Gurdasa Singh Johal was determined to make a life for himself and his family in Canada. He first arrived in Vancouver in 1917 but was soon deported, say his sons, Bakhshish and Umrao. Gurdasa got as far as Europe before he turned around and headed back to North America. Managing to elude authorities, he made his way back to Vancouver by way of Mexico and California.
In 1949, Gurdasa was joined in Vancouver by his 33-year-old son, Bakhshish. A year later, they were joined by Bakhshish's younger brother, 13-year-old Umrao. It was the first time Umrao and his father had ever seen each other.
"Dad came back to India from 1932 to 1937 but I was born in India on March 15, 1937, a couple of months after he returned to Canada," recalls Umrao. "So it was our first meeting."
Bakhshish quickly found work in a cedar mill. "There was no problem finding work at that time," he says. "You could find work in any mill."
Meanwhile, Umrao had to overcome homesickness. "I missed my village and my mother," he says.
Umrao had fully adjusted to life in Canada and was working in a sawmill when, in 1957, he became a local hero. One day, while walking down the street, he heard a man calling for help. It turned out the man was a B.C. Hydro employee who needed assistance rescuing his co-worker.
"The gentleman's friend was overcome with gas underneath the street. He flagged me down and I went down with him to bring the other gentleman up," recalls Umrao. "I was affected by the gas too, and spent a couple of hours in the hospital."
Vancouver's mayor at the time, Frederick J. Hume presented Umrao with a citation from the Royal Canadian Humane Association for his bravery.
In 1965, Umrao opened a fabric store, Davina Trading , on Vancouver's Fraser Street. "It was the first of its kind in Canada," he says. Two years later, he relocated the business to Main Street, which was a far cry from the bustling market that it became. "The community was a lot smaller then. Sometimes the whole day would go by without us seeing a customer."
While Umrao was busy working weekdays in a plywood plant and running Davina Trading on the weekends, his brother Bakhshish was devoting his weekends to the management of Vancouver's Sikh temple. After serving as treasurer, Bakhshish became president of the temple on Ross Street in 1973.
Photo Caption: Umrao (left) and Bakhshish (centre) Johal joined their father Gurdasa (right) in Canada in the late 1940s.