Mota Singh Jheeta
Mota Singh Jheeta was born on June 6, 1939 to parents Natha Singh Jheeta and Harbans Kaur Jheeta in the village Bir Pind, District Jalandhar. He grew up in a family of five with two brothers, Jiwan Singh Jheeta and Maghar Singh Jheeta and two sisters, Gurdial Kaur Bhogal and Gurminder Kaur Jabal. In 1955 at the age of fifteen Mota Singh headed over to Nairobi, Kenya after completing the tenth grade in India, to join his father and two brothers who were already working in Kenya which was under British rule at the time.
Once in Kenya Mota Singh studied basic education in accounting. Upon completion, he proceeded to work as a bank officer in a British bank in Nairobi. He noticed many differences between Kenya and India. For one, the employment was different as Mota Singh felt that the people living in Kenya were very well settled in this regard. Overall, he felt that the life was much better than his hometown in Punjab, India. People would migrate to Kenya from India to support their families back at home, particularly due to the lack of jobs in India those days. These individuals would primarily come to do work on a railroad in Kenya, where the British government was creating a railway system. He also recalls the Gurdwaras (Sri Guru Singh Sabha and Gurdwara Ramgarhia Board) in Nairobi at the time. Mota Singh remembers the diverse South Asian community, with people from a wide range of religious and ethnic backgrounds. He recalls that in those days’ individuals from India did not want to immigrate to Canada or the United Kingdom because Kenya was considered the most ideal during its British rule.
Mota Singh married his wife, Harbans Kaur Jheeta, in Nairobi, Kenya, where he also met her. There, his three children (two sons and one daughter – Kamaljit Kaur, Gursharan Singh and Rajeshwar Singh) were also born. Harbans Kaur would take care of different housework. In 1962, Kenya became independent from the British rule and the country changed in a variety of ways. Mota Singh felt as though the future did not appear to be bright with poor job prospects. Furthermore, Mota Singh valued education as being a priority for his children and also considered future employment opportunities for his children. His older brother, Jiwan Singh Jheeta had already headed over to Canada in 1962 after his job was abolished by the Royal Air Force as the British had to leave the base. During this time of uncertainty, Mota Singh continued to hold a steady job in Kenya because his job was based from London, England. Even still, Mota Singh decided to resign from his job and he and his young family left Kenya.
Mota Singh immigrated to Canada on November 14, 1966 with his family based on a permanent visa, receiving his visa directly from Ottawa (the visa office was in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania). He had a very long journey prior to coming to Canada, first heading over to London, England to meet with his parents for a holiday. His first landing in Canada was in Toronto. Upon arrival, Mota Singh and his family were supposed to head over to Vancouver however an Air Canada airline strike was occurring, so he and his family were placed on a first class train over to Prince George which took a total of three days and two nights. They then headed off the train at a small station called Upper Fraser. It was here that his brother, Jiwan Singh was working at a nearby sawmill called “Northwood Mills.” Mota Singh and his family were met at the station by Robert L. Hains, the Northwood Mills superintendent and were given the very sad news that his father had passed away the same day that Mota Singh left London.
After picking them up, Robert Hains proceeded to take them to Jiwan Singh’s house. At the time Jiwan Singh resided in a house provided by the company, which was also the largest house in the township. Jiwan Singh worked as a mechanical superintendent there and had approximately 25 individuals working under him. He was very experienced due to his prior work with the Royal Air Force. While settling in, Mota Singh enrolled his three children in local school. He continued to reside in the Upper Fraser area for two years, working as an office administrator for Northwood Mills, which employed approximately five hundred people. Soon after he decided to head over to Vancouver because he felt that the Upper Fraser was very isolating, particularly for his sister-in-law and wife. Furthermore, Mota Singh did not drink or smoke, making it difficult to socialize during the weekends. In addition, there was no Gurdwara in Prince George at the time as well as very few South Asian families at the time.
