The city of Vancouver recently named a street after legendry Punjabi community member Late Mr Jagat ‘Jack’ Uppal, making him an unforgettable part of Vancouver’s history and culture
By Surbhi Gogia
In literal sense it is easy to walk on Jack Uppal way. Go to South Vancouver and a new street that runs between East Kent Avenue North and Sawmill Crescent, is named after this famous Sikh pioneer and the successful businessman. Anyone and everyone can take a walk on this historic road that strives to reflect BC’s rich sawmill culture.
However, there will only be a handful of those who will follow the symbolic way this incredible community member took when he was alive. It was the path of love, humanity and hard work.
Uppal was conferred an honorary degree by the Simon Fraser University in 2012. In his memorable speech he said, “My love for humanity is the essence of my being…and I want to infect you with the same desire to do for others as you would do for yourself.”
Uppal dedicated a major part of his life helping those in need. Since his early life was surrounded by struggle and hardships as an immigrant, he never wanted his fellow community members to suffer the same way. If his early years were dedicated to build a good life for his family, his later life was truly dedicated to build a respectful life for the coming generations of the Punjabi community.
Jagat (Jack) Uppal was born Feb. 7, 1925, in Punjab. His father Dalip Singh was among the first wave of Sikhs who came to Canada in 1906. Uppal came to BC in 1926 with his mother, when he was just an infant. His father played a major role in providing food for those who were stuck on Komagata Maru. “The urge to help others and fight for the rights of our community ran in our blood,” says Cindy Bains, proud daughter of Uppal.
Uppal’s father used to recite verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. These early teachings had a profound effect on his life. In his convocation address, he recalled that unable to attend the day school he went to the night school. He was one of the first Sikhs in those days to attend public school in Vancouver. One day the teacher asked students to deliver impromptu speech in the class. When it was his turn, the teacher asked about the topic of young Uppal’s speech. His answer was, “love.”
He said, “love is a many splendored thing. Love comes in many forms… But the love I’m going to talk about today is love for humanity. How you deal with your fellow human beings in your everyday life whether good or bad is going to be judged in the eyes of God, not by the colour of your skin, or the garments you wear because they do not affect your inner self.”
Uppal left school when he was in Grade 8. He and his brother worked nonstop to support for the family after their father’s death. He worked at B.C. sawmills. He also had a short stint as a bus driver. The early years and fight for his rights helped build character, and throughout his life, Uppal spoke out for the disadvantaged. As a young activist, he helped lobby for voting rights for South Asians, granted in 1947.
After years working in the lumber industry, he started his own in 1971, establishing Goldwood Industries on nearby Mitchell Island one of the oldest sawmills in B.C., and the first owned and operated by H.R. MacMillan. The Mill was located on the north arm of the Fraser, on land that is now the River District. The choice to commemorate Uppal in that neighbourhood not only reflects its rich history and culture, it celebrates his legacy and achievements as an early activist for human rights in Vancouver’s South Asian Community.
He helped many new immigrants settling in their new homeland by employing them in his own mill. His daughter remembers how people would just konck on the door to get help. Whether it was helping as president of Khalsa Diwan Society or helping people for immigration, someone to get a refrigerator, to get a job or filing income tax, Uppal was always willing.
She remembers how his father involved the entire family in this. “Me and my brothers and sisters all contributed. My dad would ask us to take people around, helping them buy things and help them any way we could.”
Uppal was also instrumental in establishing the Ross St. Sikh Temple when he joined others in the community to purchase the site.
Uppal died at the age of 89 in 2014 leaving a legacy of love, respect and recognition for his community. Bains says her father’s wish for the community was education. “He wanted our people to get more education. He was proud of our culture and heritage but he wanted that we gain good things of Canadian culture too.”
And now a street named the “Jack Uppal”.
“I am delighted to honour Jack Uppal’s legacy as an extraordinary leader in our City,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “Mr. Uppal dedicated his life to standing up for equal rights and opportunities. He was at the forefront of paving the way for a more equal Vancouver, free from racism and discrimination.”
“Naming a street in celebration of my father shows how much respect the City of Vancouver and the Canadian Society has for him. My father would have been thrilled and honoured that a street was named for his accomplishments,” says Bains.
“He, along with other elders in the South Asian community, set the foundation to stand up to racism and discrimination, and it is our responsibility to honour their hardships. Future generations can learn from their legacy that hard work, humbleness and service to the civic life contribute to a thriving and inclusive community.”