Canadian Sikh Heritage | Atish Narayan Ram
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Atish Narayan Ram

Atish Narayan Ram was born on March 16, 1962. He came to Canada in 1970 with his mother and other siblings who were all sponsored by his father Sukh Ram. Sukh Ram had migrated to Canada in 1969 but his original plans were to go to the United States and couldn’t because of the Vietnam war taking place at the time. Sukh Ram began working as a heavy duty mechanic at ABC Recycling which was a Canadian Family enterprise with a 101-year heritage of serving and supporting the community through processing and recycling scrap metal.  Eventually, he saved his earning and then in 1962 called his wife, Daya Waiti Ram, hi son Atish Narayan Ram and Atish’s other siblings to Canada.  Atish Narayan was the youngest of all his siblings.  Sukh Ram continued to work for the ABC company all his life.

Sharing his experiences Atish Narayan Ram says that he was eight years old when he came to Canada. He did not know what was going on at that time although he remembers very vaguely that they landed in Vancouver and his father had taken them to their first rented house. Atish was initially shocked when he arrived to Canada as he had never experienced such cold weather in India before the way he did in Vancouver. Sukh Ram had enrolled Atish in David Livingston elementary school in grade two but he had to be demoted to a junior class because he couldn’t speak English at that time. Atish recalls how his first day of school was quite traumatizing as he had not seen so many Caucasin people; and as such, he faced a lot of lot of racism in the early 70s. In his entire school there were only four to five Indians. Often , these four or five young students would be abused and beaten up simply because they were Indians. Because he was too young to full understand what racism was, as a child, he simply thought they used to beat him and the other Indians because he was not smart enough or because he didn’t know how to speak in English. In turn, all the abuse and discrimination just encouraged him to do good in his school so that he could be friends with the others. He realised later it was not because of his English speaking skills it was because of his skin colour that they didn’t like him. As he grew older his experiences dealing with racism grew worse.

Having grown up mostly in Vancouver at Brock Street, Atish recalls an incident while growing up, where he and his family were out shopping and while they were walking on the street a random person just came up and spit on his dad. Incidents like these traumatized them and because of their minority status, they wouldn’t do anything to stop it.  His father Sukh Ram used to work as a heavy duty mechanic and at night time he took up a janitorial job. Sukh Ram was always accompanied by his children when he used to go to work at night. He wanted them to learn how to earn money. Sukh worked all day and night to provide food, school and mortgage for six children. Daya Waiti Ram usually stayed home and took care of the children but she did take up some janitorial job in the evenings and in the weekends.  Sukh Ram never gave money to his children. Atish Narayan Ram wanted a car so he took up three jobs; he worked at London Drugs, White Spot and McDonalds.  After graduating from high school he was still working at McDonalds but promoted to a swing manager. Sharing his experiences he said that he was robbed three times in McDonald’s at gunpoint. He was really devastated by these incidents and then he decided to quite the job.

By 1979 Atish really was not sure what he wanted to do in his life- at one point he wanted to be a lawyer and at another point he wanted to be an accountant, and then he latrr became really fond of photography and film making. Therefore, on his 13th birthday he received a camera. He made his first film Called ‘Death Fork’ with help from all his friends from McDonalds. He also participated in the local film making contest and won an award for it in 1979.

When Atish was 22 years old he applied for a managerial position at the McDonalds ended up going to Expo in 1986. Even at this point in time Atish faced racism after coming back to work. Atish worked really hard to gain his promotion, and the manager always appreciated the work he did but in the end Atish wasn’t hired because of his Indian ethnicity. As a result of this discrimination, Atish was always given the graveyard shifts and the long hour shifts. When he wanted to claim short-term disability for the time that he was sick the human resource manager at replied: “you know all you Hindus want is insurance money.” This statement really shattered Atish. Later when he got better and wanted to start the job, he was fired from his position. He had worked very hard on the job yet he was fired and the thought of getting fired without a reason really pushed him pursue a legal case. Atish ended up filing a case against McDonalds in the year 1990. McDonalds wanted to settle the case with $2000 but Atish refused the offer and pursued with the case. He initially couldn’t find a lawyer willing to take up the case, and ended up approaching his friend Larry Meyers, who was a criminal lawyer. As a Jewish who had faced much anti-Semitism and discrimination himself, Larry understood Atish’s angst. A week before the trial, McDonald’s once again offered him $30,000 to settle the case but Atish still refused. He was determined to get the case out in the public so that people would know what a big company like McDonalds was doing with its employees. A night before the trial he was again offered $60,000 to settle the case. In spite of being in debt Atish didn’t take the settlement money. On the day of the trial he was again offered a settlement of $100,000, which Atish refused.  Eventually Atish won the case and he was paid $2000. After the case was over he went to work the next morning and was congratulated by his other employees, they acknowledged him for what he did. The news made the front page headlines of The Province and the Vancouver Sun and also covered major media outlets such as the CBC and the Global Mail. The case was now being discussed in major Universities such as SFU and UBC in their respective law classes. Because of his determination to refuse the large sums of monies, he also received an invitation to attend the Oprah Winfrey show but he refused.

Atish’s legal battle with McDonald’s made a drastic difference in the society. According to Atish, as a result of his campaign, the legislative government decided that major corporations would have to have 60% of their employees come from a minority community. Atish resumed some normalcy in his life after this major event, by marrying his wife Mandana on September 7, 1991. They would end up having two sons and a daughter. Atish then went from working at London Drugs to later becoming a realtor. Atish would also direct one of the pioneer South Asian television shows aimed at the youth, a magazine-type program called Zindagi. His motive in directing the program was to bridge the gap between Indians and Canadians. Rogers multicultural Channel aired the pilot episode on September 12, 1997 and it was an immediate hit, having run for about 565 episodes. During its successful run, Atish remained the producer, director and the editor of the show.

Having always believed in giving back to society Atish also ran a telethon for the Vancouver Children’s hospital in 1999 and raised $60,000- almost the double of what they had originally expected. As a result of the telethon’s success, they made this activity an annual event.

Atish has made, and continues to make great contributions to Canadian society. He was able to build bridges between different cultures and groups despite having faced so much discrimination and racism in his own life. According to Atish, “everybody has a reason to be on this earth, there is a big master plan. Money is just not everything but giving back to the community, that is my passion.” Certainly, he has lived up to this ideology.