Canadian Sikh Heritage | Dalip Singh Gill
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Dalip Singh Gill

Dalip Singh Gill was born in the district of Moga, Punjab to an agriculturalist family. Dalip Singh attended school in the Moga area. Encouraged by his father, Gill then moved to Lahore to pursue higher education. In 1948, when Lahore became a part of Pakistan, Gill was forced to return to India. He began teaching at a few schools in the Ferozepur district eventually becoming a headmaster. Then he was promoted to Deputy Education Officer which allowed him to work in the Rupert, Sangrur, Bhatinda and Patiala districts. At that time he received another promotion to become the district educational officer and sent to Faridpur. He became the principal of the ‘Teacher Training School’ and then received yet another promotion to work in the Government Training Centre in Jullundhar. Gill had been in the education field for over 50 years (1996) and notes that he has taught some of the grandparents of his students at Dasmesh Punjabi School.

Earlier in his life Dalip Singh was also the headmaster of a high school in Mena, Punjab. When he had first arrived it was an all boys’ school. He brought co-education to that school despite fervent protests from the community. In 1983, he helped start a much need English-medium girls’ college there and he still feels it is his duty help them in any way he can.

When in 1985, Gill’s mother and father passed away, he saw little purpose in remaining in India. Thus, soon after the passing of his mother and father, Dalip Singh first came to Canada in 1982 to attend his nephew’s wedding and travelled through Canada visiting cities like Toronto, Winnipeg, Prince George and Calgary. The first person out of Dalip Singh’s family to come to Canada was his Uncle Naranjan Singh Gill, who came to Canada in 1913. Naranjan Singh spent his entire life in Canada and always provided his family with money to buy more land. In his last few years Naranjan Singh Gill returned to India and bought farming land. He also served as the president of the Mena High School committee where Dalip Singh Gill was headmaster.

When Dalip Singh came to Canada he left behind his four daughters. When they joined their father in Canada, his daughters also finished their education in the field of sciences. Although he missed his homeland initially, Dalip Singh says he liked Canada because of the opportunities that were not available for people in India.  During his stops in some of the major Canadian cities, he learned that there were many independent schools; however, he was disappointed to find no independent schools had been started by Indo-Canadians. He felt that young Indo-Canadians lacked the opportunity to learn about their own heritage and many were ignorant about their own background. In talking with the Indo-Canadian community Dalip Singh found that many felt they needed an independent school but no one had taken the first step to establish such a school. Families also felt that their children were losing out on having their own cultural identity. They also wanted to address the cross generational language barrier that was being created between parents or grandparents and their children due to language barriers. This prompted Dalip Singh to undertake the uphill task to get support to build one school with the purpose of providing children with quality education under the Canadian curriculum along with teaching them about their Sikh heritage, culture and language.

In 1983 while Dalip Singh was in Prince George he received a call from prominent Abbotsford pioneer Indar Singh Gill (mentioned above), who happened to be Dalip Singh’s cousin.  Indar Singh invited Dalip Singh to a meeting regarding the possibility of having a school as a part of their new gurdwara – the Khalsa Diwan Society of Abbotsford. At the meeting Dalip Singh was happy to find a great deal of support towards the establishment of a Punjabi school in Abbotsford. On the same day Dalip Singh began contacting parents who might be interested in putting their children in a Punjabi school. Although the parents liked his idea they were not quite sure that would be able to support him in terms of the funding required to run such a school. Despite this lack of initial financial support, the Khalsa Diwan Society, Abbotsford decided to open the school the very next day. Dalip Singh was surprised to see that on the first day of classes on February 14, 1983, they had 80 students come to register. At its early stages, the school focused on teaching the children Punjabi language with classes for a few hours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Dalip Singh, alongside two volunteers split the children into three age groups and each took the responsibility of teaching their assigned age group. The Khalsa Diwan Society, Abbotsford decided to form a separate Committee for the school, creating the Dasmesh Punjabi Educational Association Soon classes started in earnest and the school thrived

