• Work is needed to make Canada’s leadership diverse, inclusive

    Opinion: Board diversity shown to improve decision-making

    By Barj S. Dhahan, Special to The Vancouver Sun, originally published February 5, 2013

    Last month, Kathleen Wynne became Ontario’s premier after winning that province’s Liberal leadership race. There are now six women premiers in Canada. While it is a great sign of our progress on the path to gender parity in Canadian politics, there continues to be a general lack of diversity in that arena. Today, only 25 per cent of our provincially and federally elected officials are women, and less than seven per cent are from ethnic minorities.

    A similar critique can be made about government appointments to Canada’s agencies, boards, and commissions. Each year, governments across Canada appoint thousands of people to serve on the boards of agencies such as Crown corporations, health authorities and post-secondary institutions. These boards make important decisions that affect all Canadians. It is therefore crucial that they represent the perspectives of the diverse citizens that they serve. Yet, an analysis of Canada’s board appointments indicates a surprising lack of diversity.

    There are many benefits to recruiting diverse board members. Board diversity has been shown to improve decision-making, help legitimize the organization’s mandate, and build social cohesion. In the corporate world, businesses benefit from the inclusion of varied perspectives and a commitment to social responsibility. Returns on equity are a third higher in companies with more females in upper-level management.

    Similarly, there are benefits to political leaders who demonstrate a commitment to diversity. Note that Mitt Romney’s loss in the U.S. presidential election was attributed in part to his inability to garner support from women and non-white communities.

    In British Columbia, the guidelines for public appointments refer to the importance of diversity. However, most appointments are still white males. While half of B.C.’s population is female and 28 per cent are ethnic minorities, the 68 appointments in December 2012 and January 2013 included only 23 (34 per cent) women and seven (10 per cent) people from ethnic minorities. A review of the boards of BC Hydro, BC Ferries, BC Assessments, the major universities, and the various health authorities (a total of 14 boards), further demonstrate this lack of diversity. Only three were made up of 50 per cent women, and most were less than 30 per cent. While most have at least one member from an ethnic minority, none had more than two.

    Similar numbers can be found in Ontario, Alberta, and at the federal level. In Ontario, just over half the population is female and 23 per cent are from ethnic minorities. Yet, of Ontario’s 40 recent board appointments, only 15 (37 per cent) were women, and five (12 per cent) were from ethnic minorities.

    An analysis of eight boards in Alberta including the universities, Alberta Health Services, and the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal, revealed even less diversity, with the majority comprising less than 25 per cent women and many with either zero or one minority representative.

    At the federal level, nine major boards, including the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, the Immigration and Refugee Board, and the Bank of Canada, revealed none with more than 35 per cent women, and some lower than 20 per cent. The Bank of Canada board of 14 includes only two women (14 per cent). Most of these boards contain two minority representatives or fewer.

    The recent departure of Justice Marie Deschamps leaves three women on the nine-seat Supreme Court of Canada. She has lamented that, “Numbers do count. … I was sad that I was not replaced by a woman.”

    Not enough is being done to ensure that government-appointed boards reflect the diversity of the country. While the policy is there, it is not being met. Governments at all levels should increase the amount of resources dedicated to identifying candidates with the necessary expertise who are also demographically representative. This process should be open and transparent.

    There is always a risk of simply appointing “token” females and members from minority groups in order to meet policy requirements. We must make sure that appointments are still merit-based, and that the required expertise is sought from throughout Canada’s diverse population. Recruiting for diversity will ensure that our institutions bring together the perspectives of all Canadians.

    Inclusive leadership is essential to an inclusive society. If we believe in the importance of representative democracy, and if we want our children to grow up in an open and caring society, we need to lead by example.

    If our government and institutions demonstrate a commitment to equality, we can hope to see this reflected throughout all aspects of our society.

    Barj S. Dhahan is national chair of the Canada India Foundation.

    This op-ed article by Barj S. Dhahan was originally published in The Vancouver Sun on February 5, 2013.

