April 6, 2021

UCalgary collaborates with Alberta Sikh community to build Sikh Studies program

Students from diverse backgrounds and faculties welcome to participate and increase their understanding and knowledge of the Sikh tradition
Dollar Gill and Unsplash

As a member of UCalgary’s Sikh Students’ Association, Gurbir Parmar has seen first-hand her community’s great desire and drive to push for a Sikh Studies program at the University of Calgary.

Parmar’s focus is not within the Faculty of Arts, rather she’s a fourth-year business student. And yet she was drawn to the two classes on Sikhism offered within the Department of Classics and Religion. The same goes for many of her friends in the Sikh Students’ Association, coming from a wide array of fields, including social work, law, education, and others. 

“Pretty much all of us are in support of a Sikh Studies program and not just humanities and religious studies students either,” says Parmar. “We’ve come from various faculties. I think, more than anything else, it has to do with representation.”

Parmar points out that UCalgary has a large population of Sikh students, as does Calgary itself. “To have an academic program where we’re represented — one that builds a deeper understanding of our culture — this is important to us,” she says.

UCalgary's Sikh Students' Association has been a main driver in a push to start a Sikh Studies program at the University of Calgary.

Trevor Alberts and the Sikh Students' Association

Therefore, it means a lot to Parmar that UCalgary is collaborating with the Sikh community in Alberta toward building a long-term Sikh Studies program at the university. The plan is to create a three-year full-time appointment in Sikh Studies, expand current course selection, strengthen research, and facilitate community engagement. The long-term plan is to establish a Chair of Sikh Studies. If realized, this would be the only Chair in Canada with an exclusive focus on Sikh Studies, making UCalgary a leader in the field.

Dr. Harjeet Grewal, PhD, is the sessional instructor teaching UCalgary’s current Sikh Studies classes. Grewal notes that Sikhism is the fifth-largest world religion and that between 600,000 and one million Sikhs currently live in Canada, making Canada the world’s largest Sikh community outside of India. This Canadian Sikh community has made a significant contribution to developing multicultural values and being leaders in areas of economics and politics, both local and nationally.

“But despite these consistent contributions, Sikh traditions remain poorly understood,” says Grewal. “Increasing the presence of Sikh Studies at the university level is an important way to increase exposure, understanding, and knowledge of the Sikh tradition.”

Grewal feels that Sikhs in Canada have suffered from a “perception gap.”

“This is where racism can enter into the picture, along with bullying and pressures to conform,” he says. “With its rigorous objective ethos, the University of Calgary is the best place to create a broader and deeper understanding that this culture is not threatening to Canada. In many ways, Sikh values and traditional Canadian values really square up with one another."

Sikh dancers put on a show for onlookers at a Sikh Students' Association event.

Trevor Alberts and the Sikh Students' Association

A Sikh Studies program is not only for Sikh students. “My classes have been attended by students from many diverse backgrounds and they’ve really enjoyed them,” says Grewal.

Remneek Kaur, a UCalgary alumna (BA, Political Science’15), practising lawyer and a member of the board of Guru Ram Das Darbar, a Sikh temple in Calgary, is excited by the prospect of a Sikh Studies program at UCalgary.

She feels such a program is important not only for the university but also for the Sikh community at large. “We’ve seen so many hate crimes and so many biased, inaccurate articles in the media,” says Kaur. “Sikhs can be loud when it comes to being misrepresented. We’ll push back and say: ‘This is not the correct narrative.’ So, to have an academic platform, with the input of the community, where we can clear up misconceptions and provide an accurate background as to what Sikhism is and who Sikhs are — to be able to control the narrative a bit — I think it’s very valuable.” 

For those who wish to support the Sikh Studies program, UCalgary’s Giving Day provides an opportunity. Giving Day is April 22 but donors are encouraged to participate as early as possible. All gifts made to the expanding Sikh Studies program between April 1 and midnight on April 22 will count toward Giving Day. And, when you give early, your gift can go twice as far. All gifts up to $2,500 will be matched, dollar for dollar — but only while matching funds last.

To make your gift online toward Expanding Sikh Studies, starting on April 1, go to https://crowdfunding.ucalgary.ca/o/university-of-calgary/i/ucrowdfund/s/expanding-sikh-studies-at-ucalgary

Drop off a donation at Dashmesh Culture Centre (35 Martindale Blvd. NE, Calgary) during regular hours. Please make cheques payable to the University of Calgary and write “Giving Day - Sikh Studies” in the memo line.