Celebration of Sikh Heritage Month will include alcohol-free challenge & substance abuse awareness campaign 
Feature Image Alexis Wright/The Pointer

Celebration of Sikh Heritage Month will include alcohol-free challenge & substance abuse awareness campaign 

For 12 years, the Drug Awareness Society of Toronto has been working to educate and support youth in Brampton and neighbouring municipalities to combat drug and alcohol abuse, focusing on a community that has struggled to receive help. Through seminars in Gurdwaras and schools, DAST wants to confront drug and alcohol abuse in the Punjabi-Canadian population while addressing intersecting issues including mental health and marital problems. 

Dharampal Singh Sandhu, one of the founders of DAST, told The Pointer the group's focus is on youth and combatting their exposure to drugs and alcohol while addressing the habits of parents which might influence their children’s behaviour. 

“Kids [are] doing what they’re seeing,” he said. If parents smoke or drink at home, this can directly impact their children. He said there is a correlation between children who start using drugs or alcohol early on, often influenced by elders, then becoming addicted to substances as adults. 

“We need to [teach] them when they [are kids],” Sandhu said, and parents need to take more responsibility over the exposure to substances that children often do not have a choice in. Empowering and educating youth is a focus of the organization. 

April is Sikh Heritage Month and DAST, whose founders and members are from the Sikh community, is planning a series of seminars at a number of Gurdwaras across Peel to raise awareness of how to confront substance abuse, along with other serious societal issues such as suicide and mental health. 

It is challenging people to go alcohol free for the entire month. 

“Usually the alcohol [is] controlling them,” Sandhu said. The challenge can be a first step to help people regain control over how much and how often they drink, and to become more aware of their drinking habits which can slowly become a way of life.

Sikhs, who trace their roots to present day Pakistan and northwestern India, have historically high rates of diabetes and heart disease due to genetic and dietary factors, making dependence on alcohol, which exacerbates both conditions, particularly dangerous for the population.  

In some corners of Sikh culture, drug use — particularly involving products made from opium poppy, which is commonly grown in parts of modern day Pakistan where Sikh communities flourished for hundreds of years — is part of certain traditional ways of life. Alcohol consumption at social functions and during other socio-cultural day-to-day events is also typical in many Punjabi communities. This often does not square with perceptions of the Sikh community as a religious faith group that eschews alcohol and other substance use. Sandhu told The Pointer that men who wear a turban and long beard like him are some of the people he hopes the campaign reaches, particularly those who suffer with alcohol and substance abuse problems on their own, often reluctant to confront an issue that can bring social stigma within the community. 

Their children are also a big concern for Sandhu, who has seen young Punjabi-Canadians eventually mirror the behaviour of their parents, in a harmful cycle that can create serious generational problems for families.


Drug Awareness Society of Toronto co-founder Dharampal Singh Sandhu says it is important to address substance abuse by teaching and supporting youth from an early age. Parents should model behaviour that will not negatively shape their childrens’ relationship with drugs or alcohol.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


Sandhu said last year a young girl who had attended a seminar and was struggling with suicidal ideation shared that the session played a role in helping her overcome her situation. “We get some [responses] every year,” he said about the seminars and programs, sharing how another individual told the group he took one of its flyers challenging people to stop consuming alcohol for a month. He attempted it and was better able to manage his consumption afterward. “Now he said…’I can control [it and] at least not [drink] everyday’”. 

According to data from Statistics Canada and the Ministry of Health, in Peel the proportion of residents who drank alcohol at least once in 12 months in 2019/2020 was significantly higher among white/non-racialized (80 percent) groups compared to those who were Black (49 percent), South Asian (41 percent), East/Southeast Asian (64 percent) and West Asian/Arab (34 percent). During the same period, 60 percent of Peel residents consumed alcohol at least once in the past 12 months, which was significantly lower than that rate in Ontario overall (72 percent).

