• vaisakhi

    It’s time to celebrate Vaisakhi

    Op-ed originally published in The Vancouver Sun on April 12, 2018. Photograph by: Jason Payne

    Dust is slowly settling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s turbulent trip to India and the diplomatic fallout from convicted terrorist Jaspal Atwal’s presence in India with the Trudeaus. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has finally condemned use of political violence and “all acts of terrorism in every part of the world”.

    But Canadians are left with the impression of widespread Sikh support in Canada for an independent Sikh homeland carved out of India. A very small Sikh group known as “Khalistanis” use Canadian politicians and institutions to further this goal. Meanwhile, India accuses our politicians of giving tacit approval to this cadre with its tentacles into Canada’s political parties, particularly the federal Liberal party. Jagmeet Singh’s stated objective to pass a motion in parliament declaring the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in India a “genocide” is casting a dark cloud over Canada-India relations and risks fracturing the Indo-Canadian community.

    With the upcoming Vaisakhi parades in Vancouver, Surrey and Toronto, Canadians might be wondering about the real intent behind the parades. Which politicians will be courting temple leaders and factions within the vote-rich Punjabi Sikh community? Undoubtedly, many politicians may be reluctant to attend the parades for fear of being photographed with questionable individuals who display admiration for the Air India bomber Talwinder Singh Parmar and others who inspired the violent struggle for Khalistan.

    Let’s clear the air for an open dialogue: Sikhs are not terrorists. The majority of them do not want a separate homeland.

    Five centuries ago, Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, spoke against tyranny and oppression. Courageously, he described the politics of his time “as like drawn knives, kings like butchers. Righteousness has fled on wings. The dark night of falsehood prevails, and the moon of truth is nowhere visible.” All of the 10 Sikh gurus were subversive and social entrepreneurs. They championed the ideas of one God, diversity and inclusion. They called upon all to live truthful lives marked by honest work and sharing with others in need.

    “Langar” (a communal kitchen and common meal) was introduced by Guru Nanak to break down caste, creed, colour and social status barriers, and to unite people as equals. Hungry people today eat in Sikh temples from Amritsar to Abbotsford, Birmingham to Brampton, and New Delhi to New York. Sikh belief in the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity threatens power structures, whether built upon the caste system in India or on ethnic, language, race and religious superiority elsewhere.

    It is important for Canadians to understand the meaning of Vaisakhi. It is a centuries-old harvest festival celebrated yearly in April bringing diverse people together. Vaisakhi became significant for the Sikhs in 1699 when the tenth guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), baptized five men and was himself baptized by them creating the “Khalsa” (community of the pure). The five outward symbols of the Khalsa identity represent inner strength and commitment to truthful living.

    Vancouver and Surrey Vaisakhi processions are amongst the largest and most colourful in the world. All Canadians are welcome to join and enjoy Langar (free food) along the parade routes. Like Thanksgiving Day, Vaisakhi includes charity, praying for prosperity for all, and gratitude for the harvest. Sikhs wish to celebrate Vaisakhi by focusing more on the core values of inclusion, equality, community service, and harmony, and less on the political agendas of the politicians and narrow-minded groups within the Sikh community.

    We may never know to what degree Trudeau’s trip has affected Canada-India relations. But we do know Sikhs are an integral part of India as they are of Canada. Canadian politicians should continue to participate in Vaisakhi celebrations, affirm the territorial unity of India, and denounce promotion of all political violence by anyone. They should also avoid the cultural appropriation of the Sikh turban, as it is not a fashion accessory or part of a costume. It is a sacred expression of faith and identity.

    Happy Vaisakhi, Canada!

  • Are we successful in Canada?

    Are we successful in Canada?

    Originally published in The South Asian Post on February 28, 2016.

    We are as Canadian as anyone else.

    As we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday this year, let us consider the role of Indo-Canadians in building one of the leading democracies in the world. From the blueberry and strawberry farms in British Columbia’s fertile Fraser Valley to the Centre Block of Parliament in Ottawa, and from small town lumber mills to the large corporate headquarters in Toronto, Indo-Canadians occupy positions across all layers of the workforce, including posts of leadership and influence.

    Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, once said that “Action is the foundational key to all success.” Immigration from South Asia to Canada started with a small group of adventurous pioneers over a century ago. They passed on their resolve to build a better life to subsequent generations who have been striving with unflinching determination to advance socially and economically.

    That resolve however was not forged without adversity. We withstood the discriminatory immigration laws of the early 1900s that deterred family reunification and curtailed further immigration until the 1950’s. We challenged the notorious Continuous Passage Act which culminated with the infamous incident of the Komagata Maru in 1914. For nearly fifty long years we vigorously fought the illegal denial of our right to vote. Until 1947, we were barred from the professions of law, engineering and medicine, and prevented from owning property in certain parts of the country. Having overcome these barriers and obstacles we have become an integral and dynamic part of the great Canadian mosaic enriching the social, economic and political landscape of Canada.

    Today Indo-Canadians account for nearly twenty per cent of all legal professionals in the country, including occupying posts as lawmakers, judges, and senior police officers. In British Columbia, South Asian builders are driving segment of the construction industry. The same can be said of our activity in the trucking and logistics industries.

    In British Columbia Indo-Canadians grow over eighty percent of the berries and sixty percent of fruits. From a village boy who became a premier to the many who are serving as municipal counsellors, provincial legislators and federal cabinet ministers, we are shaping Canada’s politics, policies and programs affecting the daily lives of all Canadians.

    Among us are Olympians, hockey and football players, comedians and entertainers, authors and journalists, broadcasters and film makers, and movie stars and fashion models. In the world of finance and corporate board rooms we are in prominent executive roles. From Chief Executive Officers of Canada Post and TD Bank, Indo-Canadians are leading the massive technological innovation taking place in the delivery of services.

    Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid are celebrated across Canada as are Christmas and Hanukah. Hockey Night in Canada is broadcast in Punjabi and today the President of Canada’s most iconic brand Tim Hortons is a son of Indian immigrants.

    Are we successful? Absolutely!

    Is Canada thriving? Without a doubt!

  • Furnace in India

    Welcome to 2016!

    For me 2015 was filled with wonder and a deeper sense of the greatness of Canada, my adopted home. We are blessed with democratic institutions that function reasonably well  and benefit all Canadians. The air we breathe is clean, and the food we eat is abundantly available to most. Access to education and health care is universal. Not all is perfect here, but only a few countries in the world provide this to their citizens.

    On this first day of 2016, I woke up remembering growing up on a small farm in Punjab, India, the country of my birth. My grandfather used to say two things. One, it’s a good habit to walk the land every morning and check out the fields, the animals, and reflect on yesterday and meditate on today. The second thing he used to say was, “Every day the fields are pregnant.” New life is bursting all around us.

    Birth always inspires us. Let each day be all about birthing – birthing new ideas and imaginative ways of living, farming, producing, distributing, and sharing.  Every person deserves to breathe clean air, drink safe water, eat nutritious food, get an education, have meaningful work, and, above all, to live in safe and caring communities.  This is our work together to build a better Canada and a better world for all.

    Happy 2016 !

  • Merry Christmas 2015!

    Reflections for the Holiday Season

    Today many Syrian refugees are celebrating Christmas in Canada and perhaps their first safe and peaceful Christmas in many years but without all their loved ones. I can only imagine their joy mingled with loss and sadness.

    Sixty seven years ago in 1948, my mother-in-law’s family celebrated its first Christmas in Canada in a wooden shed warmed by fire from a stove on a farm in Langley, BC. They were a displaced family without her father who had been taken away by the Soviet communists. They were among the lucky German Mennonite refugees from Ukraine sponsored to Canada by the Mennonite Central Committee with the help of a distant relative. My mother-in-law has a vivid memory of that first Christmas. She says, “There were a few feet of snow outside. The ship lap boards on the exterior walls of the shed had gaps in them. It was cold but we felt warm and grateful. For the first time in my life we were free and safe to sing songs of joy and peace. We were sad to not have my father with us. Many other Mennonite families also had lost loved ones including children and their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. We were excited to open our presents which we had ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. Canada has been wonderful to us.”

    As a young married couple with their newly born first child, my father and mother lived through pain, suffering and death of millions in Punjab during the 1947 division of Pakistan and India. It was the largest forced migration in history with horrific violence and destruction with some great feats of kindness and sacrifice. My father risked his life protecting Punjabi Muslims fleeing to Pakistan while helping to settle displaced Punjabi Sikhs in the Indian side of Punjab.

    Jesus with his parents, Joseph and Mary, were displaced persons as well. According to the Gospel of Matthew, God appeared to Joseph in a dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” Afraid of the ancient Jewish prophecies about a saviour being born in Bethlehem, King Herod, the proxy ruler for the occupying Romans in Judea, sent his troops to kill all the boys two years of age and under born in and around the vicinity of Bethlehem. Jesus and his family returned to their homeland after Herod had died.

    Jesus lived a simple life of compassion towards others. He crossed boundaries and challenged prevailing social norms. He healed the sick, mended broken hearts, and, proclaimed justice and peace. He forgave those who nailed him to the cross. This Christmas let us celebrate our common humanity and seek to renew existing relationships and build new ones across boundaries upon compassion and not on commerce and power.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Beyond Multiculturalism

    Beyond Multiculturalism: Seeking Unification in a Diverse Canada

    Op-ed originally published in The Vancouver Sun on February 2, 2015. Photograph by: Mark van Manen

    I will never forget my first lesson about being Canadian.

    I was 10 years old and it was my first day in my new country called Canada. I woke up and looked out the window to see a middle-aged Caucasian man walking down the street. Excited, I called out to my father, “Look! There’s an Englishman.” My father gave me a stern look and said “What makes you think he is English? You don’t know if that man is from England; he could be French, or German, or Italian!”

    I was shocked. In that moment I learned you must not make assumptions, and that a person’s outward appearance does not define their identity. But what does define the Canadian identity? Despite all of the diversity here, is there something that unites us besides the flag or hockey? Should we be seeking such a connection?

    There is no doubt Canada is multicultural. It was the first country to implement an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971, and the cultural mosaic project has been largely successful. Canada is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with one of the highest per capita immigration rates. The last census revealed 24 ethnic groups with at least 100,000 members each, and one in five Canadians reports speaking a language other than English or French at home.

    But there have been problems with the multicultural experiment. We have seen the formation of ethnic enclaves in which certain groups keep to themselves, and the clashing of cultures when one group’s practices offend another. Should signs in languages other than English and French be allowed in store windows? Should women be allowed to cover their faces in public? How do we balance competing languages, and cultural and religious values?

    Being Canadian means valuing individual freedoms, including the freedom to practice one’s language, religion, and traditions, but this must absolutely be balanced with the rights and responsibilities that come with being a citizen of a liberal democracy.

    Some come to Canada because they know the country will offer them freedom, but do not necessarily extend this right to all others; they still believe in control over their family members, over women, over other minorities. Some who have been in Canada for many generations have sexist, racist, homophobic, islamophobic and other intolerant attitudes.

    This is not okay and neither is the continuing marginalization of Canada’s First Nations. The descendants of the original inhabitants of this land have been largely left out of the diversity experiment. While various immigrant groups have thrived and prospered in Canada, this is not the case for many First Nations who have been stripped of their lands, languages, and cultures.

    Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has claimed that what makes us unique in Canada is our acceptance of many identities; that we value each person’s uniqueness and work together in diversity. I don’t think we are quite there yet. We still have work to do in defining ourselves as a nation, in finding that something Canadian that unites us all. How can we build a caring, compassionate Canada in which people have the freedom to honour their language and culture but are bound together in a common cause for social justice and prosperity for all?

