On April 6, 1980, Charan Gill stood in front of a room at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C., with his right hand on his hip. Facing a crowd of delegates, many of them women, Mr. Gill asked, “The votes in favour?”
Almost instantly, all hands raised into the air. “It seems to be nobody is against this motion. The constitution of the Canadian Farmworkers Union is adopted,” Mr. Gill announced. Roars of applause followed.
The moment marked the birth of a pioneering union that would provide the first major push to expose and improve the working conditions of farm workers in Canada.
For a long time, farmers in British Columbia, mostly South Asians, suffered from low wages, unsafe working conditions, racial discrimination and exclusion from the protection of labour and safety legislation. A group of people led by Mr. Gill and his friend Raj Chouhan began the fight for their rights and dignity by establishing the Farmworkers Organizing Committee (the precursor of the union) in 1979.
“He was a stalwart. … He was a visionary; he did so much for the community,” said Mr. Chouhan, who now serves as Speaker of the B.C. Legislature.
Mr. Gill died on Feb. 2 at a hospital in Langley, B.C., after a fight with cancer. He was 84.
A year after the pair helped found the union, they turned some of their attention to another tragedy in B.C.: growing racist attacks against members of ethnic communities, including violence inspired by the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1980s. So they teamed up again, co-founding the BC Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR).
Mr. Gill received death threats and a bullet was once fired at a window of his house, according to his family, but he continued to serve as the BCOFR’s president in 1980s and 90s, as long as the organization was active.
“He was simply the bravest person that I have ever had the honour to meet,” said Timothy Stanley, an emeritus professor at the University of Ottawa and a co-founder of BCOFR. He recalled that in the early 1980s the organization received hundreds of complaints from people who had been racially harassed, assaulted and discriminated against.
“People in the Indo-Canadian community started to contact Charan,” Mr. Stanley said.
“People like me, what we would have done is just offering people advice. He would go over and he would sit with them for hours, and listen to their stories,” Mr. Stanley said.
Mr. Gill was born on June 17, 1936, in Hong Kong. His family returned to India in 1938 when he was 2. After his father died in 1939, his mother, Harnam Kaur Gill, raised her six children by herself.
Mr. Gill got his master’s degree in Punjabi from Punjab University in 1959. He went back to Hong Kong for several years, and, on the advice of his sister, moved to Canada in 1967, where he studied at the University of British Columbia, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work.
Mr. Gill worked in a sawmill in Williams Lake, in B.C.’s central Cariboo region, until he broke his wrist in an accident. He then served as a social worker for northern small communities based out of Prince Rupert. Brenda Poll Gutierrez, who was living in a deeply dysfunctional home in Prince Rupert when she was little, was one of the first children Mr. Gill apprehended.
She says Mr. Gill’s intervention saved her from enduring “horrors.”
Ms. Poll Gutierrez was five or six years old at the time; she would run away from her home and go to the social worker’s office. “Many times, [Mr. Gill] actually found me sleeping in his office.”
They lost contact until 2012, when she visited Mr. Gill and his wife. “I’m really grateful I got to spend that time with him,” she said.
Over the years, they exchanged occasional greetings on Facebook. When Ms. Poll Gutierrez heard he had died, she went to look for a book he gave her, which was written about him in 2012. He was “really an amazing man, truly, somebody who fought for absolutely everything in the right way.”
In 1987, after retiring from his position as a social worker with the province, Mr. Gill envisioned a need for an organization in Surrey that could serve the South Asian immigrant community. He got together with eight of his friends to contribute $10 each and, in the same year, incorporated the Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) Society.
The organization, which now has about 150 staff and multimillion-dollar budgets, runs several programs, including two senior housing facilities where culturally sensitive care is provided.
Satbir Singh Cheema, who became president and CEO at the PICS Society after Mr. Gill stepped down in 2017, said he still remembers the first time he met Mr. Gill. Mr. Gill interviewed a nervous Mr. Cheema for a facilitator job at the PICS Society, and made him feel welcome.
“He was somebody that everybody wanted to meet. … We had the privilege and honour to have worked with a great man, with a living legend,” Mr. Cheema said.
The seniors residences now house about 130 clients, and one of them has about 1,500 people on a wait list. The organization also runs a facility that provides housing for eight women who are victims of domestic abuse.
Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., called Mr. Gill a leader who was “breaking a lot of ground,” including supporting women’s rights.
“He was a man ahead of his time,” Dr. Bains said.
She said back then, community members who were in the labour movement were looking mostly at men’s work. However, she said, many farmers were women, and Mr. Gill was the one who shone a light on them.
“He was able to mobilize his people, the men around him, because they were the leaders at the time, to also pay attention to women’s lives of women stories,” she said.
Mr. Gill’s activism unleashed some vitriol in those times. Dr. Bains said Mr. Gill was not entirely welcomed by the South Asian community because a lot of farmers thought he was rabble-rousing and creating strife in the community. But many years later, these immigrants, who arrived in Canada in the 1970s, realized that they needed change.
“It was much after that when people didn’t feel the stress of survival that they could lift their head and say, ‘Okay, this is a new country; there are new laws or new rules; there are new ways of doing things,’ ” she said. “He awoke us.”
When Mr. Gill was not working, he enjoyed spending time with his family and friends at his farm. The family used to have a hobby farm in Surrey where they raised pigs, chickens and cows. On weekends, they would often milk cows and butcher pigs. “We grew up like we were in the 1800s,” Mr. Gill’s son Paul said with a chuckle.
Paul said his father was a hammer thrower when he was studying at the Punjab University so he was very physically strong. “And that energy to keep going and working was part of his whole life.”
Mr. Gill was outgoing, humorous and someone who always made others comfortable, his son added. Paul loved having one-on-one time with his father, who would recommend books to him. In recent years, the pair were fond of talking about stocks.
Mr. Gill’s son Jack, the eldest of three, said he felt like he had no father when he was young.
“He dedicated so much time that he was rarely home. He was basically working in the neighbourhood 16 hours a day for the community,” Jack said.
Only in his early 20s, when he saw the news that his father’s union had succeeded in its campaign to change legislation to protect farm workers, did Jack truly begin to understand the meaning of the time and energy his father had invested.
“I think that had an impact and has a lasting impact even today,” Jack said. “Some of the legislation that was changed made those people’s lives better.”