Punjabi-Canadian leaves behind politics for philanthropy

October 29, 2016

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

After a disillusioning attempt to become a candidate for the federal Liberal party, Vancouver businessman Barj Dhahan is stepping up his philanthropic efforts.

The owner of the Sandhurst Group is spearheading a major scholarship program for 20 aboriginal students and on Saturday in Vancouver will hand out a $25,000 prize for the best in Punjabi literature.

“I’ve been blessed by my family coming to Canada,” said Dhahan, who wants to help people of all cultures integrate into and serve the country, which he values for its economic strength and democracy.

Dhahan admits he was “understandably disappointed” that the federal Liberal party last year pressured him not to run for a seat in the riding of Vancouver South, which has a large Punjabi-Canadian population.

Instead, Dhahan said Liberal officials manoeuvred for the only declared candidate to be military veteran Harjit Sajjan, whom Justin Trudeau went on to appoint minister of defence.

Dhahan declined the party’s “last-minute” offer to run as a candidate in a riding in Surrey, saying Thursday that “Mr. Trudeau had said he would do politics differently.”

Even though Dhahan has given up his lifelong Liberal party membership, as have many of his dejected Punjabi supporters, he continues to believe strongly in “grassroots democracy” and in promoting inter-cultural connection.

That’s part of the reason — in addition to playing a lead role in the influential Canada-India Education Society and a Canada-India-aboriginal research organization called IC-Impacts — that he is putting so much energy into highlighting Punjabi literature.

“I’m a big fan of multilingualism,” he said, adding that at age 60 he’s dividing his time roughly 50-50 between business and philanthropy.

Since Dhahan arrived in B.C. as a youth from India, attending Vancouver’s John Oliver high school and the University of B.C., he has become convinced that not only should every immigrant learn English or French, but that most Canadians should pick up at least one extra language.

He has directed significant sums of the money he has made operating B.C. fast-food outlets and gas stations into the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature because he wants to “promote the language and life of a 1,000-year-old literary tradition.”

Over the long run, Dhahan’s plan is for the winners of the Dhahan Punjabi literature prize to have their novels, plays and stories translated into English.

On Saturday evening Dhahan will be at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology for the award’s gala third anniversary, when the top Punjabi literature prize of $25,000 will go to short-story writer Jarnail Singh, who immigrated to Greater Toronto in 1988.

The top Punjabi literature prize of $25,000 will go to short-story writer Jarnail Singh, of Greater Toronto. Singh explains in the sidebar below why so many Punjabis want to leave India.

There are more than 110 million Punjabi-speaking people in the world, Dhahan says, mostly in Pakistan and India.

While many have emigrated to Britain, the U.S. and Greater Toronto, Dhahan said, “Metro Vancouver, especially Surrey, has probably the highest concentration of Punjabis in North America.”

Punjabi is the mother tongue of roughly 250,000 B.C. residents. “And our province is home to some recognized writers like Ajmer Rode and Sadhu Binning, who write in Punjabi and English.”

Living with wife Rita, who has Mennonite roots, in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, Dhahan has benefited so much from coming to Canada that he wants not only to support Punjabi-Canadians, but to make sure the country’s original inhabitants get a chance, he said.

That’s why Dhahan and others are sponsoring scholarships for 20 aboriginal students at UBC, which are worth $20,000 each over four years.

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