By Gurmukh Singh
Community work is the middle name of Indo-Canadian community activist Balwant Sanghera.
This soft-spoken man has been instrumental in cobating drug-related gang violence that claimed the lives of about 150 Indo-Canadian youths since the 1990s.
His tireless campaign brought him a bouquet of awards, including the honour of being voted into the `Top 25 Canadians’ list.
Based in Richmond in British Columbia, Punjab-born Sanghera has done more than any Indo-Canadian in promoting understanding among different communities and espousing the cause of his mother tongue Punjabi over the years.
“There are three things dear to my heart – promoting intercultural harmony, helping the youth stay out of gang and youth violence and promoting the Punjabi language,’’ says Sanghera who came to Canada from Pharwala village in Jalandhar district in 1966.
“I was one the first Punjabis to land here when Canada opened up. I had just done my B.Sc when I left for Canada,’’ recalls Sanghera who retired as a school psychologist in 2004 after serving the British Columbia school system for almost four decades.
“By 2002, this gang-related violence was becoming too much. Every week, we would read about the death of yet another Indo-Canadian youth. The police were blaming the Indo-Canadian community for not addressing the issues that were pushing our young men into drugs and gang violence,’’ he says.
Sanghera and like-minded individuals decided to do something. “We brought the community and all seven gurdwaras of Vancouver and surrounding cities to form the Sikh Societies of Lower Mainland to address the issue.
“We met the police chiefs of all the seven cities to explain to them that blaming the Indo-Canadian community will not help. We told them that we are joining hands with them to create awareness in the community,’’ says Sanghera.
This strategy, coupled with the setting up of a gang violence task force by the government, helped reduce drug-related gang violence very effectively, he says.
“Because of our efforts, there is now hardly any drug-related gang violence in the Indo-Canadian community. Our young boys are not going down this path any more because of the awareness we have created among Indo-Canadian parents and families. Most of those involved in drugs and gangs are either dead or in jail,’’ explains Sanghera who has been leading the group since its inception even as it was expanded and renamed South Asian Community Coalition Against Youth Violence in 2007.
Another cause dear to this Indo-Canadian activist is the promotion of the Punjabi language in Canada.
Sanghera was instrumental in the creation of the Punjabi Language Education Association (PLEA) in 1994 to champion the cause of his mother tongue.
“We got Punjabi recognized as one of the second languages in our British Columbia province which is home to the largest concentration of Punjabis in Canada and the western world. Today, Punjabi is taught in schools. You can see Punjabi signboards in markets, at airports, in trains, in hospitals and government offices. In fact, Punjabi has become the third most spoken language in Canada. I am happy that our efforts have borne fruit,’’ he beams.
Not surprisingly, Sanghera is a much feted man.
In 2002, he was given the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. And in 2004, he added the Order of British Columbia to his awards list. His own city Richmond voted him as one of its Top 10 Citizens.
Sanghera was voted as one of Top 25 Canadians by Canadian Immigrant magazine in 2010, followed by the Solicitor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. And he has just received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for espousing social causes.
(This article appeared in the Times of India on April 29, 2013)