Our People, Food, Immigration
The Propagation of Sikhi in Dufferin County: “If you want to acquire true knowledge, make people’s welfare your life goal.”
Story curator: Varun Joshi in conversation with Gurmant Singh
September 7, 2023
“Does Shelburne classify as a rural village in your eyes?”
I posed that question to Gurmant Singh, the head of the Akalgarh Sahib (Shelburne Gurdwara) if he considers Shelburne rural. Gurmant states that Shelburne is not a village, but a town experiencing steady development. However, he considers Shelburne a rural space given the region’s abundance of agriculture. There is more connection with land-based practices given the various types of agriculture that take place around the Akalgarh Sahib.
Sikhs living in Ontario’s Dufferin Country, which includes Mono, Orangeville, Amaranth East Garafraxa, East Luther-Grand Valley, Melancthon, Mulmur, Amaranth, and Shelburne, are over 50km from the nearest Gurdwara. The Akalgarh Sahib, despite being referred to as the Shelburne Gurdwara by congregants, is located in Mono, a town with a population of 8609. There are 18 Churches from different Christian denominations, 3 Masjids serving the Muslim community, and the Akalgarh Shahib, the lone Gurdwara serving Sikhs in Dufferin County. As the physical manifestation of Sikhi, a Gurdwara is a space where anyone, regardless of race, caste, gender, or any perceived differences can congregate. Individuals can access food, housing, community services, healthcare, and spiritual needs.
Gurmant says that prior to 2019, residents in Shelburne drove at least 45 minutes to visit a Gurdwara. Gurmant and his friend Lakhwant Singh observed members of the local Punjabi Sikh community travel long distances to visit a Gurdwara or rent out property in Orangeville to address their spiritual needs. Gurmant questioned the need to rent a space when there was enough of a community presence to support their own Gurdwara. To have a space that provides stability and comfort, a space owned by Lakhwant was converted into the Akalgarh Sahib. Members of the Sangat (community), in the Summer of 2019, led by Gurmant and Lakhwant, cleaned and modified the land to establish the Akalgarh Sahib.
On July 29th, 2019, the Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag) was hoisted to identify the Akalgarh Sahib with the start of the Sehaj Paath, an inaugural prayer that takes a month to complete. Gurmant tells me that 5-6 families initially attended, but by the end of August, 25-30 families attended the Akalgarh Sahib to provide Seva (service). As Sikh families move out of the GTA due to its rising costs, the Akalgarh Sahib has served the needs of Sikhs in the various towns across Dufferin County. Having a community space to call their own and practice their way of life helps ward away the dangers of isolation that can arise by leaving a place where Sikhs have established roots and a life.
Gurmant explains that the Gurdwara doesn’t solicit financial aid of any kind. Community members can donate money, but their Seva is what keeps the Akalgarh Sahib going. Seva refers to selfless service done in the name of Waheguru and one’s sangat. When community members bring groceries, prepare, or distribute meals, clean an area, or help repair/build an area, they engage in Seva. Congregants visit to meditate, meet friends, share news; build community by listening to each other’s needs, and sometimes use a dedicated space to strengthen their personal relationship with God.
As the congregation increased, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) had to intervene. Gurmant states that their experiences with the police were pleasant. On March 11th, 2023, during a Holla Mohalla celebration, attendance exceeded Gurmant’s expectations to the extent that people illegally parked their vehicles on the side of 410 Highway. Sikhs from Waterloo, Windsor, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and America congregated. The OPP monitored traffic to ensure that cars could get by and that devotees could safely cross the highway. The celebrations occurred without hurdles, and the OPP thanked Gurmant for the Gurdwara’s commitment to supporting the community.
Since its inception, the Akalgarh Sahib and its members have actively participated in a reciprocal relationship with various communities in Dufferin County. In turn, Dufferin County’s various communities have participated in events at the Akalgarh Sahib. Gurmant reports how families with Scottish and French heritage introduced their children to the Gurdwara, who now regularly visit the Akalgarh Sahib on weekends to sing Kirtan (religious hymns). The Dufferin County Canadian Black Association (DCCBA) has been a part of initiatives to support displaying Sikh artifacts at the Museum of Dufferin. Their members, including President Alethia O’Hara Stephenson, have attended events at the Akalgarh Sahib. Gurmant and Lakhwant have attended events hosted by the DCCBA since 2020, including flag-raising ceremonies for the start of Black History Month.
The Akalgarh Sahib does not actively solicit anyone to visit. Instead, the community maintains Gurdwara services so that it is always prepared to offer what it can to anyone in need. Members of the Sangat have participated in community events and introduced the Akalgarh Sahib by association. In December 2020, congregants participated in the Shelburne Toy Drive and were able to meet with the Shelburne Fire Department. Although there are plans to expand the Akalgarh Sahib’s facilities, Gurmant feels as though Waheguru has allowed everything to align as well as it has.
