Manjit Singh Dhillon

Manjit Singh Dhillon was born on March 20th, 1930 to parents Gurdev Singh Dhillon and Jaswant Kaur Dhillon in the village Pandora, Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India. He has an extensive family history with Canada, with his grandfather being the first to come in early 1906.

His grandfather Naranjan Singh was part of military personnel in India. During this time, he felt he was discriminated against by the British when India was under the British rule. As such, he migrated to Canada where he was made to do common labour work. His job role entailed clearing pathways for railways that was being built by the CPR. As a result of this work he suffered a serious work injury. A co-worker accidently triggered the dynamite used for clearing the railway path. This explored while Naranjan Singh was in the pathway, causing him to suffer a serious eye injury and lose a thumb.

After this unfortunate incident his grandfather became a loyal member of the Ghadar Party, which was an organization that fought for the independence of India from British rule. The organization’s headquarters was located at 5 Wood Street, California, San Francisco. From here he travelled to India in 1914 with members of the Ghadar party. Although many were caught by the Indian/British government, Naranjan Singh managed to survive and returned to India.

In 1922 a group of individuals from the Ghadar Party went all the way to Russia to be educated about ways for India to become independent and they left Naranjan Singh in charge of the headquarters back in California. At the start of 1935 Naranjan Singh also went to Russia to become further educated on freedom fighting. This was a very risky move and India suspected this group. As such, Russia tried to cover for them, saying that they were only there for work purposes. However, India was not convinced, and they sent the total of five individuals over to India. Once there, Naranjan Singh was arrested and they tried to gain information from him, which they were unable to do.

In 1943, after approximately three months, he was released from the Lahore Jail under the condition that he would never leave his village. During this enforced exile Naranjan Singh prospered by becoming the village head. In 1960 as he grew older he decided that he was becoming too elderly to continue with his role as the village head. In 1964 he was able to come to Canada through the help of Gurdial Singh Teja, Gurdev Singh’s good friend. He continued to reside here in Canada until his death, on July 1, 1971.

In the meantime, Gurdev Singh had come to Canada in 1931. He worked in the saw mills for ten hours each day. Gurdev Singh felt as though if he learned how to weld that he would get a better job. As such, he headed over to Vancouver where he proceeded to reside at Alberta Cookhouse, located on the corner of 7th and Alberta which was also located nearby the Alberta Mill. Gurdev Singh would go to North Vancouver to work for ten hours and then he would come back home at the Alberta Cookhouse. During this time period, Gurdev Singh realized that welding work was very dirty and so he decided to study to become an electrician by attending night school. However, this placed too much mental stress on him and upon consultation with the doctors, who said there was no solution, he decided to go back to India at the end of 1947.

Once in India, Naranjan Singh asked his son how much money he had left. Gurdev Singh informed him that he had $1,000 dollars remaining and he had no plans once this money finished, particularly as he was sick. Naranjan Singh convinced his son to take Manjit Singh with him back to Canada so he could support the family in case anything happened. Before they began their journey to Canada, Manjit Singh’s grandfather had warned him of the discrimination in Canada. He informed Manjit Singh of the only way he could fight it, which was to work 10 to 15% more than those around him. Manjit Singh feels that because he was young, he never slowed down.  And so on June 2, 1947, the pair headed back to Canada. Manjit Singh came out of grade ten to make this trek, unable to finish his studies. His journey however, did not come easily.

They had bought their tickets through Thomas Cook and Sons, which was a large travel agency at the time. The agent at the company told the pair to come on a certain day via telegraph message. As soon as they received this telegraph message they headed over to Phagwara. From there, it took three days to go to Calcutta. Once they arrived they were informed that they came too late, and that their ticket had been sold to someone else. The travel agency then advised them to go to Hong Kong and get a ticket once they reached. From Hong Kong, they did not have enough money to purchase two plane tickets- only one, so Gurdev Singh sent a telegram to his friend, Gurdial Singh Teja, for help. Instantly, Gurdial Singh Teja purchased an extra plane ticket. From Hong Kong they landed in San Francisco where they arrived at the Ghadar Party headquarters.

