Kids Corner

Film/Stage

Searching For
The Sikhs of Tod Inlet

by DAVID GRAY

A new film on the history of a group of Sikhs who came to Canada a hundred years ago is in the works. And I can hardly believe that it is really happening.

This film itself really began 50 years ago, when, as a young boy growing up in Victoria (the capital of the Province of  British Columbia, Canada), I started what has become a life-long search for memories of this unknown group of men who founded one of the first Sikh communities in British Columbia ("B.C.").

It was back in the late 1950s, that my brother and I first stumbled on the remains of that community near the abandoned town of Tod Inlet, just north of Victoria. Our family boat was moored in Tod Inlet and we spent weekends exploring the surrounding waters and shores. While exploring Tod Creek one day, we found a slope where bones and broken bottles and shards of old pottery were scattered, mostly hidden under the decaying maple leaves. The bones were from pigs and it was a search for the long curved tusks that led us to dig further beneath the surface.

We soon found that some of the buried bottles and pottery were intact, and obviously not of Canadian origin. We showed our treasures to the local oldtimers at the anchorage, who knew only vague stories of a Chinese workers' village related to the nearby abandoned cement plant.

Through my high school and university days, I continued to poke around in the old "Chinese middens", looking for buried "treasure". During my breaks from university, I began a more serious search for information on the unknown men who had lived there, in the B.C. Provincial Archives. I searched through the provincial directories for Tod Inlet from 1905 to the 1950s.

All the white male workers at the cement plant were listed, but I found only one brief reference, in 1909, to "200 oriental workers situated here." Two hundred people and no names! However, to my surprise, I found three photographs in the archives that documented the presence of "Hindu" workers at Tod Inlet: two show a Sikh cremation ceremony and a third shows a "Hindu farm," actually the Sikh workers' primitive living quarters. [Sikhs in contemporary records and reports were referred to as "Hindus", meaning "from India".]

The archives also yielded a first record of the arrival of  40 Sikhs at Tod Inlet in 1906, as recounted in the memoirs of  Mary Parsell, wife of the cement plant engineer. When I connected with Mary's son Norman, who grew up in Tod Inlet, I had my my first contact with someone who had personal knowledge of the Sikhs who worked at the cement plant.

Having moved to Ottawa, the nation's capital, in the 1970s, my work on the story of Tod Inlet was limited to occasional trips and study of the area's ecology in support of having the land preserved as parkland. It was not until the announcement in 1994 that Tod Inlet was to become part of a new provincial park that my dreams of completing the history project seemed possible, and I set out once again to track down some of the Tod Inlet workers.

My search eventually led me to Victoria's Gurdwara where I met the late Amrik Singh Dhillon, whose father knew two of the men who had worked at Tod Inlet. To our mutual delight, we also discovered that he knew my father from when they both worked at the same Victoria lumber company!

Amrik Singh was able to answer many of my questions about the Sikhs: where they came from, how they arrived, and the nature of their work at the cement mill. From his bountiful knowledge, I was able to contact families of the men his father knew and hear some of the family stories of the early Sikh workers. These interviews in turn led to contact with Dr. Manmohan Singh Wirk, a retired doctor and amateur historian, who was writing a book on the history of Victoria's Sikhs. This contact also opened up a whole new aspect of the story of the Tod Inlet Sikhs.

With all of this new information, it was time to move on to making this story available to the public. I had written an article on the community for This Country Canada magazine in 1996, but wanted to reach a wider Canadian audience with the rest of this fascinating story. With a view to publishing a book on Tod Inlet, I compiled all of the information and photographs that I had collected into a draft book manuscript. I also began to think of making a film, since I had recorded some interviews and much of my work at Tod Inlet with my video camera. 

When Ali Kazimi showed his film, Continuous Journey, in Ottawa in 2005, I was inspired to think more seriously about making a film about the Tod Inlet Sikhs, and leave the work on the book about the community until later. I had previously worked on a number of films, most about Arctic wildlife, and knew that the Tod Inlet story had potential for an educational documentary film.

I decided to make a three-part film series, called Behind the Gardens' Wall, to tell the stories of the labourers of the lost community of Tod Inlet. The "Gardens' Wall" refers to the limestone quarry the workers excavated which is now the famous Sunken Garden, visited by a million visitors a year at Victoria's world-famous Butchart Gardens. It also refers to the wall that sometimes existed between the white and Asian communities.

The first film of the series, Searching for the Sikhs of Tod Inlet, will bring to life the fascinating story of the East Indian workers. The film features archival footage from the early 1900s, new footage of the old community site, and interviews with both the descendants of the Sikh workers and the white families who lived at Tod Inlet. The half hour film will be produced in English and Punjabi, and will have an original sound track based on Sikh traditional music.

The second film, The Chinese Workers of Tod Inlet, will feature the 100 Chinese workers who laboured in the quarries and cement plant for 20 years. The third film, The Lost Community of Tod Inlet, weaves together the story of the Sikhs, the Chinese and the "white" community.

