Community activist Charan Gill passes away

COMMUNITY activist, Charan Gill, the founder and CEO of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) in Surrey, B.C., passed away on Tuesday morning.

In 1978, Gill helped co-found the Canadian Farmworkers Union that exists to improve the human rights, health and safety and employment standards of farmworkers. In 1987, he co-founded the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism, which later grew into Canadian Anti-Racism Education and Research Society. PICS Society was established in 1987 and continues to provide programs and services that directly assist youth, seniors and new immigrants with the goal of promoting harmony and intercultural understanding.

Among the awards Gill won were the Order of BC, the BC Human Rights Award by MOSAIC and the Golden Jubilee Medal. He was awarded with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2013.

Premier John Horgan tweeted: “We’re saddened by the passing of Charan Gill. A lifelong champion for social justice and working people, he received the Order of BC for his tremendous contributions to our province. Sending my condolences to his family and friends.”

Raj Chouhan, Speaker of the House in the B.C Legislature and MLA for Burnaby–Edmonds, said in a statement: “I would like to extend my deepest condolences on the passing of my close personal friend Charanpal Singh Gill, a renowned Punjabi-Canadian labour rights and anti-racism activist. He became a pillar of the labour rights and anti-racism movements in BC having been a co-founder of the Canadian Farmworkers Union and founding CEO of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS) which was also the first organization to commemorate the anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy. As president of the B.C. Organization to Fight Racism (B.C.O.F.R.), Charan brought the anti-racism struggle to the mainstream by uniting First Nations, Labour, Faith and racial justice groups.  A man with a passion for community service and social work, he never hesitated to help those in need especially farmworkers, seniors and new immigrants. I would like to recognize his unique contribution to the upliftment of society within British Columbia. “

Charan Gill (2nd from left) with, among others, Labour Minister Harry Bains and Speaker Raj Chouhan (4th and 5th from left, respectively), who were his close friends.

The family of Charan Gill issued the following statement:

It is with the deepest sorrow that we announce the death of our father, Charan Gill, on February 2, 2021 following a battle with cancer. He took his last breath at Langley Memorial Hospital surrounded by family.

Charanpal Singh Gill was born on June 17, 1936 in Hong Kong. His family returned to India in 1938 when he was two years of age. Unfortunately, his father passed away in 1939 and his mother, Mrs. Harnam Kaur Gill, raised Charan and his five siblings by herself.

Charan was extremely good in studies and obtained his Masters degree in Punjabi from Punjab University in 1959. Charan went on to earn a BSW and a MSW from University of British Columbia.

In his twenties Charan returned to Hong Kong and started working at a bank. After living in Hong Kong for six years, and on the advice of his sister, he moved to Canada in 1967.

Upon arriving in Canada, Charan worked in a sawmill in Williams Lake, but broke his wrist in an accident. He served as a social worker for northern small communities based out of Prince Rupert. In 1969 he was able to sponsor his wife and children to join him in Canada. In 1973 he moved his family to Surrey’s Fraser Valley where he resided and worked.

In 1979, Charan was one of the founders of the Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which led to his co-founding the Canadian Farmworkers Union (CFU) in 1980, for which he served as Secretary and Treasurer. The CFU organized labour on farms in the early 1980s which led to significant improvements in the wages and working conditions of British Columbia farmworkers.

After much dedicated effort by its founders and members, the CFU saw the institutionalization and normalization of regulations governing better pay, safety, employment practices, and benefits for farm and ranch workers in BC and Canada. Prior to the changes in legislation starting in early 1980s British Columbia’s laws did not acknowledge the hard work of immigrant and migrant labour that makes the agricultural bounty of this province possible.

At the same time as he was advocating for agricultural workers, Charan in 1980 also co-founded the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR) and served as its founding president. The BCOFR played a significant role in combating racism and stemming growth of the KKK in the 1980s B.C., when people of colour were routinely targeted by racists and neo-Nazis. The BCOFR organized a number of rallies and demonstrations throughout the 1980s. Despite threats to his life and vandalism of his organization’s offices Charan continued to be the BCOFR’s president as long as the organization was active in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1987, after retiring from his position as a social worker with the province, he felt there was a need for an organization in Surrey that could serve the South Asian immigrant community. He got together with eight of his friends to contribute $10 each and in 1987 incorporated the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS). Charan served as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer from 1987 to 2017.

