Canadian Sikh Heritage | Jeet Kaur Oujla
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Jeet Kaur Oujla

Jeet Kaur Oujla (née Oppal) was born on June 1, 1933 at the Vancouver General Hospital. When she was three and a half years old, her family moved back to India and settled in their village, Jore Uppal, near Noor Mahal. Jeet Kaur was raised in India and was married at 14 years. It was in 1952 when she returned to Vancouver at the age of 19 with her father, her husband, her nine month old son, Bahadur, and her five year old nephew, Avtar.

Jeet Kaur’s father, Hukma Singh Oppal was the first in the family to immigrate to Canada in 1906. At the time, he used to deliver sawdust and things such as building supplies on a truck to earn money. After visiting back and forth to India, Hukma Singh married Jai Kaur in India. The couple and their five year old son, Satnam Singh, later immigrated to Vancouver. Jai Kaur gave birth to four children in Canada:  Sarno Kaur, Seeso Kaur, Jeet Kaur, and Ajit Singh. However, Jai Kaur’s health was becoming a major concern so the entire family moved to India in 1936. Hukma Singh liked life in Canada and after returning alone, tried to convince Jai Kaur to return but she wanted to stay in India. She only visited Canada a few times but eventually moved back after Hukma Singh’s death.

While living in Vancouver, Jeet Kaur’s family was very close to Jagat (Jack) Singh Uppal’s family. Her elder brother, Satnam Singh and Jack had attended school together and were really good friends. When they moved to Vancouver, Jack Uppal supported and helped them a lot. He was known to help many pioneer families through many struggles.

At the time it was very hard to find jobs, Jeet Kaur’s husband would travel to the island to work because there was less discrimination there than on the mainland. He would stay at the bunkhouses there and then return after working. Later, he found work at Sohan Singh Gill’s mill in Vancouver. During that time, Jeet Kaur’s family lived in an old shack down from the mill on the Fraser River. They rented this for $20/month. The shack consisted of one room with no bathroom or electricity. Later, the family purchased a home on 62nd for $6000. Jeet Kaur gave birth to five children in Vancouver: Paula Kaur (1953), Major Singh (1955), Deep Singh (1956), Jinder Kaur (1957), and Bunt Singh (1958).

In 1961, Jeet Kaur’s husband died in a severe car crash at the age of 29. The family poured his ashes into the Fraser River because they could not go to India at that time. After her husband’s death, Jeet Kaur was left alone to raise seven children (including her nephew, Avtar Singh). During this time, Jack Uppal and her relatives assisted her with many things and providing facilities.

When she first started receiving welfare cheques, Jeet Kaur explains how an officer came to investigate and told her to put Avtar Singh for adoption. They stated that since he was not her child, he should not be living with her. However, Jeet Kaur remained strong and argued with them saying she would stop receiving their cheques but not leave her nephew. Luckily, they were not troubled again and continued to receive around $300 a month. Since the cheques were simply not enough to support the entire family, Jeet Kaur started working when all the children were in elementary school. She started work as a housekeeper for a Jewish family that lived near them. Her work included basic housework, cleaning, washing clothes and babysitting. She was paid approximately $7-$10 cash daily. The family was really good with her and was impressed by Jeet Kaur’s work. She continued to work there for a total of 20 years.

Even though the Jeet Kaur worked hard to put food on the table, she never stopped being generous. Her door was always open to other Indian women who were going through problems and had nowhere else to turn. There was a woman named Sunno that lived with Jeet Kaur after her husband had left her and her two little girls. Jeet Kaur also provided shelter for her husband’s friend’s daughter whose husband had also died in the car crash. All these women had to work hard to support their families. They would work anytime of the year on farms picking; strawberries, blueberries, and potatoes with their children. Everyone would add to the income including Bahadur Singh (Buddy) and Avtar Singh who would do paper routes delivering newspapers.

When Jeet Kaur’s children grew a little older, she found work at V.P. Flight Kitchens, a food packaging company which prepared food for airplanes. She started working there in 1975 with a starting pay of $2.50 an hour and worked until 1997 when the pay increased to $13-$14 an hour.

All of Jeet Kaur’s children were educated in Vancouver. Since Jeet Kaur was not educated here, she faced some problems adjusting in society because of the language barrier and most of their neighbors were Caucasian. Jeet Kaur worked at learning things such as cooking Canadian food and taking the bus. She remembers watching cooking shows and learning from the friendly neighborhood women.  She also picked up on English while watching TV; she would listen to what they were saying and then tried to make sense of it. Since a lot of her friends did not learn English, they would take her to town with them as a translator when shopping.

Before the 1960’s all the ladies wore dresses, even to the gurdwara. The women were given sheets so that they can cover legs while sitting in the gurdwara. At the time, the law was that the women had to wear dresses otherwise they would be deported. Society and the laws were very strict until the late 1960’s when pants were allowed to be worn.

Jeeto Kaur accomplished many things such as learning to drive, that too from a Caucasian instructor. After she received her license, she purchased a car from her friend’s son for a couple hundred dollars. In those days, it was not common for an Indian woman to be driving so this was quite extraordinary.  After seeing Jeet Kaur, her friends wanted to learn to drive as well.

Jeet Kaur went through many challenges being a single mother and had a very hard life. However, her determined attitude and generosity is something to learn from. She admits her life was hard but she never thought of anyone but her kids. Today, Jeet Kaur has been blessed with ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She is proud that through all the tough times, she has been able to keep her family together and in unity. She is also very thankful for Jack Uppal and all the help his family provided to her and other pioneer families.