César Chávez was already a legendary champion for farmworkers’ rights in the United States when he arrived at David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver on April 26, 1980 to mark what would prove to be a historic day.
In 1962, Chávez had co-founded the U.S. National Farm Workers Association, led boycotts and marches, had gone on hunger strikes and relentlessly organized to win higher pay and safer conditions in fields and factories.
Now he was here as a guest to celebrate the start of the Canadian Farmworkers Union, 20 days in existence. Its enemies had not waited to flex. Just ten days before, the home of the union’s new vice-president, Jawala Singh Grewal, had been attacked by thugs who bashed in windows with baseball bats.
The dream had sprouted 19 months before when 30 farmworkers gathered in a Surrey school to talk about how to change oppressive conditions they faced. And now 500 had gathered to stand firm and celebrate a big step. Chávez told them:
“Although we’re poor, let them never forget that although they have money, we have time. And there’s never, ever so relentless an enemy as time when the time comes!”
Next to Chávez on stage that day was Charan Gill, 43, with glasses and curly hair not yet turned snowy white. Gill was one of the visionaries of the Canadian Farmworkers Union and he would prove Chávez right. In his time, he would make an outsized mark on Canada’s history by helping to win many battles against exploitation, hate and discrimination.
He not only unionized Canadian farm labourers, he founded a national anti-racism organization still active today, and built one of the most successful immigrant non-profits in the province.
Gill died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 84, a week after the second anniversary of his late wife Daljit’s passing. The outpourings were immediate.
“The guy was completely selfless,” said former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who met Gill as a young lawyer for farmworkers, the two forging a permanent bond. “I last talked to Charan just before Christmas, but we’ve been bumping into each other our whole lives.”
Scholars and Gill’s closest comrades told The Tyee that his life represents more than one activist’s legacy. He is at the heart of an “epic” story of generations of exploited immigrants to Canada who chose to risk much and fight back.
Charanpal Singh Gill was born in Hong Kong and grew up in India, in the tiny village of Mella Khurd in Punjab’s Ludhiana district. He lost his father at an early age and was raised with five brothers and sisters by his mother. He earned a master’s degree in Punjabi, then in his 20s returned to Hong Kong where he worked in a bank, as a security guard, and editing at the South China Morning Post newspaper.
In 1967, his sister suggested he move to Canada and so, with plans to put down roots and then send for his wife and children, he set off alone to British Columbia.
He found work in a sawmill in Williams Lake but injured his wrist and became a social worker in Prince Rupert. In 1969, he succeeded in bringing his family to join him and in 1973, they moved to Surrey in the fertile Fraser Valley. It was fertile place, as well, for social justice activism.
“When my father came here to Canada, he saw there were a lot of people — especially immigrants — being exploited here,” said Gill’s son Paul. “People weren’t getting their wages. They were getting injured. He said, ‘We gotta do something about this.’
“With my dad, a lot of stuff rolled off his back. He experienced racism, but he knew socioeconomic issues were a large part of racism — the ‘you’re taking our jobs’ kind of thing.”
Gill had a playful side that emerged among his closest friends and family. “What’s funny is his kind of mischievousness,” Paul said. Gill’s mother was known to be stern, but Paul heard lots of stories of his father as a kid “jumping up into the rafters of the house, and she’d be chasing him with a broom.”
Paul remembers his father would “always be laughing and entertaining the whole family. To a lot of his friends, he was a big personality, but never overbearing. Just a guy everyone wanted to be around.”
One of Gill’s longest and deepest friendships was with Raj Chouhan. The pair met in 1977 and helped found the Farm Worker Organizing Committee in 1979 which became the CFU. Today, Chouhan is B.C.’s Speaker in the legislature and the New Democrat MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds riding.
Gill “truly was a trailblazer working hard to break down barriers,” Chouhan said. “We lost a titan.”
The two became inseparable during their organizing days and kept close ever since. “I felt like I knew him forever.”
The torch had been passed to Chouhan and Gill from a group of articling lawyers in the 1970s who had provided legal aid to farm labourers but lacked the organizing skills needed to build a movement or make long-term gains. One of those lawyers was Dosanjh, who would go on to become B.C.’s first South Asian premier and then a federal health minister.
In the early 1970s, Dosanjh helped found the Labour Advocacy Research Association along with Abbotsford activist John Borst, who had ties to César Chávez.
