By Surbhi Gogia
Famous hockey commentator Don Cherry was recently fired for making on-air, racist remarks. It just displayed how Canadian media, in general, is becoming intolerant towards racism. However, things were not the same a few decades ago. Ironically, it was not even acceptable to have an Indian name for the mainstream media show hosts. Here is the story of Jinder-Oujla Chalmers, a freelance writer, film and television producer, and documentary director, who had to change her name to Ginger Allen initially to be a radio host, since her name was “too ethnic”. But Jinder and many South Asian trailblazers worked hard against all odds to earn respect and acceptability for themselves and generations to come. Jinder has recently written a book on life story of B.C’s lumber king Asa Singh Johal. The book along with narrating the inspiring story of a Sikh immigrant also works as a valuable reminder to young generations to never forget the sacrifices made by early immigrants. The book offers a detailed description on how South Asian immigrants were given the least favourable jobs in the mill, and were discriminated against when it came to getting housing or banking. In an interview with Desi Today Jinder talks about her early life, her entry in media and what made her write the book on Asa Singh (Excerpts).
DT) We would like to know first about you and your family? Where were you born and where did you study?
I was born in Vancouver, BC, and I am a second-generation Indo-Canadian. I was raised by a single mother who had seven children (five boys and two girls). I was three when my father died. My mom was 27 years old when her husband died in an automobile accident.
I dropped out of high school in grade nine and then worked and saved up enough money to go back-packing with my girlfriend, Nancy. (The Coles family had a great deal of influence on me). We toured around Europe, and then once we returned to Vancouver, I decided to go back to school. I wrote the high school exams and passed, and then I enrolled in college at Langara College, with the thought that I should become an accountant. Some two years later, I left Langara to pursue a career in journalism and then went into the BCIT Journalism program.
DT) What made you enter media and film making industry?
I think honestly, I just wanted to make a difference in the world. After travelling around, I saw a need to tell people’s stories from all perspectives. It shocked me while travelling how little we knew about one another and about our cultures. And how afraid we are to accept our differences. I thought the fastest way to get information through to the masses was through film and television. I started out as a news reporter working in both radio and television. At that time, it was not acceptable to have an Indian name on-air, and so I changed my name to Ginger Allen. The radio station thought my real name Jinder Oujla was too ethnic. It’s hard to believe today, but that was the reality of Canada back then in the ’70s and ’80s. It also made me mad that no brown or other ethnic faces (except for blacks and even then the media portrayed them in a negative light) were reflected in anything I was watching on television. It’s like we didn’t count, and that bothered me.
DT) A writer, author, film director, producer — how do you handle so many different roles?
I am not too sure why I have chosen to work in so many different areas of the arts and entertainment industries. But I believe when I was a young girl, I thought I was stupid, and that motivated me to prove to my family and myself that I wasn’t. And oddly enough, growing up in Canada, I always read about other people’s journeys. Biographies, in particular, I found them interesting because I wanted to know what made those famous, successful people different than me. After news reporting for 12 years, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at creativity. Directing came later since I had the gift of vision; it was when a spiritual mentor who encouraged me to try my hand at directing. It was difficult working for other people on their television series because they would hire the same old people (mainly white men and some women) that already were working in the industries. There are maybe a handful of South Asian writers and directors in Canada. And they are extremely tough industries to break through.
DT) What are some of the current projects that you are working on?
Currently, I am working on a mini-series for the CBC called Ocean’s Apart, The Komagata Maru Incident. I am taking a different angle on this story because when I was researching the topic twenty years ago, I discovered that there were two or three women on the boat, and I wanted to tell their story. I was intrigued by the fact that these women who were not allowed to immigrate to Canada endured this journey. One of them had two kids with her. Her name was Preetham, but the records didn’t indicate anything else about her.
I am also writing a series on Life after Death. This is also based on a real story about a doctor in Toronto who died in a plane crash and was brought back to life. I have wanted to tell this story for a very long time. It’s about what happened to her while dead in the water for 21 minutes. It’s about what a Spirit told her while lying frozen in the lake.
My third project is fiction. I am writing the second draft of a novel I started while I was living in London, in the UK, entitled, “THE LIES MY MOTHER TOLD ME.” It’s a story about a young Indian widow, and the ugly lies her husband and mother told her while growing up. It’s a story about self-empowerment and her awakening.
DT) What made you write and tell the story of Asa Singh Johal?
I came by it by accident. My sister-in-law is Asa’s daughter, Geven. She mentioned to me that they had hired a South Asian couple to write their family history, and the couple did a horrible job. Geven wanted to hire a real writer. This was a legacy project for the family. So, she had several people in mind and asked me if I wanted to submit some writing samples to the family, and someone would select the writer. Three months later, surprisingly, they chose me.
DT) How challenging or easy was it for you as an insider to write a story about an immigrant family that suffered with its own follies and had rocky relations within?
It was difficult at times, especially with family dynamics. I would like to believe that it was a cathartic experience for them all. Rehashing your life story isn’t easy, especially reliving the problematic things that occurred. However, I can honestly say that most of the Johals were great. Geven and Avtar helped me a lot. Avtar with the technical stuff and Geven, who gave me permission not to sugar coat anything. She said “a biography is about the truth, and I want you to tell the truth about my family.” Asa was easy to work with, for he didn’t put any parameters on me.
DT) It is a journey of an immigrant building a lumber empire — an industry which was dominated by white owners. Why do you think he succeeded so brilliantly in a field where so many others failed?
Asa’s success can be attributed to many things. His passion and drive to make something of himself and timing have a lot to do with it. He was willing to take risks and made some strategic moves. His work ethic is impeccable and always has been. What he didn’t know he learned along the way. His inner drive is what motivated him more than anything.
DT) Could you share your personal view on how Asa Singh Johal came to you as a person? What are some of the important life lessons immigrants can learn from his life story?
Never give up. No matter how challenging things can get sometimes in life it’s perseverance that gets you through it.
DT) What is the most heart-touching moment for you in the book?
What touched my heart the most was Darcy’s story…how his father had given him almost $30 million dollars to start his company in Lithuania, and when Darcy had to close the door on his operations overseas, his father didn’t care if Darcy had lost the $30 million or not. For Asa not to genuinely care and instead saw it as a part of Darcy’s learning curve was shocking and touching to me. He never rubbed it in his face. That’s amazing.
I also liked how Asa sought the help of his sister Aussie in the early years. I know Aussie, and she really is a lovely woman. And how at the end no matter what, Asa bailed his own siblings and father and mother out of their financial situations.
Asa Johal and Terminal Forest Products : How a Sikh Immigrant Created BC’s Largest Independent Lumber CompanyIn this extensively researched book, Jinder Oujla-Chalmers provides an intimate and revealing look at one man’s against-all-odds journey to multi-faceted success, and the surprising inside story of one of British Columbia’s most successful entrepreneurs and philanthropic leaders. Asa Singh Johal immigrated to Canada with his parents as a toddler in 1924, and he first started dreaming of owning his own mill when he was twelve years old, working with his father operating a portable mill in Alta Lake. When Johal later founded Terminal Forest products in 1965, he was determined to build a thriving business. It was a difficult journey. Johal faced many challenges along the way, from getting a timber supply and establishing markets, to navigating complex political situations, economic recessions, and all the permutations of the softwood lumber dispute. But through it all, Johal established himself as a force to be reckoned with among the predominantly white-owned and white-run forestry giants of BC. And after the restructuring of the Canadian forest industry at the beginning of the 21st century, when many of the other major players vanished into memory, Terminal Forest Products was still standing, stronger than ever. Part biography of Johal and his traditional Sikh family, part intimate look at the evolution of the modern lumber industry, this book is an inspiring story that details Johal’s hard work, perseverance and the discrimination he experienced, as well as the many decisions and choices Johal made over the years that helped him become the successful business leader he is today.