A rebel with a cause: how Ujjal Dosanjh found his own way

July 14, 2008

Former Health Minister, BC Premier and Attorney General, and current federal Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dossanjh was a rebellious young man. Not in the sense that he stewed with adolescent angst, adopted a nihilist mantle and refused to get a job. No, rebellious in that he was determined to make his own way.

Dossnjh grew up in Dosanjh Kalan, near Phagwara, India in the immediate aftermath of the country’s independence. As a child, he watched the parades of freedom fighters come through his town and soaked up the tales of those who had sacrificed everything for his country. His maternal grandfather had fought the British and spent the better part of eight years in colonial jails. His father was a teacher who founded the village high school.

Dossanjh never really wanted to be a politician, but he knew he wanted to live with dignity, in a manner that made a difference to his community. His father pushed him to be a doctor or an engineer after high school, but Ujjal was having none of it. He grew disenchanted with study and began reading Blitz, a left-leaning newspaper from Bombay. When it was clear his father wouldn’t let him study political science, he began looking for a way out.

“I wanted to be on my own and control my own fate,” Dossanjh recalls, “so I decided that getting out of India was probably the best thing. Then I wouldn’t have to confront my father, which would have been too much of a burden on me. He didn’t know all the turmoil going through my mind at that time.
It was just sheer chance that I bumped into a friend who was leaving for England. I followed his lead. I had to convince my father to help me, which was another struggle, but finally I persuaded him to let me go.”

But Dossanjh hardly spoke any English. When he arrived at Heathrow in 1964 and began living with his cousin in Bedford, he couldn’t even ask for directions around town.

At first he worked as a shunter, doing twelve hour shifts, breaking trains for British railways. These hours didn’t give him time to attend college, so eventually Ujjal took work as a secondary school lab assistant. Later, he worked at a crayon factory, a car factory, and a newspaper office.

During his three and a half years in England, Dossanjh tried to absorb as much culture and news as possible.

“On weekends I would go to the local libraries to pick up the week’s newspapers and a couple of books,” he told us. “The BBC used to have a station that had almost no music and no commercials, all talk radio: Security Council or United Nations debates, House of Commons debates, commentaries, interviews, panel discussions. I learned to speak English by listening to the BBC.”

Dossanjh eventually decided he wanted to study history, but he found the British-focussed courses were too introverted.

“One King George was like another King George,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out the difference.”

One day, while walking by the Canadian High Commission in Grosvenor Square, it occurred to Dossanjh that he could go and live with his aunt and uncle in Vancouver.

“I came right to Vancouver and I fell in love with the place,” Dossanjh recalls. “It was a sunny day in May. I flew into a very small airport and took a cab to my aunt’s house. You could see green grass for miles on one side and the ocean on the other. I felt I had landed in heaven. I was a young kid, only twenty-one, and I soon decided that I would stay here, unless I had to go back to my village.

“In Canada the experience was different than in England. From day one, I felt that the society was more open. It was a lot richer and, of course, Vancouver was more beautiful than any place in England. The weather was great and I was able to find work through my uncle very quickly. He got me a job in a lumber mill, pulling lumber off the grain train. As I was living here, I noticed that the Indians – what we now call Indo-Canadians – were more integrated in this society than in England. British society is closed and less mobile. I felt more at home in Canada right away.”

That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Many Indo-Canadians worked as farmhands and janitors, where their contracts offered them few rights. Dossanjh had been socially-engaged in England, retaining an interest in fighting for social justice. He’d attended Labour Party meetings, but he’d never become a member. But when he came to Vancouver, he joined the NDP and began helping union members organize.

At night, after working the lumber yards, Dossanjh took night classes at a community college and, later, Simon Fraser University. Ultimately, he graduated from the latter with a degree in Political Science and was accepted to law school at the University of British Columbia.

“I had also applied to do my masters in International Relations at Carlton,” he recalls. “I had a TA-ship and a scholarship available, and was ready to go, as I hadn’t heard back from law school yet. One day, I read a newspaper article that told me there were over 3,200 PhDs on the job market in Canada. That was enough for me. I decided to wait for my admission to law school. Thankfully, it eventually came.”

Dossanjh became fascinated by labour law and human rights- especially after the work he’d done with mill workers. His proudest moment came when he and three friends traveled down to the Fraser Valley to witness the working conditions of contracted farm workers.

“It was a hot summer day. We disguised ourselves, packed like sardines in a van. By the end of the day, the contractor had realised who we were, so he ordered a big long bus to take us all back to Vancouver.

“We put together a farm workers’ information service, the first of its kind in the west of Canada, with some funding from the law foundation. I wanted to help people who were being mistreated. That was the beginning of my work with farm labourers.”

At the end of law school, in lieu of getting a big job at a big firm, Dosanjh set off on his own. He wanted to be in a position where he could take on the types of clients he wanted; where he didn’t need to account for taking on pro bono work.

“I remember taking cases of people who collected money from farmers without paying them,” Dosanjh told us. “There were many cases with farm contractors taking farmers to court. I remember doing Human Rights cases at the bar. That came naturally for two reasons. One, because I was a bit of a rabble-rouser. I think people knew I would be able to do the work for either no money or very little money. Two, there weren’t that many people who understood both the language and the culture of the Indian workers they were dealing with. So it was easier for people to deal with me.”

A mere year later, Dosanjh opted to run for the provincial legislature. Previous to that, he had only helped the NDP by doing door-to-door canvasing and making phone calls. In addition to having little political machine behind him, Dosanjh found himself one of the lone non-white faces in the field. He received more than a few doors slammed in his face and ultimately lost by a sizable margin.

Still, he kept at it, running again in 1983, and again in 1991. With each passing race, he found a more diverse group of candidates and a more accepting voter base. Finally the win came.

The money would come as well, but that too would take a while.

“When I was setting up my firm in 1977,” he recalls, “I took home 250 dollars a month. That was compared to the $3,000 that I would have taken home at a decent sized firm. By 1990, my practice had grown really well and I was making 200,000 or a quarter of a million dollars a year, a lot of money for an east-side lawyer. And what did I do? I gave all that up in 1991 to go get a job as an MLA for $67,000 a year.

“One of my two sons would always say, “Why did you go into politics, you could have bought me a Mercedes.”

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