Khalsa Day Takes Over the Downtown Core
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Khalsa Day Takes Over the Downtown Core

This year's Khalsa Day celebrations drew a crowd that included vote-seeking politicians and young Sikhs trying to change the menu.

Sikhs march through the downtown core on Khalsa Day  Photo by j riviere, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Sikhs march through the downtown core on Khalsa Day. Photo by j-riviere, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Sikhs from across Southern Ontario gathered downtown on Sunday to celebrate the twin holidays of Vaisakhi and Khalsa Day. The celebrations included a parade (called a Nagar Kirtan) from the CNE to Nathan Phillips Square, as well as a massive feast (in the square) with food donated by Sikh places of worship across the province.

Vaisakhi is a harvest festival, celebrated by people of all faiths across the northern half of the Indian subcontinent. It was on Vaisakhi in 1699 that the final guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh, revealed the Khalsa, or code of conduct, for practicing Sikhs. Khalsa Day marks the anniversary of that event.

The crowd assembled at Nathan Phillips Square listened to speeches from members of the local Sikh community, as well as politicians of all stripes. Liberals, Tories, and New Democrats all thanked the Sikhs for their contributions to Canadian culture, while trying to win Sikh support.

“My favourite thing in the parade was the float that said ‘Sikh Values are Canadian Values,’” said Premier Kathleen Wynne. “We share a value system of compassion, caring for each other, and creating a fair society, and that is what our government is working with you to do.”

Provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath and provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak said basically the same thing. Two federal leaders—the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair and the Liberal party’s Justin Trudeau—were also on hand for the celebrations.

At least one group of young Sikhs sought to make this year’s celebration a little different. The organizers of Smart Seva distributed healthy snacks along the parade route. (“Seva” refers to the concept of selfless service, a core tenant of Sikhism and one of the reasons groups provide free food on Khalsa Day.) Co-organizer Sarnpal Panesar said the goal was to provide an alternative to the fatty, sugary fare traditionally eaten on the day.

“During this parade, people like to hand out a lot of food and snacks,” he said. “We got some donations from family and friends, and we just went and got water, no-sugar-added juices, fruit, and granola bars, to give out during the parade. All the things you need to keep your energy up during the day. You don’t want to have a greasy sandwich or a samosa at the beginning of a parade and need a nap by the end.”

His colleague Aiksimar Singh said that, beyond promoting the healthy living, his goal is to emphasize the importance of selfless service to his fellow young Sikhs.

“We want to get other people involved, to have the same approach,” said Singh. “We all have companies and businesses, and we could say, ‘This from our business, we sponsored this and that,’ but it’s not about that…We want people to come forward and help out without any ulterior motives.”

The Smart Seva team has also spearheaded efforts to get Toronto’s Khalsa Day celebrations on social media. The group started the @NagarKirtanTO Twitter account. Singh said that, while it didn’t gain huge traction this year, he and his fellow volunteers are hoping to have it be a major part of the celebrations in 2014.

“There’s no dedicated social media for this,” he said. “You can search hashtags, but Nagar Kirtan is the phrase used for all the parades, so we wanted to have something dedicated to Toronto, which is one of the biggest ones in North America.”

“Another part of the idea of Smart Seva is to update with the times and make things a little more relatable for the youth.”

He hopes that, with an improved social media push, Khalsa Day can become as much of a part of the fabric of the city as other parades, like Caribana and Pride.

“We get a lot of people coming up and asking us what’s going on,” he says. “We have similar numbers to these other parades, it’s just a matter of people knowing what it’s about.”