    What we need is a concerted effort to foster collaboration across provincial, international, and cultural borders. Arvind Gupta, president of UBC, has suggested that to strengthen the country, we should create a mobility fund for university students to spend one semester in another province. Facilitating such a process would be a fantastic way to help Canadians connect, learn from each other, and build on these relationships.

    Similarly, we might consider an international mobility fund to allow students to go abroad to learn other histories, politics, and world views, returning with ideas for best practices back in Canada. Both at home and abroad, we must seek to draw on the best from each world, learning to navigate different traditions and practices, and bringing together that which allows for innovation and progress.

    This type of intercultural, inter-religious, and inter-linguistic co-operation might be the key to Canada’s future. On my first day in Canada, I learned not to judge a person by the colour of their skin, that white does not mean English or Canadian. I still seek something more, something that does make us Canadian, something that unites us all.

  • Eran Sandler, Creative Commons

    Beyond Daycare: Providing Options for Young Parents

    We need a comprehensive childcare program with a variety of options to ensure strong, healthy, and happy Canadian families.

    A few weeks ago, The Vancouver Sun featured a front-page article on the issue of daycare costs in British Columbia, referencing a report from the Surrey Board of Trade. The report presents the case for providing $10/day childcare for British Columbians, and calls on the federal government to create a national child-care program. The argument presented is largely an economic one, focussing on the need to ensure that young parents are able to participate in the workforce. While this is an important point, we need to also look at the social, health, and other benefits of supporting young families in our country, and to provide parents with childcare choices, including the option to stay at home.

    There are strong arguments in favour of subsidized daycare programs as well as evidence of their benefits from as nearby as Quebec. In that province, parents of all economic backgrounds can access provincial childcare for only $7/day. This ambitious 2.2 billion dollar program has seen spectacular results over the last 15 years, including a 22% rise in working mothers, an 81% rise in after-tax income to families, a 50% reduction in parents on welfare, and a 50% reduction in child poverty. These results mirror other countries where investments in childcare have boasted long-term economic returns.

    While the program in Quebec is not without flaws (for example, there are still not enough spaces for all of the province’s children), its economic results are evidence enough for subsidized childcare options across the country. There are also many other compelling arguments for providing quality daycare for our nation’s children: it can help parents achieve a healthier work-life balance, contributing to happier relationships and reduced health problems, and it provides children with an early start to their education, the benefits to be seen for years to come.

    But daycare is not the only way to support young parents; there are many benefits to providing extended parental leave for mothers and fathers who want to care for children at home. The benefits of longer parental leave include economic returns such as higher rates of employee satisfaction and higher employee retention, as well as many health and social benefits. For example, allowing parents time off to take care of their kids has been shown to contribute to the long-term health of children, lower rates of depression in women, increased fertility rates, and when parental leave is shared between mothers and fathers, it can contribute to greater gender equality.

    Scandinavian countries frequently top charts for having the “happiest” people in the world and being some of the “best” places to live. They are also some of the best places to be a parent. In Sweden, parents get 480 days of paid leave, 60 of which must be shared between both parents, and in Norway they have just over a year of paid leave plus the option of an additional year unpaid. In Finland, parents are entitled to a childcare allowance if they choose to stay home with their children for up to three years. They are also entitled to shorter work hours until the end of the child’s second year in school at age 9 (since formal schooling only begins at age 7 in Finland), as well as subsidized daycare.

    The federal Liberals call for a national strategy to provide universal early childhood education and care that ensures no child is excluded due to cost or any other reason. The economic and social benefits of such a program are clear, but I hope that the conversation does not stop there. Young parents must have choices, including the option to raise their children at home without fear of losing their jobs. We should also look at options for providing subsidies to grandparents, nannies, and others who provide childcare as is currently being debated in Australia.

    Today’s children are the future of our country. Investing in childcare, including affordable daycare, extended parental leave and benefits, and other family supports, should be of utmost importance for all Canadians. Since each family is unique, we need a comprehensive program with a variety of options to ensure strong, healthy, and happy Canadian families.

