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Our City, Our World: South Asian equation

As city's population experiences dramatic growth, Indo-Canadian pioneers recall their warm Winnipeg welcome

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/3/2012 (1965 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the corner of a Pembina Highway strip mall, between a Value Village and a Domino's Pizza outlet, a Bangladeshi food store called Meghna Grocery stocks 192 varieties of spices.

There are rows of plastic bags containing cumin, coriander, fenugreek, chile and turmeric, the basic ingredients for what Westerners call curry powder. There are boxes of the fragrant mixtures known as garam masala and panch phoron.

The Bhangra Syndicate dance team performs during the 34th annual Raunak Show at Jubilee Place. The cultural showcase of talent was performed at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute by various cultures throughout South Asia, and put on by the University of Manitoba Indian Students Association earlier this month.


The Bhangra Syndicate dance team performs during the 34th annual Raunak Show at Jubilee Place. The cultural showcase of talent was performed at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute by various cultures throughout South Asia, and put on by the University of Manitoba Indian Students Association earlier this month.

Nizamuddin Khan, owner of Meghna Grocery: "I used to know everyone who walked in here. Now I see faces I don't recognize."


Nizamuddin Khan, owner of Meghna Grocery: "I used to know everyone who walked in here. Now I see faces I don't recognize."

Punjab-born Coun. Devi Sharma represents Old Kildonan on city council.


Punjab-born Coun. Devi Sharma represents Old Kildonan on city council.

There are also $8 jars of an oily paste made from the severely spicy Naga pepper, better known as "the ghost" or bhut jolokia, whose one million Scoville units of heat makes it half the strength of the industrial pepper spray used for self-defence.

"We used to sell it for less, but it costs more to get it now," said Nizamuddin Khan, the co-owner of Meghna Grocery, which set up shop 12 years ago in Fort Garry to cater to Winnipeg's growing Bangladeshi community.

"At the time, there were about seven families. I used to know everyone who walked in here. Now I see faces I don't recognize. We have (hundreds of) people. So I think things are going well."

This is not just some optimistic opinion. Since 2006, when a Statistics Canada sub-census counted 110 Manitobans of Bangladeshi descent, another 221 people have moved from the South Asian nation to this province, effectively tripling the community's population.

The emergence of a Bangladeshi-Canadian population is part of the dramatic growth of Manitoba's South Asian population, which has increased a remarkable 50 per cent in only five years, transforming the face of Winnipeg in the process.

In 2006, Statistics Canada counted 16,565 Manitobans with roots in the six nations of the Indian subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. At the time, roughly two-thirds of this community was born outside of Canada.

Since then, another 9,320 people have moved directly from the subcontinent to Manitoba, bringing the South Asian population to roughly 26,000, or 2.2 per cent of the province. The vast majority of this community resides in Winnipeg, concentrated in southwestern neighbourhoods such as Waverley Heights, Richmond West and Linden Woods as well as in Mandalay West, The Maples and Amber Trails in the city's northwest.

In fast-growing Amber Trails, one of Winnipeg's newest neighbourhoods, roughly one in five residents identified themselves as South Asian in the 2006 subcensus. One in 10 Amber Trails residents were actually born in India.

"When I visit schools in the Seven Oaks division, I see kids eating chana masala and roti for lunch. I would never have brought that to school when I was kid," admitted Old Kildonan Coun. Devi Sharma, a Punjab-born, West End-raised Garden City resident who represents Winnipeg's northernmost ward at city council.


The 38-year-old Sharma, the city's first Indo-Canadian councillor, recalls growing up in a predominantly white Winnipeg where being brown sometimes made her feel like an outsider. The epithet "Paki" was occasionally tossed her way, along with less savoury insults, and she even concedes to walking a few steps ahead of her mother Suman at the shopping mall because she was embarrassed by the traditional dress.

"I feel a bit terrible telling you this because I had a really great childhood," said Sharma, who moved from Punjab to Winnipeg in 1974, along with her mother and oldest brother.

Three years earlier, her father Sushil left Mallanpur, a small town near the city of Chandigarh, to take a job at a machine shop on Notre Dame Avenue. He saved enough money to buy a house on Garfield Street North and a car -- a Valiant Scamp -- in time for his young family to follow him to Winnipeg.

"If he didn't make that decision (to immigrate), I'm sure I'd be in a village somewhere, milking a cow, with multiple children," surmised Sharma, a university-educated newspaper publisher who is married with one child. "I'm sure I would be happy. But it would have been a completely different sort of life."

Many Indo-Canadians owe their existence in Manitoba to their parents' yearning to take advantage of better economic opportunities halfway around the planet. But the proverbial desire for a better life explains only a portion of the influx of people from the subcontinent over the past 50 years.

Since the end of British rule in India in 1947, every South Asian nation has endured serious civil strife, if not outright war. This has resulted in several waves of migrants heading toward a Canada that wasn't always ready, nor willing, to accept them -- at least not with the relatively open arms it extends toward newcomers from the subcontinent today.

The first significant wave of Indo-Canadian immigration actually took place at the turn of the 20th century, at the height of the British Empire, when both India and Canada were effectively united under the same Crown.

In 1901, following the coronation of King Edward VII, British Indian troops toured Canada and took note of the favourable wages. Their reports led to the first wave of immigration from India, which saw about 5,000 migrants -- mostly Sikhs from Punjab -- land in British Columbia between 1903 and 1907.

This greatly upset federal officials who were already trying to figure out how to stem the tide of Chinese and Japanese immigration, the so-called "Yellow Peril." Despite their low numbers, the Indians also were considered a threat, said Cecil Pereira, a retired University of Winnipeg sociologist who specialized in race and ethnic relations, and an Indo-Canadian immigrant himself.

At first, Canada contemplated a blanket ban on immigration from India. But British advisers, fearing an overt ban would inflame nationalist sentiment in India, convinced Ottawa to take a more subtle approach to enforcing a whites-only policy.

In 1908, Canada enacted "continuous journey" legislation that barred immigrants who did not travel to Canada directly from their home countries. In practice, this rule meant no one from India could travel to Canada, as ships at the time could not make the 17,000-kilometre journey in one hop.

Undeterred, 376 Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims from Punjab attempted to challenge the "continuous journey" rule in 1914, when the migrants sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver aboard a Japanese freighter, the Komagata Maru.

In one of Canada's least proud actions, all but 20 passengers were denied entry at the Port of Vancouver and the rest were left in limbo for two months aboard the ship, moored out in the harbour. After an on-board riot and a court battle, the Komagatu Maru was sent back to India -- where British soldiers fired upon the ship, killing 19 passengers.

The rest were imprisoned for the duration of the First World War. Canada finally apologized for the incident in 2008, the 100th anniversary of the "continuous journey" rule, which remained on the books until 1947.

The Komagatu Maru incident effectively shut the door on immigration from India. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, only one person from India successfully immigrated to Canada between 1915 and 1920.

Canada's South Asian population actually declined over the next 30 years, to the point where only 2,158 people of Indo-Canadian descent were counted among the Asians category in the nationwide census in 1951.

But things were about to change.

In 1947, the partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan displaced millions of people, as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs jockeyed for position on both sides of the new border. Up to a million people died in the chaos, and social upheaval continued with the erosion of the caste system in Hindu-dominated India.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a second wave of Indian immigration to Canada began. The first arrivals in this wave were predominantly university students, medical doctors and other academics invited to Canada at a time when the immigration from Europe -- then undergoing a post-war boom -- had dropped dramatically.

Canada was in dire need of more people, but immigration rules continued to discriminate by race, allowing officials to exclude anyone they deemed unlikely to assimilate into Canadian society or anyone they believed incapable of adjusting to the cold Canadian climate.

In spite of the officially sanctioned racism, the first Indo-Canadians to arrive in Winnipeg in the early 1960s recall being treated not just graciously, but warmly.

"People were so responsive and so helpful. Foreigners were exotic things because there were so few non-European immigrants at the time," said Tej Bains, who left the town of Bilga in Punjab for Winnipeg in 1962, to marry her husband, who had left the town of Mahalpur two years earlier.

In Punjab, Bains' husband did not enjoy his duties as a police officer in the post-colonial period. In Winnipeg, he initially sold encyclopedias before he trained as a mental-health counsellor. Bains herself became a social worker and later, a Sikh community activist.

In 1962, Winnipeg had a grand total of six Indo-Canadian families, plus another 20 students, according to Bains' recollection. She said she and several friends would ask the Blue Ribbon spice company to order cumin, coriander, turmeric and red pepper in bulk so the South Asian community could prepare curries and other familiar dishes.

Atish Maniar also recalls a warm reception in Winnipeg when he first visited the city in 1963. A doctor from Unjha, a small city in the western state of Gujarat, he first arrived in Canada in 1959 at the invitation of the National Research Council, which took note of his success in immunizing Indian patients against diphtheria.

In Ottawa, Maniar worked on polio vaccinations. In the fall of 1963, he was sent to Winnipeg to attend a medical conference and his wife Veerbala accompanied him.

Decrying the drab condition of their dorm near what's now the Health Sciences Centre, Veerbala went out to purchase some flowers. But a sudden snowstorm led Atish to follow her outside -- only to be offered a series of rides from strangers concerned for his well-being.

"A car pulled up and the driver said, 'It's snowing, you're new. Tell me where you need to go and I'll take you.' But I told him I was waiting for my wife," Maniar recalled.

Minutes later, a second driver pulled up and made the same offer. Maniar again declined. Finally, a third motorist insisted he wait inside the dry interior of his car.

"I am not exaggerating. Manitoba is a very warm place," said Maniar, who eventually moved to Winnipeg in 1964. "When people come to Manitoba, if they can tolerate the cold, they'll find this is a very, very congenial place to live."

In 1964, Maniar said he was one of three South Asian doctors in Winnipeg. He recalls celebrating both Hindu and Muslim festivals with his colleagues from Pakistan and what's now Bangladesh.

Originally, the Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Winnipeg's Indo-Canadian community shared the same communal spaces for the likes of prayers and community gatherings. Marriages, however, were originally civil ceremonies, held in private homes, said Maniar, who became a Hindu priest, like his father and grandfather before him.

Now 86 and retired from medicine, he estimates he has conducted 200 to 300 wedding ceremonies, admitting he has lost count. But he has not forgotten how he and Veerbala solved the early spice conundrum: They had relatives ship foodstuffs all the way from India.

Every second-wave Indo-Canadian immigrant to Winnipeg seemed to employ a different means of getting their hands on spices. Uma Parameswaran, an author and retired University of Winnipeg English professor, said she would have her spices shipped to Winnipeg from Vancouver by bus.

Originally from Chennai in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Parameswaran moved to Winnipeg in 1966, after studying creative writing in Indiana. Although her husband had a good job in India as the head of a university math department, the couple fled the tensions caused by regional and caste politics.

When the British were in power, members of the educated Brahmin caste filled many administrative positions. But many Brahmins were forced out of work following the end of the Raj, Parameswaran explained.

When she arrived in Winnipeg, she found a community of 50 families and again, a very warm reception.

"I think much of Canada thought India was still part of the British Empire," she said, adding an election enumerator who visited her household shortly after her arrival believed she could vote.

"People were ignorant about India, but only because they didn't know anything about it at all. There was no racism, but there was the annoyance of being exoticized. People were always very interested in what I wore."

It's no accident all Winnipeg's Indo-Canadian pioneers have such warm memories. The community did extremely well in Manitoba, said the sociologist Pereira, whose 1971 masters thesis at the University of Manitoba was an examination of the city's Indo-Canadian immigrants.

"We were all more educated than the local population," he recalled. This, too, is no exaggeration, as the introduction of the points system into Canadian immigration policy in 1967 demanded a high degree of skill and education of new arrivals.

"The requirements were so high, most-Canadian born people would not qualify," said Pereira, an ethnic Goan whose family fled Portuguese rule in the western Indian state for neighbouring Maharashtra.

Pereira was actually born in Pune, India's ninth-largest city, and emigrated to Ethiopia, where he worked as a schoolteacher. He considers himself lucky to have immigrated to Canada right before the advent of the points system.

Hundreds of other ethnic Indians from Africa would soon join him. In 1972, when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin gave the African country's ethnic Asians 90 days to leave the country, Canada accepted 7,000 refugees, mostly Ismaili Muslims from India.

In a curious case of humanitarianism coinciding with self interest, Canadian officials actually swooped in and cherry-picked the most skilled refugees from camps, said Pereira.

Winnipeg's Indo-Canadian community slowly grew throughout the decade, as arrivals attempted to bring their relatives over. Rules for family sponsorship were finally formalized in 1978, as part of an update to the Immigration Act that also clarified rules regarding refugees.

Like other ethnic groups before them, Winnipeg's Indo-Canadians looked out for the welfare of new arrivals.

