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A Faraway Doaba

In British Columbia's fruit & vegetable basket, the farms are owned and tended by Sikhs

A Faraway Doaba
Abdul Majid
A Faraway Doaba
outlookindia.com
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Singhland Of British Columbia

  • Statistics Canada reported for 2008 that 20,000 of the 29,870 farm operators in British Columbia are Sikh. They own three-fourths of the agricultural land in the state.
  • Farmland here costs more than $100,000 per acre.
  • Sikhs grow strawberries, blueberries, raspberries in the Fraser Valley, and apples, apricots, cherries in neighbouring Okanagan Valley.
  • 1,50,000 Sikhs live in British Columbia. At least 1,00,000 are in the agriculture sector.
  • Sikh farmhands are often related to Sikh farm owners who exploit their own kin through feudal behaviour, often paying them less than the stipulated $8.50/hour minimum wage. Few complain.
  • Overall, one million people of Indian origin are in Canada. They are wrongly called East Indians. Most Indo-Canadians (4,84,666 by 2006 figures) live in the Greater Toronto Area.
  • There are 10 Canadian MPs of Indian origin.

***

The extraordinarily delicious berries of the Canadian province of British Columbia beckon you to Fraser Valley, just over 100 km away from Vancouver. Travel 400 km into the interior, and the blueberry and strawberry farms give way to orchards of plump cherries, apricots, apples—much of the fruit grown and harvested by Sikh farmers of Indian origin.

They now account for three-fourths of the farms in Surrey, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission in Fraser Valley. Inland, in the Okanagan Valley, half of all farmers can trace their roots back to Punjab. These Sikh farmers are taking over the land that Canadians are selling at whopping prices before migrating to urban centres.

The community turns up in large numbers for Piri Miri celebrations at a Surrey gurudwara

It's before 8 am, but the sun's been up for a good hour, as have 15 Punjabi-speaking farmhands, most of them in their fifties, who are sweating it out at Sukhdev Seikhon's Abbotsford farm, at yet another day of broccoli harvesting. A few younger workers have parked their cars or motorcycles outside the farm; the elderly women and men were picked up in a van at 6 am. They work with alacrity, knives flying as they sort, chop and cart 30 kg buckets of broccoli florets into 500 kg bins that are neatly stacked for delivery to the local food-processors. For their efforts, they are paid $1.40 for each 30 kg bucket of broccoli. Kamal Bhatti, their supervisor, says, "They get anything from $100-200 per day in this season." It's more likely, though, that most of them wouldn't possibly get the minimum wage of $8.50 per hour.

In the evening, some of them will be dropped back to a rented accommodation; the others will return to their children's homes to help prepare dinner. These broccoli harvesters belong to a group of about 8,000 seasonal farmhands in British Columbia. Most of them arrived in Canada as part of the Family Reunification Program that allows landed immigrants to sponsor spouses, parents and grandparents. The workers on Seikhon's farm have been in British Columbia for three to 10 years, but they appear diffident and intimidated. As Bhatti, in rustic Punjabi, orders these Sikhs to cut the broccoli florets smaller, workers giggle nervously. They still find the experience of working for others alien. Back in Punjab, they employed lower-castes to tend their farms. Selling the land, they migrated to Canada, hoping to buy sprawling modern farms.

"They don't come with the full knowledge of this situation but get working soon when they realise the financial pressures on the families with whom they stay," explains Jagga Gill, a farmer and realtor who has lived in Canada for 30 years. He says most Sikhs start working for their brethren almost as soon as they get off the airplane. His own 10-acre plot is what remains of a much larger farm of over 50 acres that was sold probably to cash in on skyrocketing prices.

