Four years before a cerebral haemorrhage took her life and ended an era, Queen Victoria travelled to Vancouver as part of her Diamond Jubilee. It was 1897, and the sun had yet to set on the often brutal doings of the British Empire. The longest reigning crown figure, Victoria was also the first Empress of India, and so princes and chiefs sent a clutch of Sikh soldiers to lend further pomp to an already extravagant pageant.
Had they not come, had the Queen been assassinated or mortally bucked from one of her prize horses, then Dal Dhani probably wouldn’t be sitting in Squamish today, wouldn’t be sipping a coffee in the shade of a downtown storefront over 100 years later. Those soldiers went back to India, and, true to one of the principles of Sikhism, they told their friends and families what they learned about Canada. And so, in 1900, Dhani’s great grandfather wound up working in Squamish as a millwright, setting off the sometimes meandering course of cause-and-effect that has seen Dhani produce Canadian children of his own.
“There was a lot of racism,” says Dhani, who, perhaps because of his job as a mortgage specialist, is simultaneously frank and inviting. “He couldn’t speak the language, and there wasn’t any structure. You got paid less wages than other Canadians.”
Those first years were hard going. Denied the right to vote unless born of Anglo-Saxon stock, Sikhs found themselves targeted both in the chaos of riots and the relative calm of legislatures.
Dhani didn’t come to Canada for another 70 years, when he was 10. He faced some of the same hurdles as his great grandfather, including racism and ignorance.
“But that’s changed,” he says. “And the town has, too. When you get more education, you get a more educated population.”
Many of those early laws and attitudes have faded into the trees of backwoods thinking. Critics may rightly consider the government’s redress as political strategy, but the recent apology for Komagata Maru immigration denial lends credence to that shift in values.
According to the 2006 census, there are 1,675 South Asians in Squamish, which has a population of nearly 15,000. They constitute the largest visible minority, with Filipinos, numbering 220, coming in a distant second. It was the same in 2001, when there were 1,690 South Asians amid the 14,247 people living in town. In 1996, there were 1,215 visible among the 13,935 residents. As a community, they’ve long been at the tricky work of balancing integration with multiculturalism. That journey has seen them shrug off most of the Indo-Canadian violence that makes headlines in other Lower Mainland communities, instead building a Sikh temple, reaching out to other races and denominations, winning local elections, starting businesses and planning for the future, both inside and outside their ethnic identity.