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First Sikh soldier in Canada to enlist for WW I remembered as a ‘fierce soldier,’ historian says

A special remembrance ceremony will be held Sunday at the gravesite of Pte. Buckam Singh in Kitchener, Ont. Historian Sandeep Singh Brar, with the Sikh Museum, says Singh's story is an inspirational one and he wants more people to hear it.

Pte. Buckam Singh enlisted at a time when other Sikh soldiers were turned away

A gravesite says: Service Number 454819 Private Bukkan Singh 28th Battalion." The date of death is listed as "27th Aug 1919."

When historian Sandeep Singh Brar thinks about Pte. Buckam Singh, he sees a pioneer.

Born in December 1893 in Punjab, India, the Canadian War Museum says Singh was one of 10 Sikh soldiers who fought in the First World War. Newspaper reports posted to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial show he was the first Sikh soldier to enlist in Canada.

He died in 1919. His military grave is in Kitchener, Ont., which is where a special remembrance service will be held on Sunday.

Singh Brar says Singh was 14 when he moved to Canada, and specifically B.C., with his parents, Badan and Chandi Kaur Singh, in 1907. They moved to Ontario in 1912.

"He worked on a farm and he's one of the first documented Sikh actually living in Ontario at the time," Singh Brar told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's Craig Norris, host of The Morning Edition.

Singh's first name has been spelled different ways throughout the years including: Bukum, Buk Am and Bukkan. The SikhMuseum.com, which Singh Brar curates, spells it Buckam.

When the First World War started, thousands of Sikhs in British Columbia tried to join the Armed Forces "but their hearts were broken because they were turned away," Singh Brar said.

"They were basically told, 'Sorry fellas, this is a white man's war. We don't want you.' But Buckam Singh, he tried also to enlist and he was actually accepted," he said.

"It would have been a huge honour to him and really a sense that, 'I'm accepted as a Canadian,'" Singh Brar said.

Singh enlisted on April 23, 1915 in Smith Falls, Ont., and served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion. Singh served overseas in France and Belgium and was wounded in two separate battles.

"He was at the front line and quite a fierce soldier," Singh Brar said.

The historian notes there's also the possible connection between Signh Brar and Guelph's own Lt. Col. John McCrae.

"The second time when he was wounded, he was taken to a hospital … the Third General Hospital in Boulogne [France]," Singh Brar said.

"This hospital was actually run at the time by Lt. Col. John McCrae of In Flanders Field poem fame. So it's kind of ironic and interesting that maybe the two men may even have met each other."

A newspaper clipping on Singh's web page from the Canadian Virtual War Memorial shows Singh was taken to McCrae's hospital in July 1916.

If the two men met, it doesn't appear to have been documented.

Laura Coady, the collections and research co-ordinator for Guelph Museums which operates McCrae House, shows McCrae was working at the hospital when Singh was admitted but she could "find no indication that they crossed paths during Private Singh's brief stay."

"Looking through the signatures in across the other medical notes in the file, I did not see anything that I think could passably be considered John McCrae's signature," Coady said in an email. "A quick look through our McCrae records do not have any mention of Private Singh."

While recovering in hospital from his second injury in 1916, Singh contracted tuberculosis and spent about a year and a half in various hospitals in England before being brought back to Canada.

He was taken to the Freeport hospital in Kitchener for treatment, which was a military hospital at the time in 1917. That is where he died on Aug. 27, 1919.

LISTEN | First World War Sikh soldier to be honoured during special ceremony in Kitchener:

The Morning Edition – K-W6:53First World War Sikh soldier to be honoured during special ceremony in Kitchener

Featured VideoThe annual Sikh Remembrance Day ceremony will be held on Sunday at the military gravesite Private Buckam Singh in Kitchener. This is the only military grave in Canada of a Sikh soldier from the World Wars. Historian Sandeep Singh Brar talks about who Singh was and why this ceremony is held each year.

Special ceremony

For nearly 90 years, Singh's service to Canada was largely forgotten. Singh Brar learned about him after finding Singh's war medals in a British pawn shop. That led Singh Brar to find his grave in Kitchener.

Now, for the past 16 years, a special remembrance day is held at Singh's graveside on the Sunday before Remembrance Day.

Singh Brar says it's a day to remember all the Sikh soldiers who have fought for Canada and their allies.

He said anyone is invited to attend the ceremony and it can be "kind of an eye opener" for them, as it was for himself.

"I never knew that Sikhs fought in World War One for Canada because I knew we weren't even allowed to vote until the 1950s. So it's really historic," he said.

"Canadian history is really made-up of so many different stories from so many different groups and people who have all called Canada their home," he added. "We're slowly uncovering these stories from different groups and people and celebrating them today. So I think it's wonderful."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Bueckert

Reporter/Editor

Kate has been covering issues in southern Ontario for more than 15 years. She currently works for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. Email: kate.bueckert@cbc.ca

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