Canadian Soldier Sikhs: A Little Story in a Big War
The story of ten Sikh men who enlisted in the Canadian Army in World War I, this film follows the men through the enlistment process, training, and transport to France by troopship. It features the struggles these Sikh soldiers faced and the battles they fought, including those during which two of the men were killed. The film follows one injured soldier back to Canada on a hospital ship and to Kitchener’s TB hospital. Images of his war grave and the story of how his war medal has survived bring a personal touch to the film. The film ends with the story of the soldiers’ return to civilian life, the tracing of their descendants, and the visit to the European grave sites of two of the Canadian Sikh soldiers.
The 48-minute film is funded by the OMNI TV Independent Producers Initiative and will be produced in both Punjabi and English. Shooting began during Remembrance Week in 2009 and continued in Victoria, B.C., in January and in Europe in March-April 2010. The film is being aired across Canada on OMNI TV on Remembrance Day, 2012.
Awards and Screenings
The completed film has been shown three times, at major international film festivals. In 2011, Canadian Soldier Sikhs won the Best Documentary award at the New York Sikh International Film Festival, and a Creative Media Award at the Sikh Arts & Film Festival in California. The film was also screened at the Punjabi International Film Festival in Toronto in 2012.
A short trailer of the film in progress was shown at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto, and at the exhibition, The Spirit Born People Defending the World, at the West Block, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, in October 2009.
The story of the Sikh soldiers is told through the creative use of archival photographs, movie footage, and documents, particularly the individual military records. These archival sources are blended and contrasted with current interviews with their families and descendants and new footage taken at the war grave sites of the three men who died. Original music based on Sikh traditional sacred music and military music especially prepared for this film weaves the old and new sequences together along with the traditional “Canadian” martial music and songs of the First World War.
This project to create a film about the Sikh soldiers of WWI is an important step in bringing to light a largely unknown aspect of the history of the Canadian Sikh community. It is a way to bring a newly-discovered war history, an understanding of Sikh culture, and the pioneer Canadian Sikh experience, to a large audience.
The primary or target audience for the film is the young people of Canada, those of Sikh descent and others, who are approaching adult life and need to have a better understanding of Canadian Sikh history and culture from an historical perspective. A secondary audience is the general Canadian public who have a strong interest in WWI and general Canadian history and culture.
This new documentary film, funded by OMNI TV, uses archival film footage of Canadians in WWI to describe the experiences of these Sikh soldiers. Beginning with an introduction to the status of Sikhs in Canada at the outbreak of WWI and the discrimination they faced, the film follows the men through the enlistment process and the complex issues of names and religious affiliation. Following their personal stories through their military records, the film explores military life through recruitment, training, travel across Canada, loading troopships, arrival in England and disembarking in France.
Archival footage of battlegrounds and fighting are contrasted with living conditions and discipline issues in relation to the cultural background of the Sikhs. Using still photos to backup the available movie footage, the progress of the war is documented. It features battles in which these Sikh soldiers fought, including the battles during which two of the men were killed in action. Two wounded soldiers are followed to hospitals in France and England, and back to Canada on hospital ships. The end of the war and repatriation to Canada is shown using footage of troopships, demobilization, and the return to civilian life.
The film also follows some of the men after their return to Canada, including Buckam Singh, who died in Kitchener’s TB hospital in 1919. Images of his war grave, a remembrance service 90 years after his death, and the story of how his war medal was recently discovered, bring a personal touch to the film.
The film tells the story of searching for the soldiers’ descendants, and their families in both Canada and India, and the remarkable discovery of a photograph of one of the men.
Through participation in a “Lest We Forget” commemorative journey by a group of Alberta high school students, the film takes the viewer to Belgium and France as the students visit the sites of battles the Canadian Sikhs fought in, and discover an unknown memorial in a small town in France.
The students, after researching the soldiers’ military records, visit the war graves of Sunta Gougersingh and Lashman Singh, the two Canadian Sikh soldiers who died in action. The simple ceremonies at the graves bring the film to a closing.