The History of Punjabis in British Columbia

The immigrant experience is not one story, but many. In her book, The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nation, and Multiculturalism, Kamala Elizabeth Nayar describes the experience of Punjabi pioneers who began arriving in British Columbia shortly after World War 2. The study, while not all-encompassing, focuses on the experiences of Punjabi immigrants who came to Canada and moved up to Northern British Columbia to work hard labour in the forestry and fishery industries. The book speaks of conflicts between Punjabi tradition and Canadian life, harassment from other ethnic groups and their experience of both rural and urban Canada as it was forming its multicultural identity. Informed by both hard statistic data and first hand experiences, the book paints a multi-faceted portrait of life in B.C. for new Punjabi immigrants.

While there are other studies that look at some aspect of the Punjabi immigrant experience, Nayar differentiates hers by examining two key elements. First, Nayar focuses a large portion of her book on the experience of female Punjabi immigrants. Most studies focus on the male experience, but Nayar demonstrates that the experience of female Punjabi immigrants was distinctly different and that they underwent a shift in values upon landing in BC to join their husbands. She highlights her findings with interviews, and many of these stories, particularly from educated women who had dreams of working as doctors or teachers in India, were heartbreaking. They spoke of being forced from their former lives to follow their husbands to Canada, where they were expected to fulfill their duties as wives by bearing children, and to help support the household. For the majority of Punjabi women, the only job they could find was in a cannery as a seasonal employee, a job that most found demeaning.

The final aspect that differentiates Nayar’s study is her attention to relationships with other minority groups such as First Nations. Nayar notes that most studies focus on Punjabi interactions with Anglo-Canadians, however, she reveals that Punjabi’s who lived and worked in the Skeena area of B.C. often had to contend with hostility from First Nations people who lived and worked in their community. Nayar explains that many First Nations people viewed Punjabi immigrants moving into their traditional lines of work as a threat, and accused them of taking their jobs, which resulted in a backlash.

I truly enjoyed this book although I would not recommend it to anyone looking for some light reading. The book is thoroughly researched and is bursting with information, including, but not limited to, extensive histories of the Skeena forestry and fishery industry, the ethnic makeup of the Skeena region, and various traditions in Punjabi culture. While the information is fascinating, what really pulled me in were the first hand stories from immigrants and their children. These stories reflect the diversity of Punjabis who arrived in Canada and weave together a rich tapestry that reflects various aspects of the Punjabi immigrant experience. Nayar’s book is full of careful details and she expertly sets the stage for the information she presents. If there was ever a point in the book where I felt like I needed more clarification, I only had to wait until the next chapter to receive the information I was looking for. If you ever wanted to start to scratch the surface of Canada’s history of immigration and its multicultural makeup, this book would be a worthy beginning.