Kanwal Singh Neel
Date of Birth:
Kanwal Singh Neel was born in Mombasa, Kenya in 1953. He moved to Canada with his family at the age of 16 in 1969. Kanwal and his family were picked up at the airport by one of his dad’s distant friend. For the first two weeks, they stayed at the Sikh Temple on Second Avenue and then moved to their rented house. Soon after, Kanwal enrolled at Kitsilano Secondary school and later transfered to Steveston High School in Richmond to complete his high school.
Kanwal describes his first ten years in Canada (1969-1979) as “knowing the land.” Since Kanwal was already fluent in speaking English, he faced no language barriers in Canada. In addition, he was very athletic and involved in sports, through which he was easily able to befriend a lot of kids at school. After high school he enrolled in the Bachelors of Science program at UBC, studying computer science and mathematics. He continued to be involved in sports and competed in various track and field meets and field hockey tournaments, but had to take a break from playing after he suffered some injuries during his third year of studies at UBC. He then got into officiating and coaching track and field and is something he continues to do until present day.
In 1972, Kanwal and his friends formed a bhangra group called the Punjab Cultural Association and in 1974, they were invited to perform at the World Expo in Spokane. They also performed at various different locations like the PNE and traveled to other cities as well. On one such visit to Fort St. John, an incident happened that Kanwal remembers even today. After a long drive from Vancouver to Fort St. John, when their group began their performance, a fight broke out between the Punjabi and the Indigenous community over a misunderstanding because of which the event was stopped and they were sent back to Vancouver right after.
Kanwal completed his bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics and got his first teaching job in 1977. In 1978, he also got the opportunity to officiate at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta. He recalls that it was at the opening ceremony of these games he experienced a deep feeling of gratitude of “feeling Canadian.” He was doing something to give back to the community that helped him launch a successful career within the last 10 years.
He devoted the next ten years of his life to becoming an educator and called it his period of “Harvesting the land.” During his time working as a teacher he became more involved in the BC Math Teachers Association and the education community at large. In 1982 he married his wife Nancy and they had two daughters who are also now married. In the early 1990s, he joined SFU as a faculty associate to work, train and mentor student teachers. He was always intrigued by the question of how the education style can be revolutionized so as to spark an interest in students to learn. He further moved on to become the president of the BC Math Teachers Association and started travelling across the province to find and solve various issues being faced by the students. There were a lot of issues the Indigenous students were facing regarding math, and it became a passion for Kanwal to see how these students could become successful and improve their graduation rates.. He thus began his journey to bring about some changes, starting with tweaking the way he taught by using a lot of hands on materials.. In 1993, he co-hosted a TV show called “Math Shop,” and is something that opened the spectrum for him. The Knowledge Network made 16 half hour shows in which he used innovative and interactive ways of teaching math to help solve the problem of low graduation rates prevalent in those days. This show aired on various channels all across North America and gained a lot of attention. Later, he also co-authored a textbook series with Pearson Canada titled “Math Makes Sense.”
During this same time, he also kept on officiating in track and field and advancing his knowledge in the field of mathematics education by enrolling in a doctorate program. He finished his Doctorate in 2008 from SFU and did his research in Haida Gwaii, an island off the coast of British Columbia. Over there, he first studied how the local people used mathematics in the day to day life and then using those applications, he started integrating mathematics concepts with their cultural knowledge. For example, he used the inherent geometrical patterns used in the making of a totem pole or a button blanket – a gift given by the Haida community when a person graduates – and developed the math curriculum based on the real-life applications. This method of learning helped the Haida community learn math better and quicker. Kanwal also worked with the Squamish First Nation in the Whistler area and the Sto:lo nation community in the local Chilliwack area. It became his passion to develop resources for them.
Thus, after this phase of “harvesting the land,” Kanwal now believe he is sowing the seeds again and starting to work with the student teachers by teaching them and also working within our own community in how the knowledge can be further developed. Kanwal was also one of the main champions in getting the Komagata Maru plaque installed in Downtown Vancouver in 1989 and when the centennial of this event happened in 2014, he was really glad at having achieved the goal of making it a Canadian mainstream event and not just an isolated Sikh event.
Kanwal has been recognized with various awards and honours over the years. Most recently, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Kwantlen Polytechnic University for all his work in the community and the municipality of Richmond recognized him by inducting him in the Sports Wall of Fame in the officials’ category. Though he is retired, he continues to give back by being involved in a project with SFU called “Friends of Simon.” Through this outreach project, university students go out and mentor and tutor immigrant and refugee children from Syria, Africa, Nepal and other countries, with the goal of getting them to succeed in school and making them feel welcome in Canada.
Kanwal feels that it is really critical how one stays connected to the roots after having ripen the fruits of the labour from the harvesting, and continue to move forward. His advice is to use education as a means to help others because “continuing to learn and live with passion and be an agent for change in helping those that are not so fortunate” is important.