Credit to Author: Derrick Penner| Date: Sat, 28 Dec 2019 00:31:04 +0000
Sawmiller Asa Johal retired in 2016 at age 94 as a titan in British Columbia’s coastal forest industry after a monumentally long career at the head of Terminal Forest Products.
However, before Terminal, before building his first sawmill on Mitchell Island on the Fraser River, or starting in business by selling sawmill trim ends as firewood, Johal was an immigrant boy with an idea that he could do better than his father.
That anecdote is now chronicled in Asa Johal and Terminal Forest Products: How a Sikh Immigrant Created B.C.’s Largest Independent Lumber Company, a very personal biography by local author and filmmaker Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, published in fall 2019 by Harbour Publishing.
It was 1934 when a 12-year-old Johal watched his father Partap struggle to make a go of running a portable sawmill in the forests around Alta Lake, long before Whistler was anything on the map.
Oujla-Chalmers recounts that even at such a young age, Johal thought it didn’t make sense to lug a small mill out into the forest, and it would be better to haul trees to a more substantial plant.
“I guess when my dad had the portable mill up at Alta Lake, I decided I wanted to be in the mill business,” Johal told the author.
The family story starts before Johal was born with his father’s first journey to B.C. in 1905.
Johal enters the picture in 1922 during a return sojourn to India by Partap, during a period when travel between the two countries had become less difficult. Partap married, started a family and then returned to Canada in 1924.
The tale that Oujla-Chalmers weaves through personal interviews follows Johal through childhood, his journey back to India to marry, and his adventures in business that led his family to become a part of the bedrock of not just South Asian society in B.C. but a leading light in Vancouver philanthropy.
It is a story that Johal might have told earlier, but he was always “way too busy working.”
Upon retirement, however, he felt it important to tell his tale because his path through the forest industry was different from many others.
For Oujla-Chalmers, the project was a chance to highlight a generational Indo-Canadian story, because such stories are “rare and seldom told.”
“If you grew up in Vancouver, as I did, our community was never reflected back to (us) in the media unless it was a negative portrayal,” Oujla-Chalmers said.
She also felt it important to write this story now “because our pioneers who immigrated here from the early 1900s are all dying, and their history with it.”
Canadian histories typically focus on the waves of westward migration by Europeans, but Oujla-Chalmers acquaints readers with the eastward movement of Indians as an extension of British colonial aspirations.
Sikh soldiers from the Punjab region, for example, were recruited as police in outposts such as Hong Kong. And the sons of Punjabi farmers went abroad, to other corners of the British Empire, as labourers to earn wages they would remit to pay for land purchases in India.
Oujla-Chalmers said that when expatriates wound up in B.C., “the forest industry is where most Indo-Canadians ended up securing jobs, and I wanted to address why that was.”
And while people now think of Canada as being inclusive and supportive of immigrants, “the truth is, in the early years it definitely was not and visible minorities were treated in appalling ways,” Oujla-Chalmers said.
The book recounts a from-the-ground-up business career that started with operations to purchase scraps from the sawmills which once dominated the Fraser River waterfront to sell as heating fuel around the Lower Mainland.
Johal built his first mill, Terminal Sawmills, on Mitchell Island, in the 1960s and started with just nine employees. He spent the next four decades building the family firm into two sawmills, a planer mill, remanufacturing plant and associated facilities.
Modest by the standards of multinational conglomerates, what is now known as Terminal Forest Products is an independent empire in West Coast forestry that employs 500 workers, run by Johal’s son Darcy since 2016.
The book is as much a poignant family history as a business one, and covers the triumphs of business successes that came with the emotional cost of more distant relationships with his children.
The story’s end, however, has Johal standing as a pillar in the B.C. community, a recipient of both the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada in 1991, the first Sikh to have received the honour.
The forest industry was always more than a job for Johal, Oujla-Chalmers writes in the concluding paragraphs.
“It was his calling even though, when he started, the likelihood of a person of Asian origin owning a sawmill here seemed absurd. But Asa had been determined to beat the odds.”
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