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Rupinder Kaur: On November 11, Remember Sikh Soldiers Like Private Buckam Singh Too
Private Buckam Singh's story is now being reclaimed and celebrated every year through the annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony
November 11, 2021 | 3.5 min. read | Opinion
As any Canadian student in elementary and secondary school knows, Remembrance Day was a time to thank our veterans for fighting for the freedoms we enjoy today and to thank them for the ultimate sacrifice.
Wearing the poppy on our coats, gathering for the annual school assembly, standing for a moment of silence at 11 o’clock, and reciting the poem In Flanders Fields were all part of the ceremony. It was the yearly ritual to remind ourselves that war is bad and peace is good.
Then we would see faces of the soldiers in the ‘old timey’ photos – young men, in uniform, smiling with their buddies, posing in the field, or working in trenches. All were white men.
It was only decades later that I learned there were soldiers from across the Commonwealth who also participated in the war and lost their lives. Those soldiers were Black and Brown men from countries throughout Africa and Asia.
Many were from Punjab and the former Sikh Empire, which had been annexed by the British in 1849, roughly 70 years before WW1.
The men from Punjab were primarily Sikhs and they carried their religious and cultural traditions to the battlefields, including bringing the Sri Guru Granth Sahib so they could continue to practice their faith while in war.
I often think about all those Sikhs bravely risking their lives for a fight far from home, for a colonial empire that was oppressing them at home, adding a complex layer to our rich military history.
One of the Sikh soldiers who fought during WWI was Private Buckam Singh.
Buckam Singh came to the province of British Columbia from Mahilpur, in the Hoshiarpur District of Punjab, in 1907 at the age of 14 and eventually moved to Toronto, Ontario in 1912/1913. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915. He is one of the earliest known Sikhs living in Ontario at the time as well as one of only nine Sikhs, that we know of, that served with Canadian troops in WWI.
Private Buckam Singh served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders during 1916. It was here where this brave man was wounded twice in two separate battles.
One of the interesting discoveries included the fact that after being shot, Private Buckam Singh received treatment at a hospital run by one of Canada's most famous soldier poets - the Doctor Lt. Colonel John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields.
While recovering from his wounds in England, Private Buckam Singh contracted tuberculosis and spent his final days in a Kitchener, Ontario military hospital, dying at age of 25 in 1919 - the same year of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre back in Punjab.
His grave in Kitchener is the only known WWI Sikh Canadian soldier’s military grave in Canada. While he never got to see his family again and died forgotten more than 100 years ago, his heroic story is now being reclaimed and celebrated every year through the annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony.
Ironically, while Private Buckam Singh stood up and fought for Canada, alongside Canadian soldiers and allies, the Canadian government would amend immigration laws to prevent the entry of people like him from non-European countries. This happened during the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, where a ship carrying passengers of mostly Sikh and Punjabi descent were barred from docking and stepping foot on Canadian soil. So as Buckam Singh is at war, and would then pay the ultimate sacrifice for Canada, the government was practicing discriminatory and racist ideologies at home.
In keeping with honouring Private Buckam Singh, a new elementary school has been named after him in Brampton, Ontario.
This annual Remembrance Day ceremony is the largest gathering of Sikh soldiers, veterans, and officers in North America. This year’s ceremony was live-streamed and the program can be viewed here.
COVID-19 safety precautions were carefully followed at the ceremony attended by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, various Police Services, Royal Canadian Legion branches, veterans, active servicewomen and men, and elected officials from Federal, Provincial and municipal governments.
Next year’s ceremony will be on Sunday, November 6 – always on the Sunday before Remembrance Day; rain or shine or snow. Details will be posted at http://www.sikhmuseum.com/
Rupinder Kaur lives in Guelph, Ontario and is the media liaison and organizer with the Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony. You can learn more about Private Buckam Singh and the annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony at www.SikhMuseum.com and you can follow Rupinder on Twitter at @iRupKaur
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