By Vikram Singh Khalsa
The setting is typical of many Sikh youth camps. A beautiful lakeside camp surrounded by pine trees. Sixty young Sikhs are sitting in a temporary Gurdwara listening to Rehras Sahib while some mothers are in the kitchen preparing evening langar. Yet this is a very unusual camp. The camp director is only twenty one years old and his camp committee is even younger.
Finding that the camps that were offered were riddled with Gurdwara politics and were filling the needs of the parents more often than those of the children, Gurpreet Singh Jouhal organized a society called Dasmesh Sikh Studies when he was only nineteen years old) the members of the society organized their first camp in 1987. In spite of tremendous opposition and total lack of support from any Gurdwara, this camp took place at the UBC forest research camp site about 50 miles from Vancouver, B.C, and Canada. The camp attracted a lot of local attention and was eyen featured on BC Television evening news. Spurred by the success of last year’s camp, the society decided to organize another in August of this year. As so often happens in Sikh society, another group set up a camp that seemed almost designed to challenge this proposed second camp and drain its resources. Fortunately reason prevailed. The other camp took place at a different place and time and the Sikh Studies camp took place as scheduled, from August 21st to August 29th, 1988.
Gurpreet Singh, however, would be the first to tell you that it is not “his camp”. “This camp is the Guru’s camp and we are just the pawns playing in the chess game” he says when complimented on his efforts. “The real credit should go to the other camp directors. People like Rapinder Kaur Gill, Baltej Singh Dhillon, Guru Raj Kaur Khalsa, Jasmine Kaur Chehil, Taranjit Kaur Jouhal, Kuljit Kaur Rai and Jatinderpal Singh Dhalla.”
At the camp there are classes in kirtan, Sikh History, turban tying and many of the things you would expect to find at a Sikh youth camp, including morning and evening Gurdwara programs. But there are some additional classes offered that are far from ordinary. Gatka, the Sikh art of sword fighting is being taught as is yoga for health and strength of the body, and the young people are being offered advice in how to live as Sikhs in the material world of the eighties. There is also canoeing, swimming and hiking for the participants.
But what do the young Sikhs themselves think of the camp? “Awesome!” says Gurinder Kaur from Vancouver, Says Karen Kaur from Port Alberni, “It’s hip, it’s cool!” Jagjit Singh from Abbots ford says “It’s an educational experience.” And what about the fact that the camp is run by the youth themselves? “It is better without the parents to correct us all the time,” says Sandeep Kaur Dosanjh from Surrey. Adds Gurinder Kaur, “Many of the older generation keep to the old ways and they treat women unequally.”
What did they feel they learned from the camp? “I learned to be proud of my religion and especially liked the canoeing and volleyball,” says Sonia Kaur from Richmond. Says Navpreet Kaur Walia, *I like the fact that there is a balance between recreation and learning.”
After being in this idyllic setting for eight days the young people found them drawing very close as brothers and sisters. The spirit of sangat had gripped their imaginations and, for most, it was hard to leave and return to the ordinary world.
The camp had a special day for parents on Sunday 28th of August. As happens at many such camps there was a diwan where the campers sang kirtan (many for the first time in the sangat) and told sakhis. But the parents were surprised to see an energetic and enthusiastic demonstration of gatka, not only by the boys but by the girls as well with all participants dressed in turbans. There was also a demonstration of canoe rescue where ‘one canoe with two girls in was deliberately capsized and the two. Were rescued by two boys by accident, the boys’ canoe capsized and then the boys had to be rescued by the girls.
During the camp, I had an opportunity to ask Gurpreet Singh about his plans for continuing Dasmesh Sikh Studies. What were his goals for the future? “I would like to continue programs like this year round. To give these participants a chance to meet for a day, or even a weekend and continue from where this camp leaves off. I want to set up some programs during the winter. There will be a camp in New Zealand in January and I would like to go there to help out. In addition, there is another young Sikh in North Carolina who wants to organize a camp. I would like to go there, meet with him and do whatever seva I can.” Do his parents support his activities? “Absolutely! They support me totally or I wouldn’t be doing any of this. Sometimes they get worried when things are a little tense but, deep down, I know their support is 100%.”
Finally I asked him what he felt about the future for youth run camps. “I believe the future for Sikh youth is for them to set up their own camps. The parents become too emotional about their own children and most adults just do not understand the problems and pressures we have to face in countries like Canada and the USA.”
Speaking on a personal note, it is only fair to tell you that this was the second year I have attended the Dasmesh Sikh Studies youth camp: as an instructor. It was such an uplifting experience for me last year that this year I took my own. daughters, aged 12 and 15 to the camp. While they are Sikh, they are totally Americans and have no Punjabi background whatsoever. To see them mix with the Punjabi/Canadian Sikh youth was a very satisfying experience.
Perhaps the “American” and “Punjabi” Sikhs of the present generation may never really make it past their own cultural differences, but the future really does not lie in our hands anyway. If we encourage our youth to take the initiative in starting their own programs, like the one at Maple Ridge ‘we can be sure that they will not let us down, and (far more important) they will not let down the Guru’s mission.
There is one final thing that came to light at this camp. It seems that many parents were disturbed after the camp last year, mainly because their children had a good time. There were also some parents who didn’t like the fact that their children asked them a lot of questions when they came back from camp. In fact I was told that the main reason that a rival camp ‘was organized was because some parents felt that a Sikh youth camp. Should be more serious.
There was one girl in particular who came to camp about three days after it started. I asked her, “How come you came so late?” and she replied, “My parents didn’t want me to come.” When I asked her why she said, “Because they said I had too much fun here last year,”
I would like to leave you with this thought to consider: If we don’t want our children to enjoy themselves at a Sikh youth camp, do we really want them to enjoy being Sikhs?
Article extracted from this publication >> October 14, 1988