COLUMN: Surrey’s Vaisakhi is a celebration for our entire community

There are important points that all of us, no matter our ethnic or religious backgrounds, can draw from Vaisakhi.

Students at Surrey's Khalsa School were among the massive crowd at Saturday's Vaisakhi parade in Newton.

The annual Vaisakhi parade is the only event in Surrey that comes close to attracting almost the entire city’s population. This year’s parade, held on Saturday, attracted a crowd estimated at 400,000 – and the huge crowd turned out in weather which became wet in the afternoon.

This was the 19th annual Vaisakhi parade, and it has come a long way from its relatively small beginnings. For many years, the largest Vaisakhi parade in the Lower Mainland area was in South Vancouver, but the Surrey parade attracts a far larger crowd now. This is reflective of how Surrey has grown and changed.

There are several reasons why it has become such a big event. The South Asian population in the Surrey region continues to grow at a steady rate, while the Vancouver population does not. Many former Vancouver residents of South Asian background have moved to the Surrey area, often to be closer to their families.

Another reason is that the Surrey parade is more central and thus attracts many people from surrounding areas including Vancouver, New Westminster, Richmond, and Abbotsford, all of which have sizable South Asian populations.

Another reason is that organizers have, particularly in recent years, worked hard to make it more of a community event, inviting people of all backgrounds and faiths. This generous invitation has been accepted by many, and people from all religious backgrounds (and no religious background) have felt welcomed.

Vaisakhi was originally a Hindu festival, and is still marked by Hindus as the beginning of the Solar New Year. It became a very important date for Sikhs in 1699 when the Khalsa panth, a group of warriors whose duty was to defend the Sikh faith, was created by Guru Gobind Singh. It marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year.

Sikhs are far and away the largest group of South Asians in Surrey, and the Vaisakhi parade here was started by Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar, the Sikh temple on 85 Avenue and 128 Street.

The event always attracts a bevy of politicians, and this year was no exception, given that a provincial election is underway. Both Premier Christy Clark, the BC Liberal leader, and leader of the opposition and NDP leader John Horgan were in attendance. Many candidates were present as well.

One of the enduring and best-known tenets of the Sikh religion is the feeding of people in the langar, the temple community kitchen. On Vaisakhi day, food is available along the street for members of the crowd, bringing the practice of giving free food out to the masses of people who attend the event.

Given the growing popularity of Indian food in the area and the many fine restaurants that are serving it in Surrey, this proves to be yet another attraction of the event.

There are some important points all of us, no matter what our ethnic or religious backgrounds are, can draw from the celebration of Vaisakhi day.

One is that there are many people in this large city who are different from us – yet in many ways are the same. It is important to remember the human traits that we have in common, while recognizing that people do have differences – which need to be respected, not mocked or undermined.

We can also recognize and honour the founding of the Sikh religion, and in particular the Khalsa. Sikhs are not afraid to stand up and be proud of who they are. The same can hold true of people from other religions and backgrounds. Vaisakhi is a reminder of that.

Thanks are due to the organizers of this massive event; to the many individuals, organizations and businesses that supplied free food; and to Surrey’s first responders who, once again, ensured that the parade was a peaceful celebration.

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