Gurbaksh Singh Dhanda
Gurbaksh Singh Dhanda was born on October 30, 1939, in Village Shela Kalan, District Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India to mother Jas Kaur and father Gurdit Singh Dhanda. His family has extensive roots in Canada, with his ‘nana ji’ (mom’s father), Kirpa Ram, first coming in 1908 to work in the mills of Vancouver Island alongside his brother Mela Ram. Gurbaksh Singh grew up with one brother (Gurbachan Singh) and two sisters (eldest is Gurbachan Kaur, younger sister is Dil Kaur). Growing up, Gurbaksh Singh heard many stories about Canada from his nana ji. He recalls many interesting stories such as them being unfamiliar with the English language and mispronouncing apple as ‘aphle.’
Kirpa Ram worked on the mills of Vancouver Island. At this point his eyesight had significantly worsened. He returned to India after thirty-six years of residing in Canada in an attempt to see if there was a solution. He decided to undergo a surgical procedure which was unsuccessful and as a result was unable to return to Canada. Kirpa Ram remained in India for the rest of his life where he obtained 100 acres of land in Uttar Pradesh and focused his life on building a house. Unfortunately, due to his poor eyesight, he was unable to maximize his potential and was forced to sell his land to someone else for a cheap price.
Gurbaksh Singh stayed in District Hoshiarpur for twenty years and completing the Indian tenth grade matriculation exam. Upon completion, he started working alongside his parents in the clothing industry. He soon obtained an Indian passport and visa and headed over to Canada on November 16, 1959. He was nineteen years when he obtained his permit to come to Canada. He made a passport and cleared other rigorous requirements including a medical check. Gurbaksh Singh’s father was also adventurous- he went to Fiji for ten years, leaving in 1927 and returning to India in 1937. He was able to go due to allowances from the British government.
Gurbaksh Singh’s trip to Canada was a long journey, spanning over many days and including many stops. He recalls leaving Palam Airport (now Indira Gandhi International Airport) alone in New Delhi early morning and heading over to Bangkok, Thailand. From Bangkok his flight took him to Hong Kong where he stayed for four nights with all expenses for these four nights being covered by the airline. There were 23 passengers (who didn’t know one another) that travelled together, arriving on a propeller plane.
He decided to come to Canada as he felt he would be able to obtain a better life. He arrived in the middle of the week, and so his uncle was unable to pick him up at the airport. In his place, his uncle’s friend, who had received a few days off from work, came to pick him up. Gurbaksh Singh did not know who this individual was, but he was given a reference prior to his arrival so he knew who to look out for.
From there, the two took a taxi to a Greyhound Bus depot. After arriving in Nanaimo, BC he was greeted by his ‘mama ji’ (mom’s brother) and cousin and collectively they took a bus to Port Alberni. Gurbaksh Singh recalls that in these days there were very few vehicles on the roads.
Gurbaksh Singh felt as though coming to Canada was similar to winning the lottery. However, he notes that establishing oneself within a new country was not an easy task. The first few years were very difficult without knowing the language, being unfamiliar with the laws and with little income, it was difficult to adjust. For example, he recalls his workplace requiring him to have safety shoes. He required different work attire for the summer time and winter time which he had to purchase on his own. It was not easy to start a new life; however, through his persevering behaviour, he managed to get through the first few years.
He arrived in wintertime (November), which was very cold and stayed with his mama ji in Port Alberni until April. When the weather became better he searched for work alongside one of his friends, eventually finding work in Ashcroft. Gurbaksh Singh’s mama ji had a friend, Piara Singh, who lived in Cache Creek. Piara Singh dropped them off to Ashcroft where they obtained work in the saw mill. Gurbaksh Singh recalls it was a constant cycle of searching for work and moving to new places within British Columbia to obtain work.
His time in Ashcroft did not come easy. He recalls a fearful time when the nearby forest went on fire causing a wide evacuation. The firefighters brought them over to safety by gathering people onto a bus; however, many were forced to stay in a jungle for approximately three nights where they received food and money. When the fire had been contained they returned.