  • Barj Dhahan Hiking the Inca Trail

    5 Best Hikes in Beautiful British Columbia

    One of my favourite ways to enjoy nature and bond with my family is to go hiking. British Columbia has a bounty of outstanding hiking trails nestled within beautiful forests and parks.

    Barj Dhahan and his son at Machu Pichu In November 2013, I was fortunate enough to visit Peru and experience the beautiful landscape with my son, Gabriel. We hiked the Inca Trail and climbed to Machu Pichu – it was a lifetime high for me! We’re lucky to have stunning forests and parks in British Columbia, and I highly recommend exploring them one weekend with your friends and family. It’s a great way to connect with nature, bond with family, and do a healthy activity.

    Here are 5 of my favourite places to hike in BC:

    1. Pacific Spirit Park (UBC Endowment Lands). Over the years I have walked all the trails within this park, and visited all the beaches. I like walking the trails during autumn, especially on rainy days. It’s an incredible experience.
    2. Garibaldi Provincial Park. Years ago, along with four friends I camped on the shores of Garibaldi Lake on a full moon. It was a truly magical and mystical experience to spend the night there. I love the thrill of climbing through the chimneys to the top of Black Tusk. I have done this three times.
    3. Cathedral Grove by Cameron Lake in the McMillan Park. I have childhood memories visiting this area many times when my family lived in Port Alberni. The ancient trees, some older than 800 years, stretching heaven-ward are awesome. It is amazing that these trees were there before Columbus reached the Americas in 1492!
    4. Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park near Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. I visited this park with my grade 8 class. Going into the caves was scary but exciting. I had never been ‘underground’ before. It’s a must visit for anyone interested in caves.
    5. Osoyoos Irrigation Canal Trail. There are great views of the lake as one walks through beautiful apple, cherry, and peach orchards. This area is the only ‘desert’ in Canada. My wife Rita’s family has a lakeshore property on the US side of the desert, and each summer, we went to Osoyoos/Oroville for at least a few weeks. I have wonderful memories of hiking in the mountains around the lake.

    We are blessed with such amazing natural beauty, landscapes and hiking trails in BC. We should all try to walk the hikes as much as we can. It’s good for the body and spirit!

  • Vancouver South Barj Dhahan

    Celebrating Summer in Vancouver South

    On Sunday, June 29, we hosted a wonderful community summer barbecue and picnic at Memorial South Park.

    Over three hundred enthusiastic friends, supporters and volunteers, mostly from Vancouver South, joined us for good conversations and great food. Some of us reminisced about our high school days at John Oliver. Lots of laughter and fun!

    Thanks to everyone for making it a great day!

  • Canada Day Vancouver, Barj Dhahan, Sunset Community Centre

    Celebrating Canada

    Celebrating Canada Day at Sunset Community Centre.

    There is no other city like Vancouver, and absolutely no other country like Canada. I’m proud to be Canadian!

    And what a Canada Day celebration it was at Sunset Community Centre this year! Wonderfully hot and everyone happy, it was a great turnout with fun-filled activities for all.

    There were lots of kids running around with our flag painted on their faces, while other enjoyed delicious food at the community centre. Thank you to the organizers for putting on the party. Happy Canada Day!

  • Barj Dhahan and father in law

    The Dignity of All Work

    We often undervalue the contributions of our nation’s workers. Instead, we must value and celebrate the dignity of all honest work.

    There is much talk in the media these days about the thousands of jobs in British Columbia and the rest of Canada that will have to be filled by non-Canadians – meaning new immigrants and/or temporary foreign workers. Most of these jobs will require workers with trades skills, technical experience and knowledge. While this may be the case, the tone of the public discourse is, perhaps unintentionally, diminishing the value of the kind of work that many Canadians, new immigrants and temporary foreign workers do.

