In celebration of Asian Heritage Month, Surrey604 will share inspirational stories of South Asian pioneers in B.C., in collaboration with 100 Year Journey project. The 100 Year Journey Project is providing readers around the world the gift of being able to read the extraordinary stories of South Asian Canadian Pioneers in all formats with a digital release.
The 100 Year Journey Project’s publication tells the stories of some of the first South Asians in Canada, detailing how they provided shelter and support for new immigrants, fought tirelessly for the voting rights of all communities, and spent years away from their loved ones as they set up new lives for themselves and their families. For more information visit 100yearjourney.com
Avtar Bains always knew his father, Kuldeep, was a pillar of the community, but he was reminded just how giant a figure his dad was at his funeral in September. Family after family approached Avtar and his sisters with stories about how Kuldeep helped them as they adjusted to their new life in Canada.
“Dad would be the first person new immigrants would meet,” says Avtar. “He wouldn’t just meet them at the airport, he’d drive them to Port Alberni, Honeymoon Bay, Duncan, Nanaimo, Lake Cowichan. He even drove a young man from Vancouver all the way to Prince George to settle him in with his family.”
Generosity and justice ran deep in Kuldeep’s blood. Soon after arriving in Victoria from Mahilpur, Punjab, in 1938, at the age of 18, he began working in sawmills. When he learned that East Indian workers were being paid 35 cents per hour while the Caucasian workers earned 45 cents, he became an active member of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) to fight for equality. In 1944 he was the youngest delegate to attend the Canadian Congress of Labour Convention in Quebec City.
Meanwhile, he was acting as translator between travel agents and South Asians who didn’t speak English. “He thought these people were being mistreated, so he said, ‘I’m going to start my own travel agency and service our community myself,’” recalls Avtar. He applied for and received his license in 1951, and opened the doors of Bains International Travel Service in Victoria, Canada’s first Indo-Canadian-owned travel agency.
The business did not thrive at first, ironically because of Kuldeep’s ingrained sense of generosity. “Dad was one of the first guys in retailing history in Canada to say ‘Buy now, pay later,’” says Avtar. “If people needed to get back to India or have family members here, he would accommodate that need. So he did it from a community perspective not an economic perspective. As a result, there were many years the agency suffered.”
But, remarkably, the company endured: In 2002, Bains Travel received an award for its 50 years in business, but the family closed it down soon after. Avtar’s sisters, Surinder and Krishna, had been running a branch in North Vancouver for many years, and his cousin Paul still operates three outlets.
During the heyday of his agency, Kuldeep continued to be the go-to guy for advice and help — and a little tipple from time to time. “There were three distinct rooms,” remembers Avtar. “When you walked in you saw the travel agency, then Dad’s office, which was essentially the community centre, because if there was any kind of social or cultural issue, he was in the middle of it.
Behind Dad’s office was a tiny room with two couches in it, which I liked to refer to as the first unlicensed Punjabi bar in Victoria. The guys got together and drank and talked about everything from the right to vote to politics.”
Over the years, Kuldeep served as secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Committee and the East Indian Canada Citizen Welfare Association. In the 1940s he was instrumental in getting Indo-Canadians the right to vote; in the early ’50s he lobbied the Ministry of Immigration over discriminatory laws; in 1968, he was elected president of the Khalsa Diwan Society and oversaw fundraising for the expansion of Victoria’s Topaz Avenue Sikh Temple; in 1969 he was elected president of the temple and served until 1971. In 1996, he was given the Governor General Caring Canadian Award, and was also bestowed the National Indo-Canadian Council Distinguished Pioneer Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
“When we were growing up, Dad never once came home and said, ‘We did this or we did that’ for other people,” says Avtar. “We had to hear these stories from the recipients, not from our father. He knew it was a big deal but he didn’t treat it like he should be rewarded in any way. It was building the community.”
And growing his family, teaching his children and leaving a legacy. “In business, he told me something I should have remembered when I was a kid,” recalls Avtar, president of Vancouver commercial real estate firm Premise Properties. “He said, ‘It’s not the asset you own, it’s the cash flow that’s derived from the asset.
“I wish he’d told me what that really meant when I was 20 years old because I wouldn’t be working today! Dad wasn’t one to lecture us; he was one to lead by example. So if we couldn’t figure out what he was doing for other people, we were brain-dead.”
Kuldeep Singh Bains, who was predeceased by his wife, Davender, in 1991, passed away on September 27, 2014 at the age of 94.