Gurbaksh Singh remembers experiencing discrimination and racism throughout his lifetime- both in India, and Canada. In India, the caste system meant that he was treated very poorly but caste system issues continued after he moved to Canada. While he was living in Williams Lake, around 1962, his close friend who lived in the same bunkhouse as him just got laid off. At that time, there were about ten of them living in the same house. They would take turns cooking and cleaning. So, when this individual got laid off, his fellow bunkhouse mates offered to provide for him as long as he helped out around the house. They would provide him 10 dollars each, free food and he would also receive unemployment insurance. The individual agreed. But the next day he changed his mind, saying he had thought about it overnight and he decided he did not want to make food for someone of a lower caste. He felt as though if people found out he was making food for someone of a lower caste who was in turn giving him $10, his reputation would be tarnished.
Gurbaksh Singh feels as though there are good and bad people within every country. In Canada, racism did happen between European descent people and the South Asian community. Due to the caste system issues prevailing in Canada, Gurbaksh Singh helped form a Gurdwara for a safe space of worship. He was discussing with his nephews who had arrived from India where they realized that there was no Gurdwara available for their own caste. As such they gathered a group of around ten individuals and in 1977 they decided they were going to build a Gurdwara. He persevered through difficult times, noting that if was very difficult to obtain donations. On top of that they had to negotiate many times with the seller to purchase property for the gurdwara which was finally registered in 1982. Although initially, the Gurdwara was created due to caste issues, Gurbaksh Singh notes that individuals from all backgrounds are always welcome at this Gurdwara, which is formally known as the ‘Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha (Vancouver) Gilley Temple’.
Nowadays, the Gurdwara helps host weddings as well as prayers. His children were also married at this Gurdwara. Before the Gurdwara was founded, those who were not jatt (farming caste) found it difficult to find a place that would hold their weddings.
In India, while Gurbaksh Singh was growing up, the caste system meant that individuals who belonged to different castes would reside in different housing styles. But in Canada they all lived in saw mills. He notes that some people might have kept the system alive upon arrival to Canada, but they did not.
In 1964, he obtained Canadian citizenship. He returned to India on November 15, 1965 on his new passport for the purpose of getting married. However, his employers at Silver Tree Mill did not want him to leave. They advised him to purchase a lot and that they would provide free lumber for him to build a house. Gurbaksh Singh was very filial and he wanted to ensure his parents had the opportunity to see his wedding. As such, even when he refused their offer, the mill told him that upon his return, he should first come to them while searching for work.
Gurbaksh Singh was married to Gurmit Kaur on December 5th, 1965 whom he sponsored to come to Canada. This process took two years until Gurmit Kaur was able to join Gurbaksh. Although she didn’t work she took care of the housework and the children. By the time Gurmit joined her husband in Canada, their eldest son was 2.5 years old.
Gurbaksh Singh recalls a difficult time period of his life occurring when his younger son was born. 2.5 years after Gurmit Kaur had settled in to her new life in Canada, she was set to give birth to her son. When she went to the hospital Gurbaksh Singh was just leaving to go visit her. However, a friend who worked with him convinced him to work instead of visiting his wife and to instead take a week-long break when Gurmit Kaur returned home with the newborn.
Unfortunately, during his shift at work, Gurbaksh Singh suffered a serious injury that caused his jaw to break into two parts and so he had to be taken to the hospital. It was the weekend and the hospital was unable to contact a surgeon who would be able to see him. As a result his operation was scheduled on the next Monday. During this time, the three of them were in the same hospital- Gurmit Kaur and her newborn child alongside Gurbaksh Singh. Gurmit Kaur was completely unaware of the injury and was wondering why her husband had not come by to see her yet. Gurbaksh Singh informed a nearby nurse of his situation and asked her to send the message to his wife. Upon deliverance, she immediately started crying. Furthermore, the eldest son was left at home all alone. Luckily, a friend took care of him during this period of time.
Approximately two weeks after the injury Gurbaksh was able to start eating and drinking. His wife had returned home alongside their newborn child at this point and the family was reunited. He returned to work a month later when his jaw became better. Luckily, worker’s compensation existed during this time of hardship.
Gurbaksh Singh had a strong passion for education and really wanted to learn a trade upon his arrival in Canada but due to scheduling difficulties, he was unable to do so. The mill used to rotate the workers shifts monthly, from day shift to night shift. As the vocational school only taught during the day, he was unable to pursue his wish as he had to continue earning.
Upon his return back to work from his injury he went to Silver Tree Mill, where he received work again. After working for one week, the graveyard shifts no longer was an option and he was let go due to his low seniority. He then began working at another lumber company. During this time there were three mills located in the region where BC Place currently is. They were forced to close down due to city complaints because there was a lot of smoke being generated by the mill which caused the sky to be foggy. As a result, there was an order provided by the city to close the mills. However, Gurbaksh was able to continue to work in the mill as they were going to get laid off, regardless.