Once they arrived at the Ghadar Party headquarters they were well-received due to Naranjan Singh’s earlier contributions. They remained there for three days and were personally dropped off to Yuba City, California, by an acquaintance of Naranjan Singh. Once in Yuba City they arrived on a train and headed over to White Rock, BC. They had informed Gurdial Singh Teja ahead of time regarding their arrival, to which Gurdial Singh picked them up at 2 am. They arrived at Gurdial Singh’s house at 4 in the morning, as they had lived in North Vancouver at the time.

When Manjit Singh first came to Canada he felt as though the climate was better and that those who worked were able to save money.  He also enjoyed the clean food. In addition, when he first came, women, including the South Asian diaspora, would wear dresses to try and ensure that they did not stand out. He recalls that Sunday would be referred to as ‘Lord’s Day,’ which was known as the day that people went to church and didn’t do anything else other than wash their clothes. Gurdev Singh advised him to wash his clothes in the afternoon and not the morning in order to coincide with the times of church and to ensure that any passersby wouldn’t ask what they were doing.

Manjit Singh also recalls that everything was made out of wood – from the ferries and houses even to the gutters. The small community life meant that everybody knew one another and because of this there were very few fights.

The following morning after arriving to Vancouver Gurdev Singh went to the nephew of Kapoor Lumber Company, Kashmir Singh Sidhu, who was Gurdev Singh’s good friend. Soon after they began working there. During this time period the mills didn’t provide any materials and they were only paid 94 cents an hour. With these wages workers had to purchase their own aprons, shoes, gloves, and union dues. Considering these expenses, the worked would only earn $6.50 each day.

During this early period in his migration and settlement Gurdev Singh convinced Manjit Singh to enroll into a local English school that was offering night classes located at the corner of Columbia Street and Hastings Avenue. During this time, Manjit Singh had a lot to accomplish in a short period of time. He would start work at 8:00 in the morning, finishing at 4:30. He would then take a bus that would arrive at 5:15. During this brief break he would run home from work, wash his face, change his clothes and head over to the bus stop which was located three blocks away. The English night school would start at 6:30pm and run until 8:30pm. After class ended he would catch the 9:00pm bus to go back home and repeat the same routine the next day.

Manjit Singh recalls that Darshan Singh Canadian played an important role in creating the unions. He was originally from Village Lagarey and he organized the unions. Prior to 1943 people worked without them. Manjit Singh also acknowledges the work of Dr. D.P Pandia, who came to B.C in 1939 and provided free housing to people that came illegally.

Manjit Singh started to work for Atma Singh Dhod’s mill located in Langford and located approximately an hour away from Victoria. It was very far and so Manjit Singh asked a nearby mill for work. He was able to receive a job at Selkirk Lumber Company and worked there for one year, completing in 1950. After he moved to Mesachie Lake and worked at the Hillcrest Lumber Company. Here, there was a better job opportunity, so he proceeded to work here for two years, from 1950 to 1952.

Alongside the lumber strike that occurred there was a general shortage of jobs at this time. A such, Naranjan Singh Sangha offered to give them work in Kamloops. Manjit Singh then headed over to Kamloops where he worked for six months. Once the union strike was resolved and a contract was formed, he headed over to Vancouver again. Here he worked at the Fraserview Lumber Company which was run by Giani Naranjan Singh Jodh. He worked here for a little bit until the mill caught on fire. He still recalls the day he was told the mill was on fire. He went over there to gather his apron only to find that once he had arrived that everything was completely destroyed.

After this tragedy, Ranjit Singh Muttu, who ran the nearby Hamfir Lumber Company, informed Manjit Singh that there was work available for him because they knew him to be a hard worker. Here, Manjit Singh faced unfairness with his working hours. The foreman would cut their hours and give them to his own friends. They never received eight hours of work. Because to this, Manjit Singh started to work at Birk Lumber Company. He phoned the foreman there at the time and asked him for work. The foreman (of European descent) believed that he was qualified and told him to come in the next day. But Manjit Singh could not do this as he wanted to properly leave his current job. So he joined a few days later, where the foreman had asked him if he would be able to handle the work. Manjit Singh responded by telling him if he was unable to do the job within four hours, he could send him home without pay.

