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The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nations, and Multiculturalism

By Kamala Elizabeth Nayar

November 4, 2013

Review By Anne Murphy

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar’s groundbreaking work, The Punjabis in British Columbia, represents a significant addition to a number of fields. At a basic level, it focuses on the important but sorely understudied community of Punjabis who played a crucial role in the resource economies and overall development of the northern regions of the province, but the scope and potential impact of the work extends much further, to contribute in a profound way to our understanding of the “intercultural interaction” that characterizes many locations in North American society. It focuses not on the urban communities that so often garner attention but on a highly diverse rural community, in the process revealing “both the complexity of ethnic pluralism and the process through which immigrant communities became collaborative members of Canadian society” (177). Most significantly, this is a finely tuned and sensitive study of the interactions among members of the First Nations of northern British Columbia, Punjabis, and some other non-Anglo immigrants. In this it joins a range of works that explicate the evolving relationships among individuals and communities that have shaped the history and present of British Columbia and the western United States (Hayashi 2007, Mawani 2012). Anglo-Canadians also figure in this complex story, but not at its centre; instead, we are given access to the changing worlds of diverse “social actors” (73) who have lived and worked in northern British Columbia (and later, in other locations in urban Canada).

Nayar’s work is structured around three variables: aspects of Punjabi ethnicity, including the “cultural assets” (63) that helped Punjabis adjust and thrive; British Columbia labour issues and histories; and policies and practices of Canadian multiculturalism. She pays careful attention to how different locations (primarily urban vs. rural) and gender have impacted the lived experiences of these variables (5, 18-19). She draws on an impressive array of carefully delineated sources, so refreshing today when too much contemporary culture work is vaguely defined (19 ff.). Interviews richly animate the work and are well utilized, with only occasional senses of “too much” of the first person narrative. This is a common problem in oral history texts, and there are good reasons to see this text in that genre. This is particularly true of the three longer “ethnographic narratives” (21) included in chapters 3, 5, and 9, which contribute significantly to the overall narrative and the rich presence of individual voices in it. Nayar’s deep overarching analysis however extends beyond what most oral histories achieve.

The remaining chapters define the labour history of the Skeena region and the role of Punjabis, among others, in this developing economy over the course of the twentieth century (chapter 2); the ways in which gender was configured and reconfigured in the experience of migration and in the opportunity that this afforded for women to work outside the home (chapter 4); and the cultural interactions — both antagonistic and not — that ensued over the course of nearly a century of significant Punjabi presence in the region (chapters 6-8), including the crucial roles played by unions as “intercultural mediators” (160 ff.). The general historical introduction to Punjab and Punjabi culture in the introduction is one of the least compelling aspects of the work, given that it does not engage fully with recent critical scholarship, but the overall orientation of the work on the history of the development of northern British Columbia and its communities is finely wrought and compelling.

Two aspects constitute a notable contribution: the attention of the work to gender, and, as noted above, to intercultural interactions, particularly between First Nations and Punjabis. Nayar argues that women in the Skeena region engaged in work outside the home for economic reasons, as might be expected, but in so doing experienced significant personal satisfaction, which was particularly surprising given the grueling difficulty of the work that most engaged in. This, she finds, is in direct contrast to the experience of Punjabi women who immigrated to the Vancouver area in the same period (100). For many Punjabi women in the Skeena area, working in the fish cannery provided a crucial “social base” and a “substitute for village life” (105). This afforded Punjabi women with new opportunities and drew on Punjabi cultural resources, such as izzat, or honour, of which Nayar provides an unconventional and wholly positive reading (without however sufficient discussion, at the same time, of some of the more negative consequences for women of the burden of maintaining honour) (128 ff.).

The book’s approach to gender is compelling not just for the ethnographic detail it provides and the historical context it places this detail within; when Nayar asserts that “what Punjabi — as well as other — women needed was not to be saved from their patriarchal culture, but rather to be treated fairly on the job” (160), we have a unique and assertive articulation of what must be attended to both in analytical and public policy terms. This book eschews a simple evocation of “culture” as an explanatory device, and carefully delineates why it fails. In this way it can help to shape policy and practice on a broad level.

The book’s exploration of “Skeena’s multi-ethnic workforce” provides a model of what a rich interethnic study can achieve, both in its exquisite detail and its comprehensive analysis (138ff.). Nayar does a fine job in detailing the nuances of the relationship between Punjabis and First Nations; the confusion among some Punjabis about the tensions between the groups, given that they seemed to have much in common with their respective experiences of British colonialism (185); and the ways in which some Punjabis sought to differentiate themselves as workers. “While Punjabis were successful in demonstrating that they were different from First Nations,” she writes, “this differentiation — regardless of what they endured as immigrants at the hand of the First Nations — only perpetuated the First Nations’ status as third class and reinforced the stereotypical image that the ‘established elite’ had of the First Nations” (191).

Cannery work brought Punjabi women into a problematic contact zone with First Nations workers who perceived their presence as a threat. Conflicts were common between Punjabis and First Nations, and were complex in their origins (e.g. 167 ff., 188 ff., 254-6). Such conflicts lessened as Punjabi immigrants acquired greater English skills and mutual awareness grew among the groups. This is evident, Nayar argues, in the active interests many Punjabis took by the mid-1980s in broader intercultural events and activities as they reached out to a larger community. It also reflected a growing awareness among Punjabis of the grievances of First Nations in Canada, and the brutal history that they had endured prior to contact with Punjabis (249-50). This portrait of the power of intercultural understanding and awareness provides compelling evidence of the need for education and awareness-building activities. Nayar’s comparison with the United States in this context is shallow: the American “melting pot” model of conceptualizing cultural accommodation has been directly challenged since the 1970s in the US, and the United States has no overarching “cultural policy” anyway (252). But this misunderstanding of the United States is mysteriously ubiquitous in Canada, so I note it here only as a part of a general attempt to correct it. (For an engagement with the idea of the “melting pot” in more complex terms see Wilson 2010).

Nayar’s critique of multiculturalism is substantive. She speaks of its “misuses,” particularly with reference to “appeals for the ethnic vote;” she highlights the “ethnic insularity” of the Vancouver/Surrey community; and she provides compelling analysis of cultural and electoral politics up through the 2011 provincial election (212, 232-3). Nayar asserts what should be obvious, but desperately needs stating: that “the Punjabi community is not a single, monolithic entity” (222). Nayar not only says this; she shows it. If we can convince a larger community of this, it will do much towards reorienting cultural and political discourses in British Columbia towards the greater understanding and appreciation across community and individual boundaries that Nayar shows us is possible. Nayar closes her work with an assertion of the need not to overly culturize such discourses of understanding, and what is needed to address the issues Punjabis and others face in Canada today: “[I]f… issues of social inequality were to be adequately addressed, immigrants would be in a better position to move confidently towards a common ground with other citizens” (281). As through the work, it is Nayar’s attention to concrete detail and cogent analysis that prevails in proving this to be true.


Hayashi, Robert. 2007. Haunted by Waters: A Journey through Race and Place in the American West. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Mawani, Renisa. 2009. Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871-1921. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Wilson, Sarah. 2010. Melting-Pot Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nations, and Multiculturalism
By Kamala Elizabeth Nayar 
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. 384 pp. $32.95 paper