Under Charan’s leadership and the team he assembled, PICS became the first social services agency of its kind in British Columbia serving the South Asian and new immigrant community. The organization has been at the forefront of social justice causes. Its mission and vision are to promote harmony and intercultural understanding in order to build a just society. It has developed many programs for visible minorities, supporting youth-at-risk, combating elder abuse, providing transition support for immigrant women and children facing violence.

PICS has become a premier community organisation with over 120 staff with a multi-million dollar budget. The organization operates a Seniors Housing Complex (2002), a Seniors Assisted Living Complex and Adult Day Center (2007), and the Harmony House (2012) which provides housing for women who are victims of domestic abuse. Just before his retirement from PICS in June 2017, Charan secured 2.5 acres of land in Cloverdale and launched a second project for a modern facility for long-term care for seniors, the Diversity Village.

In addition to PICS Charan also has served on other organizations in agriculture, labor, and housing including Director CASA (Canadian Agricultural Safety Association) 2010 – Present; Director, FARSHA (Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association), 1994 – Present; and Director, BC Non-Profit Housing Association, 2008 – Nov 2012.

For his lifetime of leadership and achievement in community service Charan is recipient of numerous awards and honors including: The Order of British Columbia, 1999; Honorary Doctor of Laws, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, 2013; Top 25 Immigrants in Canada Award, 2010; Recognized in the House of Commons, in 2011; Distinguished Service Award, BC Association for Social Workers, 2011; Operation Remembrance Award by the RCMP, 2006; United Way VanDusen Community Service Award, 2002; Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, 2002; and named a Paul Harris Fellow by the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International.

Charan leaves behind him a legacy of activism in the service of working people. 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.

Charan 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 UK, Hong Kong and India.

Gifts in memory of Charan are welcomed at:
KEATCA – to support scholarship grants for education in healthcare, community services, social work: https://keatca.org/fundraising.php
PICS, in support of Guru Nanak Diversity Village: https://pics.bc.ca/support-pics/pics-diversity-village/

A family funeral (limited due to COVID) will be at Riverside Funeral Home in Delta. A Celebration of Life for Charan Gill will be held at a later date to be communicated.

PICS Society to preserve and honour Charan Gill’s legacy

The staff, management and Board of PICS Society have decided to preserve and honour Charan Gill’s legacy in the following manner:

  • Name one of the wings in the “Guru Nanak Diversity Village” facility (his dream project) after him, the citation could tentatively read:

“This wing is dedicated to the everlasting loving memory of Dr. Charan Pal Gill, Founder and Founding CEO of PICS Society”

  • Prominently display a plaque in the reception area of the PICS Head Office recognising Mr. Gill as the “Founder and Founding CEO of PICS Society”
  • Institute awards to commemorate Dr. Charan Pal Gill – in different categories (this Award Ceremony could be a part of PICS Annual Fundraising Galas)
  • Create a virtual memorial for Mr. Gill on the PICS website – celebrating his life and saluting his achievements.

PICS Society said in a press statement: “We also urge the community to help turn into reality Mr. Gill’s dream project- Guru Nanak Diversity Village-by supporting PICS in realizing the target to fundraise the initial $5 million to launch it.  This initiative, envisioned by Mr. Gill as a futuristic community need, will be another milestone in PICS’s endeavour to ensure that our seniors are able to receive Long-Term Complex Care in a culturally sensitive environment.”

Call PICS at 604-596-7722, ext.103, to learn about the naming opportunities within the “Guru Nanak Diversity Village” facility and the options to donate.

PICS said that in consultation with Gill’s family, it will celebrate his life as part of the next PICS Gala, adding: “We hope that by that time, we will leave the current pandemic situation behind to be able to hold this event to memorialize this doyen of social service in a befitting manner.”

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