Every family who has left their homeland has an immigration story, and for some Punjabi Canadians, this story includes Paldi—a small mill town on Vancouver Island that was a home to early Punjabi immigrants throughout the 1900s.
Paldi was a hub for immigrants from many countries, but it was predominantly Punjabi families who lived in the town. As such, this small community is often remembered as one of the first examples of a successful coexistence between all residents of the community, regardless of where they came from.
However, the experience of living in this community away from India was more difficult for many families than presented today, as the struggle against racism, assimilation, and the longing for the motherland was a constant battle. Despite this, the sense of camaraderie within Paldi made this transition easier for Sikhs who lived in and around the small mill town, and provided a home away from home.
Recently, a Heritage Minute—a short video put together by Historica Canada intended to provide insight into a person or event pertinent to Canadian History—featuring Paldi was released.
Although it is exciting to see Punjabi stories of immigration shared in mainstream media, this is only a start. The reality of migrating to Canada is complex, and there’s a lot of nuance to documenting what it meant to grow up in a “country of opportunity” that did not necessarily want you there.
Along with the moments of joy, the hardship faced by these families was immense—even those who lived in a community such as Paldi.
Exploring the personal experiences of those who grew up in this diasporic community allows future generations to gain a holistic understanding of what it meant to immigrate to Canada in the 1900s and honour the lived histories of our ancestors.
Like many Punjabi families, my Mom’s family immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. My Nana ji, Nani ji, Mom, and her 4 siblings lived in Crofton, another small mill town about a 25 minute drive from Paldi. Growing up in this town presented its challenges, as not only were they the only Indian family in Crofton, but they were also the only non-white family in the neighbourhood.
As a result, my Mom told me her family would often drive to the Gurdwara in Paldi to experience a deeper sense of community. As a space for the Punjabi community to experience connections away from their homeland, the Gurdwara became a sanctuary and was a gathering place for many Punjabi migrant families living across Vancouver Island.
While their mothers and fathers did seva, my Mom tells me about spending time in the Gurdwara with her siblings and their cousins. “When we were younger, I remember we used to sleep at the Gurdwara overnight. When there was a kirtan, all of us [i.e., the children] would wrap ourselves in the modesty blankets and sleep huddled together in the darbar,” she said.
She fondly remembers running through the fields of Paldi and playing hide and seek between the cookhouse and the langar hall. The Gurdwara was a place where my family, like many Sikh families, could maintain a connection to their religion, culture, and community.
While Paldi provided a space for immigrant families, it was not unaffected by the racism that was prevalent in the neighbouring communities.
“You would have to drive into Paldi on this unpaved, unlit broken road. When we would leave in the evening, we [i.e., my Mom and her siblings] would duck in the backseat because we were afraid of what we might see,” my Mom recalls.
The fears and experiences of racism that were faced by new immigrant families did not disappear when they entered Paldi, especially considering how many families resided in neighbouring towns.
Within Paldi itself, my Mom remembers that there were concerns for the safety of those who lived and worked there. Immigrant men were more often than not mill workers, as jobs were hard to come by due to language barriers, cultural differences, and racism. Regardless of their profession and education in India, they were subjected to working long hours of labour-intensive work.
The mill work was highly unregulated and dangerous, and workers sustained life-altering injuries with little to no rehabilitation support.
5X Press sat down with Monica Cheema, a local filmmaker and researcher who recently created a short film titled, “Paldi, A Place Like This”. As the grandchild of immigrant railway workers who were subjected to unsafe working conditions throughout the 1900s, she took an interest in exploring the history of labour work in Paldi.
“I learned that the mill in Paldi has burned down three times. This raised a lot of questions for me. Since the town functioned around the mill work, I wondered what impacts this would have had on the families each time,” Cheema explained.
Cheema began exploring stories within the town and quickly learned that when talking about labour work, the women of the town would rarely come up. She became interested in the absence of women in stories and wondered what kind of labour they must have also done to sustain this place over the years.
The experiences of the women of Paldi were different from those of the men; however, they were no less difficult. Although it is often hard to find documentation of women’s work during the 1900s, both through the stories my Mom has shared with me and the anecdotes Cheema heard while making her film, the women of Paldi held the immense role of feeding the community. It is no secret that these women worked gruelling hours in the cookhouse and were not compensated for their work.
Women in Paldi also had to carry the responsibility of raising children in a world where they were not accepted by the larger society. As a result, the support they received in taking care of their families was limited and they had to take on tasks that we today would not worry about not having access to.
For instance, my Mom recalls hearing about how women cut their own children’s and husband’s hair because the barber shops would not accept them as clients as a result of their racist policies.
In addition to the labour exploitation concerns, Paldi is not the “multicultural” haven of the past that it is often described to be. Like any town, there were nuances to the experience of living in Paldi’s interracial community.
Although there was solidarity between the Chinese, Japanese, and Punjabi Sikh labourers, Cheema’s archival research revealed hierarchies amongst racialized labourers that impacted the wages of the workers. The immigrant families struggled under this system, as mill workers continued to risk their lives for far less money than they should have been owed.
As time has gone on and the families of Paldi have moved away, much of the infrastructure of Paldi tragically no longer remains. I spoke to my Mom’s brother, my Mama ji, briefly and although he was young, he remembers that by the 1990s the Gurdwara was all that was left standing.
Today, the community of Paldi is often referred to as a “ghost town.” However, in speaking with Cheema, this perception of the town isn’t entirely accurate. In her experience, Paldi continues to exist as a liminal space—a transitional place that comes alive when the Gurdwara is busy, but takes on a ghostly persona when the crowds have left.
It is through Paldi’s Punjabi community’s dedication to preserving our immigration stories that the Gurdwara remains a landmark, and will continue to stand for generations to come. And as a result, despite its unassuming appearance, Paldi remains and will carry on as a community where we can return to in order to experience a sense of home and history.
However, even in those times of quiet, Cheema notes that “you can feel the presence, there is a lot of history [...] even when no one is there.” There continues to be a maintaining—and even strengthening—of the community that was once there through the commitment to archiving history and heritage by creators like Cheema, as well as by those who lived in Paldi. This collective remembering has been built upon generations of kinship between the immigrant families who called this town home.
So, despite the perceived derelict state of the community, Paldi exists today, albeit in a different way than it did when my Mom was growing up. I think of Paldi as the tree from which many seeds have scattered across British Columbia, and rooted themselves in new communities—like my own family.
This small mill town was a starting place for many immigrants, and we owe it to our ancestors to keep their memory alive by learning about their experiences—both the struggles and the successes. We can look to the Paldi Gurdwara as a lasting reminder of the community that was once there, and the history of those who came before us.
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