New Heritage Minute profile of B.C. town highlights history of South Asian Canadians for first time


A new Heritage Minute shines a light on a South Asian community established in British Columbia’s Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island more than a century ago. 

Heritage Minutes, produced by non-profit Historica Canada, are a series of 60-second short films that depict significant people, events or stories in Canadian history.

This one tells the story of Palidi, B.C., located west of Duncan, through the lens of Punjabi immigrant Bishan Kaur.

Bishan is the wife of Mayo Singh, who founded Paldi in 1917, and over the course of a minute, viewers see her years-long transformation into a community leader.

The immigrant community is recognized as an early example of Canada’s multiculturalism, welcoming South Asian, Japanese, Chinese and European immigrants.

“It’s probably the first multicultural settlement in a designed way where Mayo invited people to come to that little village and settle and he helped them build community,” said Satwinder Kaur Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, who served as a consultant on the project.

The new Heritage Minute is the first to highlight the history of South Asian Canadians and is being released during Sikh Heritage Month.

Some of the first women and child residents of Paldi, B.C., around 1935. (Submitted by Sikh Youth Of Victoria)

He was called ‘Santa Claus’

Mayo Singh helped build a school, a post office and organize community events, Bains said. 

She describes Singh as a larger-than-life figure who gave to the South Asian community and beyond.

 “He was called ‘Santa Claus’ because he also gave a lot of money away,” Bains said. “He gave charity to hospitals and other organizations.” 

Sirjeet Bawa, who was born and raised in the lumber mill town, told CBC in 2019 that Paldi was a place where people of all backgrounds “got along just like one big family.”

“It was quite harmonious, and everybody was welcome,” added brother Bhajan Bawa.

Preserving history

Paldi’s gurdwara, which was built in 1919 and has survived several town fires, is still standing.

Bains said she’s glad there have been efforts over the last two decades to research the history of Canada’s diaspora communities, providing a more robust picture of Canadian history. 

She credits Joan Mayo, who married Rajindi Mayo, the eldest son of  Mayo Singh, for documenting the family’s history.

A woman in a white rob and head covering holds a young boy while looking into the distance.
The new Heritage Minute on the village of Paldi, B.C., is told from the perspective of Bishan Kaur, the wife of Paldi founder Mayo Singh. (Emilie Bourdages-Bittle/Historica Canada)

“Immigrants don’t always hang on to their memories because they’re so busy settling and adapting and integrating into Canadian society and actually may not give importance to their own lives because marginalized groups don’t always get the centre of history. They’re always on the margins.” Bains said.

“But Joan was a European settler, and she perhaps understood the importance of this settlement.”

Bains also credits directors Hayley Gray and Anaïsa Visser for finding a way to tell the complex story of Paldi in just 60 seconds. 

“I hope [Canadians] can take away the sense of resilience and the sense of hope that people have when they come to this country,” she said. 

A man and a woman pose in a black-and-white photograph.
Joan Mayo, the daughter-in-law of Mayo Singh, is credited for helping preserve the history of Paldi, B.C. (Submitted by Historica Canada)
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