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.
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.”