“With a couple others who worked with Chávez in the U.S., we started working on farmworkers’ rights,” Dosanjh said. “At that time, the relationship between farmer and worker was essentially that of master-servant: totally unregulated by any laws, wage rules, health or safety legislation.
“It was my view at that time that if you could somehow do a strike that shut down all farm work, you could control the flow of labour. That’s when Charan and the Farmworkers Organizing Committee came on the scene.”
The committee was composed of Gill, Chouhan and Harinder Mahil, who would later become B.C.’s chief human rights commissioner.
The three led the way. “Hitch your wagon to them,” Dosanjh would instruct, “because they will be organizing. And if farmworkers could begin to organize, they would then have a larger voice.”
Historians say Gill should also be understood in the context of his family’s connections to some of the 20th century’s most dramatic upheavals.
Gill’s grandfather, Baba Dulla Singh, was heavily involved in the Ghadar cause — a revolutionary movement founded in 1913 by the South Asian diaspora in the U.S. and Canada to support ending British colonial rule in India. The movement gained followers in British-ruled Hong Kong and even Panama, where Singh would dedicate years rallying workers under the Ghadar banner.
Ghadar members were among those shot dead by British Indian troops in then-named Calcutta after Canada turned away most passengers aboard the Komagata Maru seeking to immigrate in Vancouver and the vessel returned to India; the British claimed the Ghadars were using the ship to recruit.
At one point, the Soviets invited Singh to an international freedom fighter training school. One of his classmates was future Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, his great-grandson Paul said.
“He was a living legend, an organizer and a kind of rebel,” Paul Gill said. “There’s a long history — it’s epic and amazing — and it’s in our family’s blood in a way.”
B.C. journalist, radio host and Radical Desi magazine editor Gurpreet Singh said Gill must be seen within the radical tradition of his grandfather and anti-colonial militancy.
“The Ghadars were a group of Indian rebels established to fight back against racism abroad and colonialism back home,” Singh explained. “Charan inherited a lot from his grandfather — a lot of his fight against racism and injustice — but he also had first-hand experience of racism when came to Canada.”
The intergenerational saga of Gill’s family includes anti-colonial rebels, revolutions, wartime occupations, political prisoners and exiles, and the century’s great mass migration to find a better life overseas.
“All of us inherited this sense of justice and adventurous spirit,” Gill’s son added. “The theme is independence, a ‘don’t tread on me’ philosophy.”
B.C.-born Bikrum Gill, an associate professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, believes Charan Gill “represents a certain history within our community of finding place, identity and belonging in Canada as a settler colony — not by fitting in, like a ‘model minority,’ but by contesting its exclusionary premise.”
“Rights are not gifts from beneficent owners or employers,” the political scientist continued. “They’re won through struggles like Charan waged.”
Those struggles, whether waged for workers, victims of racism, immigrants or seniors, fit into a consistent “ethical or political framework,” said the scholar. Charan Gill “insisted that power must be contested, because power is uneven. So one must fight for one’s rights.”
After organizing farmworkers, Gill would help organize largely racialized sectors such as domestic workers and janitors. And, in the 1990s, he would focus squarely on white supremacist hate groups.
“Charan was a very, very important anti-racist activist,” said Alan Dutton, a director of the Canadian Anti-Racism Education and Research Society. It traces its lineage directly to the B.C. Organization to Fight Racism, co-founded by Gill in November of 1980, seven months after the launch of the Canadian Farmworkers Union.
At the time, Indo-Canadians were among people of colour violently attacked by racists. The western Canada organizer of the Ku Klux Klan claimed 200 members and sought to open an office in Vancouver.
Again, Gill shrugged in the face of intimidation. “He was a very brave man,” recalled Dutton, who said he and Gill received death threats. When Gill found racist graffiti on his property, that didn’t deter him either.
Xinying Hu, a faculty member in Simon Fraser University’s labour studies program, described Gill as a “great activist” who courageously demonstrated that “migrant and immigrant workers’ struggles are an integral part of the Canadian labour movement.
“One of Charan’s legacies,” Hu added, “is to take concrete actions.”
Gill “arrived in a province that had been shaped from the outset by unequal work opportunities and pay, a reality encouraged and encoded in dozens of provincial and local laws,” said Jordan Stanger-Ross, an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria.
“To the extent that British Columbia became a more just place in the course of his lifetime, we owe a great deal to activists like Mr. Gill.” That fact was underscored by Gill’s induction into the Order of British Columbia in 1999.
After his years in farmworker advocacy and anti-racism organizations, Gill went on to found the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, remaining its CEO until his retirement in 2017, the year of PICS’ 30th anniversary.
