Gian Singh Sandhu
Gian Singh Sandhu was born in Village Rurka Kalan, District Jalandhar, Punjab on July 23rd, 1943. He recalls his grandfather adjusting his birth date to be September 10, 1942 in order for him to be able to enroll him into school alongside his cousin, who was two years elder to Gian Singh. He stayed there until graduating high school and then decided to join the Indian Air Force in 1960.
Gian Singh was engaged when he was in the third grade to Surinder Kaur through his grandparent’s arrangement. Gian Singh’s grandfather used to reside in the United Kingdom and returned to India in 1946. Meanwhile, Surinder Kaur’s grandfather returned during the independence movement and their villages were located twelve kilometres apart. He was officially married to her at the age of 16, at which point they continued to live separately. Surinder Kaur moved in with her husband at the age of 18.
Surinder Kaur has worked as a housewife all her life and raised four successful children. Gian Singh calls her the ‘pillar’ of the family. The two have four children (three of their own, and one adopted), who were all born in India. His oldest child, daughter Kamaljit Kaur, is currently a psychologist, having received her PhD from the University of British Columbia. His second oldest child, daughter Palbinder Kaur, is currently a British Columbia Supreme Court Justice, being appointed as the first turbaned Supreme Court Justice. His son, Harjinder Singh, is a computer scientist- first working as an associate professor at York University, and currently running his own company. His youngest son, Surjit Singh, chose to stay with Gian Singh in their family business.
Once he joined the Air Force, Gian Singh continued to advance his education. He finished his Bachelor of Commerce, as well as completing accountancy, which would later come to good use for his future endeavours.
Upon leaving the Air Force in 1969, Gian Singh applied to immigrate to Canada in January, 1970. The selection process was a points-based system, which is still prevalent to this day. Under this system, people were assessed for a variety of skillsets, including profession, education and language. Furthermore, extra points would be awarded to individuals who already had relatives settled in Canada. Some of Gian Singh’s in-laws had already settled in Canada, further strengthening his application. His family has deep roots in Canada. For example, Surinder Kaur’s grandfather had come to Canada in 1904 for employment purposes. Gian Singh was selected to come to Canada in February of the same year, choosing to come in December, 1970. He stayed back in India for that time period to spend time with his parents.
When arriving to Canada, Gian Singh brought his three young children who were aged seven, four, and two, alongside his wife. They arrived in Vancouver because this is where his in-laws resided. His mother-in-law picked his family up at the airport here where he and his family stayed for a week. Then, they flew over to Williams Lake where his brother-in-law was working at a local lumber company, arriving in knee-deep snow at a small airport. Upon arrival, he recalls the vehicle getting stuck, and being awe-struck with the amount of snow.
Within a week of landing in Williams Lake, Gian Singh started looking for job opportunities. One of his brother-in-law’s friends mentioned that there was a political function for the jurisdiction’s Member of Parliament, Paul St. Pierre, occurring at the local radio station manager’s backyard, and invited Gian Singh along. Upon heading over, other attendees were very curious about Gian Singh, particularly due to his turban. So, the radio station manager, Bob Leckie, told Gian Singh to simply take five minutes, explain who he was and talk about how he landed in Williams Lake. At that time, MP Paul St. Pierre had just returned from a trip to China. Gian Singh was able to give input on Chinese history because he was involved in the 1962 Sino-Indian War during his time with the Indian Air Force. Due to his extensive knowledge, Bob Leckie asked Gian Singh to come to the radio station the next day where they could jointly interview Paul St. Pierre. Although Gian Singh was reluctant, Leckie was confident in his abilities. This experience exposed Gian Singh to the local community.
He recalls looking for work to be a challenge, particularly as Williams Lake was a lumber town, which meant that there was an excess of manual labour jobs. Gian Singh had never done this type of work. He asked his brother-in-law if he could come along to his workplace and ask the mill supervisor if there were any jobs available. He agreed, and they hopped into a vehicle and went to a local mill. At this time, Gian Singh dressed up very professionally, similar to the way he dressed up in the Air Force. Arriving at the Lignum Limited mill wearing a suit and tie, he headed upstairs and knocked at the door where he entered a room full of smoke because people were smoking cigars. The supervisor, Art Strand, shook his hand. Then, after observing Gian Singh’s hands, he proceeded to say that he believed Gian Singh had never worked manual labour, and was turned down. Gian Singh was very embarrassed and walked back home five kilometres in minus 30 degrees Celsius weather, where his wife had to help untie his frozen shoelaces by pouring hot water over it.
