By Balwant Sanghera
VANCOUVER: The Punjabi Language Education Association (PLEA Canada) had a very successful International Mother Language Day (IMLD) celebrations last week at the North Delta Recreation Centre in the Metro Vancouver area.
More than 200 persons filled the hall to celebrate this special day. As a result of the struggle and sacrifices of the Bengali community in general and students in particular in what is now Bangladesh, UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) throughout the world in 1999.
PLEA has been celebrating this special day for many years. This was our tenth celebration of IMLD. Since it is the centenary of the birth of the Gadar (Freedom) Movement in North America, this year’s celebration was dedicated to this movement and those brave and fearless fighters of our community who, through their sacrifices, paved the way for future generations to enjoy better life in Canada and the US.
- The first Punjabi class in Canada started in 1908 at the Khalsa Diwan Society gurdwara in Vancouver.
- The first Punjabi newspaper in Canada –Swadesh Sewak – was started in Vancouver in 1910.
- Canada’s first Punjabi book – Dushman di Khoj Bhal – (Search of the Enemy) by Munsha Singh Dukhi was printed in Vancouver in 1914.
- Today, Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Canada with at least 460,000 speakers.
- Surrey, with close to 100,000 speakers of Punjabi, has now become the largest Punjabi-speaking community outside Punjab.
- Brampton in Ontario is close second with 91,000 speakers of Punjabi.
To our pleasant surprise, a lot of well-wishers of the Punjabi in Canada had already arrived at the hall well ahead of the starting time. Another thing we tried to emphasize was the participation by our youth in such programs and activities. Again, we were pleasantly surprised to see so many parents, teachers, children and youth attend not only as audience but also as participants.
A number of teachers made an excellent effort in encouraging their students to participate. PLEA is very thankful to all of those parents, teachers and students who were there either as participants or as part of the audience.
In my opening remarks, in addition to welcoming the members of the audience and participants, I gave a brief update about the status of Punjabi locally, nationally and internationally. Indeed, it is a great honour for PLEA and all of the well-wishers of Punjabi that this language is now the third most spoken language in Canada with at least 460,000 speakers.
Similarly, it is tenth or eleventh most spoken language in the world. The latest figures indicate that Punjabi has now become the second most spoken language in Australia and the third most spoken in England.
Locally, Surrey, with close to 100,000 speakers of Punjabi has now become the largest Punjabi speaking community outside Punjab. Brampton in Ontario is close second with 91,000 speakers of Punjabi. On behalf of PLEA, I would like to urge members of our community to become ambassadors for Punjabi and help promote it not only in our educational institutions but also in the community in whatever way they can.
Though a lot has been accomplished, yet a lot more needs to be done in getting Punjabi its due place in Canada. Take for example the airline industry. Some of the airlines carrying passengers from Canada to India have almost 80 percent of their passengers of Punjabi heritage. Yet there are hardly any Punjabi-speaking cabin crew members. Nor are there any Punjabi newspapers, magazines or movies available on these flights. This is something we need to follow-up with the airlines and travel agents. Similarly, there are a lot of other things that still need to be followed up in this regard. PLEA has set up a committee to approach the airlines as well as Indo-Canadian travel agencies to follow up on this issue.
Veteran historian Sohan Singh Pooni was kind enough to join us in explaining the close relationship between our pioneers in Canada and the Punjabi language. He mentioned that the first Punjabi class in Vancouver was begun in 1908 at the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver’s gurdwara on 2nd Avenue and Burrard Street. It was taught by Bhai Balwant Singh, the priest at the gurdwara at that time.
Mr. Pooni stated that Vancouver was also home to some of the earliest Punjabi newspapers. For example, the first Punjabi newspaper in Canada – Swadesh Sewak – was started in Vancouver in 1910. Also, the first Punjabi book – Dushman di Khoj Bhal – (Search of the Enemy) by Munsha Singh Dukhi, was printed in Vancouver in 1914.Consequently, there was a keen desire among the pioneers to learn Punjabi at that time so that they could read Punjabi newspapers and stay in touch with each other through this common medium.
Mr. Pooni was followed by prominent writer and PLEA’s vice president Sadhu Binning who stressed the point that we should take advantage of the opportunities to learn and promote Punjabi. Mr. Binning emphasized that still a lot more needs to be done in getting due respect and proper place for Punjabi in this country. There are still a lot of challenges ahead for PLEA and the community. He was followed by Jas Lehal who stressed that more research, materials, teacher training and appropriate syllabus are essential for Punjabi.
Statistics Canada spokespersons Ashok Mathur and Peter Liang gave a very comprehensive picture of Punjabi in Canada.
They thanked the community and PLEA in encouraging people to participate in the census in 2011.
In addition to these impressive presentations, the audience was treated to a variety of songs, poems and essays by students from Beaver Creek Elementary, Princess Margaret Secondary and North Delta Secondary Schools.
Hardeep Singh Virk entertained the audience with two beautiful songs about Punjabi. Prominent Punjabi poet and author Gian Singh Kotli shared an inspiring poem about the Punjabi language. Prabhjot Kaur did an excellent job as MC with guidance from Parvinder Dhariwal.
At the conclusion of the program, the participants as well as members of the audience were thanked for joining in this celebration. Plaques were presented to four prominent individuals for their contribution to the Punjabi language. They are: Inder Mehat, Amrit Mann, Rajinder Pandher and Paul Binning.
Our sincere thanks also go to our financial supporters – Sukhi Batth, Rav Bains, Paramjit Sandhu, Deepak Binning Foundation and Dr. Hakim Bhullar. PLEA is ever so grateful to the Indo-Canadian media – both print and electronic- for their continued support. All in all, it was a very successful tribute to our mother language Punjabi.
(Based in Richmond, BC, Balwant Sanghera is a community leader who has been honoured with the Order of British Columbia)