The complicated history of Paldi, B.C.’s earliest multicultural community
By Fenn Stewart and Jastej Luddu
In 1917, Punjabi Sikh immigrants founded Paldi, a logging community in the old-growth forests of Vancouver Island, seated on unceded Cowichan territory near Duncan, B.C. For the next 50 years (until the nearby forests were logged out) Paldi was home to a diverse community of Sikh, Chinese, Japanese and white workers and their families. This community practised a range of religions and cultural traditions. It included an elementary school and a gurdwara, or Sikh temple. Each year, the residents of Paldi held a large celebration, or jor mela, on July 1.
As researchers of Canada’s history of colonialism and anti-colonialism, when we learned of Paldi two years ago, we were obsessed. We had never heard of an early Canadian resource-extraction community founded, and led, by people of colour.
Moreover, we were struck by how so many former Paldi residents – and their descendants – have described it as a kind of multicultural utopia. In fact, Paldi is often called a microcosm or blueprint for Canadian multiculturalism — an early example of national diversity.
For the past two years, supported by a Douglas College Research and Innovation Grant, we’ve been researching Paldi’s history, as well as representations of the community. We’ve been looking into the accuracy of Paldi’s reputation, and investigating how the real story of this community might enrich our understanding of early B.C. history.
The history of Paldi
Paldi’s founders were Punjabi men who had previously worked in white-owned mills in the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley. These men and their families endured systemic racism on several counts. Paid less than their white counterparts, they faced racial harassment from government officials and business owners. The men couldn’t vote. And for years, their loved ones couldn’t join them because B.C. barred the immigration of women and children from India.
At the time, Canadian political leaders were frank about their desire to exclude Indian (and other Asian) immigrants. For example, B.C. Premier Sir Richard McBride insisted that Canada was a “white man’s country.” Vancouver’s Conservative M.P. Henry Herbert Stevens claimed that Canada would be “swamped with Orientals” if Asian immigration was allowed. (Atkinson 2016)
Under these conditions, dozens of Punjabi Sikhs decided to start their own mill rather than keep working for less pay. This was where Paldi began. In fact, the community was founded just three years after the 376 Punjabi passengers from the Komagata Maru were prevented from landing in Vancouver by police and immigration officials.
In contrast, Paldi was a place where Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi and white kids grew up together. This was long before this became common in (some) other parts of the country. The photos of Paldi schoolkids are in black and white, and the kids in the pictures are wearing old-fashioned clothes. Even so, they remind us of our own years in school in Vancouver and Surrey, nearly a century later.
The limits of Paldi’s diversity
Since we began this project, we’ve travelled to Paldi several times. We’ve interviewed local residents and made visits to archives on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland. We’ve worked with student researchers – Kyrstyn Llagas, Kudratdeep Kaur and Daksh Shokeen – to compile online material in English and Punjabi.
We’re still impressed with what Paldi’s residents accomplished in creating a diverse community in early 20th-century B.C. But we’ve also learned that its story is more complicated and less comfortable than the one often told in public.
Despite the glowing descriptions of Paldi’s multicultural community, with its supposed absence of racism, we have found almost no references to Indigenous people in or around Paldi. We’ve found no mention of the local First Nations communities whose lands it was built on, and whose forests the residents were busy clear-cut logging.
What does it mean to celebrate Paldi without acknowledging how its diverse workforce also contributed to the project of settler colonialism? How might a more honest portrayal of Paldi’s history honour its residents’ achievements while making space for the fact that these struggles took place on lands that the Cowichan peoples are still fighting to reclaim?
We’re also uncomfortable with the way much media coverage of Paldi has avoided acknowledging B.C.’s history of systemic, legalized racism. As other researchers have argued, popular celebrations of multiculturalism in Canada often gloss over the many forms of racism and colonialism that have continued in the years since 1971, when the federal multiculturalism policy was introduced.
According to scholars such as Himani Bannerji, Richard Day and Sunera Thobani, Canadian multiculturalism policy, and popular understandings of it, generally contain difference, “exalt” the white settler nation (Thobani), and limit more radical efforts toward racial justice and anti-colonialism.
Looking to the future
So, what does it mean to describe Paldi as “multicultural”? Do these media representations sacrifice the real story of Paldi to portray Canada as “multicultural” from its beginning?
Our research confirms that life in Paldi did contrast starkly with the experiences of people of colour in nearby white settler communities. But depictions of Paldi must recognize that its relative safety did not emerge from government support for multiculturalism. Rather, Paldi existed despite barriers created by Canadian governments. Further, while the community differed from white-settler B.C. in a number of key ways, Paldi’s history also connects to the broader context of settler colonialism, in which resource extraction takes place on Indigenous lands without Indigenous consent.
Over the next six months or so, we’ll continue writing up our findings. We hope to submit an article to the journal BC Studies by next summer. We’ll also be sharing our findings at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference in Toronto.
This year, a new Canadian Heritage Minute dedicated to Paldi will be released. What version of the story of Paldi will it tell?
Fenn Stewart is regular faculty in the English Department at Douglas College and occasional faculty at UBC. Jastej Luddu recently finished a Master’s in Social and Political Thought (York University). He is the Communications and Story Producer at 221a, a Vancouver-based arts and culture non-profit. Fenn and Jastej’s recent collaborations include an article in Briarpatch about Mewa Singh, a post on the Oecologies blog about decolonization and the end of the world and, with Afuwa, a forthcoming guest-edited special issue of The Capilano Review, focused on “bad feelings.”
Disclaimer: This article is a guest submission from Douglas College faculty and colleagues. Opinions expressed in this article belong to the author(s) and should not be taken as statements made by Douglas College.