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Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family

By Hugh J.M. Johnston

Review By Ali Kazimi

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 182-183

Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family, finds Hugh Johnston, the leading expert on early South Asian migration to Canada, on familiar terrain. This time Johnston provides a rare familial and social history of Kapoor Singh Siddoo, a Sikh man, whose rise from a penniless immigrant in 1907 to lumber magnate in British Columbia is pieced together in a sprawling century-long narrative. Unlike most of his Punjabi compatriots who arrived in early twentieth century British Columbia, Kapoor was well educated and fluent in English. He used his familiarity with Anglo culture and his innate business acumen to negotiate “the extreme prejudice and discrimination that he and other South Asians faced” (2). Systemically racist immigration laws kept the community to less than two thousand people, and few women were allowed. Kapoor and his wife were apart for sixteen years, until 1923, yet their deep cultural and religious values allowed them to rebuild their family. Their bright and tenacious daughters, Sarjit and Jackie, went on to become pioneering Indo-Canadian doctors who fulfilled their parents’ dream of creating a hospital in their maternal ancestral village of Aur, in the Punjab.

A meticulous researcher par excellence, Johnston once again draws upon his voluminous knowledge of pertinent primary source materials including family memoirs, newspaper and magazine accounts, and photographs. He also dips into his own archive, including transcripts of interviews, which he has gathered and collected from within Vancouver’s Punjabi community over four decades. He graciously acknowledges building on the research of his friend and community historian Sarji Singh Jagpal’s landmark book Becoming Canadian: Pioneer Sikhs in Their Own Words (Harbour Publishing, 1994), and on the research of his own graduate students at Simon Fraser University.

While the book moves chronologically, Johnston deftly weaves personal stories of historical characters associated with the Siddoos into his main narrative, and moves back and forth in time with these smaller stories. Jewels of the Qila is a rich and engrossing history that sheds light on the nature of interactions within the community as well as those with white Canadians. It is the latter that I found particularly fascinating: stories of Anglo-Canadians who rose above the widespread racism of the time and became employers, colleagues, employees, and good friends. A few fair-minded bureaucrats and politicians also provided support. Our much-vaunted Canadian values of tolerance and human rights lie in these uncommon individuals whose support and friendship made the lives of a beleaguered community tolerable. Johnston has done a great service by naming and bringing to light the impact of these extraordinary white Canadians.

Johnston locates Kapoor and his fellow Punjabis squarely as settlers and pioneers, albeit on the margins of the white settler state. By placing this narrative within a nation-building framework, the book does not deal with the flip side of this process — the colonization and displacement of First Nations. Nor does it offer any insight into how Kapoor, who was committed to freeing British India, felt about Canada’s colonial process. Naming and acknowledging this paradox would require an entirely different paradigm. Moreover, with little critique of the family or its values, the book veers towards the celebratory. And while we do learn of their stoic perseverance, we never learn how anyone in the family or community felt about the daily slights of racism that Johnston acknowledges they endured.

Johnston has again paved the way for more personal histories to be produced within, and documented for, the South Asian diaspora in Canada. One emerges from the book with a feeling of having been deeply immersed in an epic multi-generational drama that spans three generations, extends from the colonial to the post-colonial era, and moves effectively between Canada and India.

Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family
By Hugh J.M. Johnston 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.  332 pp, $32.99