Anti-racism champion defines Canadian identity

Charan Gill: cultural bridge engineer. | Photo courtesy of Charan Gill

Charan Gill: cultural bridge engineer. | Photo courtesy of Charan Gill

In 1988, the Parliament of Canada passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act to “promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins.” However that mandate was already the focus of one man who started an organization in the Lower Mainland the year before.

Charan Gill is the CEO and founder of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) Society. While he initially started the organization in 1987 with the intention to assist fellow Indo-Canadians with their integration into Canadian society, he quickly realized the need to support other immigrant groups as well.

Gill decided that the key to Canadian identity is respect for everyone’s rights, freedoms and liberties no matter where someone is from.

“I hope we don’t become ghettoized,” says Gill, who immigrated to Canada in 1967. “We need to get out and build bridges with other cultures.”

Dressed in a suit and tie and sporting neatly trimmed white hair and beard, Gill described how he gave up the traditional Punjabi headscarf and robes in order to fit into his new community, but does not see his “evolution” as a sacrifice.

“Anywhere you see people who migrate to other countries, even hundreds or thousands of years ago, people get adopted [by] those countries and they change themselves,” says the 77-year-old, who now considers himself a fully-integrated Canadian.

Gill spoke in a thoughtful, eloquent manner and with a mild accent as he emphasized the importance of building “intercultural understanding” among different ethnic groups in order to break down barriers to integration.

While it began as a one-man operation, PICS now employs over 100 staff and volunteers. Through the clear glass separating Gill’s office from the hallway, passers-by can barely see the paint of his one open wall, which is covered with numerous plaques, awards and certificates in recognition of his remarkable record in community service.

Among these are the BC Human Rights Award by MOSAIC in 1983, the Order of BC in 1999, the Top 25 Immigrants in Canada award in 2010 and most recently, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2013.

“I feel it’s a great success story,” says the subject of a 2010 biography entitled A Living Legend.

Gill’s biography, by Gharib Singh Pannu and Devinder Kaur Chattha, includes accounts of his soul-searching return to his birthplace in Hong Kong, where his parents lived before repatriating to their native Punjab in India during the Second World War. It also details his efforts to improve the human rights, health, safety and employment standards of Canadian farm workers, and his successful campaign against a proposal to open a Ku Klux Clan office on the West Coast during the 1980s.

However, despite the many great strides made by his generation, the long-time community worker and social activist acknowledged that it may be some time yet before issues of discrimination will become completely irrelevant.

He points to the underrepresentation of ethnic and Aboriginal groups in important political and economic decisions as a continuing challenge.

“I would like to see our young people – like Chinese and Indian – in very powerful positions. That’s where equality will come,” he says.

Nonetheless, Gill remains optimistic about the future.

“Everything will be all mixed up,” says Gill, referring to the impact of technology and inter-cultural marriages. “[Future] generations will have a totally different perspective; they won’t care about being Chinese or Indian.”

Gill urges young and old people alike to stay open to possibilities and to learn from one another in order to come up with the best ways to deal with ongoing and future challenges.

“Change is happening,” he says. “It’s just like a river flowing, you can’t stop it.”