Soon after Gian Singh was able to get a job at another company known as Merrill and Wagner, where he piled lumber on a contract, earning ninety cents for every thousand boards. One day, he decided to go visit the manpower manager, David Teether. He went into the office, where they had a good conversation, and Teether said he would hire him as a counsellor for the manpower department. As Gian Singh was filling out the application, he realized he was unable to do this job because he had only arrived to Canada two weeks ago. The prerequisite for the job was one year residence. Teether suggested he go to Vancouver and gain work experience there but Gian Singh refused, having established himself at Williams Lake and living there at no cost with his family.
After continuing talks with Teether, Gian Singh was asked if he knew anything about first aid. Gian Singh had extensive experience with first aid due to his time with the Indian Air Force. However, he would have to be certified by the worker’s compensation board. Even though the classes were already into their third week of a twenty week programme, Teether proceeded to make a phone call to ask for the possibility of an exception to allow Gian Singh to join the class. He was able to join and the Government of Canada even paid for the training which was at a charge of fifty dollars. However, the condition was that if he failed, he would have to pay them back and if he passed, it would be the government’s investment in him. Gian Singh passed and demand for first aid attendants increased dramatically during this year, particularly as the government had passed legislature requiring one first aid attendant on for about every ten employees at the mill.
Gian Singh recalls that one day after coming home from work he saw the Lignum Limited foreman, Art Strand, sitting at his place next to his brother-in-law. Strand was attempting to recruit Gian Singh to join his lumber company, to which Gian Singh refused, just as Strand had refused him earlier. The following week, a man named Walter, who was the human resources manager at Lignum Limited, came to ask Gian Singh his reasons as to why he did not want to join their company. Gian Singh told Walter that he wanted Art Strand’s job- a job as a supervisor. Walter believed that Gian Singh had no experience, to which Gian Singh listed his management experience in the air force and in the saw mill. The next day, Walter called Gian Singh whereupon he was offered a job as a working foreman. They created a new job specifically for Gian Singh, known as a working foreman. Had they employed him as a full-fledged supervisor, the union would not let him do much or learn anything. So, Lignum Limited fired a different supervisor (not Art Strand) and replaced that position with Gian Singh. There, he grew very fast. He became a manager for the finance and administration process. He describes himself as ‘aggressive,’ wanting to always do better than his peers. When the company was having financial difficulties, Gian Singh analyzed the situation without being asked. He showed his report to the manager, saying that he would be able to make them more profitable if he was made a supervisor. So he grew in this company, leaving after ten years to establish himself even further.
Gian Singh decided to start his own lumber company in Williams Lake which he named Khalsa Enterprises. He had bought out a small company for $425,000 and ran it for almost seven years. During this time period, Gian Singh grew it from five employees to 73 employees. However, the company did not have the financing to compete with large corporations- they were often competing over forest licenses. Gian Singh was with a small bank during this time period which was bought by a bigger bank. This larger bank told the small bank to eliminate all the accounts that were losing money. So Gian Singh was shut down by the bank and nearly hit a personal financial disaster. After hiring a highly regarded lawyer in Vancouver, they went to the banks and told them that Gian Singh reserved the right to sue the bank. The next day the bank phoned the lawyer and asked what they wanted to avoid being sued. Gian Singh asked for his company back- the bank said they would oblige if they paid all the debt back. Gian Singh refused, arguing that the bank had shut him down, so they should take the loss. As such, Gian Singh was able to pay the price he offered for the company and the bank did not have any other options.
After this incident, Gian Singh’s investors came on board with him and they opened a company called ‘Jackpine Forest Products’ in 1987, which ran until 2008. He built two more companies after this, renaming his company ‘Jackpine Group of Companies,’ which was able to grow a lot, becoming number twelve in British Columbia. He had three-hundred employees at the time and 400 million in sales. They were also the seventeenth largest Canadian exporter to the US. They specialized in sixty foot long engineered products that nobody else was making in Canada. Unfortunately, his company was shut down amongst the 2008 financial disaster.
