Photo: Greater Vernon Museum and Archives
May is Asian Heritage Month and this year’s theme is “Recognition, Resilience and Determination”. Vernon is home to hundreds of people of Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese, Pakistani, Chinese and Korean descent. The city also has a large Indo-Canadian population.
The first immigrants from eastern India began arriving in the Okanagan around the turn of the 20th century. Three Sikh men arrived in Rutland in 1909, and more followed in 1913. Most took jobs in the lumber industry, with the intention of eventually returning to their homeland. It was only a few years later that some decided to permanently settle their families in the Valley.
By the 1970s and 1980s, the East Indian population in Vernon had grown significantly. A 1976 report on the ethnic composition of the Okanagan suggests that Vernon had “little evidence of discrimination”. Yet the report also states that “East Indians claim that their members were beaten by white men for no apparent reason. They are afraid to participate in public events because of bad experiences.
In 1997, a researcher interviewed several Indo-Canadian families living in Vernon and found that 17 out of 20 lived in a high-density, often duplex, neighborhood.
Some of the reasons given by families for living there were the low cost of housing and the proximity of friends. However, the researcher concluded that this collective housing was also a reaction to feelings of alienation from the community as a whole. One interviewee suggested that “people looked at our turbans and the traditional outfits that our women wear with disgust and suspicion. We mostly stayed to ourselves.
In 2021, the treatment of Vernon’s Indo-Canadian population has certainly improved, largely due to the dedicated efforts of their members to introduce Sikhism, Hinduism and Jainism to a new generation of people through public events like the Diwali festival.
And yet, just last year, the NDP’s Harwinder Sandhu faced racism during her campaign as MP for Vernon-Monashee, with her signs defaced with swastikas and misogynistic words. Despite this opposition, Sandhu was elected in a clear statement by the majority of the citizens of Vernon against this kind of discrimination.
The resilience and determination of Sandu, Coun. Dalvir Nahal, activist Min Sidhu, and the many other Indo-Canadian men and women who came before them contributed to Vernon’s recognition of this diverse cultural group, although work remains to be done.
Gwyn Evans is the Community Engagement Coordinator with the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives.