Searching For The Sikhs of Tod Inlet
Today when visitors cruise the sheltered waters of Tod Inlet, walk the tranquil trails of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, or view the floral landscapes at the world-famous Butchart Gardens, near Victoria, B.C., it is hard for them to believe that this area was once the site of a major industrial activity. One hundred years ago Tod Inlet bustled with immigrant labourers who worked for the Vancouver Portland Cement Company. In the quarry near the shores of Tod Inlet, immigrant workers laboured to remove the limestone needed in the production of Portland Cement. Once depleted, that quarry became the first of the Butchart’s Gardens. The plant facilities of the Cement Company occupied the Inlet and the surrounding shores from 1904 to the 1920s. Near the nowvanished
town of Tod Inlet, over 200 immigrant workers from China and India lived in a shantytown, separated from their families by immigration restrictions imposed by the governments of the day.
This film begins with the story of Director David Gray’s childhood discovery of the longlost community. Pigs' teeth, pottery and the soles of workboots dug from the banks of Tod Creek were the first clues of a forgotten community, and the only concrete records of the immigrant labourers. These artifacts dug from the creek banks led David on a life-long search for information about this mysterious community. His extensive searches in the directory listings for Tod Inlet turned up only one brief reference: "200 oriental workers situated here." Two hundred people and no names! Searches in the provincial and national archives were only slightly more productive: still no official records, but some written memories and three old photographs, one of the “Hindu Town,” and two of a 1907 Sikh cremation ceremony at Tod Inlet.
David’s continuing search for descendants of the workers then led him to the Sikh Temple in Victoria and the associated Seniors' House across the street, where he met with and interviewed the late Sikh elder, Amrik Singh Dhillon, his first contact with someone in the Sikh community who knew of the immigrant workers of Tod Inlet. Mr. Dhillon shared with David the stories of two of his father's friends who worked at Tod Inlet. He remembered stories of the heavy labour at the plant, and of them carrying 80- pound bags of cement from the plant to the ships that carried cement along the Pacific coast, and especially how the ever-present cement dust covered everything, always getting into their eyes and coating their turbans.
This initial contact led David to Dr. Manmohan Wirk, a local doctor and Sikh historian who had used information recorded in Punjabi from the Sikh Temple to trace the descendants of the very same Sikh workers that David was discovering through Amrik Dhillon. The film shows how two paths of historical research, an outsider's curiosity and an insider's access to Temple records, came together with the interviewing of the same community elders.
The subsequent interviews with Sikh elders in the Victoria community bring more of the workers’ story to life, telling of their arrival in Victoria, showing a glimpse into the cultural shock these immigrants faced and the discrimination they endured. Their employment at the Tod Inlet cement plant and the deplorable living conditions in the workers’ village were all still living in the memories of their descendants. Community memories of the arrival of the first Sikhs in 1906 come from the memoirs of Mrs. Parsell, wife of the the plant engineer: "In the evenings they used to gather in the field at the back of our house and sing sad and mournful songs." Jeto Sengara tells how her grandfather, Thakar Singh, arrived in Victoria in 1906 and camped in tents near where the Empress Hotel was then under construction. She tells of the newcomers walking the 17 km to Tod Inlet. Archival film footage of Victoria in 1907 shows ships arriving and the Empress Hotel under construction.
Jeet Dheensaw explains why there are few material remnants of the Sikhs at Tod Inlet. They were among the first Sikhs to arrive in BC from India, they were poor and had few
belongings, and there was little communication with India. Mukund Lal Pallan tells his father's stories of the tough working conditions at the cement plant, and how the sound of the ship's steam whistle blowing called workers to unload cargo in the middle of the night. Dr. Manmohan Wirk, relates his mother-in-law's explanation for why the Sikhs left Tod Inlet after only a few years - too many people were dying from accidents and disease. Tuberculosis and typhus were rampant, partially due to the polluted stream that ran through the community. Most of the Sikh workers of Tod Inlet moved to Golden, B.C. in about 1910.
When David took some of the workers’ descendants to the site of the Tod Inlet village for the first time, they confirmed that the old brick structures there were traditional ovens that still show their Indian origins after 100 years. As these descendants walk on the trail from Tod Inlet towards Victoria, following the same trail their father took to the old general store, they are walking down a trail of history that was almost lost, a trail followed in the film from two different cultures. The film brings these cultures together and documents a peaceful cultural co-existance
and a new history of a significant contribution to an early British Columbia community.