Oral History Program: Introduction

(Please see results of the program here)

This is an important time for the Punjabi language in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Media attention to the language and, most strikingly, the 2016 Canadian national census results, have demonstrated the importance of the language in BC, and in Canada overall.[1] That Census showed that there were at that time almost 200,000 Punjabi speakers in BC (4% of the population of the province), and more than 500,000 (or 1.4% of the population) in Canada as a whole.[2]

The greater Vancouver/Fraser Valley area has been home to a vibrant Punjabi language literary community since the 1960’s and numerous Punjabi language media sources (print and radio) now exist. Classes in the language are increasingly available at the pre-collegiate and collegiate levels, with a dearth of teachers available to teach. Still, Punjabi language loss continues to be a concern within the Punjabi heritage community of BC, as indicated by the efforts named: members of the Punjabi community discern the loss of the language among youth in Canada, and seek to remedy this.

The Punjabi Oral History project was founded to address the need for support for Punjabi language in British Columbia, and to further develop the growing program in Punjabi Studies at the University. It draws upon and is inspired by activities that have taken place in Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley since the late 1960s, when the numbers of Punjabis in BC began to increase significantly and members of the Punjabi community became very active in building their community’s cultural life here.[3] The first literary organization, the Punjabi Literary Association of Vancouver, was founded in 1973, a year after the founding of the Punjabi Cultural Association.[4] It is in honour of this long-standing tradition–and in recognition of its merit and import in the study of Punjabi culture and history overall–that the Punjabi Oral History Program at UBC first focused its attention on cultural production in the Punjabi language in this region. More recently, we have expanded to investigate broader aspects of Punjabi heritage in British Columbia.

The Oral History Program at UBC was enabled in a trial first year (2010-2011) by a grant from UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning. In 2012-2013, a generous grant from the Canada India Education Society supported the program again. In following years we have continued to develop the program, and in the fall term of the 2015-6 academic year offered for the first time a new fourth year seminar entitled ASIA 475, now cross-listed with HIST 475, “Documenting Punjabi Canada” that allowed students to undertake in-depth oral history interviews on a range of subjects of their choice. That class was also designed to contribute to UBC’s exciting new Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies Program.  The Punjabi Oral History Program now proceeds through  the Punjabi Studies Oral History Research and Program Development Project, 2019-2021 (extended to 2022), which is funded by UBC’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, through their Program for Undergraduate Research Experience with additional support from an anonymous donor to the Department of History. You can see our emerging work on this new initiative here.

To see past class-based projects, explore “Oral History Projects” in the menu above, or click here.


[1] Kim Bolan “Punjabi fluency now seen as asset in job searches and family relationships” in The Vancouver Sun Saturday February 23, 2008, pg B7; “Punjabi is fourth most spoken language in Canada” February 14, 2008, http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Punjabi-is-fourth-most-spoken-language-in-Canada/272933/ [Accessed October 6, 2008]. “How Punjabi In Canada Became The Third Most Spoken Language” March 1, 2013 http://newseastwest.com/from-1908-to-2013-how-punjabi-became-the-third-most-spoken-language-in-canada/ [Accessed May 7, 2013]; For the earlier 2011 census, where striking results for Punjabi lead to increased media attention, see: “CENSUS: Immigration altering Canada’s language landscape; Punjabi among most common,” http://www.vancouverdesi.com/news/nridiaspora/census-immigration-altering-canadas-language-landscape-punjabi-among-most-common/330095/ [Accessed May 7, 2013].

[2] https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/Page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=PR&Code1=59&Geo2=&Code2=&Data=Count&SearchText=British%20Columbia&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=All&GeoLevel=PR&GeoCode=59 {Accessed 28 October 2020]

[3] Sadhu Binning. “Punjabi-Canadian Literature: Reflections of the Changing Community” in The International Journal of Punjab Studies 13, 1 & 2 (Spring-Fall 2006): 279-285.

[4] Anne Murphy “Modern Punjabi Literature in Vancouver: A Portrait” in Sikh Formations: Religion Culture Theory (December 2008).