After starting the school, Dalip Singh returned to India where he had been serving as principal of the ‘Teachers Training School.’ After some contemplation he decided to retire from his principal position in India prematurely for the opportunity to continue his work in Canada and for Dasmesh Punjabi School. In 1986, when Dalip Singh returned to Canada, he held a meeting with the Khalsa Diwan Society, Abbotsford committee members. The Khalsa Diwan society expressed concern that they would not be able to fund the school, so it was decided that funding would fall upon the parents of the students to pay tuition (according to each individual- anywhere between $600 – $2400 a year). In September they started with only one class of 11 students and the school hired a teacher to teach them. They found that every year they had more students registering for the school and slowly as more students began enrolling, they also began adding more classrooms, teachers and grades. By 1996 (the year of the interview) Dasmesh Punjabi School had expanded into two buildings and 200 students ranging from kindergarten to grade 8. Dalip Singh credits the constant rise in enrollment on the good impression his students leave in the community. The good example of Dasmesh students encourages parents to place their children at the school. He explains that by giving the children a good foundation through religious teachings as well as quality education they move onto high school to succeed both as human begins and as students.

Dalip Singh hopes that one day Dasmesh Punjabi School will be a multicultural institution where students from all backgrounds can come together with an emphasis on understanding each other’s heritages. He explains that since Sikh religion encourages a peaceful unity of all people, Dasmesh Punjabi School can be used a vehicle for cooperation and understanding.  Dalip Singh believes that a good Sikh is a good person. Sikhism isn’t about ceremonies or religious practices, but a way of life. It is for that reason, he explains, that he has a deep respect for anyone’s religion or way of life if it allows them to be a good person.

In the beginning the school received most of its backing from the Khalsa Diwan Society who gave them their first building. Then Dasmesh Punjabi Educational Association provided them with an additional three classrooms and two portables.  In addition there were some members of the community who made large donations. One of whom was Mr. Kessar Singh Makkar, who donated his life savings which amounted to over 21, 000 dollars. Mr. Makkar passed away on July 20, 1996. When the school first opened they contacted the BC ministry of education who informed them that they would provide funding in three years’ time after evaluating the school. They now (1996) receive 50% of their funding from the BC ministry of education.

Because of the efforts of Dalip Singh Gill and his supporters who established Dasmesh Punjabi School, it helped to lay the groundwork for other similar schools to follow suit. Though Dasmesh Punjabi School was the first Punjabi independent school in North America, shortly after its opening in 1983 a second and unrelated Punjabi school was also opened in Vancouver. Today, there are at least 10 independent schools in British Columbia which have a focus of preserving and teaching the Punjabi language and religion, along with the prescribed subjects approved by the Ministry of Education.

Over the last almost thirty 30 years, the traditions of the school have remained unchanged. When the children come to school in the morning they first go to the prayer room located in the school, sing hymns and pray for the first 30 minutes. The students are also very involved in the temple celebrations of Sikh and Indian holidays.  There are no requirements on the students to be baptized Sikhs as that remains their individual decision. Likewise, there are no requirements on the teachers to be baptized Sikhs as many of their teachers come from different cultural backgrounds as well-including those teachers who are Caucasian. Dalip Singh explains that the teachers are chosen considering the qualities they would like to see in a good teacher as opposed to their cultural background. However the students and faculty must keep the school as a drug, alcohol, tobacco and meat free environment.

Dalip Singh Gill says he felt no opposition from the wider community and that in contrary, they have always been encouraging. Therefore, Dasmesh Punjabi School always maintained good relations with other independent schools although they practiced different religions. In fact, parents from non-Indian backgrounds have occasionally expressed interest in placing their children in the school as there is no obligation to be Sikh.

In honour of his amazing achievements, the University of the Fraser Valley and its then President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Skip Bassford awarded Dalip Singh Gill with an honourary Doctorate of Letters (D.Litt) at its 2009 Convocation proceedings and ceremonies. Dr. Gill gave a wonderful speech as it was certainly an achievement beyond warrant.

 

          

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