  • Christy Clark at Festival

    Politicians should try and understand Vaisakhi festival

    Opinion: Keep Vaisakhi festival’s true meaning in mind during election

    By Barj S. Dhahan, Special to The Vancouver Sun, originally published April 11, 2013

    This week, preparations are underway for the popular Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. Sikhs from Amritsar to Abbotsford, Birmingham to Brampton, New York to Nankana Sahib are getting ready to celebrate this historic and deeply spiritual event.

    While families are happily anticipating joining in the festivities including kirtan (singing of religious hymns), savouring samosas and Indian sweets, and performing bhangra, B.C. politicians are feverishly jockeying to find the best appearance spots at the Vaisakhi parades (in Vancouver April 13, and in Surrey April 20). They are also vying for the most opportune time to speak in the Sikh gurdwaras (temples). With at least 12 ridings in the province in which the Punjabi Sikh voters will decide the May 14 election outcomes, it is no wonder that politicians will try to curry favour with the Vaisakhi celebrants.

    Political appearances at the parades are sure to be met with greater skepticism now than in the past due to the recent “ethnic strategy” controversy. And perhaps they should be. Perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on the true meaning of Vaisakhi so all British Columbians might participate in the festivities in a mindful and meaningful way.

    Vaisakhi is a harvest festival and a time for thanksgiving. It has been celebrated in Northern India, Pakistan and other parts of the Indian sub-continent for thousands of years as a time to welcome the season of spring — a time for new life, growth and renewal. On April 13, 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and the last Sikh guru, called on his followers to congregate at Anandpur (City of Bliss), Punjab for a special baptism ceremony to mark Vaisakhi. Following a dramatic ceremony, he called on his followers to adhere to certain rules, principles and values, and to courageously devote their lives to justice and equality.

    On that day the Khalsa – “community of the pure” – was founded. Baptized Sikhs were to have an external appearance (the keeping of the five Ks — uncut hair, comb, bangle, sword and breeches) symbolizing inner contentment, purity of intention and commitment to pursuit of truth. Behaviours, such as not disturbing the natural growth of hair and not consuming alcohol or other intoxicants and living with restraint, were encouraged.

    More relevant to this discussion, all Sikhs, whether baptized or not, are to respect themselves and others, to recognize all people as equals, to earn an honest living, to give to charity, not to cheat or lie, to seek social harmony and to be engaged in the affairs of the world — economic as well as political.

    B.C. voters, then, should not be surprised by the nearly 25 candidates of Punjabi-Sikh heritage running in this election. There are at least 12 candidates for the NDP, six for the Liberals, three for the B.C. Conservatives, one for the Greens and one independent.

    Vaisakhi is not just a parade or a time to be seen. It is a day to celebrate the values above and to examine our intentions going forward. It is a time for renewal of self and a commitment to work for the greater good.

    The Guru called on his followers to self-reflect, to respect their communities, to struggle for equity and equality and to build peace. It is important to reflect on these values and how they may impact our voting choices. These values may help us discern what the important issues are in this election and which party and candidates are best able to address them with a clear vision for the province.

    Which party will genuinely work toward environmental sustainability while ensuring economic opportunity for all? How might our vote contribute to creating a safe and respectful community, how will it promote tolerance and inclusion, and how will it help eradicate discrimination based on economic, gender, religious, ethnic or any other difference?

    In light of the upcoming campaign with the expected negative attack ads, we would be wise to study and reflect on who might best carry out these values as our representatives and legislators. I hope each participant in this year’s parades will take some time to do just that.

     Barj S. Dhahan is national chair of the Canada India Foundation and director of the Canada India Education Society.

    This op-ed article was originally published in The Vancouver Sun on April 11, 2013.

  • Teacher Koryn Heisler with Barj and Rita Dhahan

    News: John Oliver alumni start fund to feed kids

    Dhahan family’s endowment aims to give $5,000 annual grant for school’s life skills program.

    By Gerry Bellett, originally published in The Vancouver Sun on Dec 25, 2013.

    Vancouver businessman Barj Dhahan wants to ensure teacher Koryn Heisler will never again have to worry about how to feed those severely disabled and impoverished students attending her life skills class at east Vancouver’s John Oliver Secondary.