Student alcohol use data from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Peel Public Health reveal in 2019, 16 percent of Peel students in the survey cohorts “drank alcohol in the last four weeks”; this was lower than Ontario (28 percent). The rates were higher for students in grade 10 (19 percent), grade 11 (23 percent) and grade 12 (24 percent), compared to grade 7 (6 percent) and grade 8 students (7 percent).

The campaign aims to reach many of these young people, and overcome provincial and regional funding inequities that have for decades resulted in Peel receiving a significantly lower per capita distribution of public health funding to confront alcohol and substance abuse. A lack of cultural competency and Punjabi language services across Peel’s public health community support infrastructure prevent many residents from receiving support that could help them overcome alcohol and substance abuse issues. 

Sandhu’s organization is working to fill many of the gaps.

DAST is a non-profit, volunteer operation which hosts experts, such as doctors and mental health professionals, to speak on topics of mental health and substance abuse. Along with its broader focus on youth, the group addresses alcohol consumption in a range of specific ways. There is far more alcohol consumption among South Asian-Canadian men than women, typically, Sandhu says. 

“We try to clean up our house first,” but the goal is to support as many people in the community as they can. 

“Kids’ use, adult abuse. That's [what] we try to stop,” he said. “Kids [are] not supposed to use any drug.” Parents are often incredibly busy, working multiple jobs, sometimes in challenging situations, but they need to be aware that youth can easily be exposed to substances when trying to cope with a range of complex challenges, including the clash of cultures many often struggle with. He said some kids are exposed to alcohol at the age of twelve or thirteen. When parents are preoccupied with their own struggles, including the need to juggle jobs, it can be hard to be aware of what is happening at home or in the neighbourhood. According to federal government data from its Summary of results for the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey 2018-19, alcohol was the most prevalent substance used by Canadian students in grades 7 to 12. The average age students tried their first drink was 13. 

Sandhu said the group does not focus on responsible drinking and drug use by adults, but on the exposure and use of these substances by youth, as well as the misuse or abuse of substances by older people in the community. 


DAST is challenging community members to go alcohol-free for Sikh Heritage Month in April and is planning to hold seminars to discuss issues related to substance abuse and mental health. 


For children and youth, it is “zero tolerance” for DAST, Sandhu said. “They’re growing…they start drinking and then they get a problem, then they never stop.” 

He said DAST is a small organization, with a community-based approach. “We’re not [professionals], we’re just ordinary people. But we get [the professionals], they can help them. We arrange that.” Seminars in schools feature experts such as a doctor last year who spoke to children about the effects of marijuana consumption and vaping on their growing bodies and minds.

Last year was also when the group began incorporating mental health issues more specifically into its awareness and education efforts, after seeing how people’s mental health issues heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from a survey done by the federal government, more adults reported suicidal ideation during the pandemic. 

As previously reported by The Pointer, youth are being failed by a lack of support in Peel for their mental health, due in large part to underfunding by the provincial government, highlighted in a pair of staff reports that were brought to Regional council in February. Suicidal ideation rates have increased following the pandemic and youth are facing wait times of more than two years to see a counsellor or therapist, sometimes even waiting so long that they are no longer of age to qualify for the supports they were waiting for. Advocacy to demand better funding is needed to improve youth access to adequate services, one of the reports highlighted.

For young people with added layers of challenges such as cultural stigmas around certain issues, or even the stigma around seeking medical help, the lack of proper funding and culturally competent support can have particularly dire consequences.

Many Punjabi-Canadian youth face difficulties confiding in parents about their own issues, or confronting those that their mother or father struggle with, due to culturally complex dynamics. Unhealthy attitudes about protecting the “family name” and preoccupation with community expectations often compel people to hide their substance abuse.   

DAST is planning to host seminars in Gurdwaras in Peel during the upcoming Sikh Heritage Month in April to educate and spread awareness on issues like youth mental health and substance abuse. 

A kick-off is planned for March 31, and for every Sunday of April (the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th) an event will be held in locations throughout Peel and the GTA, including specific seminars on overcoming addictions for the first three events. They will be given in a mix of English and Punjabi. 


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