"When I was little, it would not be uncommon to have people staying at my house," recalled Sharma. "My dad was always inviting people to stay until they got settled. He was generous, possibly to a fault."

By 1981, Manitoba's South Asian population crept above 5,000. Compared to the second-wave arrivals in the 1960s, many of the newer immigrants were less skilled, less educated and not as fluent in English.

"The massive influx of non-professionals into Canada was the result of family sponsorship," said Pereira, theorizing this led to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1980s.

The perception immigrants were taking jobs from native-born Canadians became popular despite the absence of evidence. The racism of the 1980s may simply have been the result of the growing visibility of the Indo-Canadian community.

For example, Canada's Sikh population increased rapidly following ethnic strife in India, which began with the Sikh uprising in 1982 and intensified two years later with widespread anti-Sikh riots in several Indian states. As a result of 1980s immigration and subsequent family sponsorship, Sikhs from Punjab are the now the most populous segment of Winnipeg's South Asian community.

Sikhs, however, were not the only group to flee strife on the subcontinent. Two wars in 1971 led to exoduses from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The start of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983, the beginning of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan in 1988 and the start of the Nepalese civil war in 1996, all led to waves refugees winding up in Winnipeg, many after years or even decades of living in camps.

But the single largest impetus for the growth of Manitoba's South Asian community appears to be the 1998 creation of the provincial nominee program, an immigration deal that allows Manitoba each year to recruit 5,000 of its own newcomers -- as well as their families -- over and above immigrants and refugees who arrive via regular federal immigration channels.

The nominee program is aimed at temporary workers already living in Manitoba, international students who've graduated from a provincial university, people who work in a handful of important fields or people with strong family connections to Manitoba.

With the help of the program, 13,848 people have moved from the six South Asian nations to Manitoba during the past 11 years, with 9,320 arriving in the past five years alone.

This community is now so large, it supports more than a dozen Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples and Islamic mosques, never mind dozens of groceries and restaurants -- though the latter are typically patronized by people whose only connection to South Asia is their love of samosas and naan bread.

But success comes with its own potential pitfalls. Winnipeg's South Asian community is so large, there's now a danger the latest wave of immigrants will not seek to be as integrated into Manitoban society as their predecessors were, said Parameswaran.

"At one point, ghettoization was imposed from the outside. Now a self-imposed ghettoization is occurring," she said, explaining that all immigrant communities go through various phases of integrating into Canadian society until they grow so large there may no longer be a need to do so.

"This is something about which I am very ambivalent because it might be regressive rather than progressive," Parameswaran told an academic audience in Spain in 2011, during a lecture about the Indo-Canadian experience.

"The community seems to have grown so much that it has become a world in itself, and many are content to live in this cocoon of their own."

Winnipeg's South Asian population, however, is nowhere near the size of Vancouver's and Toronto's communities. Community leaders quietly express relief this city has been spared the negative headlines associated with Indo-Canadian communities in other cities, where gangs, terrorist plots and honour killings have besmirched the reputations of entire ethnic groups.

Bains, now celebrating her 50th year in Winnipeg, said she can look back with pride.

"Everything goes in cycles. Initially, Asians were a novelty, something esoteric. Then they arrived in larger numbers and the people who came here tended to find good jobs, so there was some jealousy. But that reaction dissipated as well," she said.

For the current generation, even subtle racism may be completely alien, offered Sharma. But she nonetheless believes it's important for her to hold elected office.

"It's valuable for people to see themselves reflected," she said.


From Tamil Nadu to Tyndall Park

A history of South Asian and Indo-Canadian immigration to Canada and Manitoba:

1757-1772: Britain takes over the Indian Subcontinent when the East India Company establishes its control over what's now India and Bangladesh.

1858: The British Empire takes over direct control of India as well as what's now Pakistan. The British Raj would last until 1947. At the peak of the empire, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan are also under British control.

1903-1908: About 5,000 Indian migrants, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, land in British Columbia. This prompts Ottawa to create the "continuous journey" rule, which allows port officials to reject immigrants who did not arrive in Canada directly from their home country. The rule's main purpose is to prevent anyone from India from entering Canada.

1910: Canada's first Immigration Act formalizes the "continuous journey" rule and further clamps down on Indian immigration by allowing officials to reject anyone "belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada."