    Dhahan who attended John Oliver — as did his wife Rita, his two sisters and much of his family — is seeking to raise a $100,000 endowment which could result in the school’s life skills program receiving an annual grant of around $5,000.

    “Both my wife and I went to this school and we are really touched by the work Koryn is doing,” said Dhahan.

    “I have already got $20,000 committed to the endowment and I will be going to other family members to add to it and I am also appealing to former JO students to help raise it,” said Dhahan.

    “We want to make sure that this teacher and these children are going to be protected against the kind of budget cuts that removes her ability to teach or help feed her students,” said Dhahan who is president of Sandhurst Group, one of the largest franchise holders of Tim Horton’s restaurants and Esso service stations in Metro Vancouver, among other commercial real estate holdings.

    What Dhahan is proposing has never been done before for any school that has been part of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign.

    At the end of November, Heisler was at her wit’s end trying to protect her students from the worst effects of budget cuts and had asked the Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for help.

    Heisler was faced with students arriving at school without having eaten breakfast and with little or nothing to eat for the rest of the day. She was using up her meagre classroom funds to feed them porridge and toast in the morning. But the money would have run out by spring, and she would have had to pay for the food herself — as she did last year.

    Heisler was also hobbled as the stove she was supposed to use to teach students how to cook sat useless in the corner because the school district’s budget didn’t provide the $800 needed to hook it up.

    However, following a Vancouver Sun Adopt-A-School story of her plight Nov. 21, offers of help came flooding in.

    “It was amazing,” said Heisler who met with Dhahan and his wife just before school ended for Christmas holidays.

    “We had people stopping by that first week giving me money and asking how they could help and the phone never stopped ringing with offers of support and donations. People were sending in Christmas cards with money inside and dropping off food and casseroles.

    “It was completely overwhelming.”

    The Vancouver South Lions Club which operated a Christmas Tree lot on school property came in with a $400 donation for food and committed to pay for having the stove hooked up.

    “The work order for the stove has gone in and hopefully it will be on the priority list for January,” said Heisler.

    The money she has received so far is being spent on improving breakfast for the 12 students in her class.

    “Right after the article came out we went on a big shopping trip and revamped our breakfast program. Now we give them eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt — it’s a healthy breakfast now,” she said.

    Dhahan was greatly impressed with Heisler.

    “What she is doing is beyond the call of duty. She’s working in a very challenging environment without the many things she needs yet she is very peaceful and quiet and has an inner strength and conviction. She’s a wonderful teacher and the kids are very lucky to have such a compassionate and caring person,” he said.

    “I think as a society we often don’t recognize the amazing work teachers like Koryn are doing in the school system,” he said.

    Dhahan, who has donated before to Adopt-A-School, said he was upset with the idea that the most needy of children appeared to be suffering the most from education cutbacks.

    “Whether by birth or circumstances or upbringing there are some of us in society who are disadvantaged and resources should not be pulled away from those people. If we can help them be self-reliant, society gets paid back in the long term,” he said.

    Anyone interested in contributing to the endowment can contact John Oliver school principal Tim McGeer at 604-713-8938.

  • News: Barj Dhahan on business and spirituality

    Vancouver entrepreneur Barj Dhahan has found success in business; satisfaction in spirituality.

    By Douglas Todd, originally published in The Vancouver Sun on January 2, 2014.
    Canadian. Immigrant. Corporate president. Philanthropist. Punjabi. Sikh. Christian. Certified yoga teacher. Property developer. Gas station owner. Tim Horton’s franchisee. Globe-trotter. Adviser to governments. Husband. Father. Son. Mover. Shaker. Barj Dhahan is all of these things. And more.He is a boundary crosser. He has followed many pathsand fills numerous roles. He readily acknowledges he is one of those residents of multicultural Canada who has multiple identities.

    “I feel fortunate in who I am. My life has been one of … exploration of ideas, incorporation of different thoughts, leading to a greater sense of self-discovery,” he says.

    When he was 10, Dhahan, his mother and three of his four sisters left his family’s ancestral farm in the Punjab region of India to join his father in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.

