Festival of Lights
November 5th, 2015
Canadian Sikhs will celebrate Diwali—the Festival of Lights—next Wednesday.
However, a precursor event this week is emblematic of the deep roots the Sikh faith has developed in Canada, and the changes Sikh people have brought to Canadian society.
In the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, more than 300 business and community leaders gathered for the 8th annual Diwali Gala Fundraiser hosted by Simon Fraser University and its president Andrew Petter.
As reported in the Indo-Canadian Voice newspaper, the annual event celebrates Sikh and south Asian culture and raises funds for SFU students to get scholarships that allow them to do outreach work in Indian villages. This year's event featured a talk by SFU student Dara Hill on six months spent in the city of Huballi in the state of Kamataka documenting innovation and change within the lives of its community members.
The very existence of the event is a marker of how much Canadian society has changed in the past few generations in terms of its pluralistic welcome for faith in common life. Sikh Canadians celebrated their own centennial presence as a community in Canada only in 2011.
When Simon Fraser University opened in 1965, named after the famed explorer who was the first European to establish a settlement in B.C., it was an outpost on a hilltop in suburban Burnaby, populated almost exclusively by Caucasian students representing Canada's mainstream Protestant and Catholic faiths. Barely 50 years earlier, Sikhs and Hindus had been refused permission to disembark from the ship Komagata Maru in Vancouver harbour.
When Sikhs began arriving in Canada in the mid-1980s, fleeing persecution as a minority in majority-Hindu India, they faced ostracism, racism, and public protest about their presence here. Lengthy court battles ensued to affirm their rights to practice their faith freely, including their unfettered right to wear turbans and carry ceremonial kirpans. As recently as 2013, they were the target of political attack by the Parti Quebecois government's so-called Charter of Values.
Today, almost a half-million Sikhs comprise one per cent of the Canadian population but also constitute a rich and visible presence in politics, business and, as the SFU-sponsored event shows, in the academy as well. In suburban Surrey, they now make up 16 per cent of the population, the largest single concentration in Canada.
That's more than a story of arrival and survival. It lights the way for the flourishing of enduring faith in Canada.
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