Working the Green Chain
Tannis Koskela, heritage assistant at the Mackin House Museum in Coquitlam, hopes people will become more aware that the South Asian community is almost as old as the province itself. The Coquitlam Heritage Society’s exhibition Working the Green Chain: Sikhs, Fraser Mills and the Lumber Industry aims to inform visitors of the long history of the South Asian community in B.C., many of whom worked in the province’s lumber mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“In the past few years, we’ve highlighted the diversity of communities that are here in Coquitlam,” says Koskela, The Coquitlam Heritage Society has created or hosted several exhibits about Coquitlam’s many diverse groups. Working the Green Chain joins a list of exhibitions showcasing Coquitlam’s Black, Korean and Japanese communities, and their histories.
A deeply rooted history
“There were quite a number of Sikhs that worked at Fraser Mills which was one of the largest mills in the province in the early 1900s,” says Koskela.
Thousands of South Asian immigrants began arriving in Canada in the early 20th century. Over one hundred found work in Fraser Mills. The exhibit will showcase the contributions made by the workers in building the province as well as the discrimination they faced from the European community at the time.
“Many were illiterate, but many also had university degrees and had to take the same manual labour jobs as the others,” says Koskela. She points out that one Sikh worker had a Master of Science degree in agriculture from eastern Canada but had to work in a lumber mill. It was nearly impossible for South Asians to get middle-class jobs at the time.
Despite being denied political and voting rights in British Columbia, South Asians were not just working-class immigrants, but a politically active community like other workers at the time.
Koskela gave the Ghadar Movement that advocated for Indian independence from British colonial rule as an example of political activism among the South Asian community in the Pacific Northwest. Koskela says Coquitlam’s South Asian immigrant community never lost touch with affairs back in India.
“A lot of the people who came here were very invested in Indian independence. Many have photos of family and relatives here celebrating Indian independence in 1947,” she says.
South Asians and how BC history is taught
The situation for the South Asian community in Canada has changed a lot since the early 20th century. Nonetheless, Kosekla believes more must be done within public education to highlight the community’s history in BC.
In Canada, there have been growing calls to decolonize public and higher education to represent the country’s diverse communities. Koskela wants people to get a better idea of just how deeply rooted the South Asian community is in Coquitlam and Greater Vancouver.
“There’s a lot of local people here who have long roots here in the community,” she says. “People often assume they’re recent immigrants, but they’ve been here longer than many other families that have been in Canada for generations.”
While Koskela feels that there is not enough emphasis on this slice of history, she feels that things are changing. “Younger generations are becoming more aware of those biases in education,” she says.
The Coquitlam Centre does educational tours to present BC history from a non-colonial, less Eurocentric standpoint. Koskela believes it will become necessary to include that history given the growing immigration from countries like India. “I hope it changes; I think it has to change.” says Koskela.
From July 2 to July 30, visitors can experience this history at the Mackin House as the province lifts restrictions on travel and indoor gatherings.
For more information about Working the Green Chain, visit www.coquitlamheritage.ca/upcoming-exhibits
For more information about the Mackin House Museum, visit www.coquitlamheritage.ca/overview