    Budh Singh Dhahan had already been in Canada for almost a decade, working in the lumber industry. He was “very entrepreneurial,” Dhahan says of his dad, who later moved into home construction in Metro Vancouver.

    The father’s go-for-it attitude rubbed off on his son. At 57, Dhahan is president of the Sandhurst Group of companies, which specializes in Tim Horton’s outlets, Esso gas stations and commercial real estate development throughout Metro Vancouver and B.C.

    However, as much as Dhahan enjoys the challenge of leading a corporation with more than 150 employees, he and his family have probably become best known for their big, imaginative philanthropic ventures.

    The Dhahan family’s latest effort led last year to special events in B.C., India and Pakistan, where Dhahan and others announced the world’s first Punjabi-language prize for fiction writing, worth $25,000.

    The Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize is one of several major non-profit brainstorms of the Dhahan family and the Canada-India Education Society, which they co-founded.

    The family’s first major philanthropic project has been a game-changer. It arose in the 1980s when Budh Singh and others helped establish the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust, which now operates a 200-bed hospital in the family’s ancestral village of Dhahan-Kaleran, which is 100 kilometres from the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. In a partnership with the University of B.C. and other organizations, the trust runs an affiliated 1,600-student public school and a program that has graduated about 1,800 nurses and midwives.

    During a wide-ranging conversation at the family’s Kerrisdale home, Dhahan said he does not think business should be conducted “to pursue money, but to provide wellness and a good life.”

    Even while he explained his route to corporate success, Dhahan emphasized his passion for community, spirituality, the social safety net and the fast changing multicultural experiment that is Canada.

    Dhahan is not without criticisms of Canada’s racial past, but he’s grateful for what his family has been able to accomplish here. It was near-despair that drove Dhahan’s father to leave India for Port Alberni in 1959.

    It was almost impossible for a decent man at that time to get ahead in the Punjab region of India, Dhahan says. “You either had to be wealthy or crooked. And my father was neither.”

    In British Columbia, with its functional economic and political system, Budh Singh had a chance to progress on hard work and merit. As a result, Dhahan doesn’t take for granted Canadians’ general sense of fair play and openness.

    The family’s casually elegant home has many architectural features, memorabilia and art, which help highlight some of Dhahan’s values and passions.

    Barj and his wife, Rita, believe everyone should integrate fully into Canadian culture. That’s why they intentionally chose not to build a fence around their front yard.

    “We must mix and get to know our neighbours. We must cross boundaries,” he says. “In Canada we run the risk of moving into ethnic silos and not talking to each other.”

    Dhahan is concerned some newcomers from India and China can now come to Metro Vancouver and spend all of their time within their own ethnic enclaves, without having to inter-connect or learn English.

    Another revealing object in the family’s living room is a black-and-white photo of one of Dhahan’s turbaned grandfathers in California in 1923. It shows the family’s roots in both South Asia and North America.

    The high-ceilinged entranceway also features an imposing painting of early 19th-century Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, whom Barj admires for his “remarkable” ability to run an Indian kingdom based on peace, fairness and prosperity.

    Also on display is a small painting of an icon of Mary and Jesus as a baby. It was painted by Rita, who was raised in B.C. in a Mennonite family. The icon points to the deep commitment both Rita and Barj show toward their spiritual lives, which blend elements of Sikhism, Christianity, yoga and other traditions.

    Before explaining Barj’s views on multiculturalism, spirituality and social values, however, it’s worth highlighting how he became a success in business.

    Dhahan and Rita had next to nothing when they married in 1977.

    But Dhahan was raised by parents who did not emphasize “leisure” as much as modern-day parents, such as himself. He was taught to work diligently and not expect to have it easy.

    While attending multi-ethnic John Oliver high school in east Vancouver, Dhahan helped his father build single-family houses. So he understood business.

    He wasn’t exactly clear what his university studies were leading to, however. So he leased a “mom and pop” gas station. It went pretty well. “We’d spruce them up, do some landscaping.” Then he leased another.

    While he and Rita raised their three children, Dhahan added some Tim Horton’s franchises, some more gas stations, stepped into commercial real estate construction and began developing convenience and professional centres.

