Why “Union Zindabad!”?

“Zindabad” is used as a cheer or exclamation of support in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Odia and Bengali languages, literally translating to “Long live [idea or person]”. In the BC labour movement, cries of “Farmworkers Zindabad!” have been heard at massive protest rallies in recent decades, but the phrase has a history that reaches across the Pacific Ocean. The title of this exhibit encapsulates the spirit of South Asian Canadian labour activism: “Long Live the Union!”

This exhibit focuses on the history of South Asian immigrants as workers, and their relationship to the labour movement in BC. We also explore the evolving attitudes of unions towards South Asian immigrant labour.

The vast majority of migrants to Canada in the early 20th Century were Sikhs from India’s Punjab region, and most came to British Columbia. Hindus and Muslim were also represented, and the term “Hindu” became widely used to incorrectly describe all South Asians. Hastings Street Vancouver 1905, City of Vancouver Archives, Port P1551.


Immigration Branch Records, reprinted in Sarjit Singh, “An oral history of the Sikhs in British Columbia”  (Thesis, UBC, 1991), 136.

The three main reasons behind the large increase in South Asian immigration to BC between 1900 and 1910 were:

    • To find work and build a better life in Canada
    • To escape persecution in India
    • To help build support for anti-colonial networks outside of India

Racism was rampant in Canada’s white colonial society in this time period. Union attitudes in BC were no different. Early labour leaders successfully encouraged federal and provincial governments to invoke discriminatory laws and regulations that limited South Asians’ migration and ability to work in safe and well-paid jobs.

However, three historic events can be said to be watershed moments when new alliances were formed between BC labour and South Asian workers:

  • World War Two
  • New waves of South Asian immigration in the 1960s and 70s
  • Organization of farmworkers in the 1980s

Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the South Asian community drew on its own radical histories and found allies in the labour movement. British Columbia unions in turn benefited from the skills and dedication that South Asian members brought to the movement: a commitment to collective action, unity of purpose and devotion to fellow workers.

Over time, South Asian Canadians claimed power in their own unions, inspiring involvement in politics and government. The journey has not been easy. Through over of 100 years of courage, struggle, determination and loyalty the South Asian community in British Columbia has persisted and asserted its place in BC’s labour movement.

*We have chosen to use the term South Asian as a broadly inclusive term, unless quoted in another manner.



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Union Zindabad! Copyright © 2022 by BC Labour Heritage Centre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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