Sikh day of remembrance at Mt. Hope cemetary

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On November 4, Sikh-Canadian veteran, Harjit Sajjan, was sworn in as Minister of National Defence alongside three Sikh-Canadians in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal cabinet. Sajjan is the first Sikh-Canadian to have held this position.

His appointment holds sentimental value for the community as almost 100 years ago, Private Buckam Singh, a Sikh-Canadian, enlisted in the Canadian military to fight in the First World War. He was one of only nine Sikh-Canadians permitted to do so.

On November 8, a Remembrance Day service was held at Mount Hope Cemetery, located on the Kitchener-Waterloo border to recognize Private Singh’s grave site. According to Wilfrid Laurier University alumni, Simmer Anand, roughly 300 to 400 people from across southern Ontario attended the ceremony.

The first of these services was organized after Sandeep Singh Brar, founder and curator of sikhmuseum.com, received a peculiar army medal from a British collector in 2008. The medal was engraved with “20th Canadian Infantry” and Private Buckam Singh’s initials.

“I assumed it was a soldier of the British-Indian army because this medal was given to all soldiers from all commonwealth countries. I was amazed and shocked. There were no Sikhs in the Canadian military at that time,” said Brar.

Receiving the medal began the lengthy process of reading through old military records about Private Buckam Singh and eventually discovering the grave.

“I spent a year putting his story together. I discovered the grave here, which had sat for 90 years with nobody knowing it because when Private Buckam Singh died at that time there were no Sikhs in all of eastern Canada. So he died alone,” said Brar.

“If I weren’t to have discovered that medal — let’s say it had just gone to a military collector — none of this story would have ever seen the light of day.”

Since 2009, Private Buckam Singh’s grave has been a focal point for Remembrance Day. It remains the only military grave for a Sikh-Canadian soldier in Canada. That focal point had almost been removed earlier this year. The community, Kitchener mayor Berry Vrbanovic and former members of parliament Steven Woodworth and Peter Braid protected the grave — for which they were awarded plaques at this year’s ceremony.

“I immediately contacted the War Graves Commission myself and suggested they defer their decision and they allow for an appropriate period of time for dialogue and consultation with the local Sikh community,” said Braid. “Fortunately, that deferral was granted allowing for the opportunity for dialogue and consultation, which will come in the coming weeks and months.”

Members of the community, veterans and political figures were in attendance lay wreathes on the grave of Private Buckam Singh.

Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, said the sacrifices made by Private Singh and other soldiers should be honoured.

“Today is just a reminder that this didn’t happen overnight,” said Bains. “That many, many, men and women like Private Buckam Singh sacrificed so much — and we’re really here to honor them and remember their sacrifice.”

Bardish Chagger, Waterloo MP and Minister of Small Business and Tourism, reflected about what the event means to her and the Sikh community in K-W.

“This ceremony has been going on for eight years, I’ve been coming for seven of those eight years and it’s really neat to see how it has grown. It’s neat to see how the face of the community is changing and how it [the ceremony] is welcomed,” she said.

Chagger also identified how Private Buckam Singh’s gravestone does not have a cross on its face like the other military graves next to it, indicating Canadians’ lasting inclusivity.

“That’s how we lived, and that’s what we’re going back to.”

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