Momryk on Nayar, 'The Sikh Diaspora in Vancouver: Three Generations amid Tradition, Modernity, and Multiculturalism'

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar
Myron Momryk

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar. The Sikh Diaspora in Vancouver: Three Generations amid Tradition, Modernity, and Multiculturalism. Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2004. xiii + 276 pp. $58.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-8947-2; $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8020-8631-0.

Reviewed by Myron Momryk (Library and Archives Canada) Published on H-Canada (April, 2005)

Sikhs in Wonderland

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar has undertaken an ambitious and enormously complex study of the Sikh community in Vancouver, British Columbia. According to the preface, her aim was to study the process of adaptation and integration from a traditional agricultural society originating in the Punjab to a modern, industrial Canadian society. Nayar describes her project as an examination of the evolution of the tensions among the three generations of the Sikh community and "the processes of adaptation and integration in the context of modernization and multiculturalism" (p. xi).

Nayar presents her information and analysis in eight chapters. The preface introduces the study and the first chapter includes the theoretical background on the themes of societal transition, multiculturalism and identity as well as a brief history of the Sikh community in Western Canada. The information in the next four chapters (chapters 2 to 5) is based on interviews with members of three generations of Sikhs within the theoretical framework of "orality, literacy, analytics." These chapters explore the interviewing process, changes in attitudes to family values, child rearing and the transmission of religion and religious practices from one generation to another. The next two chapters (chapters 6 and 7) investigate the interaction between the three generations and the larger Canadian society, especially in the areas of social organizations, the media and the policy of multiculturalism. The last chapter (chapter 8) concludes this study with an analysis of the tensions among the three generations of the Sikh community in Vancouver in relation to multiculturalism and the "tradition-modernity" dichotomy.

After describing traditional Punjabi-Sikh values, Nayar explains her interviewing process and her attempt to ensure that the entire community was represented. She claims that due to the specific immigration patterns of Sikh immigration to Canada, where the parents often arrived in Canada after the adult children, she did not follow the traditional successive "waves of immigration" approach common to other immigrant and ethnocultural communities. In the first chapter, Nayar mentions that she is studying "the Sikh community in British Columbia," although the title of the study clearly states "in Vancouver" (p. 3). She mentions that the study is limited to Sikhs in the Greater Vancouver area (p. 20). According to the 2001 census, the Greater Vancouver Regional District includes approximately 99,000 Sikhs. The inclusion of some statistical information on the Sikh community would clarify the geographical limits of the study and would be useful for comparative purposes with other local ethnocultural groups. Nayar claims that the sociological analysis is based on ninety-eight semi-structured interviews and one hundred face-to-face interviews using open-ended questions (p. 20). She also mentions that the interviewees were classified according to generations with eighteen from the first generation, twenty-one from the second generation and thirty-eight from the third generation. She does mention that there were fewer interviewees from the first and second generation because their replies "seemed highly repetitive" (p. 22). However, given the large size of the Vancouver Sikh community, a substantially larger number and variety of interviews would have contributed to validating the results and analysis. Most of those interviewed came from families that arrived in Canada during the late 1960s and early 1970s which raises questions about the narrowness of the sample. Although she lists the various occupational categories of those interviewed, the number of eighteen professional and public figures who may be perceived as community "spokespersons" is under-represented. Sikh community leaders, that is, newspaper editors, executive members of voluntary organizations, gurdwara administrators, religious leaders and others should have been identified as a separate category in preparing the results and analysis. Nayar includes some of the interview questions in her book, but a separate list included as a appendix would have enriched this study.

Nayar claims that since this is a social study of the Sikh community, questions about politics were not pursued (p. 23), although this subject was discussed among other issues. Through her overly long analysis of religious and moral values in the first part, she confirms the integral relationship between religion and culture in Sikh society. The fact that the majority trace their ancestry to the same small region in Punjab raises questions whether family and place may provide a greater sense of cohesion. Perhaps a detailed study of the political dimension of the organized Sikh community in Vancouver would have contributed to a more penetrating analysis of the tensions among the generations. The attack by the Indian military against the Golden Temple at Amritsar, in an attempt to suppress the Khalistan independence movement in June 1984, was the defining event in the life of the Vancouver Sikh community and in other communities throughout Canada. Although Nayar states that most Vancouver Sikhs remained detached from the Khalistan movement, there is no supporting evidence either from the interviews or from other sources. In any case, Nayar states that the events of 1984 made the Vancouver Sikhs feel victimized. They felt that their religion and culture was threatened in their country of origin and this situation encouraged some Sikhs to return to their faith. The views, attitudes and actions of the community leaders regarding these events, both then and later, certainly would have influenced the opinions of the larger community. The arrival of some "political refugees" from Punjab following these events contributed to a heightened sense of the community as "political exiles" rather than traditional economic immigrants.

It should be remembered that it was the "political exile" groups from central and eastern Europe that led the campaigns for the recognition of multiculturalism as an official policy in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. They felt that the languages and culture of their countries of origin were threatened by Soviet policies and that their youth were vulnerable to assimilation in Canada. They became more militant in their efforts to retain their language and culture in Canada. It was also this group that supported the federal government policy of multiculturalism, that proclaimed although there are two official languages, English and French, there is no official Canadian "culture"; instead, all cultural groups, including ethnocultural groups, are considered as equal. Under this policy, they could maintain a strong attachment to their country of origin and at the same time, be 100 percent Canadian. These "political exiles" eventually assumed directly and indirectly the leadership of the organized ethnocultural communities. It may be suggested that to some extent a similar political process evolved in the Sikh community after the events in 1984 and had an influence on the extent and character of Sikh cultural retention in Vancouver.

