A humble beginning: A Q&A with Charan Gill

Earlier this year, Kwantlen Polytechnic University awarded an honoarary doctorate to Charan Gill for his work in the community. In 2010, Gill was voted as on the of top 25 Canadian Immigrants by Canadians. Photo credit: Vineet Verghese

Earlier this year, Kwantlen Polytechnic University awarded an honoarary doctorate to Charan Gill for his work in the community. In 2010, Gill was voted as on the of top 25 Canadian Immigrants by Canadians. Photo credit: Vineet Verghese

Charan Gill, founder of Progressive Intercultural Society (PICS) and Harmony House, has received an honorary doctorate from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, for his work in the community. Gill was born in Hong Kong and lived in both China and India before immigrating to Canada in the 1960s. Some of his major accomplishments include co-founding the Canadian Farmers Union in 1978, and preventing the Klu Klux Klan from moving to Surrey. After spending over 25 years doing community work, the 75-year-old spends his time working nine to 10 hour days with his organization.

Sheetal Reddy: What does community mean to you?

Charan Gill: Community means to me people who live in our area surrounding…it’s a different sense of community. Community, you can call some other way, your own ethnic community, then in a larger way, Surrey community, if you take it in a broader way, B.C. community, Canadian community. Community is defined as a group of people living together sharing the same values, same concerns.

SR:What is the importance of a community?

CG: Community is backbone of people. Community provides some kind of value system, some kind of structure, some kind of parameters which you would work in and work together.

SR: What inspired you to create PICS?

CG:I’m professionally a social worker. I was working with the Ministry, and while I was working with the Ministry, many issues come up. I found gaps in services. Ethnic community which was growing very fast, was not getting any services. And the other thing, during the time, earlier days, there was lots of racism, family conflict, new people coming in, settlement issues, a host of things which needed to be addressed, which were not addressed by generic community services which I felt we needed, community service – a community society who will serve new immigrants, address their problems, settlement, racism, unemployment/employment. All those issues mattered to me.

One of the major things I started working on was farmworkers issues. Then, farmworkers were exploited, not paid adequately, piece work was exploited, and the transportation issues were there, and working conditions were lousy. I started in ‘76, forming an organization to support farmworkers, to advocate their rights.

Then as the ’80s came, and racism lots of racism, David Duke came here at CJOR, predecessor of CKNW. He said all the ethnic, people of colour, should be sent back to their homeland. And this is a white person’s country. All these First Nations people should be sent back up north, where they belong. So as a result of his very hateful speech, skinheads were formed … many organizations formed, people started attacking the South Asian community, which were very large and coming to Surrey…. Their houses were firebombed, skinheads were attacking people all over the place, tossing turbans of many people, and spitting on people’s faces. Everywhere there was a lot of hatred towards people of colour.

I started to a B.C. organization to fight racism, to stop the KKK, which was opening an office in Surrey. We kind of put together some kind of protest form to ban the clan. We put together 22,000 signatures, in which people said clans weren’t allowed to come in. We had demonstrations on the streets, in the rainy days, it was raining very hard, we had 1,800 people demonstrating on the city streets in Vancouver, taking all those 22,000 signatures, presenting to the Attorney General to stop that unlawful racist organization shouldn’t be allowed to come in here. And after that, the for the first time Shani’s Benevolent Organization came with us. All kind of people joined the B.C. Organization to Fight Racism, black people, Chinese, Japanese, First Nations; everybody was together to oppose the KKK. And we were very successful, we didn’t allow them to open an office.

So I was active in the community, I felt that there’s a great need for social services society, community services society who will work for people, and resolve some of the issues they face every day in life. Further on, in 1987, I was the founding president of the Progressive Intercultural Services Society. How it happened? We were together, about eight people, celebrating my friend’s birthday party. And together I, when we were celebrating, I said while we are celebrating there are lots of issues in community that no one’s addressing; we should address those issues. So we put $10 each, that was $80, we formed a society known as Progressive Intercultural Services Society. It was a very humble beginning.

SR: What are some of the memorable experiences you have as working as a social worker?

CG: While I was working in child protection, I saved quite a few children by apprehending and separating from their parents who were abusive, alcoholic people. Second memorable experience, to start community societies wherever is needed. As I progress in my life, transition is taking place, I see many people going through acculturation process, compromising the value system, not, also, keeping their own identity as people. Helping them to be the way they are, helping them to give them some knowledge. Other interesting things has been to provide services for seniors, assisted living, and social living. And those people are giving lots of blessings and very thankful for what I did for them. So I get lots of blessings. So, lots of good experiences, I enjoy at my age when I should be retiring. Nobody wants me to retire, my staff is here and my board is here, my community is here, they want me to continue to work.

They bless me and say, “God give our five years of life to you,” so that makes me feel very humble. Sometimes, when I go there, and I see these kind of things, tears come to my eyes. I feel really, really great and humble. So, I continue to serve as long as I’m here. That’s my job, that’s my mission, to develop resources to meet the needs of the people in this community.

SR:What do you like best about doing the work you do?

CG:Full satisfaction. Complete happiness when I serve people. When we give employment to people, and have them say, “I’m employed full-time.” The people who thought they’re psychologically upset and mentally sick, when they got a job, everything went okay with them. So if they need support, rather than, you know, they’re worried, food and shelter is covered, they feel very happy. Every experience is wonderful. They keep me going.

Sheetal Reddy

Third year journalism student with a penchant for trouble.

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