Places That Matter: North America's first Sikh temple
Many Vancouver residents would be surprised to discover that a quiet street in Kitsilano is the site of North America's first Sikh temple, built in 1908.
The Second Avenue Gurdwara (temple) was located on 1866 West 2nd Avenue and was a hub for Vancouver's growing Sikh community from 1908 to 1970. Though apartment buildings now stand on the site, the temple was recently commemorated with a plaque as part of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation's Places That Matter project.
One hundred and fifty people gathered on the front lawn of 1860 West 2nd Avenue for the plaque unveiling. Mayor Gregor Robertson, former Attorney General Wally Oppal, and plaque sponsor Ajaib Sidoo and other prominent members of Vancouver's Sikh community attended and spoke at the event.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson makes an introductory speech to the 2nd Avenue Gurdwara plaque unveiling on September 15. Photo by Linda Solomon.
After a speech by the mayor, the ceremony included a prayer by Ross Street Temple head priest Harminder Singh, and speeches from former prosecutor and city council candidate Sandy Garossino, and former Second Avenue Temple presidents Dr. Gurdev Gill, Dr. Jack Uppal, and Dr. Mohinder Singh Gill.
"Dr. Uppal spoke eloquently about the Gurdwara being a space for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and a centre for community activity," said Naveen Girn, a South Asian-Canadian cultural historian who attended the plaque's unveiling.
"From hosting Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to celebrating the everyday activities of the community, the Second Avenue Gurdwara was the soul of the community," he added.
Places That Matter was launched in 2011 to celebrate Vancouver's 125th anniversary, was designed to highlight 125 places, events and people that have shaped the city as voted by Vancouver residents.
Garossino and her husband's family, the Sidhoos, nominated the site. Garossino said she nominated the site because it was living proof of the living history of other cultures in BC history.
"I think in the popular imagination we see British Columbia as a Western European -- in fact British -- community," she said. "But in fact, it has been right from inception a community that's had many immigrants. The Gurdwara is evidence that all of these communities built BC together."
Second Avenue Gurdwara played crucial role in South Asian community
Girn, who did his masters thesis on South Asian Canadian cultural history, said that the gurdwara was the center for spiritual, political, and social life for Indians of all faiths and stood at the forefront of social justice campaigns for immigration reform and regaining the right to vote in 1947.
"When the right to vote was taken away from Indians in 1947, the Second Avenue temple was at the forefront of regaining the right to vote," Girn said, citing a photograph of activist Navinder Singh at the steps of the temple, giving a speech about going to Ottawa to protest South Asian disenfranchisement.
Another instance was the gurdwara's mobilizing in the infamous Komagata Maru incident, in which a Japanese steamship sailing from Hong Kong to Vancouver carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India were not allowed to land in Canada.
The year was 1914. The ship was eventually forced to go back to India. It was one of several incidents involving exclusion laws in both Canada and the U.S. designed to keep out immigrants from Asia.
"The gurdwara galvanized itself to pay for food and legal costs, and we have minutes of meetings where people said they could raise $50,000 or $60 000 together," Girn said, adding that this was an incredible amount of money to raise at the time.
The Gurdwara was sold in 1970, after many years of fundraising to build the Ross Street Temple. However, Girn notes that the legacy of the temple lives on.
"The memories of that Second Avenue gurdwara still live on in the stories of the pioneer communities in their photo albums," Girn said. "Sharing those stories, and having those stories are so important."
With files from Linda Solomon.