Kesar Singh Nagra

Kesar Nagra’s family history with Canada goes back to the early 1900’s. His great-grandfather (paternal), Basant Singh arrived in Victoria BC alone via ship on October, 1906. Basant Singh was from Jalandhar District, Punjab. Although records aren’t accurate, some paperwork indicates Basant Singh’s birth as 1880. It is believed that Basant Singh had little education- based on his birthday, it is unlikely he finished his secondary schooling. His life in India would have likely consisted of living on a farm in a simple home.

He decided to come to Canada as it was considered to be a land of opportunity and he had the spirit of an entrepreneur. To the best of his descendant’s knowledge, he did not know anybody in this new land as he ventured out to North America.

From Victoria Basant Singh moved over to the mainland. For a number of years he worked in Rosedale, Chilliwack until the lumber mill went bankrupt. At this time, a group of pioneers came from Vancouver Island and they set up the Mayo Lumber Company. This group had a number of shareholders with Basant Singh being the major shareholder of the company at one point of his life.

Mayo Lumber Company,run by Mayo Singh was highly successful at one point in time. It did extremely well and they were able to establish a city within a city known as ‘Paldi’. They employed a variety of individuals over the years and it was considered to be a hub within Cowichan Valley. They lived in bunkhouses at the time. At its peak, Paldi had become a robust little town, one that had established its own school and other amenities.

Basant Singh likely frequented the Paldi Gurdwara on a regular basis. Due to the nature of a small community environment everybody tended to know one another. Although it was a simpler time they had a lot of hardships to endure for the franchise. They worked tirelessly to set the forthcoming generations. They were an integral part of the multicultural fabric that Canada holds today.

There were a variety of intolerances faced by Basant Singh- both from the racial aspect, all the way from not having the right to vote. Equal rights did not exist even though they had become very successful entrepreneurs who were contributing to the economy and betterment of the Vancouver Island community. Simply due to the colour of their skin they were treated differently. But throughout these hardships they continued to persevere.

Basant Singh never got married or had any children. He did go back to India on a couple of occasions for one reason or another, although marriage never ended up happening. Kesar Nagra’s father, Ajit Singh Nagra, was the only family that Basant Singh sponsored to bring to Canada. Kesar Nagra’s father arrived on a quota system to Canada. They knew one another through a family relationship- Kesar’s grandfather made Basant Singh promise that he would sponsor one of his sons to Canada.

Ajit Singh was born in India in 1933, arriving in Victoria, BC, on December 24th, 1959, possessing an eighth grade level education. He came on an airplane, stopping over in Honolulu.  He wanted to come to Canada as it was considered a land of opportunity as well as an opportunity to look after his aging grandfather. Ajit Nagra was married in India and his wife and two older children came over to Canada to join him on March 1967.

The first couple of years were considered to be instrumental in shaping Ajit Singh. They were very difficult years, especially the first three, when he worked in the Paldi mill. After this, he worked on the sides of a mountain in Merritt after being offered an opportunity by a gentleman named Karm Manak. This was a moving sawmill where logs were being cut as they travelled along the side of the mountain. He changed mills while looking for work as there were no more opportunities on Vancouver Island at the time. He continued learning English and was able to read and write simple sentences.

By 1963 Ajit Singh permanently moved to Vancouver. He worked from 1963 to 1967 on a full-time basis at the Birk Lumber Company which is located at the foot of Yukon Street. He was also working a second job at Bay Forest Products located on False Creek in Vancouver. Each day he would work a day shift at one place and an afternoon shift at the second place. He earned approximately $3,300 Canadian dollars during this time period.

Ajit Singh changed his daily way of life upon moving to Canada. He ended up assimilating into the Canadian culture by shaving off his beard and cutting his hair, keeping it cut for the remainder of his lifetime. He did this to follow what was considered to be the ‘Canadian way’ in those times. He would wear dress pants, a dress shirt, a tie and a jacket.

During this time period there was overtures of racism that Ajit Singh had to face. In the lumber mills, the South Asian people got the heavier, more difficult work. For example, they were placed on the backend of the green chain where the longer, heavier lumber was being fed into, whereas the European descent people tended to work in the front region, with lighter pieces of lumber.  In general terms, though, South Asian people hardly spoke up about these working conditions, they were simply grateful to have a good paying job.

