• 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 !

  • Consul General Rajani Alexander with Barj Dhahan, Amrik Sangha, Dr. Susan Dahinten, Harinder Dhahan

    Consul General Rajani Alexander Talks About Canada-India Relations

    On May 28, 2014, Barj Dhahan and friends hosted a reception with Her Excellency Rajani Alexander, Canadian Consul General, Chandigarh, India.

    Her Excellency shared a unique viewpoint on the various facets of the Canada-India relationship and more specifically about Canada’s relationship with Punjab/Haryana/Himachal/Uttarakhand, her areas  of coverage from Chandigarh.

    Ms. Rajani Alexander was a researcher and university instructor in Pacific, Asian and Gender Studies, and an independent consultant on cooperative education before joining the public service of Canada in 1994. At the headquarters of the Canadian International Development Agency, Ms. Alexander was senior adviser in the Gender Equality Division, senior analyst in the Caribbean Program, and director of results and accountability in the Geographic Programs Branch. Abroad, Ms. Alexander served in Santiago and Dhaka, and most recently, she was director for Central America and counsellor (development) in Honduras.

  • Barj Dhahan organic farming in Ladner

    Land is Life: Thoughts on Organic Farming

    Loving the land is not just important for me; sustainable, local agriculture is an issue of great importance for all Canadians.

    I was born on a small farm in rural Punjab, India and grew up watching my grandfather work the land. He would take me for walks around our property and explain to me how important it is to know the land. He reminded me that even if you can’t see it with your eyes, there is always life beneath the soil and in the plants. He taught me that the land is life.

    My grandparents and my mother instilled an interest in gardening and farming which has always stuck with me. My family now has a certified organic farm in Ladner BC, in an area that is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve and that has one of the best micro-climates for growing cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage) and potatoes. I love to plant seeds and watch how they grow into healthy food throughout the year. I try to share this love for the land with my children and grandson.

    Last year, Ab Dhaliwal, whose family has a long and rich history of farming in Ladner since 1952, planted green bush beans on our land. We welcomed a bumper crop of deliciously sweet beans which we enjoyed over many family meals. This year Ab will grow barley on our land and potatoes and bush beans on his own acreage. Barley will be used for organic dairy feed for two dairy farms in Cloverdale and Abbotsford. Potatoes and bush beans will be supplied to Fraserland Organics, Delta and Trader Joes in Washington, USA. My family and I hope to develop our farm into an integrated year-round organic farm and yoga wellness centre.

    Loving the land is not just important for me and my family; the importance of sustainable, local agriculture is an issue of great importance for all Canadians. We are at a critical moment where one of the greatest needs of all of humanity is to find a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. It is important that we think consciously about our choices and their long-term effects. Growing local food means a reduction in carbon emissions caused by transporting fruits and vegetables over long distances, and growing organically ensures the healthiness of local citizens as well as the local environment. I have seen that my farm provides a habitat for many forms of wildlife including eagles, herons, rabbits, ducks, geese and frogs. When I see these creatures thriving, I understand that preserving green spaces and organic farming practices is about protecting entire ecosystems. Pesticides and other non-organic materials are not only harmful for human consumption, but can do serious damage to plants, animals, and water systems.

    I believe in the importance of finding sustainable, local solutions that ensure each country, region, and family’s longevity, and an important aspect of this is providing healthy, local food for local people. I am proud of my organic farm and my farmer friends like Ab Dhaliwal. I know my farm is one amongst many which contribute to the health of Canadian families. It is also a wonderful place for me to escape, to go back to the land and remember that the land is life.

  • 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.’”