Over the winter of 1911-12, Dr. Sunder Singh visits Toronto to agitate for immigration reform.
“We are subjects of the same Empire; we have fought, we have sacrificed. We have fought for the Empire, and we bear her medals; we have an interest in this country; we have bought about $2,006,000 of property in British Columbia; we have our church and pay our pastor, and we mean to stay in this country,” Dr. Sunder Singh said in a speech before Toronto’s Empire Club on January 25, 1912. One of the leaders of the South Asian community in British Columbia, Singh spent that winter in Toronto, campaigning for the easing of highly restrictive immigration regulations for South Asians. He continued: “To others you advance money to come here, and yet to us, British subjects, you refuse to let down the bars. All we are asking of you is justice and fair play.”
“Many people have been telling me that it is useless my trying to bring this question before the Canadian people,” the speaker concluded, “but I am firmly persuaded that, if the question is properly brought before right-minded Canadians, that they will say that the same rights should be given to the Sikh people as are given to any other British subjects.”
A reasoned argument persuasively delivered, Singh’s speech that day was interrupted by spontaneous applause no fewer than six times, an indication of the reception he received in Toronto initially. For a brief moment, it appeared that he might succeed in rousing Ontario’s Protestant and pro-Imperialist sentiment to the cause of loosening immigration restrictions. But ultimately, the justness of his argument couldn’t overcome the vociferous outcry from British Columbia or the personal attacks launched on his character.
Born near Amritsar, Punjab in 1882, Dr. Sunder Singh (also frequently spelled Sundar) was educated at Punjab University, then studied medicine in Glasgow, Scotland. After qualifying as a doctor before the license board in Britain, he worked as a ship’s medical officer on the mail line for two years, travelling between Liverpool, Brazil, and New York. Singh arrived in Canada at Halifax in March 1909, where immigration restrictions against South Asians were much less stringently enforced than on the West Coast.
(Right: Toronto Star [February 19, 1912].)
Singh made his way immediately to the West Coast, seemingly eager to reunite with people he already knew there—although he later claimed to have just been passing through Canada until the plight of his fellow countrymen in B.C. convinced him to remain permanently. He settled first in Vancouver, but would also spend a great deal time in Victoria. He lived in retirement, despite being only in his thirties, “living and working out of his own private funds,” according to a later newspaper profile. Not needing to work, with the buying and selling of real estate properties being his sole business activity, Singh dedicated himself to campaigning for the South Asian community.
Despite his prominence as a community leader, Singh’s biography is as difficult to piece together today—rife with contradictory or incorrect detail—as it had been for immigration officials eager to gather intelligence on the comings and goings of someone they regarded as a troublemaker. Depending on the source, for example, Singh either left his wife and child in India, or he found a way to bring them to Vancouver.
Between 1911 and 1912, Singh produced a monthly newspaper. Published in English and secular in content, the newspaper was targeted an Anglo-Canadian audience rather than his fellow immigrants, with a reasoned appeal for better treatment of the South Asian community.
In a few short years, the population of South Asians in British Columbia—the vast majority of whom were Sikhs from Punjab—had grown to 4,000 or 5,000 men in 1907. Then the flow all but halted with only 125 more being admitted in the next seven years. It was the result of ever-tightening immigration restrictions, which required all immigrants to arrive via a continuous voyage from their country of citizenship—impossible for South Asians, since steamship companies refused to introduce a direct link between India and Canada. Whereas Chinese and Japanese immigrants had to produce $50 upon arrival, South Asians were required to produce $200. The strict regulations had the practical effect of barring the entry of wives and families.
(Left: Sikh sawmill workers at North Pacific Lumber Co., British Columbia, 1900-1910. Photo by Philip Timms from the Vancouver Public Library.)
Moreover, the immigrants found themselves the victims of newly enacted government policy that denied South Asians the right to vote and limited their participation in a variety of professions, and the targets (along with Chinese and Japanese residents) of anti-Asian riots in Vancouver in 1907. South Asians made up only 0.58% of the total British Columbia population in 1911, but their numbers would dwindle in the coming years as many returned home or relocated to California. Most of the pioneers had been farmers in Punjab, or soldiers; in B.C. they worked mainly as labourers in lumber mills or on farms.
