Private Buckam Singh: Canada remembers first Sikh hero from WW1

The First World War soldier rests in Mount Hope Cemetery, Kitchener, Ontario

 By Mohsin Abbas / Milton Reporter Staff

KITCHENER, ON. – Private Buckam Singh may have died 100 years ago, but the Sikh soldier from the World Wars is still alive in people’s hearts.

The 11th annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony to honour soldiers and veterans took place at Singh’s grave – the only military grave site in the country for a Canadian Sikh veteran – in Mount Hope Cemetery, Kitchener city.

About 300 people from across Canada and overseas, gathered at the cemetery to commemorate Singh and other Sikh soldiers who served and died in the two World Wars. With a long military tradition, Sikhs have always been at the forefront in wars. Over 83,000 Sikh soldiers died in WWI and WWII as part of the British Army and over 300,000 Sikhs fought against German and Japanese tyranny in WWII.

It has become one of the largest annual gathering of Sikh soldiers and veterans in North America and allows people across the world an opportunity to appreciate the service and sacrifices made by heroes from diverse backgrounds.

‘Private Buckam Singh represents all those who have not only served in the past, but also who are currently serving now,’ says Bardish Chagger, Canadian Member of Parliament and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

The ceremony started with a Sikh prayer, known as Ardas, followed by the call to remembrance and recitation of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Field.

Private Buckam Singh is recognised as the first Sikh man to enlist with the Canadian army during the First World War. Singh was wounded twice in the battlefields of France and Belgium and was one of only nine Sikh soldiers allowed to serve with Canadian forces in WWI.

With the discovery of his war medal and military grave, the Sikh community reclaimed a forgotten son and now Canada has the hero’s story to share with the world.

Sandeep Singh Brar is an avid Sikh historian. He is the creator of www.sikhmuseum.com

Buckam Singh came to British Columbia province from Mahilpur village in Indian Punjab in 1907 at age 14 and eventually moved to the city of Toronto in 1912/1913. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915. He’s one of the earliest known Sikhs living in Ontario province at the time as well as one of only 9 Sikhs that served with Canadian troops in WWI. Singh served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders during 1916.

While recovering from his wounds in England Private Buckam Singh contracted tuberculosis and spent his final days in a Kitchener Ontario military hospital. He died at the age of 25 in 1919.

“It’s really a moment of pride for the community,” said Sandeep Singh Brar, the organiser of the annual Sikh Remembrance Day ceremony.

Buckam Singh’s story came to light a few years ago after Brar, a Canadian historian from city of Brampton, purchased Singh’s victory medal from a pawnshop in London, England. Brar discovered Buckam Singh had been a Canadian soldier, and then went on to locate his grave in the Kitchener cemetery.

More than a dozen wreaths were laid on the nearly 100-year-old grave.

Brar says the ceremony grows every year and it is the largest gathering of Sikh soldiers and veterans in North America.

“It’s a special place in Canada. We are remembering not only Sikhs’ sacrifices but of all the soldiers in the world wars including Canadians.”

Canadian Member of Parliament and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, Bardish Chagger also paid homage to the WWI hero.

On the first ceremony 11 years ago, Chagger was surprised to know about Singh’s grave in her hometown of Waterloo because Sikh cremate their dead instead of burying them. After the cremation, the ashes are usually buried in the earth or scattered.

“Private Buckam Singh represents all those who have not only served in the past, but also who are currently in service,” the MP said.

“Sikhs are coming to Canada for more than 100 years. I am feeling very proud to be part of remembrance ceremony of Private Buckam Singh. It was a very poignant reminder that you had people from all walks of life joining Canada to fight in different wars,” she added.

“We will honour the service of our men and women of the Canadian forces as well as remember all those who have served and sacrificed for their country in past wars.”