Giving back — a diaspora success story

Three Canadians of Indian origin are contributing towards society in different ways. The result, however, is similar — a better world for people in need and a brighter future for coming generations

Roopinder Singh

A Canadian immigrant of Indian origin donated $10 million to the University of Lethbridge, the largest gift that the university had ever received. The money is to be used for the faculty of management, to be called the Dhillon School of Business, which will focus on futuristic learning through innovative subject areas and new technologies such as blockchain, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, and robotics. “We would be looking for eligible Indian students with good school grades who want to study in Canada on scholarships,” he said in a telephonic interview recently.

Accomplished and rich people often engage in philanthropic activities. This happens all over the world, and it is far from being something recent — just look at all the Birla and Tata hospitals and educational institutions.

In some ways, Bob Dhillon is a good example of the contemporary diasporic Indian. A first-generation immigrant in Canada, he traces his origins to Japan, where he was born, and a childhood in India, as a boarder at the Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, with time spent in the ancestral village, Tallewal, in Barnala district, and with family in Liberia, a country set up by freed slaves, which had a strong democratic ethos, till a military takeover. The civil war in 1989 forced the family out, to take on challenges anew in Canada.

Within four decades of his family’s arrival in Canada, where he worked and educated himself, Bob founded Mainstreet Equity and became its chief executive. He is a billionaire who is giving back to the country of his adoption. His $10 million donation for the university is far from being his only contribution to society. In 2011, he hit headlines by donating the use of 100 apartments for people displaced by a fire around Slave Lake, Alberta. Then there were other grants too to other educational institutions in Canada and to Belize, where he owns an island.

Bob is the latest in a series of philanthropists who have contributed to life, both in Canada and in India. Not too long ago, the Canadian High Commission in Chandigarh organised a meet for the winners of the $25,000 Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize, the world’s most well-endowed prize for fiction writing in Punjabi. It is open to authors who write in either in Shahmukhi or Gurmukhi script, and the winners have been Indians and Pakistanis and from the Punjabi diaspora.

Barj (Barjinder Singh) Dhahan, the man who moved from Punjab to Canada as a child, is no stranger to philanthropy. His father, Budh Singh Dhahan, who migrated to Canada in 1959, came back to Punjab in the 1980s and helped start the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust, which operates a hospital. He set up the Guru Nanak College of Nursing in 1993. NRI doctors contribute their time and expertise, besides providing health care. The college has sent out nurses to other countries too (Unfortunately, Budh Singh Dhahan passed away on April 20, 2018.).

Barj is also the chairperson of the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability (IC-IMPACTS), which is now working on the Clean Ganga mission and a founding donor of Canada-India Centre for Excellence (CICE) in Ottawa, among other endeavours.

Among those who were there to cheer this effort was Dr Gurdev Singh Gill. The 19-year-old Gill had left India in 1949. He became the first Canadian of Indian origin to graduate in medicine from the University of British Columbia and the first to practice medicine in Canada. In 1990, he became the first Indo-Canadian to receive the Order of British Columbia.

A visit back to his village Kharoudi, Hoshiarpur district, in 1999 exposed him to the lack of sanitation there. Ever the social activist, he and a fellow villager, another Canadian success story, Dr Raghbir Singh Bassi, raised the requisite funds in Canada and devoted themselves to improving the place of the birth by providing sanitation facilities and other basic infrastructure. Their effort started with their village, which received a visit in 2003 by the then President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

In time, other villages were brought into the ambit, and the model tweaked to make it more sustainable. The health and other benefits in such villages are significant, and overall, this project too has been a successful one. Dr Gill divides his time between Vancouver and Chandigarh.

Successful Canadian Punjabis have been giving back. So have other overseas Indians. Dhillon’s latest donation to his alma mater is yet another reason to celebrate the success of our brethren. The continuing hullabaloo around Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India and various faux pas that happened then is way past its expiry date.

Punjabi Canadians have longstanding relations with both countries and have, in their individual and official capacities, contributed much to them, as they were well expected to. Let more people in both lands work on building bridges and helping each other.

This article was published in the Spectrum section of The Tribune on April 22, 2018

Giving back — a diaspora success story

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