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July 15, 1999
The Saga Of Norman Nagar Singh Ginder Sangha
More than 1,500 people attended a memorial service recently for a Sikh businessman who spent years lobbying for immigrants to receive voting rights and other benefits. Norman Nagar Singh Ginder Sangha, 80, died early this month following a stroke and contacting pneumonia.
Ginder Sangha was among the first group of Sikhs, which successfully pressured the Canadian government to give Indian immigrants the right to vote and the right to sponsor their relatives, which it did in 1947 and the 1950's respectively.
"He knew what it was to be an immigrant. He watched his father struggle, suffer, fight and survive. He was determined to stand up for himself and other Indians. He just wanted equal rights, nothing more," said his wife Satwant Ginder Sangha, in a phone interview.
Satwant said her father-in-law Braim Singh was one of the first Sikhs to arrive in Canada in 1906 to work in the forest industry. At that time, she said that Indian immigrants were not allowed to bring their wives and families with them, so most of them made annual visits to India.
"He [her husband] only saw his father on holidays but was saddened to hear of how foreigners treated him, making him wait outside the door when he delivered the wood. There were many humiliating experiences," said Satwant, who declined to give her age and requested that her privacy be respected and only information pertinent to her husband's public works be written about.
In 1925, Ginder Sangha was six years old when he came with his mother Joginder Kaur to live with his father in Canada and was one of the first Sikh children in school in British Columbia. "There were fistfights between him and other boys who teased him about his turban. After one such fight, when he broke several teeth of another child, his father finally cut his hair short," recalled Satwant, who added that the close-knit community was initially upset with the family but within a week everyone had cut their children's hair.
In the 1940s after he graduated from school with high marks, his father assisted him in setting up his own business called Best Lumber and Supplies Ltd. Ginder Sangha used his business to employ many Sikhs and used his connections with government officials and community leaders to either help other immigrants find housing or jobs.
"My uncle was a great man. A good man. He was unselfish. He helped people all the time. He was always thinking about how he can make things better for everyone,'' said his nephew Kalvin Saran, 16.
At the urging of many immigrants, Ginder Sangha who would meet with other Sikh activists, especially lawyer Durai Pal Pandia who died in May at the age of 95, he successfully fought for the right of immigrants to sponsor relatives to Canada.
"He was very devoted to helping people in the community and he had this single-minded determination. Once he decided to do something he just did it," said Satwant, who spoke fluent English and broke into Punjabi when she got emotional.
Among her many cherished memories of the way people respected and honored her husband, is a road trip they made to Alaska in 1981. An Indo-Canadian, who recognized Norman Sangha, touched his feet and told him, "You changed my whole life. I was about to be deported to India but you saved me," and the man took them to his own house for a traditional Indian meal.
"This was always happening to us. He was always surprised when people used to come up to him and he always handled it with dignity and patience, just like when he faced discrimination with patience," Satwant said.
Ginder Sangha was on the committees that built the two well-known gurdwaras and in one of them in Richmond, the services for his funeral were held which was attended by over 1500 mourners.
He is also survived by two children, his daughter Beverly and his son Sam from his first marriage in which he was widowed.
"I am going to finish all the projects and things he wanted done and all his wishes will be carried out,'' said Satwant. As an example she added, that it was her husband's desire that the house his father built in 1926 remain in the family as a testament to his accomplishment, "even if we don't get a tenant, even if no one lives in it, it is going to stay that way."
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