Oliver’s population of 5,000 is made up of about 1,000 Sikhs. If one drives along the town’s Main Street, one is bound to see a turbaned Sikh or a Sikh lady in Punjabi dress, as well as the Sikh Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). On a per capita basis, there are more Sikhs in Oliver than Surrey – the unofficial capital of Sikhs in Canada! And as one proceeds through the scenic Okanagan Valley one is awed by the greenery of wineries and fruit orchards and depending on the time of the summer, one will drive by cherry, peach, apple, and perhaps prune trees all along Highway 97 or the Okanagan Highway. Oliver’s Mayor Ron Hovanes describes his town as an “authentic farming community”.
By Bhupinder Singh Liddar
Nestled in the scenic and stunning rolling dry desert hills and mirror lakes of Okanagan Valley of beautiful British Columbia is the town of Oliver – the wine capital of Canada!
Oliver’s population of 5,000 is made up of about 1,000 Sikhs. If one drives along the town’s Main Street, one is bound to see a turbaned Sikh or a Sikh lady in Punjabi dress, as well as the Sikh Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). On a per capita basis, there are more Sikhs in Oliver than Surrey – the unofficial capital of Sikhs in Canada!
And as one proceeds through the scenic Okanagan Valley one is awed by the greenery of wineries and fruit orchards and depending on the time of the summer, one will drive by cherry, peach, apple, and perhaps prune trees all along Highway 97 or the Okanagan Highway. Oliver’s Mayor Ron Hovanes describes his town as an “authentic farming community”.
Other than driving along the fruit-tree-lined highway, one can pull into one of the many wineries for tasting, buying, or even a meal. Oliver is only about 15 minutes drive from the US border.
The Sikhs started migrating and buying orchards and vineyards, in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley, about three decades ago. Farming is in Sikh genes. Their ancestral home state of Punjab is the breadbasket of India. Sikhs are also successful farmers in Australia, Kenya, Fiji, among other countries.
The Sikhs bought orchards/vineyards predominantly from the Portuguese, who had migrated here in the 1950s. Mayor Hovanes explains the origins of Oliver are in the irrigation canal, built in 1926, under British Columbia Premier John Oliver, after whom the town is named. The intent was to settle returning British veterans of World War I. The British migrants were followed by Germans in the 30s and Hungarians in the 40s and 50s.
Sikhs own about 70 per cent of orchards and wineries. The average holding is about 10 – 12 acres and according to farmer, Bhupinder Singh Karwasra, orchards generate an income of about $8,000 to $10,000 per acre per annum.
Prices of land have tripled or quadrupled since Sikhs first bought land, about three decades ago for, $30,000 – $40,000 an acre. Despite the increase in land prices, Sikh migration continues to the Okanagan Valley, especially from Surrey and Vancouver area.
Apart from farming, Sikhs are venturing into other commercial enterprises. Paramjit Singh Chauhan owns and operates East India Meat Shop on Highway 97, down the road from Oliver. He immigrated to Canada in 1996 and settled in Abbotsford but saw an opportunity to cater to the growing Sikh population in the Okanagan and opened the meat store in 2005. Similarly, Surjit Singh Aulakh, who immigrated to Canada eight years ago, first worked on a farm, but this month set up a hairdresser shop on Oliver’s Main Street. Oliver-born Baljeet S. Dhaliwal, a graduate of Simon Fraser University, is now a manager at one of BC Tree Fruits packing houses.
Others, such as Toor twin brothers – Randy and Jessie, have set up an 80-acre, state-of-the-art Desert Hills Estate Winery, on what was once an apple orchard. They are the second Sikh family to settle in the area, in the footsteps of Major Dhaliwal. The Toor brothers, from the Village of Ucha Jattana, emigrated from India in 1982 and settled in Winnipeg. On the urging of their sister Lucky Gill, who is involved in the hospitality industry, they moved to Oliver in 1988. Randy Toor was elected to one-term to Oliver Town Council, in 2005.
Oliver’s major communities – Indigenous, Portuguese, Caucasian, and Sikhs live in cultural and social silos, with little or no informal social interaction other than in schools, shopping centres and work places. Mohinder Singh Gill, President of the Sikh Gurdwara attributes this state of affairs, partly to lack of English speaking skills among the Sikhs. For this reason, the Sikh seniors meet at the Gurdwara instead of going to the central seniors centre. The Indigenous Osoyoos people, almost all live on a reservation adjoining Oliver. The Sikh community lives in a pind (village) mind-set , where everyone knows everyone else and what they are up to!
Most of the elderly Sikhs, both male and female, work on family farms in the summer and head to Punjab to seek refuge from Canadian winter. Their presence in the family has enabled many Sikh children to be able to speak Punjabi.
Punjabi was offered at Oliver High School until recently and the search is on for a Punjabi instructor.
All Punjabi cooking ingredients and mithiai (sweets) are available at local grocery stores.During the summer farmers supply home-grown vegetables to Punjabi communities in the Okanagan Valley.
Fortunately, days of ugly racism are almost over though I was told of school yard fights between Indigenous, Sikh and White students. According to Mayor Hovanes, there is “no overt racial tension” and former Town Councillor Randy Toor observes, there is “very little evidence of racism and it is fading away”.
The orchard and vineyard owners’ names along the Okanagan Highway are familiar and common Sikh surnames: Aujla, Dhaliwal, Gill, Karwasra, Khaira, Khela, Malhi, Sandhu and Saran. They come mainly from Moga, Jagraon and Ludhiana Districts in Punjab and from various villages, including: Bhullaran, Chotia Toba, Dhuddi, Ghurala, Indgarh, Kokri Kallan, Lakha, Lapan, Lohara, Loppo, Mehro, Raikot, Raisar Sadarpura, Ropapati Burj, Smalsar, and Talwandi Mallian.
The Sikh Gurdwara occupies a prominent place on Oliver’s Main Street. Services are held every Sunday and prayer meetings every morning and evening. There is a resident granthi (priest) at the Gurdwara, which is about 15 years old. President Mohinder Singh Gill explains there are no elections but the sangat (congregation) nominates an 11-member management committee, from which office bearers are selected. Two members of this Committee are replaced every year and the President can serve for only two years.
The future looks promising for the Sikh community in Oliver, though many young Sikhs are opting to head to urban areas and into professions other than farming. But for now, most Sikhs are a dynamic, vibrant, growing and a flourishing community in Oliver and Okanagan Valley!
Bhupinder S. Liddar, is a Kenya-born Sikh and a retired Canadian diplomat.