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When you sit in on one of Gurpreet Kaur Bains’s Punjabi classes at LA Matheson Secondary School (LAM), it’s easy to see students’ knowledge of spoken and written Punjabi. What’s less visible, but perhaps more important, is the way this Punjabi program fosters students’ connection to Punjabi culture and promotes strong cultural identity.

Gurpreet’s career in education started out as a science and learning support teacher. When the opportunity to teach Punjabi language at her current school came up, she was eager to take on the new role to expand the program beyond literacy and language and include learning that emphasizes identity and culture. Gurpreet believes in empowering students, engaging community, and thinking critically about culture, all through Punjabi language instruction. “Identity and culture are integral parts of teaching language. Culturally relevant instruction can result in a more in-depth discovery of language, but infusion of culture must go beyond just dine, dance, and dress,” said Gurpreet.

Gurpreet has worked with several community organizations to weave together language and culture in her Punjabi classes, including the Next Hundred Years Mentorship Program, Kaur Collective, Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival, Shakti Society, Dhahan Youth Prize, Surrey School District Film and Speech Festival, Punjabi Language Education Association, Mustang Justice, and Indus Media Foundation. All of these fall under the umbrella of Punjabi Mustang, a program dedicated to taking ownership of language and connecting to one’s roots. 

As the program grew, Safe Schools, a leader in prevention and intervention programs for youth, approached Gurpreet and presented an opportunity to create a mentorship program focused on identity. LAM students in Punjabi 11 and 12 were chosen as the first mentors in the program, called Next 100 Years Mentorship Program. The name comes from the publication titled The 100 Year Journey by Rana Vig and Rupa Vig.

This book highlights migration stories of settler Punjabi pioneers in BC and their struggles and resilience as they made a home for themselves in Canada. It also centres their contributions and legacy.

Through peer mentorship, students explore subjects such as inclusion, racism, identity, resilience, belonging, and prejudice. These themes are taught in the Punjabi language classroom using stories, classroom discussions, guest speakers, and activities such as interviewing grandparents, parents, and community members. Students also complete various film projects to build and share their learning. All of these activities give students an opportunity to learn more about their families’ stories and experiences of migration, and dig deeper into what it means to be a settler. 

Many participants, like Manreet Sandhu, a 2022 LAM grad and winner of the Cmolik Foundation Scholarship, express their feelings after participating in the program as “incredibly rewarding, insightful, and helpful in building connections to make better communities.” She commented that mentorship is “a two-way street where you get as much as you put in.” 

Riya Samra, a Grade 11 student at LAM, said, “Learning Punjabi language gave me the skills and connection to my identity, which helped me discover the person I want to be.” Mentorship also taught her “patience, flexibility, and not to judge anyone based on the way they look.”

Students in the program have taken on a leadership role in the school and brought attention to areas within the curriculum and other school activities that lack representation. For example, in the past when students learned about Remembrance Day, there was no mention of the 1.1 million Indian soldiers who served in World War One (WWI) under the British Empire. Students pointed out that despite the large South Asian population at the school, there was not a single turbaned soldier in any textbook lessons about WWI, nor the slideshow that used to be part of the school’s Remembrance Day commemoration. Indus Media Foundation displays and artifacts in the hallways have brought these hidden stories to light.

“If students do not see themselves in the curriculum, their engagement and sense of belonging is diminished,” said Gurpreet.

Through conversations in the Punjabi classroom, students shared their rich family histories and stories of great- grandparents who served in various wars. Gurpreet’s maternal grandfather also served in WWII and was a prisoner of war. The Punjabi program at LAM created an opportunity to bring these stories of identity and history to the entire school population. Together, students and teachers worked to re-create a more inclusive, less Eurocentric, commemoration of Remembrance Day that reflected students’ and staff’s personal stories and histories.

To create more opportunities for students to learn from role models who share their cultural identity, the mentorship and Punjabi language program brings in several guest speakers every year. Settler pioneer families are invited to share their stories with the class, as well as prominent members of the community, such as Baltej Singh Dhillon, the first turbaned Sikh RCMP officer, and the Dosanjh family, whose ancestor came to Canada in the early 1900s. 

After a successful pilot project at two elementary schools, the mentorship program has now expanded into four elementary schools in Surrey. Each year, several mentors in Grades 10–12 are selected to receive additional training before they get to know their elementary school mentees. The training is supported by the Surrey School District, Surrey RCMP, and Equitas, a human rights education organization. The training helps students gain an understanding of how to support their mentees and covers topics including youth rights, the difference between rights and privileges, and how to create safe and inclusive communities. These mentors apply their training and use their own knowledge and connection to Punjabi language and culture to deliver workshops and help plan and co-ordinate celebrations such as Vaisakhi at their designated elementary school. 

“Cultural holiday traditions and celebrations are important in building strong bonds between family and community. They give us a sense of belonging and a way to express what is important to us. They connect us to our history, roots, and ancestors,” said Gurpreet.

This year, two students from the mentorship program, along with their teacher Gurpreet, will be featured in an upcoming documentary titled Hidden Histories: Settler Pioneer Sikhs in Canada. The documentary will highlight the ways in which the mentorship program supports positive cultural identity development through language, mentorship, and cultural connections across the curriculum. You can watch the documentary soon on PBS or at the Sikh Art and Film Festival.

Programs like Next 100 Years Mentorship stress the need for building connections and community to help ease the transition from elementary school to high school, and create a positive and supportive school culture. In the seven years the program has been running, the school has seen a marked improvement in school culture, sense of belonging, engagement, diverse representation, peer connections, communication with students and families, and student anxiety. 

“The program has benefited both elementary and secondary school students. Kids need to see themselves in their curriculum to build a strong sense of self and belonging. This program aims to do just that, and we’ve seen long-term benefits for both mentors and mentees,” said Gurpreet.


Resources for bringing South Asian culture and history to your classroom

Untold Stories: The South Asian Pioneer Experience by Karen Dosanjh

This book documents the stories of the first wave of South Asians who immigrated from Punjab to BC in the early 1900s.

The 100 Year Journey by Rana Vig and Rupa Vig

This book is a collection of personal stories and photos of Punjabi settlers in BC. The collection highlights resiliency and the lasting legacy of Punjabi settlers in BC.

South Asian Canadian Legacy Project available at openschool.bc.ca/saffronthreads

This collaborative project that was co-written by a group of South Asian educators, BCTF members, and University of Fraser Valley staff includes K–12 learning resources for educators to explore South Asian Canadian culture, history, and heritage in BC.

South Asian Canadian Digital Archive available at sacda.ca

This digital archive includes photos and exhibits that highlight South Asian Canadian history and contributions, and features one exhibit specifically on labour history.

Duty, Honour & Izzat: From Golden Fields to Crimson—Punjab’s Brothers in Arms in Flanders by Steven Purewal

This book highlights the role of Punjabi Canadian soldiers in WWI in France and Belgium.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine
Tag: Antiracism