Vancouver’s first gurdwara (temple), founded by the Khalsa Diwan Society in 1909, was the only public place where South Asians could freely gather and became the centre of the community’s activism. It was open to Hindus, Christians, and Muslims alike, so although the Khalsa Diwan Society was principally a religious, Sikh organization, it came to represent the South Asian community more broadly. Along with the United India League, a secular organization in Vancouver, the Khalsa Diwan Society worked to assist and advocate for South Asian immigrants. The spokesmen of these organizations were those like Singh, who could speak English and deal with government bureaucrats, but the power remained at the grassroots level.
These activists had already been petitioning the British government over Canada’s “humiliating” immigration regime, and been encouraged when, at the Imperial Conference in May 1911, the Brits chastised the self-governing dominions for their discriminatory immigration policies—a position the Crown took less out of idealism than a desire to keep waters calm in India. After Robert Borden’s Conservatives won the September 1911 election, the Khalsa Diwan Society and United India League decided to send a delegation—composed of Teja Singh, Rajah Singh, Dr. Sunder Singh, and the Rev. Louis W. Hall—to Ottawa to petition the new government for changes in legislation.
(Right: Toronto Star [December 18, 1911].)
Like Sunder Singh, Teja Singh had extensive experience working among the English. A professor at Khalsa College in Amritsar, he’d continued his studies at Cambridge, Columbia, and Harvard before relocating to B.C. Rajah Singh had perhaps a more typical immigrant experience. Originally from Mahalpur, Punjab, he’d worked in a sawmill after arriving in Vancouver in 1906. He held leadership roles within the gurdwara and as secretary of the United India League.
Hall, a 62-year-old, American-born Presbyterian missionary, had worked among the Chinese community in Victoria since 1892. He figured prominently in the Hindu Friend Society of Victoria, at whose meetings Dr. Sunder Singh was a regular speaker. The two had also just co-authored a pamphlet, Summary of the Hindu Question and its Results in B.C. (1911), which included examples of unjust deportations to strengthen their calls for reform.
(The terms “Hindu” and “Hindustani” were frequently, but imprecisely, used in the early 20th century to refer to South Asians of all religions and geographic origins.)
At the time, Hall wasn’t knowledgeable of Sikhism in great detail. But a four-day train voyage to Ottawa provided ample time to read about the religion Sikhism and discuss its tenets with his companions. “Guru Gobind Singh! Guru Gobind Singh!!” Hall is said to have proclaimed excitedly to his companions after finishing a book on the tenth and final Sikh guru. “If I had come across this book as a young man, I would have become a Sikh of Gobind Singh.” The enthusiasm with which Hall spoke of the religion in the years to come prompted suspicious immigration officials to regard the missionary as a convert to the faith.
(Left: Toronto Star [November 27, 1911].)
Over a fortnight in Ottawa in late November and December, the activists met three times with Minister of the Interior Robert Rogers, who had portfolio responsibility for immigration, as well as with members of parliament from B.C. and other officials. They sought immigration reforms that would allow their wives and families to join them in Canada; allow easier access to the country for students, businessmen, and tourists; abolish the continuous passage requirement until a direct steamship service was operational; open immigration to 300 (or another reasonable number of) South Asians each year; and reduce the $200 produced upon landing to the same $50 level required of other immigrants.
Their argument was focused almost exclusively on opening immigration to Sikhs, who, as farmers from a climate not entirely dissimilar to Canada’s, they regarded as ideally suited to adapt. The delegates were willing to accept reasonable restrictions based on tests of character or the needs of the labour market, and offered bonds to authorities guaranteeing that no South Asian immigrant became a public charge. Sunder Singh was, an observer later noted, “more anxious to establish the principle of British fair-play than to gain admission for an unlimited number of his countrymen.”
Rogers explained that there already were no formal bars to wives and children—provided they complied with the continuous passage and $200 requirements—but also promised to appoint an immigration officer to investigate what else, if anything, could be done to address the situation. The delegates were initially optimistic, claiming to the press that Rogers had “distinctly stated it would be ‘inhuman’ to allow the Hindus themselves to enter while keeping out their wives and children.” Almost immediately there was disquiet from British Columbia, and Rogers clarified that he’d made no promises beyond an investigation.
