The old made way for the new in October 2005 when Paldi, once home to one of the largest Sikh communities in Canada, went up in flames.
The remains of the 88-year-old community which housed as many as 1,500 workers and residents in its heyday, were razed in preparation for a proposed 120 mixed-housing units and a re-born commercial centre.
Over three weekends regional fire departments “practice burned” a dozen old homes in the once thriving township between Duncan and Lake Cowichan. Only the second Sikh temple, built in 1959, and town founder Mayo Singh’s home (the latter only temporarily) were left standing.
Originally known as Mayo Siding, Paldi had become a derelict shadow of its heyday incarnation when the town was famous for its harmonious blending of East Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Europeans and Canadians.
It all began with the arrival of 18-year-old Mayo Singh in California in 1904; he was following the path of his older brother Ganea and cousin Doman, who’d earlier emigrated to B.C. After brief employment with the Union Pacific Railway, Mayo, as he was known, crossed the border and eventually got work in a sawmill near Chilliwack. When the business failed, Mayo, Ganea and Doman hired 35 of the former sawmill workers to run a 16-hectare potato farm.
That first attempt at operating a business in a new country ended ignominiously with the landlord’s pigs scavenging potatoes in lieu of outstanding rent.
Undaunted, the three young immigrants tried their hands at lumber milling on the mainland, but a dwindling timber supply led them to turn their eyes to Vancouver Island. They acquired timber rights to a 24-kilometre stretch on both sides of the CPR’s E&N shortline to Lake Cowichan.
Sent ahead as scout, Mayo was turned away at two Duncan hotels with the suggestion that he bunk with a “Hindu man living down the tracks”. Sundher Singh not only put him up, but guided him to the prospective timber limits by railway scooter. Mayo chose a millsite between the railway line and Sahtlam Creek, and the future Paldi — named for his birthplace in India — was born. The 325 hectares were later acquired clear-title.
Over the next 30 yeas, Mayo Bros. Lumber Co. survived fires, the Great Depression and the ups and downs of the marketplace. Paldi became home to a growing population of loggers, sawmill workers and their families. At first, most families lived in tents and converted railway coaches until bunkhouses could be built. As families arrived, homes and a school sprang up around the mill. Presiding over its steady growth was the slight, 5 foot 2 Mayo Singh.
Still in his early 30s, but never strong after a bout with typhoid, he and business partner Kapoor Singh (for whom Kapoor Regional Park is named) oversaw operations at Paldi and later at another sawmill at Sooke Lake. Mayo was empathetic to other new Canadians of all origins and made a point of hiring them at a time when racial discrimination was rampant and Canadian laws made citizenship difficult for non-whites. Only the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War put a dent in his practice of employing ethnic minorities. (The town’s cultural centres were the Japanese community hall and the Sikh Temple, which officially opened July 1, 1919, to coincide with Dominion Day.)
Paldi became home to the largest congregation of Sikhs yet in Canada, wrote Joan Mayo, Mayo’s daughter-in-law in her 1997 book, Paldi Remembered. “To the East Indian men living in the bunkhouse, it hardly seemed a foreign country,” she wrote. “With the temple, store, post office and newspapers and mail from home, it was a good life. In the evenings and on the weekends, the men played soccer, volleyball and practised lifting weights and other physical sports… [It was] a close-knit community that survived in a foreign land on its own merits through love, compassion and sharing with one another.”
Three Japanese men who’d worked for Mayo on the mainland were among Paldi’s first inhabitants, with most of the Japanese community settling to the west of the Sikh Temple. In Paldi Remembered, Sumi Kimachi recalled a happy childhood in Paldi, describing it as a harmonious miniature melting plot of Indo-, Japanese- and Chinese-Canadians, with its two temples and two company stores that stocked goods and foodstuffs imported from the old countries.
Across the E&N grade to the south were the Chinese, never in need of their own company store as they had access to Duncan’s Chinatown. While it may seem that Paldi was partitioned by nationality, by all accounts it was a homogeneous blessing — nothing like Duncan where all three ethnic groups were spurned by barbers and escorted to their own balcony in the local theatre, along with First Nations peoples.
After Kapoor went his own way, Mayo and Ganea started families with wives they’d returned to India to marry. An expanding Mayo Bros. Lumber Co., which incorporated in 1914 and boasted a peak payroll of 600 employees, became a pioneer in Island railway logging. Mayo’s most notable piece of rolling stock was a 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II that he had mounted on railway wheels to use when he inspected his private holdings on one of the longest private railways in B.C.
The prospering sawmill owner was well-known for his beneficence. Joan Mayo notes in her book that a hospital in India and auditorium in a college near her father-in-law’s birthplace are both named for him, as is a scholarship at the University of Victoria.
Another pet project was Mill Bay’s Queen Alexandra Solarium for crippled children, which Mayo supplied with fresh fruits, vegetables, linens and sundries.
In 1934, it was announced that Mayo, to mark his 25 years in Canada, had made a cash donation to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where his eight children were born. (Of those eight, he lost a son to spinal meningitis and a daughter in an accidental fire.)
Mayo was ably supported by his wife, Bishan Kaur, known for her welcoming line, “Come to Paldi — my husband will give your husband a job!” The first in town to own a washing machine, she shared it freely and her home served as a gathering place for East Indian women.
She died young, however — at the age of 46 in 1952. Her husband died three years later at 64. Both were cremated according to Sikh custom, their ashes interred between a bronze tablet in the family cemetery.
Logging operations on Hill 60, which had extended almost to Lake Cowichan, had ceased in 1943, and after a disastrous fire consumed 27 million feet of bucked timber, the Paldi mill shut down. For a time, the old town enjoyed a baby boom, even though most of the men were commuting to company operations at Summit Lake and Nanaimo. Then residents began to move away to be closer to schools and opportunities, and Paldi became a near-ghost town, its homes rented and allowed to deteriorate.
Fourteen years after Paldi’s demolition by fire, its proposed Phoenix-like rebirth as a community and commercial core hasn’t been fulfilled.