Muhammedi on Johnston, 'Jewels of the Qila'

Hugh J. M. Johnston
Shezan Muhammedi

Hugh J. M. Johnston. Jewels of the Qila. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012. 336 pp. $35.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-2217-6.

Reviewed by Shezan Muhammedi (University of Western Ontario) Published on H-Canada (February, 2014) Commissioned by Jane Nicholas

Hugh Johnston’s latest work traces the life history of a Sikh family in Canada. It falls in line with his other works, most notably The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life Journey of an Emigrant Sikh, which provides a rich history of another Sikh immigrant to Canada, Tara Singh (2009). In Jewels of the Qila, Johnston recaptures the lives of Kapoor Singh Sidhoo and his family. This detailed account of Punjabi immigrant parents, who raise their Canadian-born children in twentieth-century Canada, contributes to the broader historiography of South Asians in Canada. Although Johnston’s work is admittedly based on an exceptional South Asian family (as noted by Johnston), it does capture the personal struggles and adjustment processes involved with visible minority migration to Canada. Jewels of the Qila illustrates the agency of the Sidhoo family within the transnational contexts of Canada and the Indian subcontinent. Johnston’s work situates these individuals within the global historical context.

Using oral interviews from family and friends along with newspaper clippings, business records, magazine articles, and material collected by a private researcher, Johnston retraces the history of the Sidhoo family. Kapoor Singh originally immigrated to California in 1906, along with several male companions from Punjab. Working alongside his brother in California, Kapoor eventually made his way to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1912 to begin a career in the lumber industry. The connection between North America and the Indian subcontinent remained particularly strong, especially within the early years of migration as Kapoor was separated from his wife and family. As Johnston argues, “this was common among Punjabi families like Kapoor’s, whose members were oceans apart and yet bound by the loyalties and expectations of kinship and marriage” (pp. 26-27). Kapoor was eventually reunited with his wife, Besant Kaur, sixteen years after he migrated, once the Canadian government enabled South Asians to sponsor their wives and children in 1919.

Using his community network as well as new acquaintances outside of the Sikh community, the Sidhoo family prospered despite the discrimination they faced in Canada. Raised within a multicultural environment in Vancouver, Jackie and Sarjit Sidhoo were taught to respect traditional Sikh values while also embracing their Canadian environment. Both sisters became doctors and, fulfilling their family’s long-held desire, opened and managed a charity hospital in Punjab. The Kapoor Singh Canadian Hospital was built in 1959 and, as Johnston states, the name of the hospital demonstrated that it “was a gift of someone who did well as an emigrant and who was proud to belong to Canada” (p. 224). Jackie and Sarjit have continued to contribute to their family’s legacy by running the hospital after their parents passed away. The book concludes by emphasizing the transnational identities of the Sidhoo family, who remain firmly tied to both Punjab and Canada.

Johnston’s work shows the reader how the experiences of the Sidhoo family are inextricably linked to the broader historical context. Kapoor’s difficulties moving to Canada after the 1907 Vancouver riots, the hardships the family business experienced during the Depression, and fighting for the right to vote federally after the Second World War are some examples that demonstrate the relationship between the Sidhoo family and Canada’s history. Extending beyond this connection, the life history also charts Kapoor’s involvement with campaigns for Indian independence based in Canada, thus signifying his transnational agency. Kapoor played a key role in the creation of a English and Punjabi newspaper, Sansar, which asked Canadians for fair and just treatment based on “their status as British subjects, the sacrifices their fighting men had made for the empire, their loyalty to the British, the hard work they did in Canada, and the economic contribution that they had already made” (p. 41). Kapoor and his companions were actively involved in fighting for their rights within Canada as well as putting pressure on the Canadian government to aid in the movement for Indian independence. The book continually acknowledges the interrelation between the Sidhoo family and the global historical context. Beyond the relationship to the broader historical context, Johnston’s book is also situated with the historiography of South Asian migration to Canada.