(Right: Toronto Globe [December 25, 1911].)
Stung by the Minister’s apparent reversal, Sunder Singh told the Toronto press shortly after his arrival on December 16 that he was cabling colleagues in India to lay their Canadian grievances directly before the King, who was then touring the country. While his fellow delegates returned to the west, Sunder Singh took residence in the Queen’s Hotel, convinced that central Canadians—who, having never been directly impacted by South Asian immigration, had no biases or reason to fear it—would give their argument a fair hearing.
On December 28, he delivered a speech carefully constructed to appeal to Ontarian—and Christian—sensibilities at the Canadian Club. On the principle that mutual understanding would reduce prejudice, Singh began by earnestly outlining the history and beliefs of the Sikh religion, emphasizing its monotheism and drawing parallels between its origins and Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation.
He then demonstrated the long, enthusiastic support Sikhs had shown the Crown, including their military service during the Indian Mutiny, and throughout the Empire from Afghanistan to Somaliland to Hong Kong. “In fact, the history of India would have been different if it had not been for the Sikhs,” explained Singh, whose own father had been a commissioned officer in the Indian army, and his brother an army surgeon. Canada’s inaction on immigration reform and continued ill-treatment of Sikhs, he announced, “is helping, in fact fanning, the unrest in India.”
(Left: Toronto Globe [December 29, 1911].)
Outlining the experience of Sikh pioneers in Canada, he argued that they’d been contributing to the development of the west, accepting the roughest work while saving to purchase farms or open their own businesses. Singh used the testimonial of a sawmill owner to support the good character of Sikhs as “law-abiding citizens” who had “fitted into the situation here.”
“They expect better treatment than foreigners. To lump them together with Japanese and Chinese as Orientals is absurd,” Singh asserted. “They have the same thoughts and feelings as you and are not like the Orientals.” It was, of course, a problematic argument to denigrate Chinese, Japanese, Galicians, and Italians to bolster the Sikhs’ case. But it was central to Singh’s claim that Sikhs enjoyed the same status and rights as all other British subjects, and he would repeat the argument often that winter. “There is no difference in British subjects,” he insisted at the Canadian Club. “They stand upon the same footing, and we ask that the stigma against us shall be removed.”
Singh’s emphasis on the desire to reunite husbands with their wives and families was something that all good Christians could get behind, and the appeal to British fair play rallied those who believed in the benevolence of empire. The audience received Singh’s persuasive oration enthusiastically, interrupting on numerous occasions with hearty applause.
(Right: Toronto Star [December 28, 1911].)
He must have cut an impressive, if exotic, figure for the audience. No South Asians were known to be living in the city at that time, so, apart from a handful of military men, most Torontonians’ idea of India was derived wholly from schoolbooks and their imperial imagination. With his turban and full beard, he must have fulfilled their expectations as, in the words of the Toronto World, “a splendid man of the manly Sikh type.” Singh impressed Torontonians as intelligent and articulate but, with time, some came to think he was a bit too eager for public attention.
Over the subsequent two months, Singh drew enthusiastic support from the multi-denominational Toronto Ministerial Association, the local Quaker and Unitarian congregations, and the various foreign missionary societies headquartered in Toronto. The church groups’ motivation wasn’t necessarily to win converts, since none had ever been very successful at doing so in B.C., but as “a desire to demonstrate the social meaning of the Christian faith by offering a variety of forms of practical assistance,” as historian Ruth Compton Brouwer states of the Presbyterian Church—perhaps Singh’s strongest ally that winter. Moreover, missionary societies were keen to protect the missions operating in India against rising anti-imperialist and anti-missionary resentment. It was a serious situation, the author of one 1913 pamphlet noted, “when the heathen in India can say to the missionary, your message is not true, you treat the Hindus in your country unjustly.”
The day after the Canadian Club speech, a group of prominent Torontonians—most of them Presbyterians—convened a meeting at the Canadian Life company headquarters. After passing a resolution demanding “immediate action to relieve these conditions,” an ad hoc committee was formed “to bring these matters to the public attention and take such steps as they deem advisable to the end that injustice may be removed.” The committee membership included John K. Macdonald, founder and president of Confederation Life; lawyers John A. Paterson, K.C., and H.E. Irwin, K.C.; University of Toronto president Robert A. Falconer; and the Rev. Dr. John Wilkie, a missionary.
