The loss of a tireless social-justice activist who dedicated his life for the comfort of others is being widely mourned across B.C.
Charanpall Gill lost his battle with cancer at the age of 85 on Tuesday (February 2).
A cofounder of Progressive Intercultural Community Services Socity (PICS) that helps new immigrants and seniors, Gill was known for his antiracist activism and for organizing farmworkers facing exploitation.
A daredevil who endured threats from white supremacists, Gill inherited his courage from his maternal grandfather, Dulla Singh, who was associated with the Ghadar Party. It was a revolutionary group of Indian immigrants formed in North America in 1913 to fight against British occupation of their homeland and racism abroad.
Gill’s life was full of struggles. He lost his father at the age of two and was raised by his mother back in India.
When he moved to Canada in 1967, he faced blatant racism like many others, but he had not learned to sit back and pocket insults.
Not only did he step forward to fight back against groups like the Ku Klux Klan, he motivated farmworkers to organize themselves and fight for better working conditions. He was instrumental behind the formation of British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism and Canadian Farmworkers Union in 1980.
His efforts and progressive values culminated in the establishment of a home for seniors in Surrey.
Gill often provided free space to social-justice activists to gather at the facility to raise voices against injustice anywhere in the world and for any common cause in the community.
It wasn’t surprising that he let well-known painter Jarnail Singh paint a mural dedicated to the Komagata Maru episode on one of the outer walls of the seniors home.
The Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers was forced to leave Vancouver's harbour under a discriminatory immigration regulation in 1914. The mural depicting the tragedy greets visitors at the building.
Gill remained vocal against racism, which has grown once again in the post-Trump political environment. Until Gill became ill due to cancer, he was sending letters to editors and giving media interviews to speak out against bigotry, cautioning people to be vigilant.
We were both in Ottawa in 2016 where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was going to make a formal apology for the Komagata Maru's expulsion. We were raising funds to help the family of jailed Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba around that time and Gill knew that.
I had gone to Ottawa to cover the apology, whereas Gill was invited as a community stakeholder. He pulled me aside and donated money for the cause. That was indeed very thoughtful of him.
He also made time to attend one of our rallies for Saibaba and other political prisoners being held in Indian jails. And he allowed us to visit the PICS seniors centre to make a presentation to its residents about Saibaba’s case. Later, those who attended held signs demanding his immediate release on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
That Gill remained true to his commitment till the very end can be judged from a request that he made to a common friend, Sarwan Singh Randhawa. Gill said that after he is gone, instead of holding any rituals, play a famous Punjabi song dedicated to the tillers sung by his favourite revolutionary poet, the late Sant Ram Udasi.
His death coincides with the ongoing farmers' agitation in India. The farmers are protesting against controversial laws passed by the right-wing Hindu nationalist government that many believe is threatening the livelihood of those associated with agriculture.
Gill was sympathetic to their cause and was critical of the pro-corporate policies of right-wing political parties anywhere around the globe.
Though he isn't physically with us today, his unfinished mission will continue to remind us of his presence in spirit as long as racism exists and people continue to be oppressed both in North America and India.
RIP, Charanpal Gill. You will always be missed, but your legacy will keep you alive in our hearts forever.