When disaster strikes, Canadian Sikhs show up

Sikhs are often the first to reach victims of natural disasters with food and supplies. Amid the climate crisis, this selfless service has renewed meaning.
Photo: Michael Kwan
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Last year, as B.C. was buffeted by a series of climate disasters — from summer wildfires to autumn floods to extreme cold snaps — the province’s Sikh community swung into action.

Jay Minhas, director of the Guru Nanak Food Bank in Surrey, said that when fire broke out in Lytton last June amid record-setting heat, he drove through the unprecedented temperatures to deliver supplies. This winter, he’s spent many of his days serving hot meals at a Langley shelter as temperatures dipped below -10 C.

“I have never experienced those extreme temperatures in my life before,” he said. “We humans are ruining our planet. And we should be more aware that this is happening.”

In the face of increasingly frequent disasters, government relief measures are often lagging. Minhas said civil society groups like his are often the first responders that evacuees encounter.

“As a faith, it is as if we are designed for this. Providing meals, aid and comfort is quite simply part of the faith.”

“As far as I know, and as far as my practices, Sikhs are the most giving communities in the entire world. Anything bad happens, we are the first to help,” Minhas said.

Guru Nanak Food Bank — named after the man who laid the foundations for Sikhism in the 15th century — opened in July 2020 with an initial focus on helping people affected by COVID-19. Over time that mission has expanded, and now when a disaster happens they work to deliver supplies to the front lines as fast as possible.

“As you can see, the community rallied together to assist those devastated by the floods,” said Jatinder Singh, national director of Khalsa Aid Canada. “As a faith, it is as if we are designed for this. Providing meals, aid and comfort is quite simply part of the faith.”

Seva — which refers to selfless service — is an integral part of Sikhism. It means doing work for the community and for humanity without the expectation of receiving anything in return. An example of seva is the community kitchen found in every gurdwara, which provides meals (langar) to anyone who wants them.

Providing spiritual fulfillment while benefiting the community, seva is an important part of daily life for Sikhs.

And amid an intensifying climate crisis, it has taken on renewed meaning.

‘Humanity is one’

Approximately 500,000 Sikhs now live in Canada. Hailing from the Punjab region of India, many Sikhs were conscripted into colonial armies during the reign of the British Empire. They first visited Canada in 1897 and then 1902 as part of army regiments travelling in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the crowning of King Edward VII.

Over the next few years, thousands migrated to British Columbia. They settled in many cities and built temples. Canada’s first gurdwara opened in Vancouver in 1908.

Sikh teachings include “share what you earn,” “we are connected with everyone and everything” and “work for the well-being of all and help those in need,” explained Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.

“These teachings motivate us to show up and take action in times of need, including climate change and disaster relief. We don’t wait for others to give us permission. We reach out to our neighbours directly and work with them to find solutions to the current challenges they are facing,” she said.

“We have to treat our planet as a mother, taking care of it as it gets into fragile states by climate change.”

Roop Singh Sidhu is president of EcoSikh Canada, a Sikh organization formed out of concern about the climate crisis. “Our religion is about selflessness and standing up for justice and humanity,” he said. “We believe that humanity is one, regardless of fate, colour or breed. We don’t differentiate between what part of the world is suffering or who’s suffering, we want to help everybody.”

This can be seen in the many, many meals provided by gurdwaras to the public. At Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib in Surrey, for example, volunteers prepare over 600 fresh meals every day for anyone who comes through the doors, morning until night. From 4 a.m. to 9 p.m., teams of about 40 to 50 volunteers at a time cook in three shifts.

Respecting nature is also fundamental to the Sikh faith, he added. There’s a famous prayer: “Air is the Guru, Water the Father, and the Earth is the Great Mother.”

“We have to treat our planet as a mother, taking care of it as it gets into fragile states by climate change.”

March 14 is World Sikh Environment Day. Every year Sikh communities across the globe hold tree-planting events to advocate for environmental preservation. As a global organization, EcoSikh is part of the World Economic Forum campaign to conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees, as well as the Canadian government program to plant two billion trees.

“If the world’s global warming continues, the polar ice caps keep melting, there will be water overflowing, land shrinkage, and people will have to fight over land, food and clean water for survival,” said Sidhu. “So the biggest threat to peaceful humanity and a peaceful future is climate change. Us being a believer of one humanity, and peace and love and respect for each other and everything, this is a real threat to everything we believe in as well.”