Today the non-profit’s work provides independent and assisted living housing for seniors, a transition shelter for immigrant women, language lessons, tax clinics, immigration settlement services, job banks and youth training.
It also runs Delta’s Food Bank and multicultural drug and alcohol counselling, and has expanded from Surrey to Vancouver and Victoria.
And there are plans for what the PICS website calls Charan Gill’s “dream project,” the Guru Nanak Diversity Village, seniors housing offering culturally safe, complex long-term care for elders in Cloverdale.
Originally founded with eight members’ $10 donations as “Progressive Indo-Canadian Community Services” in 1987, PICS added “Intercultural” to its name as “the need to serve a broad spectrum of people, mainly new immigrants, grew,” according to its website.
In 1991, Gill and PICS developed a legal toolkit for agricultural labourers, translated into Punjabi, Spanish and Chinese. In 2004, they created Colony Farm, an organic sustainable agriculture training centre.
Farming remained close to Gill’s heart throughout his life, said his son Paul. As recently as last year, Gill revelled in driving a tractor on his small family farm. “We grew up raising pigs, chickens, cows,” Paul recalled. “We did a lot of work on the farm growing up. We cleared about two acres ourselves. It was really homestead life.
“Then in 1996, we turned it into a blueberry farm, a small patch of really nice blueberries. Dad was proud of his blueberries.”
After César Chávez spoke at the launch of the Canadian Farmworkers Union 41 years ago, he returned again and again to celebrate the barriers Charan Gill and others were knocking down in British Columbia. Although farmworkers were among the “worst-treated workers” in the province, notes SFU labour historian Mark Leier, when Gill took up their fight it wasn’t even legally clear they were allowed to unionize.
Gill and Chouhan had a tough slog trying to unionize such a dispersed, seasonal, immigrant and precarious sector with many different employers, Leier said. Not to mention the long walks across vast fields to reach workers under the close and suspicious watch of their bosses.
“They sent organizers to places many more traditional and conservative trade unions were not interested in going,” Leier noted. “One of the interesting things the farmworkers union did was looking after people as workers, but also as recent immigrants denied access to basic human rights, dealing with racism as a huge part of their everyday life both on and off the job.”
For Ujjal Dosanjh, his old friend Charan Gill proved a vital touchstone at a crucial moment. At the close of the 1990s, the B.C. New Democrat government was losing its grip on power. Premier Glen Clark had resigned as accusations of scandal filled headlines, and the party was preparing to vote for a new leader. Dosanjh, then B.C.’s attorney general, called three people for advice on the pros and cons of seeking the leadership. One of them was Charan Gill.
“There was so much in-fighting. The party was in trouble,” Dosanjh recalled. “I didn’t want to run because I knew we would be slaughtered no matter what. Charan helped persuade me to run.
Dosanjh won the leadership but the NDP was soundly defeated in the 2001 provincial election.
“I did get slaughtered, of course. But he said, ‘Look, you’re brown, you have a good chance of winning’ the party leadership. ‘We don’t know when there will be a next time a non-white person will be in as good a position to be the leader. Do it not for yourself, but for all of the people who are going to look at you and say, "I can be that too.”'”
On other occasions, it was Gill’s turn to ask if he should run for office. “Don’t do it!” was Dosanjh’s advice because he believed Gill was so effective outside of government. “You’ve had an impact on our society and history in B.C. far beyond a simple elected MLA or MP could ever have,” Dosanjh told his friend. Gill did run as a federal NDP candidate in Surrey-White Rock-North Delta in 1988 and also threw his hat in the ring to be a provincial NDP candidate but was not elected.
Gill and Dosanjh shared another bond — their opposition to use of violent means in support of establishing a Sikh state of Khalistan independent of India. As outspoken moderates on the issue in B.C.’s Sikh community, Dosanjh was assaulted by a man with an iron bar and seriously injured in 1985, and a year later Gill was roughed up by fundamentalists at a temple.
Gill would not be silenced. Not even by age. The journalist Gurpreet Singh remembers a day, a few years ago, when an elderly Gill showed up to address a rally for an Indian political prisoner. The man whom Singh called an activist “daredevil” his whole life took the megaphone.
“Now I’m 80-plus. And my knees do not work so well anymore,” Gill told the crowd. “So now is the time for youngsters to step forward.”
To Singh, it says a lot about who Gill was. “You know, that spark was still alive within him to the end.”