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Buckam Singh, a Sikh-Canadian in the First World War

For the Week of May 9, 2016

On May 11, 1917, Buckam Singh was discharged from a hospital in Hastings, England, with tuberculosis and sent back to Canada. He was one of 10 known Sikhs who fought for Canada during the First World War. These men chose to serve at a time when discrimination was high; Sikhs were not allowed to vote or to immigrate to this country!

Buckam Singh's Attestation Papers
© Library and Archives Canada, 231765

Buckam Singh was born in Punjab, India, and came to Canada in 1907 when he was 14. He arrived just before immigration policy became explicitly discriminatory, targeted at people from the Indian subcontinent. As such, from 1907 onwards, migration from India was at a stand-still. Restrictive suffrage laws in the early 1900s further meant that many ethnic minorities, including Sikhs, were not allowed to vote in Canadian elections.

Despite these impediments, and the often blatant discrimination he faced, Singh chose to fight for his adopted country. He enlisted at Smiths Falls, Ontario, in 1915, and was assigned to the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion. On his attestation papers, Singh was listed as a member of the Church of England because Sikhism was not an option. He fought in Flanders Fields where he was wounded twice, and spent time in a hospital in Boulogne that was run by Dr. John McCrae.

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Members of the Canadian Armed Forces about to place wreaths on Buckam Singh’s grave during the 7th annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony in 2014
© Department of National Defence

In 1917, Singh was sent to England to recover from his wounds. Unfortunately, while there he contracted tuberculosis. He was sent back to Canada and treated at Freeport Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario, where he died in 1919. Buckam Singh was buried in Kitchener’s Mount Hope Cemetery. He was buried in a grave as opposed to the traditional Sikh custom of cremation because few at the time knew about Sikhism and its traditions. His grave is the only known grave of a Sikh-Canadian soldier from the First World War and the only one on Canadian soil from both the First and the Second World Wars. As a result, the site has become the focal point of Sikh Remembrance Day ceremonies that have taken place in Kitchener since the grave was rediscovered by local historian Sandeep Singh Brar.

The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is a symbol of Sikh-Canadian heritage in the early 20th century, designated a national historic site in 2002. Established in 1911, it is the oldest Sikh Temple still standing in the Western Hemisphere. To learn more, see A Harmony of Cultures: The Gurdwara at Abbotsford, B.C. in the This Week in History archives.

May is Asian History Month! For more information on Asian-Canadians who helped shape this country, explore Notable Canadians of Asian Heritage on the Government of Canada’s website. You can also read A Missed memo: Japanese-Canadians Enlist in the First World War, A Victory Against Discrimination, and The Komagata Maru Incident.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. See the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to learn more about National Historic Designations.

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