By Gurmukh Singh
VANCOUVER: Few first-generation Canadian immigrants have succeeded like Barj Dhahan (Barjinder Singh Dhahan) of Vancouver.
And even fewer have benefited their home state Punjab in India with charity work in education, health care and employment as much as him.
Dhahan is also the man behind the biggest award for the promotion of his native Punjabi language – the annual Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize of $25,000 started in 2014.
A self-made man, he comes from the village of Dhahan between Banga and Phagwara in Punjab in India.
Starting from scratch in the early 1980s, he went on build his Sandhurst Group of Companies with businesses across gas stations, real estate and Tim Hortons outlets (Canada’s equivalent of McDonald’s).
His father Budh Singh Dhahan, a freedom fighter, left his family behind in Punjab and migrated to Canada in 1959 to settle in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island as a lumber mill worker.
“Dad left Punjab because he wanted better education and life his five children. His sister’s family was already settled in Port Alberni since 1933, so he joined them,’’ he says.
Dhahan was 10 when he with his mother and four sisters joined his dad in Canada in 1967.
“At the age of 14 as a school boy, I started working in a general merchandise store to supplement family income. That job laid the foundation of my later business success as I learnt the value of hard work. I learnt everything there – assembly of bicycles and furniture,’‘ recalls Dhahan.
Later in 1973, the Dhahan family shifted to Vancouver where his father quickly established a successful construction business. “But dad wanted do something for Punjab. In 1979, he returned to his village and started the Guru Nanak Mission Medical & Educational Trust,’’ says Dhahan.
The Guru Nanak Mission Medical & Educational Trust has been the centre of the Dhahan family since then.
“In 1984, the trust opened a 40-bed hospital to serve rural Punjab. Today, the hospital has expanded to 225 beds. The trust also started the Guru Nanak College of Nursing in 1993. This nursing college works in partnership with the University of British Columbia. Over 2,000 girls in Punjab have got their nursing diplomas and degrees from this college and over 250 of them have moved to Canada. The trust also runs elementary and high schools,’’ says Dhahan.
As his dad got busy with charity work in Punjab, young Dhahan charted out his own destiny.
While still a student at the university in Vancouver, Barj Dhahan leased a gas station (petrol pump) in 1979. “ It was my first business venture. I worked on my gas station as well as finished my university degree in 1983. After five years, we started expanding and we are still expanding. This year, we will add six more gas stations,’’ he says.
Apart from gas stations, Dhahan is also the biggest Indo-Canadian franchisee of Tim Hortons outlets in Canada.
“My group got into Tim Hortons in the 1990s. In fact, our first free-standing Tim Hortons at Maple Ridge created a national record in the first-year sales iin 1999. There are 7,000 Tim Hortons outlets in the world, it is among the top 70. We are building five more Tim Hortons this year,’’ says Dhahan who is also involved in major construction businesses in the Vancouver area.
The annual Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize of $25,000, started in 1914, is the latest feather in the Dhanan family’s cap.
“The Punjabi language has been divided by religion and scripts. I want to unite all Punjabis . This award is for both Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi (used in Pakistan) scripts,’’ says Barj Dhahan.
(Courtesy of the Times of India where this article appeared on January 23)