A dancer wearing winter boots and a colorful sweater moves to the rhythm of bhangra, a traditional Punjabi folk dance. The contrast between the high-pitched percussion, the energetic cadence and the typically wintry landscape are mesmerizing.
Popularized through Twitter, Gurdeep Pandher of the Yukon has close to 200,000 followers on the platform.
The secret of his success? His short daily videos, about 30 seconds each, bringing warmth and colour to even the coldest of Canadian winters.
Grade 3 students in Whitehorse's Elijah Smith Elementary School braved -28°C temperature and danced Bhangra with me for joy, hope and positivity. We are sharing this pure joy with all school children across Canada and beyond.
YouTube: https://t.co/wvMQfqBxQn pic.twitter.com/zDeYySu6Rc
— Gurdeep Pandher of the Yukon (@GurdeepPandher) February 8, 2022
‘Canada would be the best place’
Pandher is among the over 600,000 people of Punjabi origin who call Canada home, according to the 2016 census. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has also reported that Punjabi is the fifth most commonly spoken language at home across Canada.
Pandher first arrived in Canada in 2006 after completing his university studies. He was born in the village of Siahar in Punjab, a region in the northwest of India. His journey to Canada was spurred by his desire to explore the world and to learn more about a country he viewed as “peaceful.”
“The very first time I started thinking of going to a different country, is when I met other students who used to talk about different countries in the world,” he explains.
Anytime Canada came up in the discussion, the students agreed that “if they need to go somewhere else, Canada would be the best place.”
Another factor that influenced his choice was the significant size of the Punjabi community in Canada.
“There is already a big population settled in Canada and everybody in Punjab has relatives in Canada,” says Pandher, who settled in Yukon in 2012.
Finding a sense of belonging
Pandher obtained his Canadian citizenship in 2011. It was a pivotal moment for the passionate dancer and educator.
“When I was becoming a Canadian citizen, I was going through a moment of reflection,” he says. Unlike some countries, India does not allow dual citizenship, which forced Pandher to give up his Indian citizenship.
“I was not half Canadian by half. I was becoming Canadian at 100 per cent. So I thought: I am adopting this country, or this country is adopting me too. So how much (do) I know about this country?” he shares. He decided to travel across the country to get to know both the people and the land.
Born and raised in a small village in India, Pandher felt a connection with the more rural areas of Canada, so he made sure to include small and remote communities in his itinerary.
“I knew that culture lives in villages or communities, not in big cities. Small places, remote communities, or isolated places, give a better glimpse of culture or of how people do things,” the dancer explains.
“So I went to many places in Canada. I traveled almost the whole country, lived in small communities, went to their gatherings, their weddings, their celebrations.”
His final destination was the Yukon.
Love at first sight
“When I came to the Yukon, the very first day, I met a group of people who took me to a gathering,” Pandher recalls.
He explains that he was “amazed at how quickly people can connect with a total stranger.” The next day, he set out to explore the Yukon and its bountiful nature. What he saw “started sowing the seed in my mind that I could stay in this land.”
After posting videos about his life in the Yukon, some of them became viral, which later contributed to him becoming an unofficial ambassador for the territory.
“People started seeing me as part of the Yukon, wherever I go,” he says.
Bhangra, a cultural bridge
Even though he settled in a northern country with a completely different climate than his native village, Pandher never stopped loving bhangra, his region’s traditional dance. His connection with the dance was so strong, in fact, that he dedicated his life to promoting and sharing it.
Still, even if he has danced all his life, becoming a bhangra ambassador “wasn’t my goal,” he says, describing his journey as “spontaneous.”
“When I came here, some people invited me to do some lessons. Many people came. [Afterwards], they felt joy, they felt togetherness,” he says. “From those experiences, I started realizing that bhangra as a dance form could be a great way to educate people…(and) to spread joy and awareness.”
Respect sadness and celebrate joy, that’s how you can be fair with both ends of human emotions, and eventually find peace of mind. From snowy nature around my cabin in the wilderness, I am wishing you a happy Friday and sending joy, hope and positivity. pic.twitter.com/uYGWfk4lAx
— Gurdeep Pandher of the Yukon (@GurdeepPandher) February 11, 2022
The immigrant experience
Thanks to his “exploratory” travels, Pandher developed a unique vision of the cultural fabric of Canada.
“There are different types of people living in Canada,” he says, from Indigenous people “who have been living here for thousands of years,” to the descendants of those who colonized the land, and then the immigrants like himself.
Like most new Canadians, Pandher has reflected a lot about the immigrant experience and is aware of its plurality and complexity.
“As immigrants, we see all kinds of experiences. Sometimes these experiences are very fulfilling, full of love. [But] I know that there has been hate towards immigrants too,” he reflects.
“On the other side, I also know many people who have open hearts, and they are very accepting. I would say that it requires some skills as immigrants to navigate it.”
This kind of cross-cultural learning remains at the heart of the social media star’s message. He says he believes his travels gave him “some deep insights into how I can stay in this country by fostering positive connections with all kinds of people.”
And the best way to do this, he says, is by making “some efforts to learn about” Canada and the many cultures that reside within it. Canada “is a welcoming land, mostly,” he says.
“Through your resilience, your positivity, your hard work, you have already done a lot,” he says. “And you can further make efforts to spread more awareness that immigration is awesome and people who come from different parts of the world and build their dreams here are wonderful people.”
Indeed, you just have to watch Pandher’s videos to find the groove.
This story can also be read in French here
French Editor - Born in Venezuela, Andreina Romero is a freelance writer with New Canadian Media. Prior to writing for New Canadian Media, Andreina was and a bilingual contributor at The Source Newspaper, also known in French as La Source, an intercultural newspaper in Vancouver. She is also the creator and host of the podcast Girls Talk About Music and Wigs and Candles which explore music and period films from a uniquely female and Latin American lens. In 2020, Romero also co-founded Identity Pages, a youth writing mentorship program.