(Left: Confederation Life building at Yonge and Richmond streets, 1910. From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.)
As young men, Macdonald and Falconer had each intended to become clergymen before turning to business and academics respectively. A philanthropist, Macdonald was a founder of the local YMCA, and president of both the Children’s Aid Society and the Gwalior Presbyterian Mission at Jhansi, India. He and Paterson were both deeply involved in the Lord’s Day Alliance’s campaigns to limit public activity on Sundays.
Wilkie delivered speeches and penned letters to the editor arguing that the continuous voyage provision was an underhanded subterfuge that, by intention, had the practical effect of barring entry and highlighting the broad, discriminatory powers given immigration officials. Meanwhile, Macdonald and Falconer, both Conservatives in political orientation, travelled to Ottawa to discuss the immigration question with the Minister of the Interior on January 18, 1912.
(Right: Robert Alexander Falconer, ca. 1913. From the University of Toronto Archives.)
For more than two months that winter, Singh moved in elite circles. He made friends with prominent businessmen and was invited to speak before the IODE, the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission, the University College Literary Society, and numerous other bodies. He attended other functions as a guest—even those, like a lecture on taxation policy—that bore no direct connection to his cause. There were rumours that he’d even entered into negotiations with a transportation company about chartering a steamship to bring South Asians to eastern Canada.
Dr. Forbes Godfrey, the future provincial Minister of Health in the administration of G. Howard Ferguson but then still a relatively green backbencher, was taken by the injustices Singh identified. The Member for York West arranged a meeting between the visitor and Sir James Whitney on the afternoon of January 3. The premier offered little assistance, deferring the matter to the federal government.
After hearing Singh at public and private meetings, the Rev. Robert J. Hutcheon of the local Unitarian Church laid out the compassionate case for supporting Singh’s position in a letter published in the Star (January 17, 1912). “If they should succeed in bringing their wives and children to Canada they would doubtless grow in time to considerable numbers,” he wrote. “But I see no reason to dread that. Their color is a little darker than ours now, but they are our equals, if not our superiors, in mental qualities.” Hutcheon endorsed reasoned government debate on the question of loosening immigration, but concluded: “Whatever may be said about further immigration from India, these 4,000 men are now here, and surely it is an excess of caution to make such regulations that they cannot bring their families and make homes for themselves amongst us.”
(Right: Toronto Star [December 18, 1911].)
The speeches Singh delivered that winter closely mirrored in structure and content his address at the Canadian Club. By the time Singh presented at the Empire Club on January 25, however, he drew audience applause with a real-world example of exclusion in action. Three days earlier, two women—the wives of merchant Bhag Singh and priest Balwant Singh—had arrived in Vancouver in direct challenge to the law. Their husbands were able to re-enter the country without incident but, on the grounds of not arriving by direct passage, Singh stated, “the ladies are still confined as if they were criminals.”
“We appeal to you, gentlemen, to say that in any country, under any conditions, the treatment that the Sikhs are receiving is not fair,” he concluded to the Empire Club. “We appeal to your good sense and to your humanity to see that justice is done, that this thing is not continued, for it has been going on for quite a long time. You may well imagine the feeling of these two men, who are suffering as I have described, for no fault at all, except that they are Sikhs.”
Not all Torontonians, however, were convinced of the moral imperative of easing immigration restrictions. The labour movement, in particular, was vehemently opposed. In early January, the Trades and Labor Council passed a resolution not only opposing the “free immigration of Hindoos” but vowing to “fight” any churches that supported their entry.
(Left: Toronto Star [January 5, 1912].)
Labour’s case, made in ugly language, was widely reported in the press. Not only would an influx of South Asian immigrants take jobs from white workers, and lower wages across all industries, John Bruce argued, they would lower social and moral conditions in the country. The Australian-born representative of the International Plumber and Steam Fitters’ Union casually referenced South Asians being polygamists with child brides—a misrepresentation that occurred with such frequency during Singh’s Ontario sojourn that he repeatedly took pains to explain that the tenets of Sikhism forbade both practices.