1914: In what would be known as the Komagata Maru Incident, a ship with 376 Indian Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus on board sails from China to Vancouver in an attempt to challenge the "continuous journey" rule. All but 20 passengers were denied the right to disembark and were kept on board in Vancouver's harbour for two months. After a court battle, the ship was forced to sail to India, where British soldiers shot and killed 19 passengers and placed most of the rest in jail for the duration of the First World War. Canada apologizes for the incident in 2008.

1915-1920: During a five-year period, only one person from India is allowed to enter Canada as an immigrant.

1923: Canada amends its immigration rules to ban all Asians except farm workers, female domestics and the wives and children of Canadian citizens.

1947: British rule in India ends with the partition of the empire into the predominantly Hindu nation of India and predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan. The partition results in the displacement of 10 million people and the death of up to a million more.

1953: A new Immigration Act takes effect, allowing federal officials to refuse entry to prospective newcomers on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, geographical area of origin and -- most germane to people from the Indian subcontinent -- anyone deemed unsuitable for the Canadian climate or unlikely to be assimilated into Canadian society.

1954: Canadian lawyers formally criticize immigration officials for what they describe as an arbitrary if not outright racist interpretation of the rules.

1957-59: Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker repeatedly pledges to overhaul the Immigration Act. By 1959, a handful of academics and medical professionals from India and Pakistan are living in Winnipeg, forming the genesis of the city's South Asian community.

1961: In the 1961 census, people from India and Pakistan are lumped in with "other Asian," making it impossible to discern the size of Manitoba's South Asian community.

1962: The Diefenbaker administration updates immigration rules, eliminating most forms of racial discrimination from the selection process.

1966: Under Lester Pearson's Liberal government, the White Paper on immigration calls for new rules to balance Canada's economic needs with family-unification considerations.

1967: The points system is brought into the immigrant-selection process in an attempt to eliminate the last vestiges of racism from the system. Skills and education become the chief attributes of a desirable immigrant to Canada.

1972: In Uganda, Idi Amin gives ethnic Asians 90 days to leave the country. Canada accepts 7,000 Ugandan Asian refugees, mostly ethnic Indians. Hundreds come to Manitoba.

1978: A new Immigration Act provides formally allows families to sponsor relatives and better defines the acceptance of refugees on humanitarian grounds.

1981: Manitoba's "Indo-Pakistani" population is pegged at 5,055 people as Statistics Canada tries harder to identify specific ethnic-group membership in the 1981 census.

1984: Anti-Sikh riots take place in Delhi and across India's Punjab region, leading more Sikhs to seek entry into Canada.

1988: Tensions escalate in Bhutan between the ethnic Tibetan majority and the ethnic Nepali minority, leading to two decades of out-migration that results in 107,000 refugees in camps by 2008.

1991: Manitoba's South Asian population stands at 8,770. All but 1,600 identify themselves as Indian in origin, with smaller numbers of Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

1996: The South Asian population in Manitoba is pegged at 12,900.

1998: Manitoba reaches an immigration deal with Ottawa that sets the stage for the provincial nominee program, a means by which the province can recruit immigrants on its own, over and above federally allotted numbers. As a result, annual immigration to Manitoba would jump by about 21/2 times, with roughly 80 per cent of the new arrivals remaining in the province.

2001: Statistics Canada pegs Manitoba's South Asian population at 14,100 people, or 1.3 per cent of the population. A small Nepalese community is identified in Winnipeg.

2006: The effect of the provincial nominee program is reflected in the 2006 sub-census, which reveals Manitoba's South Asian population has jumped to 16,565 people.

2008: The number of people moving from India to Manitoba every year exceeds 1,000 for the first time, a figure that persists today.

2009: Winnipeg suddenly has a Bhutanese community with the arrival of 99 refugees from the long-simmering conflict in the Himalayan nation. By the end of 2011, 350 people from Bhutan would wind up in Winnipeg.

2010: The number of immigrants from India alone reaches a record 2,385 in Manitoba.

2012: Immigration data reveals that over the previous five years, Manitoba received at least 9,320 people from six South Asian nations: India; Pakistan; Sri Lanka; Bangladesh; Nepal; and Bhutan. Added to the 2006 subcensus figure, this places the province's South Asian community today at about 26,000 people, give or take a few dozen births, deaths and departures.

Sources: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Manitoba Labour and Immigration, Statistics Canada, the Canadian Council for Refugees and Free Press files.

- Bartley Kives


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