Mota Singh had also considered heading back to Kenya, because of the loneliness he felt in Canada. However, Mr. Hains convinced him to stay and promised to show him around the country. It was winter time when he arrived in Upper Fraser. There was snow all over the land which he had never seen before. In the summer, Mr. Hains took Mota Singh his wife Harbans Kaur, Brother Jiwan Singh and sister-in-law Satvachan Kaur Jheeta to Osoyoos, staying by the Osoyoos Lake and picking fruits from nearby orchards. Mr. Hains also drove Mota Singh and Harbans Kaur in his new car to Vancouver. This convinced Mota Singh to stay and look for another job. Later, he was offered another job by the banks in Prince George, but he felt as though the wages were very low- especially considering his experience. So, he decided to head over to Vancouver, just to see what it is like, where he was met by Jai Singh Uppal’s family, who were from his village back in India. He received a lot of guidance and support from Jai Singh, who had established himself in Vancouver during the early fifties. During this trip Mota Singh decided that Vancouver was a better fit for him and his family particularly due to the city life.
He was offered a job at a local bank in Vancouver where they paid $400 a month. Here the wages were too low in comparison to the lifestyle. Mota Singh thus continued to look for jobs and received a job opportunity from the Canadian National Railway (CNR). He recalls having to write multiple tests to receive the job, including an essay on Vancouver. Although Mota Singh did not know much about Vancouver, he wrote down his observations and received the job, competing against approximately five other individuals. He was the first person with a turban to work with the CNR where he did office work. He feels very fortunate to have this job. Due to Mota Singh’s hard work, his job provided further flexibility to enable him to participate in community work. His managers could always count on him.
Mota Singh experienced racism during his time in Canada. For example, one time when he applied for an office job, the employers told him to go work in the saw mill and pull lumber. People from South Asia were only expected to pull lumber and they were not considered educated beings. Sometimes, people would show him the middle finger as they would drive by. When he was expected to receive promotions at work, other individuals would try and obstruct him. Despite all this, he also recalls receiving support from the community. For example, at one point, Mota Singh had to remove his turban before joining the CNR. During a conversation with his CNR manager, Mr. Don Stebbings, he mentioned that he had enjoyed wearing his turban. Mr. Stebbings encouraged Mota Singh to continue wearing his turban. He followed his advice, and he proceeded to become an amritdhari (baptized) Sikh in 1982.
Mota Singh also remembers a dear story to him, during the Christmas time of one of his years working with the CNR. A representative from an automobile company provided Mota Singh with a bottle of high quality whiskey to commemorate his hard work. However, Mota Singh did not drink alcohol and instead offered the whiskey to Mr. Stebbings and his co-workers. But Mr. Stebbings refused to take it and the bottle was left in his home for fifteen years until he gave it to his brother-in-law visiting from England.
He recalls collecting his mail at a local post office in Upper Fraser where the attendant would be very surprised with his English ability, especially as he was multilingual, speaking Punjabi and Hindi, Swahili and a bit of Gujrati as well. Mota Singh learned English during his time in Nairobi, Kenya because he received a lot of exposure to English, particularly as his job revolved around drafting letters and communicating with people.
In 1974, Mota Singh was the secretary at his local Gurdwara located on Ross Street and run by the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver. Later, in 1983, he became the president of the committee. He built his way up through his hard work and had many connections within the community. Whenever individuals would want to come to Canada on behalf of the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver Ross Street Gurdwara, immigration officers would phone Mota Singh to confirm the individual’s identity. He even received recognition from the city acknowledging his important role within the community, which was a joyful moment for Mota Singh.
After living in Vancouver for a few years, Mota Singh moved to Richmond alongside his family, where he lived for seventeen years. After they headed over to Surrey, BC, where they have now lived for twenty-five years. Their family decided to move due to a better real estate market and more space. His children are also very successful. His oldest child, daughter Kamaljit Kaur currently runs her own business. His older son, Gursharan Singh was educated as a biomedical engineer and works in Toronto. His younger son, Dr. Rajeshwar Singh, works as a doctor.
