Kesar Singh Bhatti was completing his BSc degree at Doaba College in Jalandhar, India, when he decided to ask his sister, who was living in Canada, for help to emigrate. She suggested he apply as a student, so Bhatti applied for admission to UBC.
When his application was accepted, he headed for Canada. But the 20-year-old found himself stranded at the airport after landing in Vancouver in July 1951. "I didn't have any money. My sister was here but there were some changes in flights and she wasn't at the airport like planned," he recalls.
Bhatti convinced a taxi driver to take him to the gurdwara on 2nd Avenue. At the temple Bhatti found out there was a man living nearby who came from a village only two miles from his own back in India so he decided to contact him.
"His name was Malkit Parhar. He came over when I called and tracked down my sister, says Bhatti.
She took him to her home in Paldi on Vancouver Island. Wanting to support himself through university, Bhatti had to find a job, and within two months he ended up back at the gurdwara in Vancouver and called on Parhar once again for help.
"I called Malkit and told him I had to find a way to be self-supporting, so he found me a room right near their house," he says. Parhar introduced him to his brother's family and invited him to have meals with them so the young Bhatti wouldn't have to worry about cooking. It was there that Bhatti met his future wife, Parhar's 17-year-old niece Jangbir Parhar.
"I worked part-time here and there," he says of his first year in Canada.
One day, when a man came to the gurdwara to sign up recruits for the reserve army, Bhatti and a few other Sikhs volunteered.
"Once or twice a week they would pick us up and take us to the Armories of 4th Avenue for artillery and basic training," says Bhatti, adding that they also travelled to Victoria and took part in the Remembrance Day parades.
"They really liked us because we were the only Sikhs," recalls Bhatti. "Once a general came to inspect the whole reserve army in Victoria and he came and talked to us. He didn't talk to anybody else."
In 1952 Bhatti and Jangbir were married. "We both worked to save money and I thought I'd give up the idea of going to UBC and just maybe take some technical courses."
But his wife encouraged him to pursue his education. "She said, 'I'll work and my parents can look after the baby,'" he recalls. Bhatti enrolled in UBC's electrical engineering program in 1953, joining a handful of other Indian students on campus.
"I think we had a couple of dozen students from all over India," says Bhatti, adding that they were quite active and held events, including a celebration to mark India's Republic Day. They even published a magazine called **Roshni. **
He studied during the day and worked at a mill in the evenings. "My wife worked during the day, and I worked in the evening. It wasn't an easy life but the satisfaction was that we made it on our own," he says.
Working in the mills was depressing, says Bhatti. "For one thing I was six feet tall but weighed only about 135 pounds. I didn't like that work but I had to do it."
Then, after final exams in his second year, Bhatti was offered a summer job with BC Electric.
"Natural gas was coming so a lot of people were converting from wood stoves to natural gas so they hired us," he says, explaining that his job was to do heat loss calculations to estimate the size of furnaces needed for homes.
"We Indians know the multiplication tables by heart so while the others needed a slide rule to do calculations I would just put the numbers down right away and they used to look at me and say, 'What's the matter with you? You memorize all these?'"
When offered a job after completing his degree, he jumped at the opportunity.
"I was probably the first Indo-Canadian engineer hired by BC Electric," he says, adding that he was paid about $400 a month. The first thing the Bhattis did that year was buy a house at Dunbar and 21st for about $13,000.
"It was an old house but it had gas heat, and having automatic heat was something after the wood stove we had in our apartment," he says.
In the years since, Bhatti became involved with the Khalsa Diwan Society and other community organizations. He also served as president of the National Association of Canadians of Origins in India. He was with BC Electric through its transition to BC Hydro and remained there until the engineering department was closed in the 1980's and Bhatti took early retirement at the age of 57.