Charanpal (Charan) Gill, founder and former CEO of Surrey-based Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS), died on Tuesday morning (Feb. 2) following a battle with cancer. He was 84.
He took his last breath at Langley Memorial Hospital surrounded by family, according to an email from Cloverdale District Chamber of Commerce.
Gill co-founded the Canadian Farmworkers Union in 1978 as a way to improve the human rights, health, safety and employment standards of farm workers, among his many other projects.
In his lifetime, Gill was awarded the Order of B.C. and the B.C. Human Rights Award by MOSAIC, among many other honours.
In 2017 Gill retired after 30 years of work with PICS, and Satbir Cheema became the new CEO of PICS Society.
“We call him the living legend, that’s the name I gave him, because he’s done so much for the community,” Cheema said Tuesday. “His heart was in whatever he did. He will be greatly missed.”
Sukh Dhaliwal, MP for Surrey-Newton, tweeted his condolences on Tuesday.
“Charan was a beacon of light for thousands of immigrants and newcomers to Canada over many decades,” Dhaliwal posted. “My sincere condolences go out to the Gill family and the PICS organization. Rest in peace my friend.”
Jagrup Brar, MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood, also tweeted his condolences.
“Today we lost Charan Gill, a trailblazing champion of the people,” Brar posted. “Charan fought for farmworkers, immigrants, seniors & all. He leaves a legacy to inspire others to carry on the struggle for a better society.”
A bio posted to southasiancanadianheritage.ca shows Gill was born in Hong Kong in 1936. Years later, as a social worker in the Lower Mainland, Gill worked with many families.
“There was a lot of conflict between parents and their children. Many couples committed suicide because they wanted to get married but their parents didn’t approve. This is when Charanpal decided that the Punjabi community needed counselling services,” the bio says of the 1987 origins of Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS).
In 1981 he co-founded the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism, which later grew into the Canadian Anti-Racism Education and Research Society.
In 2013, Gill was among four British Columbians to receive an honourary doctor of laws at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s (KPU) spring convocation.
Gill leaves behind “a legacy of activism in the service of working people,” his family said in a statement. “He has inspired many people to engage in the struggle for a better world, without religious, ethnic or gender oppression, a world where all can live in communal harmony. His example and inspiration will guide us for a long time.”
Gill is survived by his three children and their spouses Jack Gill and Amrit, Paul Gill and Sarbjit, Rani Gill and Peter; his grandchildren Sean, Brandon, Alicia, Jovin, Arjun; great grandchild Robin, and his extended family in BC as well as in the U.K., Hong Kong and India.
The family says gifts in memory of Gill are welcomed at KEATCA (“to support scholarship grants for education in healthcare, community services, social work”) and PICS, in support of Guru Nanak Diversity Village to be built in Cloverdale.
A family funeral, limited due to COVID-19, will be held at Riverside Funeral Home in Delta. A Celebration of Life for Charan Gill will be held at a later date, the family says.
On Wednesday, British Columbia Federation of Labour released a statement about Gill’s death.
“Our province’s labour movement joins British Columbians everywhere mourning the death of Charan Gill. We will always remember his courage, warmth and compassion, along with his lifelong commitment to justice,” the organization stated.
“Co-founding the Canadian Farmworkers Union took extraordinary courage, vision and an unshakeable belief in the power of people working together for a greater good. He, Raj Chouhan and the farmworkers they organized stood their ground against bitter opposition from wealthy, powerful forces. They prevailed, dramatically improving the laws and working conditions governing farm work in our province.
“That same bravery allowed Charan to stand up to neo-Nazis and the KKK, stemming their growth here with the creation of the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism. And his faith in collective action led him to found what has become the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, an invaluable lifeline for the South Asian community, new immigrants, seniors, farmworkers, women and at-risk youth to this day.
“We feel Charan’s absence especially keenly with the approach of the annual Golden Tree memorial ceremony next month. He was instrumental in winning stronger safety rules in the aftermath of the terrible accident that claimed the lives of three farmworkers, and he has played a prominent role in every one of these memorials. That he won’t attend this one simply feels impossible.
“Countless thousands of British Columbians are living better, happier lives today because of Charan Gill. Nobody has done more to embody the value of solidarity. He changed our province for the better, and we will always be grateful. Now Charan will be with us all in spirit.
“To Charan’s family, our deepest condolences on your loss. We grieve with you, and we offer our profound appreciation for sharing him with us all for these many years.”
The bio on southasiancanadianheritage.ca sheds light on Gill’s arrival in Canada, as a man in his 20s.
“The Punjabi community faced a lot of discrimination at the time that Charanpal had moved to Vancouver,” the bio says. “Charanpal was forced to cut his hair because no one would hire him and he hated the way he looked without a turban. Soon however, Charanpal found a job at a mill in William’s Lake.
“He recalls that some days his feet would swell up to the point where he couldn’t take off his shoes. One day, after he had slipped on ice and broke his wrist, he decided to stop working at the mill. Charanpal then came across a program that helped orphans find a place to live. The director told him to meet him in Prince George. When Charanpal went to Prince George he was offered a job as a social worker. After completing a one-month training he moved to Prince Rupert to start his new job. After working in Prince Rupert for 5 years, Charanpal decided that he wanted to earn a Bachelor’s degree in social work. The company agreed and transferred him to Burnaby to begin his studies.”