Meanwhile, the Ross Street Gurdwara was being built at this time, to which Manjit Singh played an integral role. Preparations for the Gurdwara began in 1964. They had acquired land from the city, paying $75,000 for approximately 2 ¾ acres. Later on, they expanded to nearly 4 acres. Prior to the Ross Street Gurdwara, people would go to the Gurdwara on West 2nd Avenue. The down payment, which was 5%, and amounted to $3,750, and was placed under the names of Gurdial Singh Sanghera, Bhagat Singh Gill, and Manjit Singh himself.

Through his hard work Manjit Singh was able to build his way up as a trusted employee of Birk Lumber Company. Due to his hard work he became in charge of the mill where he provided more than 200 people with jobs. He also acted as a trusted mentor, telling those that were hired that they should never take bribes and that they should never come to work after drinking alcohol. He continued to work here until his retirement in 1995. He fondly looks back on a handwritten letter given to him by his foreman, Mr. George Thorne, thanking him for his service.

Manjit Singh feels that he was able to adjust to Canada quite nicely as he was proactive. He feels that if someone is lazy, it becomes much more difficult to adjust. A such, they did lots of work to ensure that he would be comfortable in this new country.

During his early years in Canada, Manjit Singh was involved in a local field hockey sports team where they were able to win the championships, despite all the members being busy with their working lives. The group would primarily practice at David Thompson High School. They practiced very little, particularly because all the team members were busy with work. Manjit Singh was the team’s goalkeeper. Sometimes, the full team wasn’t able to arrive until half-time because of everyone’s work schedules.

Manjit Singh has a very joyful family life. He was married on July 16, 1955 to Harjit Kaur. Manjit Singh’s grandfather had set up this marriage from India because he had known Harjit Kaur’s family, who also came from a family of freedom fighters. Harjit’s father in particular, Jarnail Mula Singh, knew Manjit Singh’s grandfather. Harjit Kaur came to join her husband in Canada. Together, they had three children, Aman (now deceased), Sital, and Karn. They greatly miss their eldest, Aman, who was very understanding and caring of her parents.

Although Harjit Kaur never worked, she remained busy in a variety of different ways. She even tried to obtain her driver’s license, but her father-in-law said she should not, as an accident would be dangerous to the family. Even though Harjit Kaur was unable to receive her license, Manjit Singh ensured that she was always able to go wherever she needed to. The duo are very similar and got along very well. Harjit Kaur enjoyed Canada when she first came.

They worked to take care of their grandparents and parents as they entered old age. Manjit Singh even moved houses to take care of his grandfather. In his previous home his grandfather would have lived in the basement, but Manjit Singh refused to let a freedom fighter stay there. So, they found a more compatible home and moved there. He has continued to reside in the same house since 1964.

Nowadays, Manjit Singh and Harjit Kaur enjoy going travelling with each other. They often go on cruises, having recently been to Europe. They look forward to their coming cruise, where they will head over to Hawaii. They continue to remain heavily involved in the community. Manjit Singh was the director of the Sunset Community Centre on Ross Street, Vancouver for seven years and continues to volunteer there. He helps arrange different meet-ups and groups and sometimes, the group travels to different regions in BC, such as Whistler. One does not need to be a member to join the group. To attend their outings, he tries to make it as affordable as possible- the group ends up losing money during their excursions.

Manjit Singh’s father and grandfather were poets and have written a variety of different poems on their experiences. Their poems have been combined together, are detailed in a book that has been published.

Nowadays, Manjit continues to give back to the community. He arranges a variety of events, including bus tours a variety of places, such as Whistler, B.C., with the local South Asian community. He enjoys gardening and growing his own vegetables, and estimates that 50% of the produce comes directly from his home-grown garden.