Unprepared for the flood

Neeraj Walia, Guru Nanak Food Bank’s president, clearly recalls the night the B.C. floods began in November 2021. The roads were closed, and many people from Merritt, Hope and Abbotsford were evacuated from their homes with no preparation.

Through media coverage, he realized that people were not prepared for this kind of flash flood “and the first thing everybody needed was food.”

Guru Nanak Food Bank was part of Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib at the time, which offers free food 24 hours a day. Walia and other members decided to send meal packages to people in need quickly. Using their temple’s 24/7 TV and radio channels, as well as their Whatsapp groups, they asked people to come help.

Soon, more than 30 volunteers had gathered, including some who had already made the routine evening meal that night and decided to put in extra time. By eight o’clock in the morning, the volunteers had 3,000 vegetarian Punjabi meals ready to go.

In under 24 hours, Khalsa Aid Canada’s Metro Vancouver team delivered 300 hot meals to over 200 stranded truckers and families outside of Hope.

When asked to donate supplies like kids’ food, diapers and clothing, people from the community came and lined up for 30 to 45 minutes in order to drop off items.

A helicopter and plane flew more than 16 round trips to deliver the food and other supplies, said Walia.

A week later, several private flying clubs, such as the West Coast Pilot Club, joined the team and their pilots dropped off supplies at several food banks to distribute. Walia said with their support, a temporary food bank was set up in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Chilliwack for three weeks. Guru Nanak Food Bank opened a permanent branch in Abbotsford this month.

Other Sikh groups also used helicopters to deliver food. In under 24 hours, Khalsa Aid Canada’s Metro Vancouver team delivered 300 hot meals prepared by B.C. Khalsa Darbar Gurdwara in Vancouver to over 200 stranded truckers and families outside of Hope.

“This group was stuck outside of Hope for over three days, and their food supplies had depleted rapidly,” said Singh. “On November 16th evening, we reached out to the gurdwara, and they confirmed they could prepare the meals and asked us to come on the 17th in the morning for meal packaging and pickup.”

“We are deeply indebted to London Air Services, who generously flew the food supplies to Hope Airport at no cost,” Singh added, explaining how they reached out to local pilots for assistance.

Helping Indigenous Nations and migrant workers

Sikh organizations also focused on assisting Indigenous Nations and migrant workers during and after the flooding.

“During those first few days of the flooding crisis, it became evident the Sikh community was mobilizing quickly, so it was not unusual for people to approach us via social media,” Singh said, describing how someone from the Nooaitch First Nation who was living in Vancouver reached out to a Sikh volunteer via Instagram.

“We sent a 5-tonne truck worth of items — food, hygiene products, pet food, kids craft supplies, clothing and cleaning products to the Nooiatch Indian Band, who had been cut off due to a collapsed bridge. We sent aid once a temporary bridge had been built.”

The only bridge providing access to the Nicomen First Nation also collapsed during the floods. Residents had to use a foot trail to access a road out of the community. Khalsa Aid and Guru Nanak Free Kitchen collaborated and provided the First Nation with gift cards to assist members of the community with their expenditures.

“It's important to recognize today that humanity has to be one”

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime storm, and I don’t believe anyone was prepared for how devastating it would be. Getting to the remote First Nations was difficult, which is why so many helicopters were used by NGOs,” Singh said.

On January 9, Khalsa Aid worked with Helicopters Without Borders to send food aid to the Ehattesaht First Nation on Vancouver Island. “The recent heavy snow, supply chain issues from the flooding and an inability to drive easily meant they needed assistance,” Singh said.

Singh also mentioned that the flood destroyed farmland and put hundreds of seasonal migrant workers out of work. Most of them come from central and southern America. They arrive on work permits and return home after the work season.

“As they only get paid when they work, many had virtually no money,” Singh said. Khalsa Aid Canada conducted a project in conjunction with grassroots migrant-justice group Sanctuary Health. Those migrant workers who wished to return home were provided with transportation to Vancouver and accommodation in the city before their departure. “This would have saved them several hundred dollars — a small gesture, but something they appreciated.”

“Those farms that were not damaged had seasonal workers who wished to return to work. In those cases, we provided winter items (e.g., boots), so they would work more easily. For those impacted by the supply chain, we provided food too,” Singh said.

For Sikh communities, the work they do is an attempt to bring people together.

“It's important to recognize today that humanity has to be one,” concluded Sidhu. “We have to take care of the earth today together to solve what could rip us all apart tomorrow.”

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