    When their jobs are called “menial,” “grunt,” “low skilled,” or “unskilled,” I believe we are unfairly degrading this kind of work. Our society cannot function without people working in these jobs, and the people that do them deserve to be valued for their contributions to our communities.

    In Canada, we don’t only need people working in high tech, “high skilled” jobs. We need people to work in all aspects of a functioning society. Whether it is picking the food that ends up on our kitchen tables, serving coffee, building houses, or growing a business, each person contributes to the development of our communities and our economy in an important way. Each position that a worker takes on will help them to develop the skills they need to progress in their own life and to further advance our economy as a whole. And each position allows a worker to develop important people skills such as communication and teamwork, ensuring more cohesive and harmonious communities.

    With my father at Sunset Community Centre

    With my father at Sunset Community Centre

    My father came to Canada in 1960 with no marketable or technical skills. He worked as a labourer in a saw mill, a plywood mill, and in a small metal fabricating shop on the weekends where he painted railings. Eventually he started his own construction company. He became successful in the latter and ended up pioneering one of the first Canada-India partnerships, building a major education and health care centre in India, and forging a relationship with the University of British Columbia in training nurses. This initiative has been beneficial to both Canada and India, and may not have been possible if it weren’t for the skills my father had learned in his earlier roles.

    Similarly, my father-in-law, Jacob Loewen, and his family arrived in Canada in 1948 after fleeing their home town of Tiege, Ukraine in 1944, which had been under communist rule. With a grade eight education and a short apprenticeship in carpentry in Germany after the end of World War II, his first job was on a farm in Abbotsford. Later, in 1951, he worked on some construction sites in Kitimat and Burns Lake, and in 1956, he started his own construction company, going on to build over 125 single family homes in Vancouver and multiple commercial buildings over a 25 year period. He worked hard from sunrise to sunset for many years and he loved every minute of it. He even found time to take English literature classes in the evening at John Oliver Secondary School and the Dale Carnegie Course to improve his English and public speaking skills.

    Barj Dhahan and father-in-law Jacob Loewen

    My father-in-law, Jacob Loewen, at his wood working hobby 

    My mother-in-law, Hilda (Stobbe) Loewen, whose family also came to Canada after World War II says, “….in Canada we were no longer afraid. We could now work hard and create a better life for ourselves and others.”

    I started working when I was 11 years old; I took on all kinds of jobs around Port Alberni where my family had immigrated. My first job was picking potatoes in September with my mother and my youngest sister. I later delivered the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers, worked in a hardware store, picked strawberries, corn and vegetables on farms, and worked at the plywood mill. In the summer after grade 10, I was working 16 hour days – on a farm seven days a week, and nights at the Alberni Plywood mill.

    When we moved to Vancouver South, I began working after school and on weekends at the Terminal Saw Mill and later one summer at the Eburne Saw Mill where the B.C. Transit Station now sits. I worked on the log boom, on the green chain, as a carpenter’s helper, on night fire watch and on cleanup crew. Many evenings and weekends I would also help on my father’s construction sites while at school and university.

    Most of these jobs would be classified as “menial and low-skilled.” But at each of those jobs, I learned something new and I brought that knowledge and skill with me to the next job. I learned technical skills as well as people skills, and how to work as part of a team. I learned firsthand the strength and dedication it takes to do manual labour and to work the land, efforts that are essential for thriving communities.

    Like my father and my father-in-law, I also gained an understanding about constructing homes and buildings which has been the foundation of my success in business later in life. Without the knowledge gained in earlier roles, the three of us may never have been able to grow our businesses, let alone participate in the various education, healthcare, and community building projects we have been involved in.

    When we use words like “menial” and “unskilled”, we undervalue the important and necessary contributions of our nation’s workers. Without these positions, our country would not thrive. We must value all work as an important element to the growth of our society and economy. Maimonides, a preeminent medieval philosopher, once said: “The greatest gift that we can give one another is the gift of work.”

    Let us accept this gift with grace and humility. Let us celebrate the dignity of all honest work.

    Barj Dhahan and parents

    With my mother and father

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