A real problem are Nayar's interpretations of multiculturalism. She states that "multiculturalism has made appealing to the 'ethnic vote' and mobilizing support from ethnic organizations an important aspect of mainstream political activity" (p. 164). Appealing to the "ethnic vote" long predates the official announcement of the Multiculturalism Policy in 1971 and this practice has been part of the "bedrock" of Canadian politics since Confederation. Few, if any, issues at the national level are discussed and promoted without taking into consideration the potential impact among Quebecois voters during federal elections. Any attempt to influence the votes of organized religious, regional, ethnocultural groups, including Sikhs among others, is an extension of this practice and is as Canadian as maple syrup.

Difficulties of integration and adaptation by immigrants into the host Canadian society also long predated this policy. The announcement of the Multiculturalism Policy in 1971 did not result in "excluding some ... from fully interacting with the mainstream" (p. 232). Traditionally, immigrants were obliged to begin their careers at the bottom of the Canadian economic "ladder." As individuals, family members and communities strove to ascend this economic "ladder," they provided the fuel that drove the economy in many urban parts of Canada and to some extent, still do. Not all were successful and some remained near the bottom of the economic "ladder," and, in other cases, by choice and circumstances, at the margins of the Canadian mainstream.

According to Nayar, multiculturalism "needs to be reoriented towards encouraging communities to interact with the Canadian mainstream" (p. 232). The policy of multiculturalism is essentially a policy of choice. Members of immigrant and ethnocultural communities can make an effort to preserve and develop aspects of their languages and cultures in Canada or they can adopt the lifestyle of the descendants of the earliest settlers. Or they can attempt to accomplish both, and take advantage of any federal government grants and programs, as do any other Canadians. Nayar suggests that members of the third generation of the Sikh community need "guidance in living as Canadians" (p. 232). But this is essentially a personal decision and there are many kinds of Canadians. In any case, as immigrants integrate, the host society also changes, incorporating aspects of the culture of immigrant and ethnocultural communities and evolving into a distinct Canadian culture and society. She seems to have ignored this side of multiculturalism in the study.

In addition, Nayar mentions that "integration should be the responsibility of the government; cultural preservation should not be" (p. 232). Whether she is referring to the municipal, provincial, or federal levels of "government" is not clear, because each level has its own range of responsibilities. She concludes that part of the problem with the present multiculturalism policy is the exclusive focus on the sanctioning of cultural preservation, although, in recent years, there has been a special and determined effort by the Department of Canadian Heritage to promote multicultural policies and programs which combat racism. Racism is certainly a serious problem to members of all generations of the Sikh community. However, Vancouver is evolving into a multi-racial society and the inclusion of statistics regarding the growth in population of other visible minority communities would have enriched this study.

Regarding Sikh political activity, Nayar claims that "Canadian Sikhs have not succeeded as a distinct ethno-cultural group in lobbying for Sikh interests at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels" (p. 182). Compared to some of the other ethnocultural communities, the Sikhs have been remarkably successful in a relatively short time in the Canadian political arena. Their ability to mobilize electoral support behind specific candidates have been rewarded in recent years with representation in Parliament and especially at the federal Cabinet level. This is the dream of "exile" politicians because of the possibility to influence Canadian diplomatic relations with their countries of origin. The appointment of the first Canadian Consul General in Chandigarh, India in October 2003, can be interpreted as a notable achievement by the Sikh politicians in Ottawa.

Nayar demonstrates that with each successive generation, attitudes toward family, culture and religion evolve, change, and become more "Canadianized." This process is shared among many other ethnocultural and religious groups in Canada which attempt to preserve a traditional lifestyle. Members of communities of Orthodox Jews, Old Order Mennonites, Amish, as well as other religious groups such as Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, and other fundamental Christians are daily faced with the conflicts and challenges of a modern Canadian (and North American) consumer society and market economy. In many cases, immigrant communities attempt to preserve traditional aspects of their language, culture and religion because they believe that these are superior to the "modern" Canadian values which may lead to a lifestyle of "drugs, alcohol, money, guns and women" (p. 113). In the Sikh case, many of the cultural practices are integral parts of their religious experience and acquired a "sacred" dimension. Questioning and possibly changing these practices suggest a violation of the "sacred" and breaking the faith with their ancestors and with those in the country of origin. However, sooner or later, as individuals, family members, and community organizations, they will face the decision whether they should "declare their independence" from their "homeland," as did the colonies when they became independent in the new world. There will be "fundamentalists," "moderates" and "marginalized" in every ethnocultural community and this pattern can be detected in the politics of the Vancouver Sikh community.

Nayar has documented the complex and often conflicting factors in the settlement and integration of a recent immigrant and ethnocultural group in Vancouver society and has made a contribution to growing literature on Sikhs in Canada.

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Citation: Myron Momryk. Review of Nayar, Kamala Elizabeth, The Sikh Diaspora in Vancouver: Three Generations amid Tradition, Modernity, and Multiculturalism. H-Canada, H-Net Reviews. April, 2005. URL:

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