Canada 136/150: The Story of My Life by Mohinder Grewal

Summer 2017 Vancouver Scotland 169

by Mohinder Grewal

I was born in a village in Punjab, India, which is now a part of Pakistan. I completed the first ten years of education in a village school. Later when I attended college, I either cycled twenty miles or walked five miles on a dirt (sometimes muddy) road from the nearest railway station, whenever I needed to get home.

I witnessed the horrors of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the resultant mass migration. My extended family was affected. However, luckily no lives were lost.

In 1953 I left for Malaya and after a short stint as a secondary school teacher was selected as an officer cadet in the Malayan Army. I did my initial training as a cadet in Malaya and was selected for officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, England.

A few things stand out in my mind about my nearly three years in U.K. The physical part of the training at Sandhurst was extremely demanding. I have the highest regard for this institution for instilling values which I have cherished. In 1957 Queen Elizabeth presented her Royal Colours as the new Sovereign and Field Marshal Montgomery took our commissioning parade in 1958. I was proud to have stood 64th, in the Order of Merit List of 245 officers commissioned. I now had the Queen’s commission as a second lieutenant, and subsequently spent a month on attachments to the British army in Germany at various cities.

The motto “join the army and see the world” seemed very much to apply to me. In 1960 I was the first Malayan officer to be selected to attend a one-year course at the School of Military Engineering, Sydney, Australia. I stood third in the final exam. Here again I ended up with attachments to Australian Engineers in Melbourne and Brisbane. These were all memorable times with fond memories.

On my return to Malaya I had on occasion gone into dense jungles to teach the infantry non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) how to build helicopter landing zones and neutralize booby traps. After serving short stints in Malayan Engineers field, training and staff appointments in Malaya for just over two years in three different locations, I packed my bags again to attend the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington in South India. I travelled throughout the length and breadth of India after completing the training.

I was promoted to Lieut. Colonel in 1968 and took command of Malaysian Engineers units in West Malaysia and later in East Malaysia. My experience included building roads and bridges in rural areas.

 I witnessed firsthand the May 13, 1969 post-election communal riots in Kuala Lumpur (KL). Parliament was suspended for a time. One of the many changes that followed took place in the education system with focus on the national language and away from English. I knew that this would directly affect university/higher education of my two children and laid the foundation for migrating abroad. Two clear options were Canada and Australia. Canada had a very good reputation and my neighbour in KL was a Canadian. When my daughter completed her schooling it was time to move. The Sears catalogue of my neighbour came handy in deciding what to take with us!

We landed in Montreal in the middle of winter and experienced the weather in Ottawa and Winnipeg before arriving in Vancouver. I remember my daughter asking me in Montreal how I was feeling and my reply was “a weight has been lifted from my shoulders”.

I soon found out that it was extremely difficult to find a suitable job. I secured a few interviews with employers in places as diverse as Fernie, B.C. and Edmonton, but had no luck. I remember, vividly, the councillor at the Canada Employment Centre in Richmond telling me: “Let us face it Mr. Grewal if you were to remove your turban and beard, with your experience and qualifications you should be able to secure a good managerial position.”

Although not securing employment certainly challenged my resolve, I did not regret my decision to come to Canada. After a year, I finally obtained a one-year position as a Research Officer in a project undertaken by an Indo-Canadian Cultural Society and funded by Employment and Immigration Canada. Following this, I started volunteering for an Immigrant Services Centre and performing free-lancing interpretation in courts. It was on one of these assignments at the provincial courts at 222 Main Street when a youth confronted me and shouted “go back home”.

In 1980, I was offered a regular position at the Immigrant Service Centre. I began my work here as a Receptionist, and worked my way into an Intake position, and finally to their Race and Community Relations Worker.  By now I was also extensively involved as a volunteer on various organisations and committees such as the City of Vancouver, Vancouver School Board Race Relations Committees and the Vancouver Police Ethnic Relations Committee. Kim Campbell was a school trustee at that time. One of my goals at the Police Committee was to have the police force reflect the population they served.  I still remember the Chief Constable remarking to me “Mr. Grewal, the next generation in ethnic communities would be adequately represented”. I have had quite a few interesting interactions with the police. I was attending the Vancouver Police Ethnic Relations Committee at the Police Headquarters. The meeting room was on a floor which had no access to members of the public. During the meeting I took a break to go to the washroom. Soon after a plainclothes man stormed in and demanded to know what I was doing there. I answered “It is obvious what I am doing”. His response was “…the likes of you creating trouble in Canada….” He turned out to be a detective sergeant. A few days earlier there had been a demonstration at the Indian Consulate, and he was expressing his anger at me.