After this, Gian Singh went into management consulting, opening his own business. Although he resided in Williams Lake, his marketing office was located in the Lower Mainland. So, he would often travel back and forth between the two regions. His management consulting grew and offices were opened in Atlanta, Washington, and Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Gian Singh’s children all went to school in Williams Lake, earning their high school diploma there. His three eldest children all earned their undergraduate degrees from the University of British Columbia and they are all currently very successful. His children were the only baptised Sikh children in Williams Lake and they faced a variety of challenges including taunting and having rocks thrown at them. One day, his older daughter even came home with a broken tooth after being pushed against a locker by a European descent child.
Gian Singh also personally experienced and witnessed discrimination and racism. For example, the very first time Gian Singh became a supervisor, he walked into a senior management meeting where one of the senior managers referred to Sikhs as ‘Hindus’. Gian Singh did not tolerate this and stated this to the others at the meeting. He recalls certain lumber tools being labelled with derogatory racial terms, such as a sawmill log turner being referred to as ‘Hindu.’
Throughout all this Gian Singh continued to be a hard worker and was always determined to find a way to get ahead of his peers. He was very dedicated to his company, working to maximize profits. For example, when he was promoted as the office manager for a company, he would watch over the finances and expenses of his juniors and was not afraid to let them know if they were spending too much. Although his juniors tried to make his job difficult, he persevered and continued to self-study. He learned all about the operations of the mill, and studied the machinery used in detail. In about three or four months he would provide substitutes on current methods to improve efficiencies and maximize profits.
Gian Singh remembers a difficult time in his life occurring back when he was working at Merrill and Wagner. The supervisor would pass by him as he was working and told him that if he didn’t wear a turban, he would be promoted to a lead hand or a supervisor. As such, believing that he could grow in the management aspect of his career, Gian Singh took off his turban and shaved his hair off. He recalls crying as he left the barber shop. Meanwhile, Merrill and Wagner kept true to their word and he was promoted.
Approximately ten years later, Gian Singh was the president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Williams Lake. During Vaisakhi, the Gurdwara held a function where both non-Sikhs and Sikhs attended. Here, he gave a lecture on the five articles of faith in Sikhism. One of Gian Singh’s friends, John Bass, came up to him after, telling him that he was so persuaded by the significance of the Sikh faith, but he inquired as to why he did not regularly wear a turban. Although Gian Singh would wear the turban to the Gurdwara, he would not wear it on a regular basis. Gian Singh could have offered many different excuses to John, but he told his friend that he was right. At this time, Gian Singh was also working as a business management and industrial first aid course instructor at the nearby Cariboo College. Here, his students were primarily European descent, which was also holding him off. But upon John’s words, Gian Singh became baptized again.
Gian Singh’s life is multi-dimensional- he was also heavily involved in social service and community service in a variety of ways in addition to his involvement in the local Gurdwara. He established the international organization called the ‘World Sikh Organization’ (WSO), becoming the first president for the national branch. The WSO continues to run to this day as a successful human rights organization. The WSO is run entirely by volunteers and at that time there were 13,000 volunteers working all throughout Canada. He set up specific conditions within the WSO, including the rule that no one can be a president for more than four years and that the president role has to be volunteer-based. This enabled the organization to meet with people in authority, and act as a diplomatic organization.
Gian Singh’s role as president of the WSO did not come without turmoil. For example, once he travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, alongside a non-Sikh lawyer, and three other Sikhs, for a presentation of difficulties faced by the Sikh community to the United Nations. On the day of the presentation, international police stopped his entourage and wanted to search their hotel rooms. Later, they found out that Gurdial Singh Dhillon, the Indian High Commissioner to Canada, had lodged a complaint against them, saying that they were going to assassinate him. The reality was that Gurdial Singh wanted the entourage to miss their timeslot, which he succeeded in doing. When Gian Singh saw him at the conference, he went up to him and hugged him. He knew if he had made a wrong move, Gurdial Singh would use that as proof for his assassination accusations.
Another instance of hardship for Gian Singh was when he had to stand up for the WSO during the Air India flight bombing in 1985. The WSO was being accused of playing a role in the bombing. He kept on emphasizing that the World Sikh Organization is a diplomatic human rights organization. One day, an RCMP inspector asked him if he would be willing to take a lie detector test. Although normally a lawyer would tell you not to, Gian Singh decided to take it if it was the only thing that would save the organization. So, he took it and the WSO was no longer suspected.
