Leadership in labour communities often arises from a lived experience of economic and social injustice and develops through a concerted commitment to promoting and cultivating collective action. Darshan Singh Sangha’s path to labour leadership reflects such a path: his lived experience of economic hardship and racial and immigrant inequality along with direct witness to unjust working conditions drove him to inspire people around him with some shared experiences and workers more broadly to work together towards more just and equitable workplaces.
Darshan Singh Sangha was born in India to a family of limited means that farmed patches of land in their village area. In 1937, at the age of only 19, Sangha left his family in India to move to Canada. He was met by his uncle in British Columbia and joined a Sikh community of Punjabi immigrants.
Thanks to his uncle, Sangha initially found work in a sawmill. Harshly, the uncle, who was himself working in the sawmill, was fired from his own job in the process. The uncle assisted Sangha by introducing him to the manager and explaining that he needed work. As Sangha was hired, his uncle was fired without notice or fairness. Sangha recognized the exploitation at play, vividly recalling later: “The owner had brought in a young horse to replace an old horse…He had been making 30 cents an hour, and I got only 25 cents [for doing the same job]. Not only did he bring in younger blood but he saved himself 5 cents an hour.” Sangha went on to work through the province within the lumber sector. There, he would work along-side workers from varied backgrounds, many of whom had professional and specialized training but could not make a living in their chosen field because of racism. He once remarked: “Hazara Singh Garcha, who arrived in about 1927, had his Master of Science degree in agriculture in eastern Canada, and he pulled lumber like we did in the mill. At that time no Hindustani could get a job even if he was a doctor, lawyer or engineer. So it didn’t matter if you were educated or not, if you were Hindustani you would be working on the greenchain.”**
Sangha lived the poor working conditions of the lumber industry’s mills and logging camps and he experienced racial discrimination from white workers and bosses. One of the first reported instances of his engaging in collective action was when he banded together with a number of other Indian immigrants of “illegal” status in the Vancouver area to form a committee to raise funds and work with a prominent lawyer, Dr. Pandia, to seek legal status. As a result of this and other efforts, three hundred people who immigrated from India are reported as finally getting legal status to remain in Canada permanently in 1939.
Sangha completed education at the University of British Columbia and, while a student, he often had opportunity to engage in political discussions with elders and peers at the gurdwara that he attended. There he honed speaking and persuasive skills that would serve him well in future labour leadership roles.
Sangha joined the Communist Party while a student and became involved in the trade union movement. He began to mobilize workers through a series of speaking engagements in many parts of Canada drawing attention to the challenges of working people and the need for change. Sangha was particularly involved in union efforts to organize workers in the lumber sector. The unions had encountered difficulty persuading some racialized workers to join their ranks. Sangha met with workers to explain the benefits of becoming union members and to focus in particular on the means for challenging racial discrimination in the workplace. It was quite common in that sector for the higher-paying skilled jobs to be held by white workers while unskilled jobs, such as yard work, were held by workers of Indian or Chinese ethnicity. Sangha’s initial work with workers was somewhat informal, holding worker by worker discussions about such issues. Eventually, he held broader secret meetings but, as his influence spread in the worker community, he eventually began to hold large open meetings. In one instance, a meeting he held with workers in one of their lumber camp bunkhouses was interrupted by the mill superintendent who stopped the meeting and drove Sangha to his office, arguing with him and ordering him out. When the two men existed the office, a crowd of more than 80 workers stood in the rain and asserted that they would walk off the job if Sangha was forced to go. The mill superintendent could not lose that degree of labour and was forced to allow the meeting to continue. News of this successful collective response spread and assisted in worker mobilizing. One mill owner even offered Sangha a good office job in an effort to get him out of his organizing role*** but Sangha stayed his course of labour organizing.
Darshan Singh Sangha became a prominent organizer for the International Woodworkers Association (IWA) calling upon workers to work collectively, not divided by race, and to direct collective action against the employer for improved working conditions. In 1946, he was involved as members of the IWA struck work for 37 days which successfully resulted in establishing bargained legal rights to an 8-hour workday, increased pay and equal working conditions without differentiation based on race. At a victory rally attended by more than 4000 union members, Darshan Singh Sangha was one of the leaders to address the crowd.
Darshan Singh Sangha was also part of the fight, with Dr. Pandia and others, for franchise for South Asian Canadians in British Columbia, and he was part of the 1943 delegation to Victoria pursuing this.
Outside of British Columbia, Sangha continued his organizing efforts in other provinces and was recognized as a person with deep political knowledge who made important contributions as a leader in the labour movement. He later returned to India where he was killed in connection with his political activism there. The Indo Canadian Workers’ Association has honoured the anniversary of Sangha’s death in recognition of the ongoing struggle against racism, discrimination and extremism.
The key resources for most of the information in this piece are:
“Darshan Singh Canadian: Ten Years in Canada” by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal, published on-line through Simon Fraser University at: https://digital.lib.sfu.ca/km-6309/darshan-singh-canadian-ten-years-canada-page-1
Sarjeet Singh Jagpal, “Becoming Canadians: Pioneer Sikhs in Their Own Words” (* at page 64, ** at page 90, *** at 143).
BC Labour Heritage Centre, “Uniting Workers Across Ethnic Divides” (July 30, 2020): https://www.labourheritagecentre.ca/ethnicdivides/
Communist Party of Canada, “Darshan Singh: fighter for the people” (September 15, 2011) https://web.archive.org/web/20140205225251/http://www.parti-communiste.ca/?p=1390
Gurpreet Singh, “A South Asian martyr who was known as Canadian” (September 24, 2011) https://www.straight.com/article-469871/vancouver/gurpreet-singh-south-asian-martyr-who-was-known-canadian and “Remembering forgotten Canadian hero” (December 26, 2010) https://www.straight.com/article-365909/vancouver/gurpreet-singh-remembering-forgotten-canadian-hero
Special thanks to Sheilagh Turkington for her assistance in preparing this feature.
About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers.