The Indo-Canadian Collection

Top Right: The late Inderjit Singh Kohaly amassed about three hundred archival photographs and copies to create a visual archive of the Indo-Canadian community from 1900 to 1950. Bottom Left: Woman’s hand-embroidered silk jacket bequeathed by Mrs. Rajinder Kaur Kohaly.
by Eric Swanick

A passion for history

Inderjit Singh Kohaly had a mission: the former engineer and publisher was determined to document as much as he could about the history of British Columbia Indo-Canadians.

Early Indo-Canadian community in Vancouver.

Now special collections at the Bennett Library has been given a significant gift of photographs and taped interviews of the Indo-Canadians who settled in British Columbia before 1950. It’s a genealogy, with pictures, of those pioneers. The collection was donated by Inderjit’s wife, Rajinder Kaur Kohaly.

The late Inderjit S. Kohaly came to Canada in 1954. He worked at a series of jobs, including as an engineer with BC Hydro. He later operated his own printing and publishing business, and for nine years, with some friends, he published an Indo-Canadian magazine that was designed, in part, to enhance communication among Indo-Canadians and other cultural groups.

Kohaly’s archival project began approximately three years before his death in 1993. In an interview at the time he said he felt strongly that the early Indo-Canadians who had settled in British Columbia “…deserve to have their history preserved, irrespective of whether they did anything great or not – all the people who came here, and made things easier for those who came later.”

Above: Group portrait taken May 13, 1945, welcoming “Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit,” the Indian national leader, sister of Nehru. Khalsa Diwan Societies, in front of Sikh temple, Vancouver.
Inset: Kohaly published the bimonthly Indo-Canadian magazine. Designed in part to enhance communication between Indo-Canadians and other cultural groups. Volume 8, number 2, June 1973. Right: Archival portrait, part of the Indo-Canadian Collection.
Archival portrait, part of the Indo-Canadian Collection.

In the same interview Kohaly also said “…many people think I’m doing this as some form of gimmick. They don’t understand why it is important to record oral history.” Kohaly was so committed to the project he financed it entirely from his own pocket.

In order to make this project as complete as possible, Kohaly toured the province in search of photographs of those early Indo-Canadian settlers. At first he spent time convincing people to lend them their photographs so he could photograph the originals. Later in the project he used a 35 mm camera that greatly simplified matters as he could then photograph people’s pictures without borrowing them.

The project had many challenges. Some people were reluctant to share their information; others were happy to, but had only poor quality pictures. In one instance he was given a photo album of about 100 pictures, but not one of them was usable because they were all blurred.

The donated collection consists of approximately 300 photographs and a dozen tapes. For each photograph Kohaly recorded the names of spouses, children, parents, and grandparents as well as occupation and the village in India from which the family came. The collection is valuable for genealogical purposes and for the further documentation of the Indo-Canadian experience in the province of B.C., and to a lesser extent in other areas of Canada. Although Kohaly concentrated on Indo-Canadians in B.C., he also collected some information from Indo-Canadians in other parts of Canada and that is included in the collection.

Kohaly once stated, “I am grateful [Indo-Canadians] did not go to another country less free and less fertile than Canada.” His foresight in documenting these early Indo-Canadian families is a boon to historians and the public alike.

The university also has two other oral history collections of Indo-Canadians, one by SFU professor emeritus of sociology Hari Sharma, and the other by University of Saskatchewan professors emeriti Gurchan Basran and B. Singh Bolaria. Special collections also has the papers of the Canadian Farm Workers’ Union, an organization long active in the Indo-Canadian community.

Mr. Suhel Singh Mann (centre) and sons Kehar (left) and Jagir (right). Inset below: Pakhar Singh Mann (in uniform behind the speaker) attending an address within the Sikh temple.
Gurdial Kaur Oppal with sons Harry (left) and Wallace “Wally” (right), future B.C. Supreme Court Justice and currently Attorney General of B.C. and Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism.
Hari Singh and Gurdial Kaur Oppal with sons.

The Sharma project documents the histories of immigrants from the Punjab province of India who came to Canada between 1912 and 1938. The interviews were conducted by Sharma and his graduate students between 1984 and 1987.

The second project consists of 32 interviews with Sikh immigrants who arrived in Canada before 1956. The interviews, conducted in 1986, cover reasons for immigration to Canada and conditions and regulation of their entry into the country. Interviewees also discuss work and living experiences once here: labour, legal, and political issues that affected the immigrants, relations with other racial and ethnic groups, family life and adjustment to Canadian society, and ongoing links to their country of origin. Almost all interviews were conducted in Punjabi, with a few in English and Hindi.

Both of these collections have been digitized and are available through Special collections is in the process of raising funds toward digitizing the extensive Kohaly collection.

Photography by: Curtis Trent - Silk Jacket, Meyers Studios - Inderjit S. Kohaly, Yucho Chow Studio, Vancouver, B.C. - Hari Singh and Gurdial Kaur Oppal, all other photos courtesy SFU special collections library.