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

A Grade 8 dropout, Mr. Uppal was honoured two years ago by Simon Fraser University for his contributions to B.C.

Simon Fraser University

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.

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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.

Former federal Liberal cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal remembers long lines outside Mr. Uppal's door at tax time. "Jack would do everybody's taxes," Mr. Dhaliwal says. "He was a one-man social agency, before there were social workers." Mr. Dhaliwal himself was among those who got a helping hand. Mr. Uppal registered him for Grade 1, changing his name on the form from Harbance to Herb. He felt that would make it easier for the freshly landed youngster to fit in.

And Mr. Uppal did not shy away from making waves when he felt it was necessary. In the early 1960s, a Sikh family ran up against residents determined to stop them from moving into their neighbourhood. Mr. Uppal took the issue to the newspapers and the neighbours backed down. "People thought we were just a bunch of brown guys, and that's the way it was," says Wally Oppal, former B.C. Supreme Court judge and later B.C. attorney-general. "But Jack was always willing to stick his neck out for what he thought was right. He paved the way for us."

He could also mix it up politically, forming a particularly close relationship with six-term parliamentarian and former speaker John Fraser. Mr. Fraser credits Mr. Uppal with securing his nomination in 1972. "It was a real contest, but Jagat got busy, and the night of the vote, well over 100 Sikhs showed up."

In time, many of the old battles over discrimination were won. Mr. Uppal became a successful mill owner, living to see Sikhs in all the professions once inaccessible to them, including cabinet ministers in Ottawa and Victoria, and eventually, with Ujjal Dosanjh, premier of British Columbia. This was the same province that had denied them a proper place in society for so long, deriding them as "Hindoos" whenever they raised a fuss.

Mr. Uppal's contributions to B.C. were recognized by Simon Fraser University two years ago, with the awarding of an honorary doctorate to the Grade 8 dropout. When he died May 4 of failing health at the age of 89, newscasts carried word of his passing, Premier Christy Clark hailed him as a pillar of the South Asian community, and an estimated 2,000 mourners attended his memorial service, likened by one observer to a "state funeral."

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Jagat (Jack) Uppal was born Feb. 7, 1925, in his father's ancestral village of Uppal Jagir in the heart of the Punjab. He and his brother Sadu, born a year earlier, were his parents' first offspring to survive beyond childbirth, product of their heartfelt reunion after 16 years of separation. By then, both were in their 40s.

Dalip Singh had arrived in B.C. in 1906, but was forced to leave his wife behind because of restrictive immigration laws. Jack came to Vancouver as a toddler. For Sikh youngsters in the city, life was difficult. When taunting schoolmates threw chestnuts and knocked his turban off, Mr. Uppal never wore one again. He had his hair cut at a barbershop in Chinatown, one of the few to accept Sikhs as customers. Jack's father was killed in a traffic accident, forcing him and his brother to drop school for work, while their mother helped make ends meet by fashioning clothes out of discarded flour bags. His first job was piling lumber at Kapoor Sawmill on Vancouver Island. Except for an occasional short-lived venture, such as his brief stint as a bus driver, Mr. Uppal remained in the lumber business all his working life. "There were no other opportunities for us," he recalled several years ago. "In those days, goras [white people] wouldn't give us the time of day, let alone a job."

He began learning the business side of lumber after leaving B.C. Electric. He found he had a knack for it, working his way up the ranks at Yukon Lumber, run by a legendary early Sikh entrepreneur, Sohen Gill. He became general manager of Mr. Gill's many B.C. enterprises, helping to run three sawmills and 13 logging camps.

Eventually he decided to go into business for himself, marshalling enough capital in 1971 to buy a small, fledgling mill on Mitchell Island in the north arm of the Fraser River. He named it Goldwood Industries, to stress its reliance on cedar, whose wood Mr. Uppal considered as good as gold. The mill continues to run today, and Mr. Uppal was still heading in to work every day, until not long before he died.

"We like to laugh that he's got four children, but his baby is Goldwood Industries," Mr. Bains says. Mr. Uppal specialized in niche products, buying abandoned machinery from other mills and tinkering with it until it produced specialized lumber that readily found new markets. "We were all naysayers," his son-in-law says. "But he believed there's nothing you can't do. When everything worked, he would say: 'I'm the king now. Look at all I've accomplished.'"

The mill also produced one of the few missteps in Mr. Uppal's lengthy career. In 1990, he was fined $15,000 and given two years' probation after an employee was placed on the payroll while collecting unemployment benefits. "I think that was the only time in his life where he perhaps went too far trying to help someone," Mr. Dhaliwal says. "I know he regretted it. He was a man of great honesty and integrity."

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After India won its independence, Mr. Uppal and his brother went back to their ancestral home to marry two sisters from a nearby village, who were chosen by Mr. Uppal's mother. Mr. Uppal observed in his diary: "After the marriage, we sat around and played cards." It was nonetheless a stable union, producing four children.

Mr. Uppal's Sikh faith was fundamental to his existence. He knew all the scriptures, programming his clock radio to play hymns when he woke up. He was a two-term president of the religious-based Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver, joining with two others to purchase land for the city's landmark Ross Street Temple, which has anchored the Sikh community since 1970.

Once South Asians could vote and India was independent, Mr. Uppal fully embraced Canada. He had no time for those who brought Indian issues to this country, particularly extremists advocating for a separate Sikh homeland. After the 1985 Air India terrorist bombing – which claimed the lives of 331 people, including two of his relatives – he was among those to brave the climate of fear and publicly denounce the mass murder. Later, according to Mr. Bains, the RCMP consulted him during their investigation of the bombing, sending over thick binders of information for him to sift through.

His largesse and prominence were recognized here and in India, where a plaque was erected in his honour in his native village and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, no less, presented him with a scroll for his overseas humanitarianism. In B.C., Mr. Uppal, who recently donated $100,000 to fund SFU student bursaries for volunteer and community service, was recognized with a B.C. Community Achievement Award, UBC's Nehru Humanitarian Award, and the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal.

Yet nothing touched him more than his doctorate from SFU. In his address, he told graduating students of the philosophy that underlay his entire life. "Judging people by the colour of their skin or the condition of their clothes are just tricks of the ruling class to keep themselves in power," he said. "Rather, you are going to be judged by what you do in your everyday life to your fellow human beings. And for that, I emphasize the importance of love."

Mr. Uppal leaves his children, Cindy, Paul, Davie and Pam; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Mohinder Kaur Uppal, and brother, Sadu.

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