In 1985 I was elected President of National Association of Canadians of Origins in India (NACOI), and in 1986 I was re-elected into this position. In the two years the organisation expanded to 34 chapters across every province. I presented briefs to parliamentary committees such as the one considering the Employment Equity Act. On the eve of this presentation while walking in downtown Ottawa, I was hit by an egg thrown from a car. I had no change of clothes and explained the incident to the committee members next morning.

By 1986 I was extensively involved in race relations, multicultural and related dialogue; locally, provincially and at the national level. I was appointed to the Provincial Police/Ethnic Committee, and was part of a group of individuals from the Committee for Racial Justice to lobby for and bring about a change in the dress code in the B.C. Police Act so that baptized Sikhs, with turbans and unshorn hair could join the police forces in B.C. After much opposition, a few years later, a similar change was allowed in the RCMP.

In 1988 I was appointed a member of the newly constituted Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada for a two-year term. This meant that I had to suspend all my volunteer activities to avoid conflict of interest. From 1991 I represented NACOI on the National Visible Minority Council on Labour Force Development (NVMCLFD). One of the objectives of this organisation was a reasonable mechanism for recognition of foreign credentials across all jurisdictions across Canada. In 1993, I presented a brief on behalf of the Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver to the Commission of Inquiry into Policing in British Columbia.

Another notable appointment at the national level was to the fifteen-member Cross Cultural Roundtable on Security. We were advised that 240 individuals from across Canada had applied to be on this committee, formed in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2005, as one of the two members of this committee I was selected by the Deputy Prime Minister to be a part of her delegation on an official visit to Pakistan. I was assigned by the chair of this committee to study the case of Maher Arar and report back to the committee. Amongst my interesting findings was the fact that while looking at the activities of Maher Arar, a Muslim, security agencies in Ottawa had the Sikh Gurdwara in Ottawa under surveillance.  Again, I had to curtail my volunteer activities for the three years I served on this committee.   

As years went by, the focus of my activities turned more to the cultural diversity of the seniors’ population. I served for many years on the B.C. Senior Advisory Committee, including four years as the Vice Chair, and member of the Canada Co-ordinating Committee for the United Nations International Year of the Older Person, representing B.C. Richmond City Seniors’ and Intercultural Advisory Committees. I was also on the B.C. Premier’s Task Force on Aging and Senior’s Issues and United Way “Better at Home” Provincial Advisory Committee. More than five decades after the Queen had a formal role at the start of my career, it was perhaps fitting  that in 2012, I was awarded a Queen Elizabeth  II Diamond Jubilee medal. At the young age of 85, I am still serving as a volunteer on approximately seven different non-profit boards and committees! More recently I have been appointed on the Council of Advisors to the B.C. Seniors Advocate. By far my longest on-going appointments have been to the Provincial Committee on Diversity and Policing co-chaired by the ADM in the B.C. Ministry of Public Security and Solicitor General. I have been regularly re-appointed to this committee since 1986.

I have also served on various Diversity Committees related to media such as that of the Vancouver Sun, the CBC and Global Television Network.

I am blessed to have my wife by my side for 61 years (and counting),two children, a daughter-in-law and  three grand-children. My wife also volunteers, including in a Seniors Residential Care Home. Having arrived in Canada more than 40 years ago, none of us have ever looked back, despite our occasional experiences with intolerance and ignorance. Canada has treated us well – and we have no regrets, as Canada is a wonderful country that recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion.  

Canada has made tremendous progress since the days of the Chinese head tax, Komagata Maru incident and the internment of Canadians of Japanese Origin. It is however still work in progress and we have still a way to go, when considering recent events such as the killings of innocent citizens in Quebec City, or violent attempts to stop individuals from performing religious prayers in Ontario.       

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