Gurbaksh Singh has always worked in the saw mills these were the only opportunities available to him. The wages were good, there was normally steady work available and there were big camps there. Many of the newcomers to Canada during that time period worked in the mills particularly due to the way that they didn’t have any knowledge and education coming from India. As a result they had to settle to what was available for them to do.
The first house Gurbaksh Singh attained from Vancouver was on Marine Drive which was located near his work at the mill. This was when his wife and son had yet to join him. He purchased this property alongside an individual who was from the same village as his mom’s side whom he considered to be a brother. They worked together for around fifty years and went through happy and sad times together.
When Gurbaksh Singh’s wife and son joined him in Canada he realized he needed to obtain his own home and so he purchased a house while renting out the top portion. Gurbaksh Singh and his family used to drive to Richmond to buy vegetables because at the time Richmond was largely known to be an agricultural region. One day, around 1972 as they were heading over to grab some fresh vegetables, they passed by an open house. Gurbaksh Singh decided that they should check it out even though his wife kept asking him ‘Why?’ He decided to make an offer on it, not taking it too seriously. However, when his offer was accepted he was pleasantly surprised and the family decided to move to Richmond.
Later on, he moved to Surrey. His wife Gurmit Kaur felt as though it was important to move into a bigger house because their children had become older. She felt that upon her children’s marriages her family would need more space. As they were looking around a friend had offered to show him a house in Surrey. At this time, Gurbaksh Singh was adamant that he did not want to move to Surrey. But his friend insisted he simply come to look at the style of the home. Upon arrival, the house caught Gurbaksh Singh’s eye, so he placed in an offer which was accepted. He continues to live in this home today, commemorating his family through pictures and images placed throughout his house.
Gurbaksh Singh continuously returns to India, noting that some years, they go twice. Much has changed in India in comparison to his childhood. Nowadays, people can study hard and get a nice house. There is a better lifestyle than before. The government has installed sewer systems in the homes of common people as well as villages. There is also electricity now- when Gurbaksh Singh was younger, he remembers they would use oil lamps to study.
His only remaining close family member residing in India is his mother-in-law, who is over one hundred years old. They continue to send her money and continuously visit her. When Gurbaksh Singh came to Canada, his parents stayed in India and felt as though they needed to purchase land in India, particularly as they didn’t want others to think that their son did not send them any money. As such they purchased ten acres and built a house. During this time, Gurbaksh Singh’s ‘thiya ji’s’ (dad’s elder brother) daughter was 2.5 years old. This child’s father had recently passed away, widowing the mother. Her parents wanted the mother to get re-married, but the new family did not accept the child. So, Gurbaksh Singh’s uncle offered to take her in and raise her. Gurbaksh Singh’s mother Jas Kaur raised the child, treating her as their own. Although this child has since passed away, her younger son lives in the house in India created by Gurbaksh Singh’s parents, alongside his wife and two children. Although Gurbaksh Singh’s mother-in-law lives alone in India, she is visited by these relatives. Whenever Gurbaksh Singh returns to India, he stays with them.
Throughout his many years of living in Canada, he has seen the country develop in a variety of ways. For example, the population has increased from before. In the beginning, Surrey, BC, was considered to be a jungle, with a small population. With further development, skyscrapers have been placed throughout the city. He notes that there are few hospitals in comparison to the population in Surrey, but that initiatives have taken place to try and counteract this issue.
He has seen many changes within his own community. In 1960, there were only a handful of families from his caste that lived in Vancouver. Now there are approximately 2500 or 3000 individuals from the same background.
Nowadays, although he is retired, he continues to stay busy. He helps look after his grandchildren and also pitches in around the house, providing rides to whoever may need one. He stays active, continuing to go to the gym. Every Sunday, he goes to the Gurdwara. Here, he volunteers his time by helping others with any issues they may have, such as regarding immigration status.
To the new generation, Gurbaksh Singh hopes to share the importance of being honest and respecting one’s parents. He believes it is essential to have good thoughts and not to waste money. He feels it is important to recognize that we don’t know what is going to happen in time. Due to this, one should remain honest, with cheating and fighting, he feels as though an individual’s life will not turn out well.