A Sikh and an Irish Descendant Walk into the Yukon . . .
The coronavirus chronicles: Canadian caremongering
It doesn't take much to throw me off these days. Isolation, lack of control, and tragedy are causing my emotions to dysregulate at epic proportions. I was having one such day when I happened upon this picture:
The genuine smile on this guy's face forced me to smile, too! Who was this man and what was he doing?
I searched some more and found out his name was Gurdeep Pandher and he lived (of all places) in the Yukon. After digging a little deeper, I also discovered his newest video of social dancing (above) with his neighbour, Jordan.
I had to know more about these guys, so being the super sleuth that I am, I found them. For the first time in my life, I made a phone call to the Yukon. And here is what I found:
Although born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Jordan spent most of his formative years in the Ottawa area. At the age of thirteen, he joined the cadets. At summer camp at Base Borden, in addition to experiencing his first real kiss and almost getting sent home for administering a haircut gone wrong, he learned to play the bagpipes.
After two years, Jordan quit cadets and lost access to the pipes. As an adult, life would take him to Japan to teach English as a second language, then to Vancouver to obtain his teaching degree. Teacher strikes without any light at the end of the tunnel caused Jordan to consider moving to the Yukon. He had visited there a few summers prior and had fallen in love with it.
Jordan taught at an elementary school in Whitehorse. The principal of the school was looking for a substitute piper for a school assembly and somehow heard that Jordan used to play.
“Jordan,” she broached the topic. “We really need someone to play the bagpipes at our upcoming ceremony. Do you think you could help us out?”
“Oh, I really don’t know. I haven’t played for twenty years.”
“I would appreciate it if you would consider it. We don’t have any options.”
Jordan visited the Pipe Major, Pat, at the local Midnight Sun Pipe Band, who managed to locate and dust off a set of pipes Jordan could use.
During the assembly, Jordan’s debut rendition of “Amazing Grace” was . . . memorable. As he squeaked his way through his approximation of the song, his face turned red but not as red as the faces of the upper-grade students who were shaking with laughter. Even the entire front row of kindergarten children had covered their ears with their hands. Jordan had given new meaning to the phrase “sounds like strangling a cat.”
Any possible hope that maybe Jordan’s valiant effort was appreciated by someone—anyone—was completely eradicated when the kindergarten teacher mentioned, “Oh, my dear. Jordan, I forgot to tell the students there would be a loud instrument at the assembly. Three children had to change their pants afterwards.”
Knowing his playing was the cause for three little children to soil themselves, a deflated-but-not-defeated Jordan knew he needed more practice—and practise he did.
Jordan vastly improved and joined the Midnight Sun Pipe Band. He even travelled to Cape Breton to participate in piping workshops.
When a friend scooted off to New Zealand, and her cabin outside Whitehorse became available, Jordan jumped at the opportunity. Decompressing outside of town appealed to Jordan and, although there was no running water, these cabins had electricity—and propane for heat instead of wood. They were semi-rugged but somewhat luxurious for wilderness living.
Gurdeep Pandher, a Sikh man from the Punjab, originally hailed from the small town of Siahar in India. In 2006 he came to Canada and made it his new home. After finishing up a job in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, Gurdeep decided to do some travelling.
In his wanderings, he fell in love with the Yukon. He found that sharing his love for bhangra dancing, a traditional Punjabi folk dance, was a way to break down barriers. He started offering lessons just for fun.
In a matter of a couple of years, it morphed into more of a career. Gurdeep had collaborated with Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis and shot a dance video. To his amazement, the video went viral. It had over a million hits virtually overnight.
This ignited a passion, and Gurdeep has since filmed dozens of bhangra videos with Canadians from various walks of life including hockey players, provincial government staff, Indigenous groups, and members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Gurdeep lives in a little cabin outside Whitehorse. His neighbour, of course, is Jordan.
When the pandemic hit Canada, Gurdeep had returned home from being in Vancouver. Because he had been out of province, he self-isolated. He emerged and saw his neighbour across the way.
“Hi, neighbour,” he said, both men cognizant of keeping physical distancing. Although their cabins were close, they weren’t at all close by urban standards—a good thirty paces remained between them.
“Hey,” Jordan responded. “Good to see you.”
“Good to see you, too.” Gurdeep began. “I have an idea. I am wondering if you would be interested in a collaboration.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Well, I have switched to doing shorter, more impromptu videos for Twitter instead of the longer music videos I was doing on YouTube. They are only about a minute. People seem to be liking that,” Gurdeep began.
“Oh, that’s cool.” Jordan reflected. “I can see people preferring the shorter format.”
“Yes. These videos are spontaneous and happy. Would you be interested in playing the bagpipes while I bhangra dance? To show two neighbours being joyful, doing what we love during this crisis? And maybe spread some hope.”
This did not seem like a strange request to Jordan at all. Gurdeep had long since discovered that the quick rhythm of Celtic reels often played on bagpipes worked well with the bhangra style of dancing. In fact, India has a rich military history with bagpipes, which were introduced to the country by the British in the nineteenth century.
“Yeah. I am totally down with that.”
A few days later, Gurdeep texted Jordan: Hey, did you want to do it Saturday morning?
Jordan responded: Sure.
Gurdeep’s purpose for creating this video was threefold: first, he wanted to promote physical distancing during this time of crisis; second, he wanted to show that joy, passion, and human connection with neighbours were still possible; and third, he wanted to celebrate diversity.
On Saturday morning, Jordan made the short trek to his neighbour’s yard, bagpipes in hand, to shoot their joyous one-minute Twitter video.
When you watch the video, it might at first seem an unexpected juxtaposition: a Punjabi Sikh bhangra dancing, complete with a turban and argyle sweater-vest two meters away from a man of Irish/European descent, sporting a kilt made of his family’s tartan and wearing Rodd & Gunn boots while playing the bagpipes, all against the backdrop of the Yukon wilderness—the framed background decorated with an outhouse, complete with a crescent moon on the door.
If at first the entire scene seems out of place for the wilds of northern Canada, the thought is only fleeting, because when you look closely and give it some thought, you realize absolutely nothing could be more Canadian than this.
I found Gurdeep's Twitter account and loved combing through his videos and posts. After speaking to both Gurdeep and Jordan, my mood felt more stable than it had in weeks!
The truth of the matter is we ARE all in this together!
For this and additional stories about Canadian caremongering in the face of COVID-19, check out the upcoming book Not Cancelled.