"Living in Vancouver in the 1950s was hard," says Jeeto Oujla, referring to mill closures and the high unemployment rate she and her growing family had to contend with.
Oujla was born at Vancouver General Hospital on June 1, 1933. Her parents, Hukma Singh and Jai Kaur Uppal, decided she would accompany her mother back to India when she turned three. She eventually returned to Canada in 1952, along with her husband, son and nephew.
"We had to fit in, and prior to coming to Canada, my dad purchased western clothes for me to wear. Nobody back then wore Punjabi clothes. Oujla recalls how when visiting the Second Avenue Gurdwara , the women in dresses would cover their feet and ankles under the **chadurs **in the gurdwara's main hall.
To combat homesickness, people from the community would go to a small Italian store near Chinatown for their Indian cooking needs, since there were no Indian grocery stores, says Oujla. "We could get **atta, **dala **and **mircha **from there."
Oujla settled into being a stay-at-home mother while her husband found a job in a sawmill in Tahasis. Her father found her a house to live in on the Fraser River. "There was no hot water and we had to use an outhouse," Oujla says. But life changed dramatically when her husband was killed in a car crash in 1961. At the age of 27, Oujla, who had no formal education, was left to raise six children on her own.
"I had to be strong," she says simply.
She began learning English by conversing with her Caucasian neighbours and watching television. She took a job as a domestic helper and would later take a job with CP Air. To make ends meet, she took her children with her to pick berries for local farmers.
She credits close family friends and relatives, especially Jack Uppal and his family, for helping her through the difficult times. "Back then we treated each other like we all belonged to the same family, even if we didn't know each other," says Oujla. "We watched out for each other and always helped one another."