Last year I was very pleased to be awarded a startup grant from the Film Foundation of the Spinning Wheel Film Festival to begin work on the first film of the series. With this support, my producer/filmmaker/videographer colleague, Ian Hall, and I spent a week filming in Victoria and at Tod Inlet, capturing interviews with locals and members of the Sikh community. The Sikh communities in both Victoria and Toronto have been most helpful and encouraging in their support of this film project.

Now we are awaiting the results of applications for funding for the development and production of the film from various Canadian film and general funding agencies.

While we wait for funding, the search continues, a truly fascinating and challenging part of the whole endeavor. More early photographs and old postcards will help to illustrate the Tod Inlet Sikhs' journey by train and ship from India to Canada. I am challenged to find archival film footage and early photos of Sikhs in B.C. that have not already been published or used in other films.

There is also a bit of ongoing detective work in the film. For example, my search for more information about the two Sikh cremation photos recently led all the way to Nova Scotia.

Now, almost 40 years after I first saw the photographs in the archives, I finally know who took the cremation pictures! He was a photographer and journalist who worked in B.C. from 1906 to 1919. Though many of his negatives have been lost, a search of his notebooks enabled me to confirm him as the photographer, as well as the place and time of the photos.

Census records and B.C. immigration records are being combed in an effort to locate more about the early Sikh pioneers. But it is not easy since Asian immigrants, especially those who lived at a work site, were not usually counted in the census. The Canada Census of 1911, for example, has no records of Sikhs or Chinese at Tod Inlet.

Our plan is to complete the film on the Sikhs of Tod Inlet in time for showing at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto in the fall of 2007. After that, my hopes are for the film to travel, taking this Canadian Sikh story to other film festivals in Canada and abroad.

I would love to hear from anyone who has information or photographs concerning the Sikh pioneers who came to British Columbia in the early 1900s, and particularly anyone related to the Sikhs of Tod Inlet.

[Photos:  Top three  -  scenes from the cremation ceremony of a pioneer Sikh-Canadian in Tod Inlet in 1907. Bottom - Ian Hall, David Gray and Mukund Pallan filming at the site of the Sikh village at Tod Inlet a full century later, in 2006. Thumbnail  -  David Gray and Mukund Pallan, examining a find on the shore of Tod Inlet, 2006.]

 

Conversation about this article

1: Satvir Kaur (Boston, U.S.A.), October 03, 2007, 8:51 AM.

Interesting pictures! Is this film done yet? [Editor: It's still under production.]

2: Jitindeep Singh (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), October 08, 2007, 9:18 PM.

I just moved to Victoria last week and I'm studying at Royal Roads. This weekend I went to Abbotsford and Vancouver. I visited the oldest Gurudwara in Abbotsford which was built in 1911 and today, after coming back to Victoria, I headed straight to the Topaz St. Gurudwara. It is so fascinating to know about the early Sikh settlers. Searched on google and found your website ... Hats off to you for doing such an amazing and extra-ordinary job, tracing the roots of the Sikh community in British Columbia.

3: Nicole Kilburn (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), November 02, 2007, 11:57 AM.

Hi, I am an archaeologist who is planning a historic archaeology project in Todd Inlet to try to learn more about the marginalized populations that lived there. The first part of the project will include survey and inventory to establish a better understanding of settlement locations, followed by some excavations, we hope. I would love to talk to you about your archival work and what you have learned so far!

4: Ian Hall [Producer, "Searching for the Sikhs of Tod Inlet"] (Ottawa, Canada), December 19, 2007, 3:22 PM.

Thanks for the comments. We have finished production of this film. It was screened at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto this past November and will be shown on OMNI TV sometime in the next few months. Nicole, we would love to talk to you further about your project at Tod Inlet. Please contact us at info@mountainstudios.ca.

5: Paul Englesberg (U.S.A.), January 12, 2008, 11:55 PM.

I am also searching for Sikh pioneers of this period who were driven out of Bellingham and Everett, Washington State (U.S.A.) in 1907. Many went north into British Columbia (Canada) but I have not been able to find any accounts of them. I would be interested in any leads, archives, oral histories, etc. in B.C. that might be useful.

6: Chiara (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada), December 08, 2008, 11:08 PM.

Good luck with your endeavour! I've been fascinated lately by the stories of British Columbia's early days and stumbled upon a two-sentence mention of a lumber company owner in Alta Lake (now known as Whistler), by the name of Jaswan Singh, an ex-army officer. He sold the company in the 1920s. I've been trying to find out more about him ... Anyway, there are so-o many stories to tell. If you get a chance to peruse, I suggest the Asahi story: they were true fighters. If I come across any information related to your project, I will pass it along.

7: Corol Pallan (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), May 19, 2009, 4:06 PM.

