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A glimpse into how the South Asian community gained the right to vote in Canada

The struggle lasted for four decades

After 40-year fight, the community earned the right to vote in 1947.

After 40-year fight, the community earned the right to vote in 1947.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Hadi Hassin

RCI

Although a large number of candidates of Punjabi descent have entered the fray for the upcoming elections in Canada, the journey of Punjabis to earn the right to vote has been a long one.

There was a time when Asians, including Punjabis, were deprived of that right, and it took four decades to get it back. Statistics show that the Punjabi population in British Columbia grew from 45 in 1904-05 to over 5,000 in 1907-08.

According to Sharanjit Kaur Sandharan, who teaches history at the University of the Fraser Valley, Punjabis started coming to Canada in the 1800s. By the early 1900s, their population had increased considerably. Discrimination against Punjabis began to escalate in the first decade of the 1900s.

The right to vote was lost in 1907

An act was passed in 1907 to prevent the South Asian community from participating in the Vancouver municipal elections. As a result, the community also lost the right to vote at the federal level, as the right to vote at the provincial level was a prerequisite.

File photo of the Komagata Maru steamship
PHOTO: CBC

File photo of the Komagata Maru steamship PHOTO: CBC

Photo: CBC

A debate was held between the Liberals and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation on the issue of voting rights in British Columbia, but the South Asian community was unable to win back the right to vote. In 1933, when the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Sir Atul Chatterjee, raised his voice against these restrictions, R.B. Bennett, then Prime Minister of Canada, stated that Canada had no problem with the voting rights of the South Asian community, putting the ball in British Columbia’s court.

According to Dr. Satwinder Kaur Bains, Director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, people of Punjabi descent were discriminated against on a large scale. At that time, cheap labour was acceptable but giving them the right to vote was not. This was done so that they would not be able to come forward in policymaking at any level.

India was under British rule at the time, and it’s amazing that this happened, as it wasn’t happening to the other people under British rule, said Dr. Bains.

She went on to explain that 10 Punjabi Sikhs fought in World War I on behalf of Canada, but their efforts failed to earn the South Asian community the right to vote. Representatives of the Khalsa Diwan Society and the Punjabi community, including Kapur Singh, Naginder Singh, Gurdit Singh and Ishar Singh, continued the fight.

Even after Canada’s participation in World War II, the South Asian community was not given the right to vote. Punjabis then started campaigning again under the slogan No vote – No war to get the right to vote.

D.P. Pandia: A forgotten hero?

According to historians, Dr. D.P. Pandia played a major role in helping the South Asian community gain the right to vote. Although the Punjabi community has made great strides in Canadian politics, D.P. Pandia’s contribution seems to have been forgotten.

According to historians, Dr. D.P. Pandia played a major role in helping the South Asian community gain the right to vote.
PHOTO: CBC

According to historians, Dr. D.P. Pandia played a major role in helping the South Asian community gain the right to vote. PHOTO: CBC

Photo: CBC

Dr. D.P. Pandia was a lawyer who argued on the issue of South Asian community voting for a very low fee. We shouldn’t forget Dr. Pandia’s contribution, Dr. Bains said.

Dr. Pandia was a major contributor and didn’t get the respect he deserved. He not only raised the issue of voting rights but that of women coming to Canada as well. At that time, due to the prevailing laws, the entry of women was restricted, said Sandharan.

The rise of Punjabis in Canadian politics

Today, politicians of Punjabi descent are flag bearers in federal politics. In the last elections, 23 candidates of Indian descent were elected, 19 of whom were of Punjabi descent.

Shindar Purewal, who teaches political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, said, Punjabis have made great strides in Canadian politics. There was a time when we were fighting for the right to vote. Today, there are many people of Punjabi descent in Cabinet.

Sarbmeet Singh

This report by our reporter Sarbmeet Singh has been translated from Punjabi to English.

Date posted: August 25, 2021, 4:41 p.m.

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