On February 26, 1912, the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple officially opened in the heart of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Today, it is the oldest surviving Sikh temple in North America.
The first Sikhs in Abbotsford arrived from Punjab, India, in 1905. Mostly young, unmarried men from farming families, they often found work doing labour-intensive jobs in agriculture, forestry, or railway construction. In 1907, Sikhs were the targets of anti-Asian riots in Vancouver, fuelled by anger over an economic recession. In response to these violent racialized sentiments, the government of British Columbia denied all Indians the right to vote in 1907. In addition, the federal government limited Indian immigration in 1908 with the “continuous journey regulation.” This amendment to the Immigration Act denied entry to people who did not travel directly to Canada from their home country, at a time when it was well-known that there was no direct passage available from India.
Despite the hostile environment, the Sikhs in British Columbia worked together to make this province their home. In 1908, members of the Sikh community in Abbotsford began building a gurdwara, or temple. The Tretheway family, owners of a nearby local sawmill that employed Sikh workers, donated some of the lumber for the building. Even though they were saving money to send to their families in India, Abbotsford Sikhs bought the rest of the materials and constructed the temple in their spare time. Completed in 1911, the temple officially opened in 1912.
The materials used in the construction of the two-and-a-half-storey, wood-frame temple helped it to blend in with other buildings in the area. The most distinctive exterior features are a false front, an upper balcony running along three of the façades, and a prominent poured concrete stairway leading to the main entrance on the upper level. Inside, the main entrance leads to the upper-storey prayer hall, where a raised floor and simple wooden arches set apart the canopied alter. This sacred sanctum was where the Sikh holy book (the Sri Guru Granth Sahib) was installed. The ground floor contained a kitchen and common area, used for socializing and sharing the langar, a communal meal. In addition to being a place of worship, the temple also provided new immigrants with temporary housing, help finding jobs, and other supports.
In 1983, a new, larger temple was constructed across from the Gur Sikh Temple to serve the growing congregation. Today, the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple houses the Sikh Heritage Museum, and still functions as a place of worship and a community centre.
The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is a designated national historic site. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, cemeteries, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.
The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn