Canadian Sikh Heritage | Gian Rai
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Gian Rai

Gian Rai’s grandfather  first came to Yuba City, California from his village Morawali, Dsitrict Hoshiarpur in Punjab, India in the early 1900s (possibly 1904) where his brothers’ Dalip and Deva Singh, were already working on a local farm. Dalip Singh had been a passenger on the Kamagata Maru. When the Komagata Maru was forced to return to Calcutta, he barely escaped the shooting and boarded a freight ship to the United States. Neither Rai’s grandfather nor his brothers would return to India. In 1923, Gian Rai’s grandfather was able to bring his son Atma Singh to join him in the US through a student visa because Atma Singh had completed up to grade ten in India. Atma Singh however chose not to attend university and instead began working. Once Rai’s grandfather died, someone informed the government that Atma Singh was violating the terms of the visa, so he quickly fled to Canada as an illegal immigrant. He worked in various saw mills throughout the lower mainland. He then returned to India in 1929, staying for four years. During this time Rai’s younger twin siblings were born, his brother Harinderjeet (better known as Pandit) and his sister who was also named Harinderjeet. After this trip Atma Singh returned to Canada, not visiting India again until 1967.

In 1946, the Canadian government legalised Atma Singh as he had been living in Canada for an extensive amount of time. Soon Indo-Canadians were allowed to vote and bring their families to Canada. South Asians achieved franchisement in 1947. Therefore, it was at this point in time that Atma Singh applied to bring his wife and children, the immigration rules stating that children must be under 18 years old and unmarried. At the time, Gian Rai was 25 and therefore unable to come with his father under those conditions. Nevertheless since he had completed his degree at the Punjabi University Gian Rai applied for a student visa to attend UBC medical school. While in India because Gian was the only educated person from his village of Morawali, District Hoshiarpur, he therefore created the Young Men Association with his friends. Rai’s association won the next village election, ousting the previous surpanch (village head). As such, Rai became the village’s youngest surpanch at just 24 years old. His main duties were to sort out village conflicts which sometimes meant administering a fine of up to 50 rupees.

In 1948 Gian, his brother and his sister left their village accompanied by another family of three and an Indo-Canadian man as they boarded a train headed for Calcutta. Rai and his siblings were the only ones who received a visa from the United States and were forced to leave the others behind. This made them quite upset as Gian was the only one able to speak English. They then took a plane to Hong Kong, but a typhoon forced the plane to land in another city close to the China. Gian and some others with him stayed at the Hong Kong gurdwara for five days where they were inspected by an American doctor.  Gian and his sister passed the medical exam, but his brother failed. So Gian and his sister took the ship to San Francisco while his brother took a plane with the plans of meeting the other two in Vancouver. Gian and his sister traveled to Yokohama, Japan where they took a President Lines ship that had been converted into a military ship during the war. They bought 3rd class tickets where men and women were segregated. Gian became sick for several days as he was not used to eating the Western food that was being served on the ship. The ship then had a layover in Honolulu and all the Indian passengers went to visit a Guajarati storeowner. The store owner allowed them to take any western clothes in his shop so they could be prepared for their arrival in the United States. In addition, he gave them several large baskets of fruits, knowing that their bodies had not yet adjusted to Western food. When they arrived in San Francisco, Gian’s friend’s father took them to Yuba City where they stayed for several days. Then they took a bus to the Canadian border where despite having the correct papers, they were forced to stay back because the border officer explained the Rai and his sister were the first Indians he had dealt with who had taken a bus through the United States. They stayed at the border for the night and were finally released. Gian explains that coming to Canada was easier for them than other Indian immigrants because they had already had a home with their father and stepmother.

When he eventually arrived in Canada in 1948 Gian Rai, like his father Atma Singh, also chose not attend university. By this time Gian’s mother had passed away in India so Atma Singh had married a Caucasian woman.  He and his brother had begun to work at a Port Moody saw mill where he made 90 cents per hour. Gian explains that finding work after World War II was very easy. But soon someone informed the government of the violation of his visa.  To remain in Canada, Gian went to UBC for one day and then returned to the mill. During this time, Gian’s father had gotten to know another family who also worked at the mill and arrangements were soon made for Gian to marry into this family. Since Gian had no interest in returning to university he agreed to the marriage.

He was married in March, 1949 to Karm Rai (nee Koka) and as Karm Rai was Canadian-born his status was also finally legalized. Once they were married Karm Rai even offered to work so that Gian could go to medical school but he decided to instead continue working at the mill. Gian and Karm eventually had three children. According to Gian one of the biggest regrets he has in his life is not returning to university when he had the chance. He worked at the saw mill until 1957 and according to Rai although his team was the most efficient, he disliked the job immensely. It bothered him that he had a university education but was making the same amount of money as his less-educated co-workers. Ultimately, due to prejudice and discrimination on part of the Caucasians it was difficult for him to find any other work.  In 1957, he applied for a job as a bus driver. His application was repeatedly rejected despite the fact that they were hiring. After months of trying, Gian went to the head office and spoke with the manager. The manager admitted that he did not hire people of different races so Gian challenged this argument and finally the manager agreed to put him through training and he was eventually hired. Gian worked as much over-time as he could and notes that he worked seven days a week for months on end without ever taking a day-off.  He was always exhausted and often found himself falling asleep on the job. Gian worked as a bus driver for 28 years before retiring.