    “It all adds up to a little bit of everything,” he says. Dhahan owns three gas stations (at one time he operated seven) and six Tim Horton’s outlets, the latter of which may be the most profitable of his businesses.

    Given the national controversy over the high number of temporary foreign workers in Canada, Dhahan readily offers he was “one of the first” in Canada to bring them in to serve his Tim Horton’s customers.

    He defends the use of temporary foreign workers (known as TFWs), stressing they are sincere, hard-working people who send much of their money back to places such as the Philippines and should be treated as “human beings, not just TFWs.”

    He’s tried to help some immigrate to Canada. He’s all for giving newcomers a chance in this “land of opportunity.”

    What Dhahan doesn’t like, however, is people who come to Canada or were born here who mostly take advantage of it, complain and give nothing in return.

    He’s disturbed, for instance, about the “exploitive” business practices of some South Asian and Chinese business people in Canada. He says they treat employees of their own national origin harshly, because the staff don’t understand their rights under Canadian labour law.

    Dhahan is also bothered by the lack of national pride and loyalty shown by residents of Canada who head across the U.S. border to try to save money on retail purchases.

    And he’s decidedly unimpressed by Canadians who whine about paying taxes.

    “The two things that are most important about Canada,” he says, “are its social-safety net and universal access to public education and health care.”

    Inspired by the legacy of New Democratic Party founders Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth (both Christian ministers), Dhahan says citizens have to be prepared to pay taxes to take care of “the portion of the population that is challenged.”

    Holding on to such values, Dhahan has gradually forged many connections in politics and higher education.

    He is well known to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and B.C. Premier Christy Clark (who, with Dhahan, was in India in 2011 to visit the Guru Nanak hospital). He’s often jetting off on government trade missions.

    Simon Fraser University professor John Pierce says Dhahan “is promoting change by broadening his entrepreneurial activities to include a rich variety of social, cultural and medical initiatives at home and abroad.”

    After meeting long ago through the Canada-India Education Society, Pierce, head of SFU’s environment department, says Dhahan’s business acumen, communication skills and thoughtful approach give him an unusual ability to bridge cultures.

    “His unique set of talents, combined with the growing inclusiveness of our political system, make him an ideal candidate for a future leadership role in Canada.”

    Dhahan’s resume notes he’s been involved with the Vancouver Quadra Liberal riding association. Does he harbour any political ambitions?

    He’s not interested in power, he says, but in “developing policies.”

    Far removed from high-flying business, politics and global philanthropy, however, there is another side to Dhahan — the inner life.

    Although raised in a Sikh household, he does not regularly attend a gurdwara. As a young adult he was drawn to Christianity. He obtained a diploma in 1985 from Regent College, an evangelical school on the UBC campus.

    But he’s shifted since then. In 2009 he obtained a yoga-teaching certificate from Langara College. And now his living room is peppered with eclectic spiritual books such as The Essential Mystics, by Andrew Harvey.

    Dhahan and Rita don’t belong to any religious organization, but find guidance in the inter-spiritual teachings of people like the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, particularly in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ.

    Since Dhahan is highly aware of his multifarious ethnic, national, professional and spiritual identities, he also makes clear: “I’m a big promoter of multilingualism.”

    Speaking English and Punjabi, as well as some Hindi and French, he would like to see every Canadian become fluent in both English and French (“since they bind us as a nation”), plus a third language.

    His ambitious dream of a more multilingual Canada is one reason Dhahan felt compelled to create the Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize. He wanted to display more loyalty to both his mother (who remains more comfortable in Punjabi) and his “mother tongue.”

    Canada has 650,000 people who speak Punjabi, he says, with 200,000 of them in B.C.

    Dhahan would like to see the literature prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2014, build more bridges. Prize recipients will have their book translated into English.

    Going further, Dhahan even wonders whether the literature prize could build bridges between the often-hostile residents of Indian and Pakistan, who make up most of the 100 million people who speak Punjabi.

    His voice fills with hope as he says: “One consul-general told me, ‘Maybe this prize will help bring India and Pakistan together.’”