It was back in September 2015 when Barj Dhahan, a Canadian businessman and equity advocate, devoted himself to Indigenous truth and reconciliation. His inspirational moment? Hearing a racist comment about First Nations people from a cab driver.
It was a story he told while sitting down for lunch with two Indigenous students, both of whom received an educational award he helped create.
A scholarship to address truth and reconciliation
2016 marked the launch of a $400,000 scholarship at the University of British Columbia (UBC) entitled, “Honouring the Truth, Centennial Scholars Major Entrance Award for Aboriginal Students.” It was a project Barj initiated with the university, after noticing a lack of funding support for students from Indigenous backgrounds.
Between 2016 to 2022 the award helped 20 students, with monies coming from Barj, Liaquat Ali Khan as well as other alumni and parents of alumni.
So, back to this cab driver…
Barj had just landed at Vancouver airport from a trip to Terrace and Kitimat in Northern B.C. He was visiting as a board member with B.C.’s Industry Training Authority (ITA). The board had been tasked with identifying the training needs of local communities. An important part of that was listening to Indigeneous voices on the topic.
He got into a taxi to head straight to his cousin’s engagement party. The driver was a turbaned Punjabi Canadian. Naturally, he sparked conversation by asking where Barj was coming from. Barj told him he had just arrived from up North, and explained what he was doing there.
The driver asked him if he spoke Punjabi. Barj responded, “yes.”
The driver then said, in Punjabi, “these native people are drunk, and lazy.”
Barj became furious. He went quiet for 30 seconds.
Then, he asked the driver, “how long have you lived in Canada?”
The driver responded, “20 years.”
Barj asked, “do you know any First Nations person, or have you read any book about them?”
The driver said, “no.”
Barj continued, “what if someone said, ‘people who wear turbans are drunk and idiots?’ How would that make you feel?”
After realizing he had been put in his place, the driver apologized sincerely. He then asked Barj to tell him about First Nations people – something he said no one had ever done for him.
By the time the cab ride ended, Barj was determined to be a part of truth and reconciliation.
The next day, Barj began phoning his friends saying, “we have to do something to change this now.”
He notes it was not about one person being wealthy and wanting to make a big change. It was about all of us needing to seek justice, and to engage with truth.
The impact of the scholarship
According to Daniel Galpin, Associate Director, Campus Initiatives & Awards, while UBC had a Centennial Scholarship program already, Barj was the first to lead the charge in creating a scholarship specifically for Indigenous students. Thereafter, others followed.
“The Centennial Scholarship has the most impact on a student. They earn it by working on themselves, but they also have a financial need,” explains Daniel. “Since it’s a multi-year commitment, it also allows the student to plan their education.”
The meaning behind the scholarship
The scholarship fund means even more to Barj, who grew up in a family devoted to social justice.
After being an activist for freedom from British colonialism, and the unfairness of India’s caste system, Barj’s father, Budh Singh Dhahan, settled in Port Alberni, B.C., in 1960. He was one of few turbaned Sikh men in town at the time. He worked in the town’s mills to get on his feet, and to support his family.
Years later, he went back to India to establish a charitable hospital, primary and secondary school and nursing college – institutions that were, and are still, open to everyone – from every caste, gender, religion or background.
Barj himself joined his father in Canada in 1967, at the age of 10, with his mother and three of his four sisters. As a young boy, he got a job delivering newspapers. On that route, he noticed one of his neighbours had miniature totem poles on display in his home. It was his first exposure to Canadian Indigenous culture.
Without knowing it at the time, Barj had a lot in common with his neighbour: they both knew what it was like to face limited opportunities in their native land, due to hierarchical social structures.
“Success is dependent on the resources you have access to,” explains Barj. “It’s not just about effort.”
For Barj, being an immigrant changed his destiny.
“Canada allowed me to get an education and to work,” he says. “Giving back is now part of my life..”
Barj’s parents – though not highly educated themselves – knew that education was the ‘way out’ of inequality. They encouraged all their children – even the women – to get an education. It didn’t matter what they studied; having a university degree to their name was, in itself, meaningful.
Barj became a U.B.C. alumnus in 1983. Eventually, over 20 of Barj’s extended family members – both immediate and distant – graduated from UBC.
Today, Barj is the owner of Sandhurst Group. The company owns multiple Tim Hortons and Esso gas stations in B.C., along with commercial real estate buildings.
Apart from his business, Barj’s interests lie heavily in social reform, both in Canada and abroad. He’s not one to shy away from using his connections – or even his personal wealth – to help bring prosperity to the under-served.
“People don’t need hand-outs,” he says. “They need opportunities.”
Barj’s passion-projects support people in India, those in Canada as well as organizations operating in other parts of the world.
Barj himself is the founder of the Canada-India Education Society, a charity supporting health and education initiatives in India and Canada.
So, it can be said that Barj’s passion for truth and reconciliation stems from his deep empathy for those who have suffered generational injustices by European colonists. And later, the Canadian government – just for being ‘different.’
He will readily bring up the example of voting rights. Women couldn’t vote in Canada until 1918. Asian Canadians couldn’t vote until 1948. First Nations peoples couldn’t freely vote until 1960.
Canada didn’t get its first Indo-Canadian doctor until 1957.
“That’s why I’m genuinely interested to learn about your dreams,” he told the students. “One way to show respect is by listening, by receiving what someone is sharing. Today, too much of the public discourse is about convincing people of one’s own viewpoint.”
The students each told their story. While they had very different upbringings, they both had a clear, unified message: scholarships are important, and life changing.
Click the links below to learn more about one recipient of the Honouring the Truth, Centennial Scholars Major Entrance Award for Aboriginal Students.