July 25, 2007

No Singhs or Kaurs Need Apply

According to recent CBC news reports, Immigration Canada has a policy of denying permanent resident status to Sikhs whose last name is Singh or Kaur on the grounds that these names are too common. Such people can immigrate to Canada, but only after legally changing their names to something less common.

A bit of background on Sikh naming practices may help to explain this. Sikhs use a set of several hundred given names, all or nearly all meaningful, usually with a religious or moral theme. For example, ਉੱਜਾਲ Ujjal means "bright, clean, holy", ਹਰਪ੍ਰੀਤ Harpreet "God's love", ਗੁਰਪ੍ਰੀਤ Gurpreet "one who loves the guru", ਸਿਮਰਨ Simran "meditation on God's name", ਲੱਖਬੀਰ Lakkhabeer "as brave as 100,000". A family often selects a name for a child by opening the Sikh holy book, the ਗੁਰੂ ਗਰਨਥ ਸਾਹਿਬ /gurū granth sāhib/ to a random page and choosing a name that begins with the first letter of the first word on the page. Sikh given names are not gender-specific. In addition to a given name, a Sikh will usually have a second name, which may be a family name or a caste name.

All Sikhs are expected to aspire to a higher status, that of ਖਲਸਾ /khalsā/ "pure". A Khalsa is a person who is fully dedicated to Sikhism, has shed his or her ego, and truly honours the memory of Guru Gobind Singh through his actions and deeds. The ceremony in which a Sikh becomes a Khalsa is referred to in English somewhat misleadingly as "baptism". Khalsa are therefore referred to as "baptized Sikhs". On becoming a Khalsa, the Sikh undertakes the obligation to wear the physical symbols of this status (unshorn hair, comb, steel bracelet, undershorts, and dagger) and takes the name ਸਿੰਘ "lion", usually romanized as Singh, if a man, or ਕੌਰ /kɔr/ "princess", usually romanized as Kaur, if a woman. (Note that Singh is spelled irregularly: it is written ਸਿੰਘ /siṃgh/ but pronounced /sɪŋ/.) These names reflect the strong egalitarianism of the Sikh religion. They were originally intended to replace the Sikh's original surname, which as often as not was a caste name, thereby making everyone the same caste.

Some Sikhs do replace their original surname with their Khalsa name, but many retain their original surname and add the Khalsa name before it. Thus, a man born ਸੰਦੀਪ ਬਰਾਰ Sandeep Brar may become ਸੰਦੀਪ ਸਿੰਘ Sandeep Singh but more likely will become ਸੰਦੀਪ ਸਿੰਘ ਬਰਾਰ Sandeep Singh Brar. Similarly, a woman born ਹਰਪਰੀਤ ਗਿੱਲ Harpreet Gill may become ਹਰਪਰੀਤ ਕੌਰ Harpreet Kaur or ਹਰਪਰੀਤ ਕੌਰ ਗਿੱਲ Harpreet Kaur Gill.

The result of this is that the surnames Singh and Kaur are especially common. Apparently, Immigration Canada thinks that they are too common. This seems a bit odd since only about 10% of Sikhs are Khalsa, and only a subset of these replace their surname with their Khalsa name.

It is also a little odd that Immigration Canada hasn't encountered similar problems elsewhere. 22% of Koreans have the family name 김 (金) Kim, almost certainly a considerably higher percentage than Singh or Kaur. And what about countries like Indonesia in which many people have no surname at all?

Finally, it is hard to understand what purpose this ban serves. If Immigration Canada is concerned about distinguishing one person from another once he or she is a Canadian national, surely this can be done by means other than the name. For example, every Canadian national is assigned a Social Insurance Number, which, unlike a name, is unique. Or they could use a case number, which I believe they already do. On the other hand, if Immigration Canada is concerned with distinguishing one person from another in records pertaining to life in India, e.g. for purposes of criminal record checks or confirmation of educational credentials, forcing the applicant to change his or her name will not make things easier: the records will still use the original, potentially ambiguous, name. It seems, therefore, that this policy is motivated by a very small number of actually ambiguous names and serves no useful purpose in better identifying applicants.

Addendum 2007-07-25: Some of our readers think that this is a hoax or misunderstanding. It certainly doesn't look like it. Not only have there been two successive CBC reports, but one of them contains a link to a PDF of a letter citing this policy received by an applicant for permanent resident status. The Times of India now has a story on this, with the byline of its own reporter, therefore presumably not merely a rewrite of the CBC story. Moreover, the comments following the posting of one of the CBC articles on Sikhnet contain reports from people indicating that they have encountered this policy.

Further update: according to a new CBC news report, Immigration Canada is now saying that its policy has been misunderstood and that the letter sent to applicants is poorly worded. The actual policy, they say, is to ask applicants who give their surname as Singh or Kaur to supply their third name if they have one. An official statement by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration may be found on the Ministry website here.

It isn't entirely clear what is going on here. In light of the letter to Jaspal Singh made available by the CBC, it seems that the policy as presented to applicants is indeed that they may not have the surname Singh or Kaur. The letter says:

Please note that your surname must be endorsed on your passport. The names Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada.

It may be that the letter does not reflect the intended policy, or it may be that it did and that the "clarification" offered by Immigration Canada reflects backpedaling.

Update 2007-07-30: According to this CBC report, Sikhs are not satisfied with the response of Immigration Canada and are pressing for a change in policy.

Posted by Bill Poser at July 25, 2007 01:56 AM