Why Canada wanted to invade the United States with an army of Sikhs

A modern Canadian Minister of Defense echoed the first Prime Minister who once called for an “Army of Sikhs” to “save Canada.”
canada invade us with sikhs
Canadian Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan during the U.S. – Canada 2+2 Ministerial at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. (left). Sikh Regt Soldiers Circa 1890 (right).

Between 2015 and 2021, Canada’s armed forces were led by Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, a Sikh who spent years serving in the Canadian Forces, deploying to Bosnia and Afghanistan in leadership roles considered nothing short of brilliant by his peers.

His appointment as Minister of Defense was celebrated during Sikh Heritage Month in April 2017 with a poster featuring the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, who once called for an “Army of Sikhs” to “save Canada.” At the time, Macdonald was concerned that Canada faced an invasion from its southern neighbor and believed Sikhs were the answer. 

Harjit Sajjan in 2023. (Janez Lenarčič)

In 1867, the United States had a veteran Army, fresh from a win in a terrible civil war that had changed the nature of warfare in North America. Canada had just become a self-governing country and, although 40,000 Canadians had joined to fight in the Union Army, Americans were a little peeved at British support for the Confederacy. 

Confederate agents used the Canadian border to raid northern towns during the war, Britain built commerce raiders for the south, and it’s estimated that British support for the Confederacy lengthened the war by two years. Some were calling for the British to pay $2 billion in war reparations or cede Canada to the U.S. entirely. Then, the same year Canada became its own country, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. 

Canada was surrounded. In the U.S. government, a variety of plans floated around, including the annexation of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and what is today Manitoba. None of these plans came to fruition, but the sentiment remained alive and well, even as the Americans became busy with Reconstruction. 

All this is to say that Sir John A. Macdonald wasn’t entirely crazy in believing an American invasion of Canada was imminent. His call for an Army of Sikhs came from a letter he wrote to a friend who was then serving the British Empire in India in 1867. He told Henry Sumner Maine about his fears of an invasion and then wrote, “Do us yeoman’s service by sending an army of Sikhs.”

John A. Macdonald, c. 1875

Macdonald’s idea was to invade American California with them and hold them as “security for Montreal and Canada.” Although it sounds a little crazy at first glance, again, Macdonald was not off his rocker – far from it, actually. Sikhs had long been renowned for their ability in combat and were the last part of India to be conquered by the British Army.  

Readers might be familiar with the idea that only Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan have ever truly defeated Afghanistan. You can add the Sikh Empire to that list. As the Islamic Mughal Empire declined in the early 1700s, the Sikhs rose up to carve out an empire of their own. They defeated what remained of the Mughals and pushed the Afghans out of the Indian subcontinent. By 1799, they formed the Sikh Empire in what is today Pakistan. 

It survived some 50 years before being conquered by the British Army and the British East India Company’s forces, but it wasn’t easy. The Sikhs inflicted heavy casualties on both armies and might have extracted a heavy long-term price for the war but laid down their arms instead. The Sikhs fought so well the British couldn’t wait to recruit Sikhs for their colonial army. They would need them. 

In 1897, 21 Sikhs manning an outpost near Saragarhi in what is today the Pakistan-Afghanistan border held off an army of more than 24,000 Afghan tribesmen to buy time for the British to respond to the force. All 21 were slaughtered in their last-stand effort, but all would receive the Victoria Cross. 

Inasmuch as the United States had a professional, battle-hardened army and navy, it’s unlikely they would have been delighted at the thought of fighting thousands of Canadian Sikhs in the streets of San Francisco.