31 Oct Ranjit Kaur Dhesi
Ranjit Kaur Dhesi was born on June 10, 1954 in her maternal village of Chak Mander, District Jalandhar, Punjab. She was the first of five children born to Mohinder Singh and Gurdev Kaur Lally. After completing her schooling in Punjab, Ranjit Kaur married Malkit Singh Dhesi and came to Canada in 1974. The couple were sponsored by Malkit Singh’s sister, Nachattar Kaur who was the daughter in-law of Bhan Singh Randhawa, another well-known Sikh pioneer in Abbotsford.
After arriving in Vancouver, Ranjit Kaur and Malkit Singh settled in Matsqui where Bhan Singh Randhawa’s family was living at the time. Soon after arriving, Ranjit Kaur found work in a farm and Malkit Singh started work at a local cannery called Snowcrest Packers. After a year of hard work and saving, the couple was able to purchase their very first home in Matsqui village.
Ranjit Kaur explains how those times were hard for Punjabi people because there was racism in the community. However, not everyone was the same. The farm she used to work at was owned by a kind couple, Art and Rita Unruh. She describes that during her three years of work there, Rita always treated her like family and would always encourage her. At first it was very difficult for her to adjust to working in Canada because life was so different back in India. But Ranjit Kaur knew that making money was essential because they would have to support themselves and send money to her in-laws back home in Punjab.
At first, being in a different country was one thing, but being away from her parents and siblings was also additionally hard and emotionally straining. Ranjit Kaur says that whenever she received a letter from her father, she never read it at home and always read it in the farm during her break. She did not want to worry anyone at home because she would cry when reading the letters; therefore, the farm was a good place to be alone. Rita noticed that Ranjit Kaur would rarely eat on her breaks and would try and comfort her. She asked if it was necessary for her to work and tried to encourage her to go to school by offering to pay for her education. But Ranjit Kaur could not consider attending school with all the family responsibilities she had.
When comparing the community of Abbotsford in the 1970’s to present day, Ranjit Kaur says that many things have changed. Other than the development and landscape, people’s lifestyles and communication has drastically changed. One example Ranjit Kaur cites is when in the 1970’s there was a radio program hosted by Malkit Singh Parhar which would air from Vancouver. At the time, families and friends used to get together to hear the radio at one place in each other’s homes. Nowadays, people have become so reserved and do not discuss things as a community. Ranjit Kaur explains that in earlier times people used get advice from elders in the community and discussed issues with one another whereas nowadays everyone would rather consult lawyers.
During the earlier years, society was much different according to Ranjit Kaur. The original Gursikh Temple on South Fraser Way used to be a central part of everyone’s lives. Families used to go there on the weekends and do seva and take part in the langar. There were not many marriages at the time but when there was one, the whole town would be excited and begin preparations and make sweets in the gurdwara. In 1974, there were no tailors at the time so the ladies used to sew their own clothes and with the help of each other, they stitched their suits together. In addition, during this time in the 1970’s local stores used to be closed on the weekends. People used to do their grocery shopping during the week and were free on the weekend so they had time to sit at home and spend time with their families.
After a few years of establishing themselves in Abbotsford, Malkit Singh and Ranjit Kaur proceeded to sponsor Ranjit Kaur’s parents and siblings. However, their case was originally rejected because the Canadian law for children over the age of 21 had changed. It was then that Ranjit Kaur’s cousin suggested the family to consult Dr. D.P. Pandia. At the time, he was a well- known lawyer in the community who had helped many Punjabi families in court. Dr. Pandia was also famous for his struggles and battles to enfranchise the South Asian community in the 1940’s leading up to the eventual enfranchisement of the community in 1947. Ranjit Kaur attempted to seek Dr. Pandia’s help; however, he had retired that very year in 1978 and therefore his partner handled the case. After a long process of a few years going back and forth between court and lawyers, they finally won the case. With the guidance of Dr. Pandia in the initial process, Ranjit Kaur realized why he was so popular in the community. She had heard stories of him helping many new immigrants and sometimes working for free for those who were not able to hire a lawyer. She felt proud to hear of everything had done and the accomplishments he had achieved.
Ranjit Kaur was finally reunited with her family in 1982 when they arrived in Canada. By then, the Dhesi family had moved to Abbotsford where everyone lived together. This included Ranjit Kaur’s parents, her three brothers, Manjit Singh, Santokh Singh, and Tarlochan Singh Lally and sister, Baljit Kaur Lally. As the years went by, everyone eventually married and established themselves and their own families.
Over the years, Ranjit Kaur and Malkit Singh’s family continued to grow with their son Davinder Singh, and two daughters Jatinder and Rupinder Kaur. Their children attended school in Abbotsford and went on to establish their careers.
In present day, the Dhesi family has become a well- established in the community. Throughout the years, they went on to set up their own business, a cannery by the name of Fraser Valley Packers. Both Ranjit Kaur and Malkit Singh enjoy spending time with their children and grandson, Dylan Singh. As Ranjit Kaur looks back at her journey, she remembers how the times were hard for them as new immigrants but she persevered and helped the rest of her family in settling and building a strong presence in the Valley and Canada.