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A rebel’s rise

How Ujjal Dosanjh, a fighter for social justice and equality from a poor Punjabi town, rose to become premier of BC.

May 21st, 2024

Former B.C. premier and federal MP, Ujjal Dosanjh, has written an autobiography which has been on the BC bestsellers list for more than eight weeks.

Before he was one of Canada’s most distinguished politicians, he experienced grueling factory work, night school and toiled in a sawmill to make a living. Read about his unyielding quest for a better life here.

by Gene Homel

An independent-minded person from an early age, Ujjal Dosanjh declares “Mine is the soul of a rebel,” in his autobiography Journey After Midnight. He journeyed from a poor farming town in India’s Punjab to become British Columbia’s NDP Premier and then Minister of Health in a national Liberal government. How he rose from his origins to triumph is a story of immigrant acculturation and success, but success shadowed by an uneasy sense of harsh conflict and intolerance. The politics he describes are not often pleasant.

Ujjal Dosanjh’s passport photo, November 1964, one month before he migrated to England.

Almost the entire book covers the years before Dosanjh became BC Premier in 2000.  He was born in 1946, the year before the granting of Indian independence and the murderous and tragic partition of Pakistan and India. He was raised in a small village; his “family was both rural and poor,” he writes. His father was politically involved and passed on to his son Gandhi’s vision of a just, non-violent, progressive society, a vision fading in India’s subsequent decades, but one that Ujjal valued and brought to Canada.

Dosanjh joined the large tide of Punjabis immigrating to Great Britain, arriving on the last day of 1964. While he lived in the Midlands and worked at a succession of menial jobs, he strengthened his facility with the English language. But British race and class relations left him “angry and discouraged.” In 1968, passing by the Canadian High Commission in London, he resolved to immigrate to Canada, where some relatives already lived.

There, in South Vancouver, Dosanjh toiled in nearby lumber mills, including work on the green chain. He found sustenance in his extended family, and an already sizeable Indian community and its NDP politics, which “with its social democratic outlook, was a natural home for me in the political landscape of British Columbia,” he writes. Pierre Trudeau, though, remained his favourite Canadian because of his policies toward Quebec nationalism, despite Dosanjh decrying the excesses of the War Measures Act

Ambitious, Dosanjh attended Vancouver Community College at Langara, Simon Fraser University and UBC Law School. As a lawyer, and even before being called to the bar in 1977, he did legal education among new Canadians, and particularly worked for labour rights for contracted farm workers, taxi drivers and janitors. He unsuccessfully ran for the NDP in the 1979 and 1983 BC elections in South Vancouver.

Dosanjh and his wife, Rami, in front of their home on September 13, 1977, the day he was called to the bar.

Dosanjh first became more widely known after a 1984 press conference for his vocal opposition to the movement by some Sikh militants for an independent Khalistan—militants appealing to what he considers alienated immigrants—that would “dismember” India and replace the Punjab state with a “theistic country” opposed to secular values. Using violence and intimidation to oppose the right to free expression, the separatists “threatened to take us back into the dark ages” for “a pipe dream supported by a lunatic fringe,” says Dosanjh. He paid dearly for his opposition: an assassination attempt put him in the hospital where a doctor told him he was lucky to be alive. But he continued to advocate publicly for non-violence and liberal-democratic, secular values, placing himself solidly in the Canadian mainstream.

Much of his autobiography is focused on the divisive politics of Indian immigrants in both BC and India. Dosanjh argued against what he considered the petty, bitterly fractious relations within the Indian community, riven by regional, religious and political schisms. He deplored the growing conflict between Sikhs and Hindus, worsened by the Indian government’s military approach to Sikh militants in Punjab in 1984. Bloodshed inevitably followed. Dosanjh’s reflections on violence have a currency, given recent events surrounding Khalistani separatism and Hindu-Sikh conflicts in Canada as well as India.

Ujjal and Rami at Vancouver’s Gay Pride Parade in August 2000. He was the first Canadian premier to participate in a Gay Pride march. Photo by P.K. Tam.

The internal politics of Canadian ethnic groups “are often quite ruthless,” Dosanjh says. Arguing for open, democratic votes in Sikh temples, he denounces “the pandering by Canadian politicians to faith groups at their places of worship.”

His memoir is at times surprisingly candid. He talks about his early, foolish flirtation with revolutionary Maoism in Vancouver (that later came back to haunt him) and his marital tensions. Twice as a young man he became embroiled in allegations of assault, and twice he was acquitted.

Following Dosanjh’s election to Mike Harcourt’s government as an NDP MLA in 1991 in Vancouver-Kensington, which had just a four percent South Asian population, he eventually became NDP caucus leader. Later, he was the first person of Indian origin to become both Attorney General and, finally, Premier, in 2000-2001. In 2004 he was recruited and elected as a Liberal MP for Vancouver-South until defeated in 2011, and became a Minister of Health in Paul Martin’s federal government. Dosanjh describes many of the causes of equality and equity he promoted as Premier and in Martin’s cabinet.

Ujjal and Rami with Canada’s Prime Minister, Paul Martin, at Raj Ghat, the memorial to
Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi; December 2005. Photo by Dave Chan.

There is much detailed content on the politics of India and the personalities of BC’s South Asian community. Readers intrigued by the BC NDP may find much of interest, along with elements of score-settling with notable rivals and opponents. Some readers may find the family and personal details excessive.

Even more than in 2016, we need voices of liberal democracy such as Dosanjh’s. “Extremists the world over—the enemies of freedom—would like to erase both the modern and the secular,” Dosanjh says. He asserts that writing his autobiography “served as a bridge between the life gone by and what lies ahead,” and stands as a platform for his “continuing ambition that equality and social justice be realized.” 9789354471278


Gene Homel has been a faculty member at universities, colleges and institutes since 1974.

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