Jasbir Kaur Nijjar spent 16 years in the Canadian armed forces and has no regrets when she looks back on the military career that exposed her to experiences and situations she never imagined when she was growing up in India.
“Whatever guided me to take that route, I’m still grateful to that force,” says Nijjar, who joined the army in 1977 at the age of 27, 10 years after she and her family immigrated to Ontario from Punjab.
Initially attracted to the army by “job security, good benefits and the opportunity to live across Canada,” Nijjar also found that she’d chosen a career that provided her with an extended family. “I was very well looked after in every way, emotionally, psychologically…I had the opportunity to do things I never would have otherwise and to live among many different people who became like family.”
Nijjar describes basic training at CFB Cornwalis as “11 weeks that were physically and psychologically demanding. There was a lot of running, a lot of discipline. We had to learn how to jump six-foot-high wall, how to climb a rope, how to dive, how to swim. It was all a new experience for me. None of these were things I’d been raised to do. I’d never even been camping before. I went to school up to Grade 10 in India, where there was no gym, no pool, nothing, so it was all new for me. At first, I didn’t think I could do it, but there were all the other girls doing it, and I pushed myself to climb that rope up to the ceiling of the gym.”
One of the clearest memories is learning how to dive, a daunting task for a young woman who found herself in water over her head. “They used to make me stand at the end of the diving board. They’d say don’t look down, look at the bright light at the end of the pool. I used to say waheguru while I was jumping.”
A dental assistant when she joined the army, Nijjar took advantage of further training available within the army. “I knew I wanted to be a dental hygienist one day and couldn’t see any possibility of doing it on my own,” she says.
She was posted at bases in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Her first son was born in Moosejaw in 1986.
“The children were always happy,” says Nijjar. “They’d go to school on the base with other military people’s children, and after school, they could walk over to the base gym, swimming pool and movies at the base. They had lots of things to do. In the winter months, the base men would clear out a large space and make an ice rink. The children didn’t mind moving. My son would say“we’ve been here two years already, when are we moving?”
Nijjar says she never met and not even heard of another Indo-Canadian woman serving in the armed forces. “Basically, East Indians look for something where they won’t have to move from city to city. Plus, females say, ‘I’m going to have a family so I don’t want to move around.’ For me, it just worked out fine.”
Nijjar was a sergeant and on the verge of becoming a warrant officer when she took a medical release in 1993 and moved to B.C. She says she’s never for a moment regretted her unconventional career choice. “It was a very good life. I’m glad I had such an opportunity.”