KITCHENER, ON: Sikh community celebrates Sikh Remembrance Day
KITCHENER — Pte. Buckam Singh may not have had the right to vote, but he still fought and died for his adopted country.
Eight years after his gravesite was discovered in Kitchener’s Mount Hope Cemetery, hundreds gathered around his final resting place to pay tribute to the Sikh soldier, whose story was lost to history for decades.
Pte. Singh, who came to Canada as a teenaged farm labourer, enlisted in the First World War, was wounded in battle and died in 1919 in a Kitchener military hospital, was buried here without ceremony shortly after the war ended.
It wasn’t until 2005, when Canadian Sikh historian Sandeep Singh Brar bought his war medal from an online memorabilia dealer and was startled to find the inscription engraved on the rim. It said Pte. Singh was a member of the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion — proof that Sikhs had fought for Canada in the First World War.
“I was shocked,” Brar said. “I thought, ‘How can that be?’ There weren’t supposed to be any Sikhs in the Canadian military at that time.”
Brar, from Brampton, scoured the military archives in Ottawa and slowly pieced together Pte. Singh’s story. The 25 year old from India’s Punjab region was one of only nine Sikhs allowed to enlist in the Canadian army — many more were turned away from the “white man’s war” because of their skin colour, he said.
Pet. Singh was wounded twice in the battlefields of France — he took shrapnel in the head, and a bullet in the leg — but it was tuberculosis contracted in hospital that ultimately killed him. When he died at the Freeport military hospital, he was buried alone, with his family far overseas.
“He had a wife and family, and they would have just received notification, but not known anything of is story,” Brar said.
Today, his grave has become a national memorial site for the country’s Sikh’s community, and is marked annually on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. Bundled up under a grey sky, politicians, cadets, soldiers, war veterans, police, and members of Ontario’s Sikh community gathered to once again pay their respects.
They sang the Canadian national anthem, shared prayers in Punjabi, and laid wreaths at the foot of his grave.
“He was a forgotten hero for almost a century,” Parm Gill, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of veteran affairs, told the crowd.
Brar, curator of sikhmueseum.com and chief organizer of Sunday’s ceremony, said Pte. Singh was not that different from Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the reservist shot and killed at the National War Memorial last month. “Both were young men taken away in the prime of their lives,” he said.
Pte. Singh’s tombstone is the only known grave in Canada for a Sikh soldier, even though as many as 65,000 fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War and more than 300,000 fought with the Allies in the Second World War.
The politicians assembled said Pte. Singh, although denied the basic rights of Canadian citizenship because he was a minority, shared the same values of his fellow soldiers and wanted to fight for his country.
“This is not just a story for the Sikh community. This is a Canadian story,” said Kitchener Waterloo MP Peter Braid.