July is blueberry season in Western Canada, especially in Abbotsford, forty miles east of Vancouver. Canada’s blueberry capital is also home to the country’s oldest gurdwara and an agricultural industry dominated by Sikhs. Sikh women form the core of the blueberry-picking labor force in the Fraser Valley. Often elderly and living in the isolation of suburbia, many look forward to the picking season as an opportunity to spend time with their peers and earn money for their families.
Sikh women form the largest segment of laborers picking blueberries in British Columbia. Pictured above: Gurmit Kaur Sidhu and Surinder Kaur Kang begin a long day of blueberry picking in Abbotsford, Canada.
Satwinder Bains (second from left) greets the pickers who have arrived at the blueberry farm and processing plant she owns and manages with her husband. A scholar and researcher, she is also the director of the Center for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Many of the women were born in rural Punjab to farming families and so find blueberry picking familiar and rewarding.
Workers sign in to their morning shifts at a blueberry processing plant.
British Columbia is home to some 800 blueberry growers, making Canada the world’s third largest blueberry producer.
Women sort and pack blueberries in a factory.
The Abbotsford Heritage Gurdwara was built in 1911 with materials donated by the Abbotsford Lumber Company. Many Sikhs immigrated to Canada at the beginning of the 20th century to work in the lumber industry. The statue of the rider represents the Sikh soldiers who traveled through Canada from Hong Kong to London to take part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. Those soldiers are thought to have encouraged the first Sikh immigration to Western Canada.
Preston Merchant is working on “Indiaworld,” a photography book about the global Indian diaspora. He divides his time between New York and the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonMerchant.