Sarwan Singh Deol yearned for pakoras. So the 13-year-old decided to fry up a batch for his co-workers. Soon, the place filled with smoke. That's how Sarwan nearly burned down the bunkhouse he shared with his fellow sawmill workers on Vancouver Island.
"My dad told us he used the wrong oil," says Darcy Sandhu of her late father. "Dad was barley a teenager and he had to do his own cooking, chop his own wood and do his laundry. "He grew up fast and didn't get to experience what it was like to be a teenager, but I don't ever recall my dad complaining."
Sarwan worked long days, initially on the booms and later, towards the end of his 60-year-career in the lumber industry, sorting logs. Growing up away from his family shaped the way Sarwan raised his own children. "My dad understood the importance of parents in children's lives and he was always there for us," says Darcy.
Born in New Westminster in January 1934, Sarwan was the youngest of four children born to Rattan Singh and Har Kaur Deol. When he was only a year old, Sarwan's mother died. A widower with small children and no family close by, Rattan Singh took his young family back to India. Sarwan was 13 years old when he returned to Canada and began working full-time in sawmills in Youbou and Honeymoon Bay on Vancouver Island.
In 1957, Sarwan went back to India to marry Mukhtiar Kaur. The couple made their home in British Columbia, where they raised three children: Darshan (Darcy), Hardell and Gurmit. Darcy was five years old before her father could afford a car. She remembers him leaving from their home on Fraser and East 62nd and walking an hour to work at the foot of Fraser Street, then walking for an hour to get back home after a long day. Life was hard but Sarwan was a contented man, says his daughter.
He was also a self-taught man who trained himself to read and write.
Remembering how difficult it was to forge a life in a new country, Sarwan welcomed strangers into his home, sometimes as many as 30 at a time.
"We would have new immigrants live in our house for up to a couple of months at a time," recalls Darcy. "Dad was instrumental in sponsoring more than 200 immigrants into Canada. Not only did he open up his home to complete strangers, but he would give them money to help them start their new lives here."
Because of the many hardships he endured over the years, Rattan Singh didn't believe in buying on credit, says Darcy. "He knew lean times and so he vowed never to depend on credit. He always told us that you 'never gamble on your family's financial life.' For someone who never went to school, he kept his finances in pristine order."