The trajectory of the Sidhoo family coincides with the broader eras of South Asian migration to Canada. As characterized by Norman Buchignani, Doreen M. Indra, and Ram Srivashiva,these distinct eras include early settlement, the quiet years, and increased immigration.[1] Kapoor Singh, like other South Asians who arrived during the early settlement years (1902-18), was unable to reunite with his family in Canada due to restrictions on immigration. The all-male South Asian community banded together in order to fight restrictive immigration laws but their initial lack of success led them to focus on the Indian independence movement in Canada. After slight changes in immigration policy, the following era (1919-47) saw limited migration of wives and children and for Kapoor this meant the arrival of his wife Besant Kaur. These years saw the quiet establishment of the South Asian community who continued to fight for their rights in Canada. The following era witnessed heightened levels of migration, particularly after the deracialization of Canada’s immigration policy.[2] Along with many other pioneering South Asian families, the Sidhoo family entered their later years during the post-1967 era of South Asian migration as their children completed their Canadian education. Although their decision to build a charity hospital in India was exceptional, the Sidhoo family shared the same attachment and multiple identities as other first- and second-generation South Asian immigrants living in Canada. Johnston effectively contributes to the historiography of South Asian immigration in Canada by providing a detailed account of an early Sikh immigrant family. Although his work merits praise, there is a lack of attention to discrimination endured by the Sidhoos and a failure to explore the current identity perceptions of Jackie and Sarjit.

There is a lack of material on Kapoor’s sentiments towards the injustice of the Canadian government. Johnston does acknowledge the numerous organizations that Kapoor was a part of but there is no exploration of how discrimination personally affected Kapoor--beyond his choice to relocate his family from Vancouver to Toronto (p. 49). Additionally, the multiple identities of Kapoor and Besant Kaur are adequately addressed throughout the book. Their religious and complex national identities are acknowledged and discussed within the context of the South Asian immigrant experience in Canada. For example, Johnston articulates how Besant Kaur adhered to traditional customs by routinely visiting her husband’s family in Punjab during their separation (p. 93). Furthermore, the efforts of Kapoor and Besant Kaur to raise their children in a balanced environment, which capitalized on the beneficial elements of Sikh, Punjabi, and Canadian values, emphasizes their negotiation of identity construction (p. 136). However, there remains a lack of analysis pertaining to the identity formation of the Sidhoo children, who are second-generation South Asian immigrants and first-generation Canadians. It is clear within the conclusion that Kapoor Singh felt and demonstrated an identity that was informed by his multiple affiliations but there is little detail regarding Jackie and Sarjit. As Canadian-born visible minorities, how did their integration and identity construction processes within Canadian society differ from their parents? To what extent did their multiple identities affect their perceptions of belonging? Despite these gaps, however, Jewels of the Qila remains a valuable detailed account of early South Asian migration and integration in Canada during the twentieth century.

Building on previous studies that discuss the history of South Asians in Canada, Hugh Johnston delivers an informative case study of early migration and settlement in Canada. Although the particular family discussed is exceptional, the experiences of the Sidhoo family reflect many of the broader elements within the historical context. Using a variety of sources, Johnston is able to articulate several issues that affected all South Asian families living in Canada during the twentieth century. Their trials and tribulations fit within the broader historiography of South Asians in Canada while simultaneously highlighting unique events that shaped the life of each member of the family. Despite the failure to criticize the actions of the Sidhoo family or explore the multiple, fluid, and contested identities of Sarjit and Jackie, Jewels of the Qila is an excellent life history of a South Asian family coming of age in twentieth-century Canada. Johnston’s work ultimately contributes the historiography of Canadian immigration by providing a specific example of migration and settlement from an intergenerational and family perspective.


[1]. Norman Buchignani, Doreen M. Indra, and Ram Srivashiva, Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1985).

[2]. Ibid., introduction.

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Citation: Shezan Muhammedi. Review of Johnston, Hugh J. M., Jewels of the Qila. H-Canada, H-Net Reviews. February, 2014. URL:

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