South Asian community leader Charan Gill, dead at age 84, leaves long legacy of social justice activism

Tributes are pouring in for Charan Gill, who is being remembered as a passionate community leader who championed social justice in B.C. by fighting racism and supporting causes including better standards for immigrant workers and women’s rights.

Gill, a recipient of the Order of B.C., died at Langley Memorial Hospital on Tuesday morning after a fight with cancer, his family near his side. He was 84.

His dedication to human rights over his lifetime is being lauded by politicians, activists, friends and family.

Gill was outspoken with a big personality, yet down to earth. He often wore a fedora hat and colourful rings on his hands.

Satbir Cheema, CEO of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, described him as a “straight shooter” and a crusader for many causes.

Gill established the society in 1987 using $80 in contributions from friends. It now employs more than 150 people and has became a multi-million-dollar non-profit organization dedicated to helping others, Cheema said.

“He will be missed. … once in a lifetime you come across such people who do so much selflessly for the community,” he said.

Journey into activism

Gill was born in Hong Kong and raised by his mother — who was widowed when Gill was two years old — and educated in India.

After immigrating to Canada in 1967, he took different jobs including work at a mill and then continued his education to become a social worker.

His interest in social causes accelerated to activism to help immigrant workers, seniors and women facing domestic abuse.

Gill co-founded the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union in 1978 and fought for better health and safety conditions for workers.

Fighting racism against immigrants

Minister of Labour Harry Bains says he was in awe of Gill, who in the 1970s was organizing protests and rallies as he led the fight against then-rampant racism directed at members of the South Asian community.

“There wasn’t a day when someone wouldn’t give us a finger or call us names,” said Bains, who worked at a sawmill during that time.

Bains said Gill inspired him to get involved in unions after watching him defend visible minorities and immigrant workers against bullies and bigots.

“I was awed by the activism that he portrayed. … I came to admire the guy, and it was a time when it wasn’t easy to stand up against the likes of KKK, which was organizing in B.C. and creating havoc for many of the visible minorities.”

B.C. Premier John Horgan tweeted his condolences Tuesday, calling Gill a “lifelong champion for social justice and working people.”

 

Former attorney general and B.C. Supreme Court justice Wally Oppal said Gill was a humanitarian who helped people in need when there wasn’t help available — for example, when he helped build housing for seniors in Surrey, B.C.

“They actually built a facility out in Surrey where people from the South Asian community could be treated with dignity, where they’d have a place to stay, where they’d have a place to mingle and further their own cultural pursuits,” Oppal said.

Charan Gill (right) in 2013, when he joined other community leaders in calling for political parties to stop using official apologies for historical wrongs as partisan tactics.

Advocate for women’s rights

Oppal also admired Gill’s work as an advocate for the rights of women in the Lower Mainland’s South Asian community, including his help for victims of spousal abuse through the creation of a transition house for immigrant women fleeing violence at home.

Gill also took a stand against issues such as cross-border ultrasounds, which were conducted to prevent the birth of female babies. 

Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., had known Gill for 40 years.

She said he went against social norms in the South Asian community in the 1970s and 1980s by supporting women’s rights and eventually establishing programs to help immigrant women join the workforce.

“While women leaders were coming forward, it was really rare to find men standing shoulder to shoulder with us on some of the social ills,” Bains said.

She said Gill will be remembered as an outspoken advocate who helped thousands of people over his lifetime.

Gill is survived by his three children and their families.

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