My husband's [Rupee Pallan] grandfather, Gurditta Mal Pallan, came to Victoria in 1906 from India. I am in the process of tracing his early years in Canada and found your information interesting. I will speak with his sons, Nand Lal and Mukand Lal about the Todd Inlet connection but would be interested to know if you have come across the name Gurditta Mal Pallan.

8: Karin Dayton (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), February 01, 2010, 2:59 PM.

I would like to see this documentary. Is it available to the public?

9: David Gray (Ottawa, Canada), September 18, 2010, 7:08 AM.

"Searching for the Sikhs of Tod Inlet" will have its world broadcast premiere on OMNI TV this month. The Punjabi version will be shown on OMNI.2 at 7 pm on September 19. The English version will be launched on Sunday September 26th. In Ontario it will be shown at 9 pm on OMNI.2, in Alberta at 11 pm on OMNI, and in BC at 9 pm on OMNI.

10: Martin (Ottawa, Canada), September 27, 2010, 10:48 AM.

I missed it. Is it possible to purchase or rent this film somehow?

11: Louise Bergstrom (Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada), September 27, 2010, 11:40 AM.

I watched the film on OMNI last night, Sept. 26. I am not of Indian descent, but the film was fascinating to me. My mother's parents worked for the Buchart family, and lived in the Tod Inlet village until my birth in 1948. My mother grew up in Tod Inlet and I regret not paying more attention to her stories. My grandfather was Fred Chubb, his half-siblings were the Lusse's and they worked in Bamberton. I am interested in any historical information. Thank you for this film.

12: Pam (Victoria, Birtish Columbia, Canada), October 12, 2010, 9:05 AM.

I've missed it and I would like to see the film. Is it available to the public?

13: Bill Wright (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), December 27, 2010, 3:03 PM.

I am writing a short history of the Willis Point area (across Tod Inlet from the village). Would you have any photos of the village and also would you know if it came around the inlet to the Willis Point side?

14: Elaine Kiesel (Port Hardy, British Columbia, Canada), March 01, 2011, 9:29 PM.

I have wandered the trail of Tod Inlet several times with my family and have always wondered about the people that worked and lived there. We would be very interested in purchasing or seeing all three films. Please let us know how this is possible.

15: Joe (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), May 01, 2011, 10:55 AM.

My relative, Diwan Singh Johal, was a worker at Tod Inlet.

16: Ananda Mackeigan (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), June 13, 2011, 2:04 PM.

I am very excited about the series of films by David Gray. Finally, some important stories may come to light for the public. Hopefully we may have a more accurate understanding of history, especially if more people care to research about the humans who were literally shut-out. I have spent many hours hiking the park and have a keen thirst for knowledge of the history of the marginalized people living there. Wonderful work, David Gray, and I understand your passion-filled dream.

17: Sal Johal (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), February 08, 2012, 1:24 PM.

I came across this film on TV last week and was really glad I got to see it. Excellent piece of work on some important history. These stories always fascinate me because they remind me of my grandfather who I never knew - he left Punjab as a young man to work on the Panama Canal and then moved on to Argentina where he passed away. This film should give joy and pride to the descendants of these brave young men who ventured to Canada from Punjab back then.

18: Prabh Dhaliwal (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), December 24, 2012, 11:10 PM.

This was very well done, it honestly made me shed a tear. Great to see how hard Sikhs worked to make this country the greatest country in the world.

19: Jagtar Singh Sangha (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada), December 26, 2012, 9:19 PM.

I saw this movie on OMNI TV on December 24,2012. Found it a very informative and well researched documentary on the first arrival of Sikhs in Canada. Well done and congratulations!

20: Shaun Singh Dhillon (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), September 27, 2013, 12:04 PM.

I just caught the last few minutes of this documentary and it looks great. I remember my dad (Amrik's youngest brother) talking about this when it was being made and was looking forward to seeing it, but haven't been able to find it. Is there any way I could buy a copy of this? He is always telling us stories of the old days and I'm sure he would love to have it!

21: Roy E. Carver (Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada), December 26, 2013, 4:08 PM.

I worked at the gardens, 1948 - 1956. A fellow who I worked with, Pat Van Adrichem I believe, toured the Tod Inlet site some time during the 1990's with David Grey. I have a copy of "This Country Canada", Number 9. I was wondering if an English version (DVD or VHS) copy of "Searching For The Sikhs Of Tod Inlet" is available to purchase. Thanks.

22: Patricia Keller  (Sidney, British Columbia, Canada), December 26, 2013, 9:02 PM.

My sister and I are avid walkers / hikers and Tod Inlet is one of our weekly "easier" outings. It is such a beautiful area and it is wonderful to be able to access such historical information to supplement our ventures and help answer questions as to the origins of the remains of building foundations and machinery parts we see both on land and in the the waters of the shoreline. Thank you for your hard work and good luck with future endeavours.

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The Sikhs of Tod Inlet"









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