Bruce used his experience in Natal, South Africa, to paint a lurid picture of the consequences of opening one’s borders to South Asians. Admitted as cheap labour for sugar plantations, he claimed, the South Asian population there soon outnumbered the white population, flagrantly violating bylaws meant to control them. Bruce sneered that doing the same in Canada would be “a menace to her nationality and western civilization.” He added that if wives and children arrived, as Singh proposed, next they’d want their children attending public schools.
When the Ministerial Association reneged on an offer its president, the Rev. E.E. Braithwaite, had made for labour representatives to present their case with the organization, it outraged labour leader (and future mayor) James Simpson. “Is it any wonder that the churches of the city are wondering why the working man doesn’t go to church,” he seethed at a January 18 meeting. “The reason is apparent when they take such an attitude on this all important question.” Another union man characterized the Ministerial Association as “the business agents of the manufacturers of this country.”
(Right: James Simpson, October 1925. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6536.)
Demonstrating a degree of magnanimity, labour leaders invited Singh to the Labor Temple, with as much time as he needed during a Trades and Labor Council meeting to explain his side of the debate. “Our interests are your interests, we should co-operate for economic reasons,” he implored on the morning of January 26, 1912, seeking common ground with his hosts. “The workingmen are exploited in India just as much as you are here. This country is a big one. These men are allowed here, and they have bought land. I ask you to give the other fellow a chance.” He didn’t change any minds. At a subsequent meeting on February 1, the Trades and Labor Council passed a resolution confirming its position “as being absolutely opposed to the admission to Canada of all classes of Asiatics.”
On the Pacific coast, Singh’s activities were followed with interest, generating a crescendo of vitriol on the local op-ed pages. British Columbians, evidently, had little time for Upper Canadians who’d been “hypnotized” by Singh’s sentimental appeal instead of examining the issue “from the inside.” An excerpt from the Vancouver Sun reprinted by the Star typified this sentiment: “The Hindus are highly undesirable people. Of all Orientals they are the filthiest, paying less attention to personal cleanliness and sanitation than the dirtiest Chinese coolie. . . . In slovenliness, the Sikh is not surpassed by any human creature I have seen. He inhabits the foulest slums, and the near neighborhood of offal and garbage does not disturb him.”
(Left: Toronto Globe [January 27, 1912].)
British Columbians objected to Ontario interfering in their province’s affairs. “Seriously,” a correspondent from the West demanded to know in Saturday Night (March 9, 1912), “how is it that these flabby philanthropists, these goody-good sloppy sentimentalists invariably champion the cause of foreigners against their own people and kin, as in this case?”
Even among Western clergymen, there was deep resentment that their Ontario colleagues had naively sided with Singh against what they saw as their better-informed position. The Rev. Wilkie was lambasted as “this ignorant preacher.” H.H. Stevens, a lay preacher and businessman who’d been first elected to Parliament in September 1911 on the strength of his absolute opposition to Asian immigration, judged these men of religious conviction to be “utterly irresponsible people.”
By mid-January, critics undercut Singh’s claim to be the legitimate spokesman of the B.C. South Asian community. Singh was a “fraud,” declared one prominent Presbyterian (and well-known opponent of Asian immigration) in a letter to church leadership in Toronto. Stevens, the Conservative member for Vancouver, echoed the claim. “This Sunder Singh is one of the cleverest rascals in Canada,” he told the Winnipeg Free Press. “He is a professional agitator and trouble monger, instead of being a philanthropist, he is an unscrupulous exploiter of his more ignorant fellow countrymen, living on his wits. . . . He is altogether undesirable and unreliable and a menace to the community.”
(Right: Toronto Star [February 21, 1912].)
Stevens asserted that the South Asian community was angry that the delegation’s efforts in Ottawa had been unsuccessful, and regarded the $1,500 donated for the trip by its members as wasted. The workers, Stevens asserted, wanted to remove “the educated agitators”—that is, their English-speaking spokesmen—from leadership positions and put a stop to the demands for immigration reform. The young politician was half right. There were indeed ripplings of discontent within B.C.’s South Asian community, but it was because the moderates had failed to achieve their promised ends, and the grassroots were growing increasingly militant.
