Turning Back the Pages

Taking a look back at the past with Colleen Palumbo.

I love my job. Some days more than others but I always love it. I recently had the most amazing surprise visit from Gurdial “Big Bill” Dhami, who came to the museum to tell me about how and when he came to Canada. I was honoured to have recorded the following information about one of Golden’s most senior citizens. It’s a raw interview but those of you who know him will understand that it was important for him to share this information and to be recognized for a lifetime of hard work.

Big Bill was born in India in 1918. His father had come to Canada, – Vancouver in 1934 -his name was Basant Singh Shami. His father had a really tough time in the beginning. When he came to Canada he was working for the railway. During the first World War he went back to India – that was 1913. He came back to Canada in 1921. When Gurdial came to Canada he was working for BC Fir Lumber Co at 6th Ave and Laurel Street in Vancouver. Gurdial’s father worked there until 1935 and then he moved back to India and never came back to Canada again.

Gurdial came to Canada in 1934 and went back to India in 1940 and then came back again in 1947. He worked with other countrymen for 50 cents a day and then worked for 14 cents an hour. BC Fir Lumber Company paid him 25 cents an hour. He lived close to the mill. When Gurdial went back to India in 1940 he got married the following year – in 1941. The mill closed down in 1947 and he went to North Vancouver, where he bought some trucks. First one truck and then he contracted to haul plywood for the mill which soon burned down and when he was unable to make the payments they took the trucks and he was left with a debt.

By this time Bill had a family in India but couldn’t afford to bring them to Canada because of the debt that he was trying to pay off.  A friend who was working at Donald, B.C. called him and he came to work at Donald in 1957. He had a contract to load train cars and was soon the foreman that brought other Asian men to Donald. He promised those men that he would be responsible for them and see that they got paid by the company.

After a time Bill Pidge, who was the mill owner, went bankrupt leaving the men all unpaid. There were 16 or 17 men. Big Bill couldn’t leave the men unpaid because he had made them a promise so he went to Vancouver and found someone who would loan him $14,000 to pay the men.

He came back to Golden and paid all the men and then returned to the coast where he worked at two different jobs to repay the loan. The first was with L & K Lumber Company where he worked on the night shift and during the day he drove truck. It took him until 1963 to pay off the debt.

While he was working in Vancouver Dick Gondek contacted him and told him that they needed his help at another mill – it would be a better job and they assured him that he wouldn’t lose his shirt this time.

When he came back he got off the train at Donald, met with Dick Gondek and they came to an understanding and he got the job. He began recruiting and over the years brought 40 or 50 men to work.

Talk of building a Sikh Temple in Golden began in the 1960’s. They had heard stories of the first Sikh Temple in North America being in Golden,  and wanted to build another one here. Always involved in the community, Big Bill went to see Jim Chabot, who was the MLA at the time, and told him that they could prove that they had a temple here before so Chabot offered them land near the river. They bought the land that the temple is on now for $35,000. Evans Forest Products gave them some of the lumber and some of the citizens gave gyprock. They didn’t pay one cent for labour because it was all donated.

The Temple was opened with lots of excitement as the Sikh people in Golden were very thankful to have someplace to gather and worship.

When the Donald mill closed down some of the boys moved back to Vancouver. Big Bill and his partners Davene Dunn, Shasi and Manjit Dhami(Mike) purchased the Golden Rim back in 1988 from Theresa Edwards after her husband died and are still in that business today.

Gurdial finally was able to bring his wife to Golden in 1968 and the children after that. Big Bill and his family built a second motel in Golden, the Ramada and it is operated by his grandson Jhora Dhami. Gurdial also had a daughter who died. At the time of the interview – November 2011, Gurdial lives in Golden with his son Trcchn (Mohan) Dhami, and would really like stay in Golden which he considers his home. He is 94.

 

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