When the land was being prepared by volunteers, a sword was found in an RV left by the previous owner, a former member of the British Military. A talwar with a Gurmukhi inscription was found in a narrow cupboard at the back of the vehicle. Gurmant examined the blade along with the words on it, ‘Deg Tegh Fateh”, which signifies the obligations of the Khalsa: to provide food security and protect those who are vulnerable to oppression. Gurmant interpreted this sword’s presence as a sign to continue making the Gurdwara. A Gurdwara is designed to provide food and protection to those in need, and it felt like Guru Gobind Singh’s spirit manifested in the talwar as the Sangat worked to prepare the Gurdwara.
Gurmant says that when he came to Canada in 1991, he intended to maintain a commitment to uphold the values he embraced under the Buddha Dal sect of Sikhism. To uphold Guru Gobind Singh's teachings on justice, compassion, sovereignty, and equality, Gurmant devoted his life to the service of his Sangat. But according to him this community isn’t solely Sikhs, Punjabi diaspora, or Canadians. It’s humanity itself and living by the values of the Sri Guru Grant Sahibji mandates looking out for everyone. The Akalgarh Sahib is the embodiment of Waheguru and Sikhi’s steadfast goal to nourish and protect those that seek assistance.
Currently, the Akalgarh Sahib entails a foyer, a few bathrooms, a kitchen to prepare Langar, a Langar Hall, and a prayer hall in what appears to be a house. But the 20-foot-tall Nishan Sahib signifies the structure as a Gurdwara. There is a larger hall in the courtyard where weddings and events, such as Vaisakhi Celebrations, Bandi Chhor Diwas, Holla Mohalla, and Gurpurab take place. The courtyard includes outdoor space for Gatka and Shastar Vidya demonstrations.
In the prayer hall, everyone is expected to sit on the floor as equals. Gurmant identifies Gurdwara goers, often seniors, who experience arthritis or various health concerns that aggravate bodily pains when sitting on the floor. To address accessibility for those with health issues, members of the Sangat have arranged for stools so those experiencing difficulties whilst seated on the floor can participate in prayer. Congregants primarily visit the Akalgarh Sahib primarily for religious purposes, so the Gurdwara prioritizes maintaining a space that meets everyone’s needs.
Accessibility extends to diet as well. As a Punjabi vegan, I have to be mindful of dairy in dishes that are often served at Gurdwaras. When informing Gurmant of my dietary restrictions, he identified dishes I could eat. We both shared a plate of daal, rice, and juicy mangoes. The Akalgarh Sahib provides culturally appropriate food by ensuring nutritious foods indigenous to Punjab, such as daal, roti, yogurt, etc., are available. Given the prevalence of diabetes among the Punjabi Sikh diaspora in Canada, the sangat addressed the desire for sweet dishes by cooking sugar-free sweets in the Gurdwara kitchen. Akalgarh Sahib’s commitment to food security and accessibility is both proactive and reactive. On one hand, langar was mandated to be vegetarian by Guru Nanak as a vegetarian diet was an accessible option for most diets across cultures in the 1500s. On the other hand, if vegetarian foods at the Gurdwara conflict with one’s dietary restrictions, the Sangat tries to accommodate individual diets. The only exception is that meat is not permitted in the Gurdwara. It is considered unethical to kill an animal for food when other options are available.
Anyone experiencing poor mental health can enter a process of healing through spirituality at the Akalgarh Sahib. Addiction is identified as a major concern among young men in the Punjabi community. Gurmant draws from teachings in the Guru Granth Sahib, Dasam Granth, and various Sikh texts to best advise someone in need of guidance. Homeopathic remedies, such as Shardai, indigenous to the Indus region are available to assist those dealing with addiction.
Along with mental health, physical health is a priority for the Akalgarh Sahib, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Maintaining individual health and hygiene is central to any Gurdwara. Anyone who visits is expected to take off their shoes, wash their hands with soap and water, and wear a head covering while inside the Gurdwara. Individuals doing Seva in the Langar Hall pay extra attention to maintaining hygiene as they work with food. Emphasis on hygiene stems from the notion that one needs to purify themselves to properly serve their community and that purification manifests as a commitment to personal hygiene.
Gurmant describes the Gurdwara with the phrase, “Sarbat da Bhala”. This refers to the welfare of every being, regardless of colour, creed, caste, or any other difference. The Gurdwara is always open, even in a rural region like Dufferin County. The values of Sikhi emanate from the Akalgarh Sahib and its services are available to anyone in the community. If the door is closed at night, someone can knock, and if they’re in need, someone will be there to help.
In the time since the initial writing of this article, our dear friend Gurmant Singh passed away on December 30th. His passing has left a profound void in our lives, and we find solace in the memories we share with him and his impact on the Shelburne community. Gurmant is deeply missed by his sons, daughter, wife, son-in-law, and grandchild, as well as his numerous friends.