sikhs have been affected by the nationalist movement in India for an independent Sikh state; there have been Sikh demonstrations in Canada against the Indian government, and some Canadian Sikhs have financially supported the separatist movement in India.

Sikhism emphasizes the importance of family life, philanthropy, service and defence of the faith. Families and temple organizations often teach religion and the Punjabi language to Sikh children. Temples are mostly volunteer-run, and provide aid and support to community members. Social and political activism, such as the struggle in the early 1900s to change unfair immigration policies, has also been organized through temples.

Politically, religiously and culturally, many Sikhs in Canada retain strong ties to India, but have adapted uniquely to life in this country, and today represent a strong and growing Canadian community.
Learn More:
Sikhism in The Canadian Encyclopedia
CBC Religions