There isn't always a clear demarcation between Sikh farm proprietors and agricultural workers. Most farm operators have in fact worked at others' farms, accumulated money, and patiently waited for the right time to buy. This could take anywhere between 10 and 15 years, contrary to popular perception in Punjab that huge acreages are available cheap in British Columbia. "Many Sikhs here earned severance packages when saw mills closed down in the 1980s-90s. The severance packages of $30,000-40,000 helped them to make lump-sum payments towards farms," says Surrey-based Charan Gill, president of the BC Farm Workers Union. He realises, though, that the issue of Sikhs exploiting other Sikhs is history repeating itself in North America, where 100 years ago, Caucasian farmers exploited cheaper Asian farmhands.

Back in rural Abbotsford, Kulvir Chauhan's look of contentment is almost incongruous, given that his is the only cropless brown patch of 10 acres amidst miles of blueberry fields. His satisfaction, however, comes from finally possessing the farm he's standing on after having worked as a farmhand and saw-mill worker for 13 years since he arrived in Canada. He bought the farm just months ago for a hefty $1.5 million. The first-generation, clean-shaven, jeans-clad immigrant from Ludhiana demonstrates a confidence in Abbotsford's agricultural business, probably because of his rural Punjabi background, but also because he's now accustomed to berry farming. Far from being an exception, Chauhan demonstrates how long Sikhs take to own their own farms in Canada.


The Chauhans at their new farm

Till his farm comes under the plough, Chauhan and his family will continue with their farm jobs and pool their collective incomes to pay the mortgage and afford daily necessities. He works for 16 hours a day, in relative isolation, and yet finds farming easier here than in Punjab "because of the machinery available." Like other Sikhs, he values North American capitalism for its work ethic and the opportunities it gives those who are willing to slog.

With the rising demand from Sikh farmers and limited arable land available (2.6 million hectares, or three per cent of British Columbia's land), farmland prices have dramatically risen to $100,000 per acre. This is why 60-year old Bittu Mann ferries fresh produce to California, supplementing the income of his joint family, which has only recently purchased a 30-acre blueberry farm. "My son knows the Canadian system better and makes the decisions, but we all work together," says Mann, who has lived for 15 years in Canada.

Not all are as lucky as Chauhan and Bittu. Take Pardeep Singh's family in Kelowna, in the fruit-orchard interiors of the state. After 15 years of countryside work, Pardeep and her husband remain farmhands, though they possess their own home and car. They moved inland just two months after arriving in Vancouver "since there was more work in Kelowna," says Pardeep.

The relative vulnerability of the more recent immigrant farmers and agricultural wage workers is a memory for immigrants like Devinder Mann, whose family has lived for 23 years in rural Abbotsford. Apart from berries, the Manns grow broccoli, pumpkins, zucchinis, apples, peaches and corn at their well-known Mann Farms. Right now, Devinder's busy with the fall season's pumpkin patch, at which you can pluck your own pumpkins and ride the tractor or find your way through a corn maze. At her fresh veggie kiosk, she sells frozen berry pies, fresh corn, peaches and zucchinis. "It was much harder when I first came in 1985, because of the lack of opportunity," says Devinder, servicing her clients.

Abbotsford is an overtly white urban centre that's ringed by sprawling farms that predominantly have Sikhs as owners. The place is traditional in a way that meshes its lavish Sikh gurudwaras into the rural ambience of religious conventions and conservative lifestyles. And Sikh kinship has transplanted itself easily here through the common language, religion and regionalism that the community shares. "They can call me and I will arrive, but at the same time, if I need help, I know I just have to make a call," says Bhatti

The casual sense of give-and-take is discernibly Punjabi. But so is the feudal-type attitude to Sikh farmhands, say Canadian scholars, who've sharply criticised farmers for being exploitative by cutting wages, and shortchanging on transportation and other on-site facilities.

Though the migration of unskilled vulnerable Sikhs poses vexing issues of neo-colonialism and exploitation, their movement out of India itself cannot be stopped. Hence, countryside-loving, hard-working entrepreneurial Sikhs will keep arriving in British Columbia, hoping for farms and lifestyles not available to them back home in Punjab.

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