Vancouver BC: The Panjabi Push

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat May 10 12:18:46 UTC 2008

The Punjabi Push
Thu, May 08 2008
By Lucy-Claire Saunders

The South Asian community is rapidly growing and with it, the push to
make Punjabi an official language. As British Columbia strengthens its
economic ties to India's Punjab region, greater emphasis is being
placed on Punjabi as more public schools offer classes and employers
seek applicants with a working knowledge of one of the most spoken
languages in the world. Even politicians are grappling to learn the
ancient Indo-Aryan language. For over three years, Gian Singh Kotli
has been teaching Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan how to speak Punjabi.

"Before his Mayoral election, Sam Sullivan expressed his desire to
learn Punjabi to get closer to the Punjabi community," said Kotli.
"His friends introduced me as a suitable teacher and so I accepted it
as a gesture of service to the community." Kotli, who moved to B.C. 17
years ago, is a certified translator by the Society of Translators and
Interpreters of British Columbia, and a freelance journalist with a
regional Indo-Canadian weekly newspaper. He has spent numerous days
reading, writing and speaking Punjabi with Mayor Sullivan.

"Sam Sullivan is very intelligent and a quick learner," he said.
"There is no special technique to teaching a language. I only make the
subject interesting by sharing the richness of the Punjabi language by
specially referring to the hymns of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh saint-poets
contained in the Sikh Scripture."

In Canada, there are close to 400,000 people whose mother tongue is
Punjabi. With the latest census showing a 35 per cent increase in
Punjabi speakers since 2001, the language is set to become the fourth
largest spoken language in Canada.

As the community grows, B.C. is in a unique position to foster strong
economic links with Punjab. Abbotsford MLA Michael de Jong has
repeatedly expressed his intent to expand relations between the two
regions, even pushing for direct flights between Amritsar and
Abbotsford, where Punjabi is the second most spoken language.

Given the strong historic immigration connection, over the years there
has been a greater emphasis placed on the Punjab region despite the
fact that Canada conducts most of its trade with the south of India,
where businesses use English and Hindi.

Sadhu Binning, a professor of Punjabi at the University of B.C. says
that the language has not been given enough credence and believes that
there is a vast source of untapped economic opportunities B.C. can
harness if its starts laying the groundwork today.

"Punjabis live in 125 countries around the world. They have a lot of
economic power," he said. "Yes, the South of India is the hub of
business in India, but if in the next few years peace returns to the
region, North India will return to its glory that it had in the older

In order to position itself for the economic splendor that lies ahead,
Binning says the time has come for the Canadian government to
seriously consider making Punjabi an official language.

"We feel that the demographics of Canada are changing now so the
government should change the two-language policy," he said. "In B.C.,
the government has accepted Punjabi and we're hoping the federal
government follows suit."

Currently, Canada only recognizes English and French as its two
official languages.

In 2005-2006, 411 groups from minority communities received $37.4
million under the Official Languages Support Program. Of these 411
groups, 368 were from francophone communities outside Quebec, while 43
groups were from anglophone communities inside Quebec, according to
the Ministry of Canadian Heritage.

Currently, Canadian Heritage's Multiculturalism Program does not
provide funding for heritage language projects.

In B.C., however, Punjabi has been considered an official second
language since 1994, along with French, Spanish, German, Japanese and
Mandarin Chinese.

Punjabi is taught at the University of B.C., Simon Fraser University,
University of Fraser Valley, Kwantlen University and many elementary
and secondary schools in Metro Vancouver.

On April 26, the Centre for India and South Asia Research at UBC
hosted the first conference on modern Punjabi literature in English.
The academic and literary seminar brought together writers, students,
and scholars to consider Punjabi literature as a North American and
world literature.

Authors and professors from around North America presented their
academic papers in English on literature in Punjabi with a special
focus on diaspora literature.

In Surrey alone there are close to 1,000 students taking Punjabi
classes, said Balwant Sanghera, the chair of the Punjabi Language
Education Association (PLEA).

Students in Grades Five through Eight are required to take a second
language, which does not have to be French.

The incentives for students to learn Punjabi range from learning about
another culture, or their own in many cases, to local economic

In Surrey there are close to 2,000 posted jobs where Punjabi is listed
as an asset. As the Punjabi population increases, so does the consumer
market, with businesses looking for bilingual workers, said Sanghera.

Learning Punjabi instead of French can offer greater financial rewards
to those living in places like Surrey or Abbotsford.

"The reality is if you live in Surrey, there are no jobs at the local
level that require French," said Binning. "But if you speak Punjabi,
you will get a job right away."

The interest in Punjabi continues to swell as more students and
businessmen take classes and politicians court the South Asian
community by giving speeches in Punjabi and flouting their knowledge
of Sikh culture.

"The community is really pleased because we consider these politicians
as good role models," said Sanghera. "We tell our children, 'Look, if
Sam Sullivan can learn Punjabi, why can't you?'"

David Hurford, a spokesperson for Mayor Sullivan says while his boss
only has time to meet with his Punjabi tutor once or twice a month, he
often finds Sullivan practicing in his spare time.

"There are times when I see him in his office when he gets a spare
moment, he'll pick up his book and I'll hear him practicing ten minute
blurbs here or there."

Sullivan feels learning a language is the ultimate sign of respect,
added Hurford.

Last year, Kotli gave Sullivan a translation of the holy Sikh
Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, during the annual Vaisakhi Festival
at the Gurdwara Khalsa Diwan Society Vancouver. The Mayor had made a
special request in an effort to learn more about the Sikh community.

The mayor, who also speaks French and Italian, and reads the Chinese
newspaper every morning, is the perfect representative of the city,
said Hurford.

"It shows just how diverse Vancouver is when we have a mayor who is
able to communicate in those different languages," he said.
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