Born in India, Balwant Sanghera moved to B.C. in 1966 where he has become a well-respected multicultural advocate, and a bridge builder between communities and generations. After a teaching career, Sanghera received his Master of Education from UBC and in 1990 became a school psychologist with the Burnaby School District. He developed an educational program for the Maples Adolescent Centre, which serves the province’s most difficult adolescents with mental health and behavioural problems. He has mentored and fostered similar programs province wide. In a series of articles, titled 'My Journey to Canada', he narrates his experiences ever since he landed in the country for the first time.
Working in lumber/saw mills was one of the major sources of work and income for Indo-Canadians especially till the 1960s. In addition to big saw mills in Metro Vancouver there were lumber mills all over BC. This was more so in small communities like Port Alberni, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Vanderhoof, Smithers, Golden, MacKenzie etc.
The wages were good. Also, the employment was steady. Before starting school at Simon Fraser University in September ,1966 I had an opportunity to work in a saw mill in Donald, BC. It was a small solely mill community about 20 kilometers west of Golden on Highway 1. Golden is a small beautiful tourist town.
Thanks to Gurdial (Bill) Singh Dhami, a pioneer of our community, who had established a base in Donald a few years earlier, about 30 Indo-Canadians were employed in the saw mill there. They lived in two bunkhouses provided by the mill management. There was a cook house close by. It seemed like one big family.
Donald had a small CPR station that was used to haul finished lumber from the mill. Also, Columbia River flows close by. There were two shifts-day and night. The workers on night shift would cook meals for those working during the day and the day shift people would get meals ready for the night shift people.
It was a good working arrangement. I was given the responsibility of attending to correspondence -reading and writing letters etc to the relatives in India of my fellow workers. Also, Bill Dhami and I would act as interpreters /translators for the workers and help them with their immigration related paper work etc… Occasionally, the immigration officers from Cranbrook or Kamloops would visit to assist with or inquire about the applicants.
All of us took good care of each other. It was like a friendly and close family environment. The situation was similar in many other smaller communities with mills in BC.
Friday was a special day. We would go to Golden to cash our cheques and buy groceries and other needed stuff. A few would buy beer and hard liquor to enjoy themselves on the weekend. Weekend was the time to have fun. There were a couple of good entertainers who would entertain the rest of us. Some of us would go to swim in the nearby Columbia River.
Others would engage in sports and related activities. Once in a while we would have picnics together. At the mill, people were working on either the green chain (the saw mill) or the dry chain (planer). Pulling lumber on the green chain was tough as the lumber was green and heavy.
I worked on the green chain for about a week. One day the mill superintendent found out that I was fairly fluent in English. He needed someone to help the Indo-Canadian dry chain workers with instructions in English from time to time.
So, he switched me over to work on the dry chain It was a bit easier as the boards were kiln dried and had just come out of the kilns. Soon I was promoted from the dry chain to the position of planer feeder which was a lot easier but more responsible work.
While working in Donald, one of my co-workers was the son of the mill owner. I still remember his name. It was Jimmy Gondek. He was about the same age as me. As usual, I was surprised to learn that Jimmy, being the son of the mill owner, worked at the mill like us. So, I asked him “Jimmy your dad owns the mill.
How come you are working at the mill like us and everyone else?’ His answer surprised me and made keenly awareness about one of the great principles of work and work ethic her in Canada. Jimmy said that the mill belonged to his dad, not him. He was just a worker like all of us and didn’t have any special privilege. He was making the same wages as us -$2.00 an hour. Incidentally, mill workers on the coast were getting 50 cents more ($2.50 an hour).
Today, that amount seems to be meagre but at that time it was enough as the relative prices of goods and services were also compatible. Same was the case of Real estate. A normal three bed room home in South Vancouver was around $ 25,000 in 1966. Those few months spent in a wilderness setting working in the saw mill in Donald gave me a very interesting and useful perspective on life in Canada. I still cherish that experience.
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