Patriarch of B.C. Sikhs, Jack Uppal fought for respect

posted on June 6, 2014

By Rod Mickleburgh, the Globe and Mail | Link to Article

By Rod Mickleburgh, the Globe and Mail | Link to Article

When Jagat (Jack) Uppal was just 26, he had already worked for half his life, delivering firewood and putting in years of hard toil at B.C. sawmills to provide for his widowed mother and then his young family.

Now he wanted a change. He applied for a job with B.C. Electric and was hired as the private utility’s first Sikh bus driver. But Mr. Uppal found himself assigned to few shifts, unable to secure enough hours for a steady income. So he quit. The company was stung. The manager of transit operations immediately fired off a letter to the young man, noting how rarely he wrote to someone departing after such short service. “I want to make an exception in your case,” he said, reminding Mr. Uppal the company had invested “several hundred dollars” training him. “I don’t like to think that this was entirely wasted.” The patronizing tone, implying that, as a Sikh, he should have been grateful for his hiring, spoke volumes. Mr. Uppal pointedly kept the letter, often showing it to others as a reminder of the long, difficult road immigrant Sikhs had to travel to be treated with the same respect as other Canadians.

It was something Mr. Uppal fought for throughout his remarkable life, as he journeyed through the classic immigrant experience, progressing from ostracized outsider to successful entrepreneur, with a large house on Vancouver’s affluent West Side. He became an acclaimed pioneer and patriarch of the West Coast’s large Sikh community, with roots that stretched as far back as the infamous Komagata Maru incident in 1914, when racist B.C. authorities refused to let a ship carrying 376 passengers, who were mostly Sikh, dock at the port of Vancouver. Mr. Uppal’s father, Dalip Singh, was on the local Shore Committee, helping to smuggle food and water out to the beleaguered ship, which was stranded in the harbour for two months before it was forced to return to India.

Mr. Singh imbued his son with his strength of conviction early on, balancing him on his knee while reciting scriptures, poetry and tales of the struggle for Indian independence. Young Jagat was one of the first Sikhs to attend public school in Vancouver. In the mid-1940s, barely out of his teens, he journeyed to Ottawa as part of a Sikh delegation demanding the right to vote. His proficiency in English was invaluable in pressing their case. Indian settlers were finally granted voting rights in 1947.

After that, Mr. Uppal took on a new role, assisting thousands of Sikh newcomers over the years to get a foothold in British Columbia. As he became more prominent in the sawmill industry, he employed them wherever he could, tried to get them help when they got into trouble and gave them advice. “People used to just knock on his door and walk in, even late at night, like it was the postal service, or something,” says son-in-law Harjinder Bains.

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