At the age of 58 when his job was diminished, Mota Singh was offered a pension and decided to take it, retiring in early 1998. From then on, he proceeded to focus on his extensive community work. He has been involved in assisting, amending and writing the constitutions of most of the Gurdwaras and Five Rivers Community Services Society (community funeral home) in the Lower Mainland area. He was also instrumental in changing the dress code in the RCMP to enable turbans to be worn. He was also an advocate for the Punjabi language to be taught in the Canadian education system, serving as a chairman of the committee alongside the help of Moe Sihota and Paul Pallan, who served as a federal minister in those days. He also has appeared on a variety of television and radio programmes to speak about his experiences and community work as well as being interviewed for a variety of graduate school theses.
Mota Singh first travelled back to India after nearly thirty years, as it was difficult being the single earning hand in the family. After his retirement, he headed back after almost every year or two to visit his home in India. He misses the old days in India and feels that India was better during his first few visits back, back in 1993.
Mota Singh has also seen a variety of different changes during his many decades residing in Canada. For one, when he first arrived, the tallest building was a hotel in Vancouver. There were houses on Georgia Street at the time, whereas there are none now. Although the wages were low, he recalls a minimal crime rate and with the local community being very hospitable. For example, government offices and the Greyhound bus station would provide free doughnuts and coffee during wintertime. The local community was very nice. He would also purchase any South Asian groceries at ‘Famous Food Store,’ located on Clarke Drive and Hastings Street, which was run by Italian people. Even still, the workers were well-versed on South Asian cuisine.
Unfortunately, as the immigration flux increased, the discrimination also sprung up. Mota Singh recalls window breakings occurring targeting the local South Asian community. A group of South Asians joined together to form the East Indian Defence Committee and were able to catch the individual who was breaking the windows. Mota Singh also remembers that, although jobs were available, it was difficult for South Asians to be employed. There was only one radio station when he first came, run by Malkiat Singh Parhar, called ‘India Today,’ which only ran for half an hour.
Within the South Asian community, Mota Singh has also noticed many changes. For example, when he first migrated to Canada he rarely saw people wearing turbans. Those who did were often priests from the local Gurdwaras. Most of the South Asian influx occurred due to blood relations and individuals sponsoring their family members. As well as this, in the early sixties the Liberal government enabled individuals with specialized skills to apply to come to Canada, which allowed more people to come.
Mota Singh was also involved in an important study completed by the Canadian federal government, known as ‘Equality Now.’ At that time there were many visible minority groups that had settled in Canada. As such, Equality Now was used to try and determine what sort of needs were required by local communities and nearly 100 recommendations were made at the study’s end, which are still being implemented by the community. Mota Singh was recommended to present on the study on behalf of the local community.
One of the highlights of his life was being instrumental in bringing (33 volumes) the Guru Granth Sahib Ji back from the Supreme court of British Columbia, which took nearly five or six years, alongside the help of the Government of India and the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver. The 33 volumes were retained and given back to the Khalsa Diwan Society and the court oath-taking system has changed since then. Nowadays, if a Sikh is in court, they simply raise their right hand and take an oath as opposed to placing their hand on the sacred “Gutka” or Guru Granth Sahib Ji. He was also appointed as a representative of the Supreme Court of British Columbia to bring the New Westminster community together, helping resolve a disagreement with the local Gurdwara (Khalsa Diwan Society – Sukhsagar). He was also an advisor for multiculturalism for four years to the British Columbia provincial government.
Nowadays, Mota Singh looks after his wife who suffered from a stroke. He continues to remain an integral part of the community, often offering advice and knowledge to local community members. His book, “Saach Kahon” (Truthful Accounts) provides a firsthand look into his life. He hopes to send the message to youth that they are the future of the community. If they want to see the community progress, then they should focus on their education and obtain the highest education possible. He also hopes to share the message that youth should never underestimate themselves and that they should look deep within themselves and develop their qualities.
Dated in Surrey, B.C. 24th June, 2019.