Another incident occurred when Gian Singh was presenting to the external affairs department in Ottawa. The RCMP wanted to urgently speak with him. When they met, the RCMP asked him if he would be attending the Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan. Gian Singh was planning on going, but the RCMP suggested to him that he shouldn’t go as there was a contract out for his assassination. Rather than living in fear, Gian Singh said ‘Now I have to go, I really have to go now.’ So, he attended the Nagar Kirtan in Vancouver, alongside police personnel.
Gian Singh continues to be an advisor to the WSO. Currently, there are thirty one directors to the WSO nationally, across Canada. The current committee has forged gender balance as well by having fifty percent women in their organization. The WSO is a self-funded organization run by volunteers. When the Government of India persuaded external affairs minister Joe Clarke to shut down the WSO by establishing an opposing agency, the WSO was still able to survive as it is run by the passion of the people. Gian Singh recalls a volunteer who mortgaged his house when they were short of funds.
At this time, Joe Clarke had issued a confidential letter to seven premiers of provinces with a significant Sikh population, telling them not to associate with the WSO. So, when the WSO held a banquet in Manitoba, the premier Howard Pawley was scheduled to attend as a guest speaker. But he didn’t show up, due to this letter. The WSO got access to this letter, and met with news media agencies Goble and Mail, as well as CBC, and told them about the existence of the letter. This prompted the opposition party to hassle the government in regards to this.
The WSO also stood up for LGBTQ rights when the discussion first arose under Prime Minister Paul Martin. Although some Gurdwaras began to oppose the WSO, it didn’t matter to them. They chose to look at the Sikh religion, and ask ‘What would Guru Nanak do today?’ Even though they lost some members, they gained a lot of youth at this time.
Gian Singh’s second child, daughter Palbinder Kaur, is an active human rights advocate and has acted as a lawyer to the WSO in multiple different cases, including defending Muslim girls to wear their hijab, a Scottish boy to wear his kilt and a case to allow a Jewish family to practice their sukkah hut the way they felt was appropriate. The WSO takes on a variety of cases and is not limited to the Sikh community.
His fourth child, his wife Surinder Kaur’s nephew, was adopted years later, after his own family was settled in Canada. He adopted his eleven-year-old nephew because he wanted to stay in Canada and Gian Singh had the financial means to do so. Gian Singh remembers the process being hassle-free. He recalls that he and Surinder simply walked into court, whereupon the judge said ‘Mr. and Mrs. Sandhu, you have a son.’
He recalls that there was lots of discrimination in Canada when some of the first waves of South Asian immigration occurred. For one, Sikhs did not have the right to cremate the deceased- the first Sikh cremation had to occur in the forests. Sikhs were known as ‘Pakis’, later being mistaken for ‘Hindus’. Furthermore, Gian Singh remembers learning about Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s decision to try and send the Sikh population out of Canada, by offering the Sikh delegation to visit Honduras (now known as Belize) and immigrate there. However, this 1907 Sikh delegation chose to remain in Canada, which Gian Singh believes was the right decision. Gian Singh decided to travel through Belize in 1986 to see what his forefathers had looked at and felt as though it was a small, underdeveloped country.
Nowadays, Gian Singh is a distinguished author, having recently written and published “An Uncommon Road: How Canadian Sikhs Struggled Out of the Fringes and Into the Mainstream,” and he is currently working on his second book. He returned to Punjab, India after 38 years, as before this he was blacklisted by the Indian government for his human rights activities. Due to heavy demand, his first book has also been translated into Punjabi and is due to be released soon. He, alongside his wife Surinder Kaur, have also sponsored an Afghan Sikh family to move to Canada. Sikhs in Afghanistan are highly persecuted in a variety of ways. For example, women and girls must wear the burqa if the leave their homes. The Sikh diaspora in Afghanistan must wear yellow identification tags so the local ethnic Afghan community knows not to greet them. The family he hosts has four children, as well as a mother and a father. One of his cherished memories was when the nine year old daughter of the family came to him and told him ‘Baba Ji, I love Canada.’
Gian Singh hopes to spread the message to the youth that it is important to be an ethical individual. He recognizes that kids learn from parents, and so his message for the parents is the same. He spreads the importance to get away from lust, greed, and ego, and to control any vices to become an effective messenger of work in humanity.