Given the significance of Vaisakhi in the Sikh religion, it is only natural for diaspora Sikh and Punjabi populations to celebrate the festival with pride and fanfare. And Toronto is no exception, with the Khalsa Day Parade being the third largest event in the city. Generation Next recently had the opportunity to speak to Balwinder Singh, General Secretary of Ontario Sikh and Gurdwara Council (OSGC), an umbrella organization of gurdwaras in Ontario. Excerpts from the conversation:
GN: Since when are you associated with OSGC? How did your association start?
BS: My association with this organization started back in 2003, and I’ve been involved since its conception; I was a founding secretary. OSGC has 60 per cent individual participation and 40 per cent participation comes from gurdwaras. 13-14 gurdwaras are members of this organization.
GN: How many people attend the services during Vaisakhi? Are any special events held on the occasion?
BS: Every individual gurdwara celebrates Vaisakhi. Back in 1699, the order of Khalsa was established by our tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, and Vaisakhi used to be celebrated even before in the region as a festival of harvest, but our tenth guru added the element of faith to it. All gurdwaras around the world this festival in a big way. In Ontario gurdwaras, kirtan(singing of songs from the holy scripture) is arranged; free kitchen is always there, preachers from India and other parts of the world are invited.
Apart from that, collectively, all the members of our organization arrange for a Khalsa Day parade in Downtown Toronto, which is the third largest parade in Toronto area. It’s been almost close to 30 years now, and it has grown from just 2,000 participants to 80,000. Our highest turnover was in 1999, when we celebrated 300 years of Khalsawhen 1,20,000 people attended the event. The ceremony starts at 9 in the morning, with kirtans and reciting of religious hymns. Close to 1 pm, the religious ceremony concludes and then it takes the form of a parade, which goes till City Hall. It’s held on the last Sunday of April—29th April this year.
GN: Sevaor voluntary service is a big aspect of the Sikh faith. How are volunteers recruited? Can anyone join as a volunteer? How are they trained?
BS: It basically comes from the family. As a young person, you start going to gurdwara with your family and see the environment there. The entire management and day-to-day functions of any gurdwara or any religious place such as temples or mosques, is done on a volunteer basis. Seva is a big aspect, not just with Sikhs, but all across South Asian culture. As a young person, you see people working in gurdwaras, cleaning floors, vacuuming, cleaning utensils, preparing food in the free kitchen, distributing food, cleaning shoes of devotees, and it builds up in you that this is selfless service.
Training depends on what you want to do. If you do your seva in the kitchen area, there will be a person or two responsible for the management of that aspect of the seva, and they will guide you. Even if you are doing seva, you have to follow the decorum and the guidelines of the faith.
GN: What different activities do the volunteers have to do, both inside and outside gurdwaras?
BS: Inside the gurdwara, the majority of the work is related to the upkeep of the place—preparation of langar, which is free kitchen, cleaning…Some people also volunteerwith respect to the paperwork or other requirements. Outside the gurdwara, there are other events that are organized. For example, we connect with Canadian Blood Services and help with their donation camps, which may or may not be in the gurdwara. The police also recently organized drives against drugs and other substance abuses. So in activities like these, which are more social in nature and require a degree and level of commitment, as well as an understanding of other communities, volunteers depending on their skill levels, join.The gurdwara provides them with infrastructural and financial support, but all the other work is done by volunteers. Another movement called the Seva Food Bank, established two years ago, has become very big and will soon parallel the mainstream food banks. It’s a totally volunteer-run organization.
At any given time, you need 60-70 volunteers in a day to run the Dixie gurdwara. On weekends, more than 200 volunteers participate. And for the Khalsa Day Parade, we have close to 1,000 volunteers. They start training a month and a half ago to coordinate with the police and city staff.
GN: How involved do you find second-generation Canadian-Sikh youth with the various gurdwara activities?
BS: It’s quite encouraging. In the last 10-15 years, it’s becoming more and more engrained in the new generation. When it goes out in the media about what your religion is all about—at the end of the day, it’s a service to the humanity. Those things are common to all religions, but what gurdwaras do is to provide a platform for the young generation to help materialize their altruistic goals. We have noticed in recent years that activists who also take part outside gurdwara activities also become a part of gurdwaras.
GN: What is the response to gurdwara activities from non-Sikhs?
BS: This is a very good question. Dixie gurdwara and some other gurdwaras have become big attractions. I know people who even come from the U.S. to see the Dixie gurdwara. Similarly, if they go to Vancouver, they want to see the main gurdwara there. If you go to these gurdwaras, you see a lot of people who do not belong to the Sikh faith, but they have a background or they simply want to see how the organization is run. More than a million people attend the Dixie gurdwara alone in a year. School trips are also arranged to visit gurdwaras, police people in training are brought to gurdwaras to show them how it works and for them to develop better understanding of different religions and diversity in Ontario.