Vacations were not high on Ajit Singh’s priority list. He did make a couple of trips back to India, in 1965 and 1975. These trips were likely just to visit. Ajit Singh retired in December, 1993 at the age of sixty. Upon his retirement, he enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren, who brought a lot of joy and excitement to him. He was also very passionate about gardening and would spend countless hours daily from May to September maintaining his garden. During harvesting period he would hand deliver his vegetables to individuals- people used to love getting home-grown food from him, as Kesar recalls. He enjoyed frequenting the Gurdwara in Richmond on No. 5 Road, the India Cultural Centre, Landsdowne Mall, as well as Wong’s Nursery, where he would buy his vegetable plants on. Although they did not live on a farm, Ajit Singh would convert a quarter of the backyard to become his garden when his children were younger. During the latter part of the years from 2000 to 2009, approximately 80 percent of the garden had been converted into a vegetable garden.

Many of the individuals Ajit Singh used to know eventually retired within metro Vancouver. Ajit Singh did keep in contact with some, but the majority of his circle was located within Vancouver. He had a family member who resided in Golden- he visited him quite regularly throughout the years. They also had family up in Kamloops where they would spend a lot of time in the summer months as Kesar grew up.

Ajit Singh’s wife looked after the house her entire life, as well as raising five boys. Throughout his life, Ajit Singh sponsored many people to come to Canada, from nephews, brother-in-laws, etc. Kesar Nagra likes to say that Basant Singh was the seed that got planted and his father, Ajit Singh was a branch of that seedling. And from that seedling, over two hundred people have been able to come to Canada, directly due to Ajit Singh and indirectly due to Basant Singh. Ajit Singh passed away in February 2010, in Richmond, Canada.

During his lifetime, Ajit Singh noted many different changes within Canada in comparison to when he first arrived. One of the main ones is the better equality in general. There is no immediate family left in India- they have all settled in either Canada, the US, or the UK. He also supported the building of the Ross Street Gurdwara which opened in 1969. Ajit Singh and his wife were quiet supporters of the community. In the latter part of their lives, they supported the Richmond General Hospital, donating quite generously to them. To commemorate their help and generosity, the hospital unveiled a picture of the couple in 2015, which is currently displayed one of the corridors.

Upon the arrival of Kesar Nagra’s mother and three older siblings (Kesar was not born at this time), they were enrolled into local schools. The children had to learn English. They spent their summers working in the farms to help support the family through an income. At the time, the South Asian community in Vancouver wasn’t as large as it is today- it was more concentrated, and most of the individuals knew one another. There was a real family sense of belonging within the community. There would be family get-togethers and people would visit one another for afternoon tea.

Kesar Nagra was born on February 19, 1969, in Canada. He was brought up in Vancouver and Richmond and went through the schooling system. He did not experience any racism growing up in Richmond and grew up in a neighbourhood that had predominantly German immigrants. He remembers his father spending time with them, driving them to flag football and giving piggyback rides in the living room.

He recalls the immediate family had regular family get-togethers where they would all meet at somebody’s house. There was a lot more social interaction when he was a child, particularly because life was a lot simpler and it wasn’t as busy as it tends to be nowadays.

Although Kesar was never able to visit Paldi as a child, his older siblings went to Paldi with Ajit Singh when they first arrived in 1967. Paldi had about a dozen or so single homes that were pretty small, and made out of wood.

He has visited India a few times, in 2011, 2016, and 2018. He feels that he has never had the opportunity to experience the real India, with his experience with India being mostly through staying in four or five star hotels. He feels as though it is an amazing country, with very hospitable, ‘happy-go-lucky’ people. His family still has his ancestral property where the home once stood.

Even after his parents passed away there was never really a void created that his parents are no longer here. There is a lot of love from his parent’s generation, which is still there and evident from both family relatives and friends that continue to reach out on a regular basis- even though both of his parents have passed away over the last few years. That sense of belonging continues to remain, as friends and relatives of his parents continue to play an active role in his life today.

Kesar Nagra’s grandfather (from Village Khotla) did end up coming to Canada but it wasn’t until much later in his life, in 1988. He only stayed for about three or four months and decided that Canada wasn’t for him.  He returned to India where he spent the remainder of his life.

Kesar Nagra hopes to send the message to the youth of today that Canada is a land of opportunity, and that if you set your mind to anything is possible. With each passing generation, it is important that we do not take for granted what we have. Furthermore, he hopes the youth does more to learn about the history, challenges, struggles, and the adversity that the original South Asians who settled in Canada went through.