Within the month, Stevens was in Toronto, stumping that any concessions to South Asians regarding the admission of wives would be a slippery slope to securing the freedom of travel, then the vote, and the holding of public office. In a speech before the Women’s Canadian Club on February 17, Stevens labelled Singh a “seditionist” who the immigration authorities wanted to deport. Immigration officials had indeed initiated Singh’s deportation in March 1911, but evidently reconsidered the strength of their case and dropped the proceedings quietly. Singh answered charges that he was financially exploiting his countrymen by clarifying that he had funded his own travel and accommodations, supplementing it with unsolicited donations from Ontarians.
Singh repudiated Stevens’ accusations unconditionally, underlining that he was the official envoy of his people. “My credentials, so scathingly attacked by Mr. Stevens,” he said, “are in good order, and consist in the endorsation [sic] of the whole Hindoo population of Canada.” Singh claimed to be investigating whether to lay charges of libel against the MP.
Stevens’ speech at the Canadian Club on February 26, at the club’s invitation to present the counter-argument to Singh’s earlier appearance, doubled down on his charges and accusations. While Stevens was asking whether the members of his audience were willing to accept their daughters marrying South Asian men, Singh was across town at the Metropolitan Church addressing the Methodist Ministerial Association, who heard his appeal sympathetically.
The incessant criticism of Stevens and Western Canadian clergymen took its toll, however. Church leadership in Ontario wavered in their support of Singh, amid their anxieties that the nation could not accommodate large numbers of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Although desirous of helping improve conditions for South Asian immigrants, for example, Presbyterian leadership hesitated to follow through on taking any direct action. Where once civic-minded organizations had eagerly sought Singh’s presence, now they delayed voting on resolutions or offering assistance. Singh’s petitions to the Governor General and the Viceroy of India went unanswered, and he quietly left Toronto in late February or early March.
By late February, the federal government—its brief investigation having reached its predetermined outcome—reaffirmed all current immigration restrictions would remain unchanged. The failure of the delegates in Ottawa, and that of Singh’s campaign in Toronto, was complete. When the government allowed the wives of Bhag Singh and Balwant Singh to enter the country—”as an act of Grace, without establishing a precedent,” it said—the urgency of the Asian immigration question abated for the Canadian public.
By March 1912, Singh was in Victoria, where he established a newspaper entitled Sansar, containing articles in both Punjabi and English. But by then, the political tides were already turning. Moderates would be rusticated, like Sunder Singh, or would return to India, like Teja Singh. B.C. South Asian leaders became more militant, even violent at times, as a Canadian arm of the Ghadr movement for Indian independence. Further challenges to Canadian immigration law, like the arrival of the Komagata Maru in the spring of 1914, however, would eventually thrust Sunder Singh back into the spotlight, when he returned to Ontario to rekindle friendships in Toronto and forge new ones.
Sources consulted: Addresses Delivered Before the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1911-1912 (Warwick & Rutter, 1912); F.M. Bhatti, East Indian Immigration into Canada: 1905-1973 (Pakistan Study Centre, 2007); Ruth Compton Brouwer, “A Disgrace to ‘Christian Canada’: Protestant Foreign Missionary Concerns about the treatment of South Asians in Canada, 1907-1940,” in Franca Iacovetta and Paula Jean Draper, eds., A Nation of Immigrants (University of Toronto Press, 1998); Paula Hastings, “Fellow British Subjects or Colonial ‘Others?’ Race, Empire, and Ambivalence in Canadian Representations of India in the Early Twentieth Century,” in The American Review of Canadian Studies 38.1 (Spring 2008); Hugh M. Johnston, Jewels of the Qila (UBC Press, 2011); I.M. Muthanna, People of India in North America (Lotus Printers, 1982); Isabella Ross Broad, An Appeal for Fairplay for the Sikhs in Canada (Victoria, 1913); Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Volume 2: 1839-1964 (Princeton University Press, 1966); and articles from the Hedley (B.C.) Gazette, Toronto Globe, Toronto Star, Toronto World, and the Victoria Daily Colonist.