#678 A life of lumber and sawmills

Asa Johal and Terminal Forest Products: How a Sikh Immigrant Created BC’s Largest Independent Lumber Company
by Jinder Oujla-Chalmers

Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2019
$28.95 / 9781550178890

Reviewed by Gurpreet Singh

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Asa Johal and Terminal Forest Products is a special interest book for those who wish to learn more about British Columbia’s forest industry, but it has little to offer if one is seeking to know the challenges faced by one of BC’s well-known South Asian pioneers.

While the title leaves some hope that the book might consider the many difficulties encountered by Johal in a predominantly white society, in fact it is largely focussed on his business empire.

Asa Johal developed a passion for the forest industry at a very young age when his father Partap Johal bought a portable sawmill in Alta Lake, just west of present-day Whistler, and moved his family there in 1934. Lumber from the mill was shipped out of Alta Lake on the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. Asa, who helped his father run the mill over weekends, initially hated loading lumber but gradually started thinking of being in the mill business.

Asa Singh Johal in 1940, 18 years old. Photo courtesy Asa Johal Family Collection

Johal quit school in 1936, aged 14, to take a job at Fraser Mills in New Westminster. By 1955, when he first started his own enterprise in partnership at Mitchell Island on the North Arm of the Fraser River, he had learned the ABCs of the lumber industry, having worked as green-chain puller, lumber grader, edger operator, truck operator, saw fitter, and other occupations. However, the partnership did last very long, and in 1960 Johal established Terminal Sawmill on the Fraser River at Richmond with nine employees.

In 1973, Johal bought Burke Lumber and renamed it Mainland Sawmills. He did not stop there and bought an old mill in Ferndale in 1977. Likewise, he bought an old plywood plant in 1978 and another mill a year later.  He bought two more mills in 1986 and 1991 in Langdale and Washington State respectively.

Asa and Kashmir Johal with their children Darcy and Geven. Courtesy Asa Johal Family Collection

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Asa Johal and Order of British Columbia, 1991

The emphasis on Asa Johal’s working life is not to suggest that the author, Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, is completely silent about racial barriers faced by Asa Johal, but the details are negligible considering the history of racial hostilities against Sikh immigrants in Canada.

While Oujla-Chalmers gives a detailed account of the Komagata Maru episode, she doesn’t dwell on the depth of racism Johal felt while being raised in BC. The Japanese vessel carrying 376 South Asian passengers aboard was forcibly returned to India in July 1914 under a discriminatory immigration law. Oujla-Chalmers talks briefly about the racism Johal faced at school, but she doesn’t go into details, or provide a first-hand account, or make the reader feel the anger and pain he must have endured.

While the book gives a broad idea of how Johal became a successful businessman and philanthropist against some heavy odds, the element of human interest is missing. While Oujla-Chalmers gives us many technical details of how the lumber industry works, she provides little of the personal story of the man behind it.

Sorting and grading logs at a Mainland sawmill. Courtesy Asa Johal Family Collection

Then the book is silent about the events of the 1980s. This was a time of crisis for Sikhs. In 1984, their holiest shrine, in Amritsar, was stormed by the Indian army on the pretext of flushing out militants, while thousands of Sikhs were murdered all across India following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This had a huge impact on the Sikh Diaspora in Canada. The ugly events in India culminated in the Air India bombing of 1985. How come Asa Johal remained unaffected by all this? The book does mention in passing the divisions between the moderate and fundamentalist Sikhs, and Asa Johal’s cozy relations with Indian diplomats, but we are not sure on which side of history he stood during those tumultuous years.

The book is certainly full of basic information for anyone curious about Asa Johal and his business, and for future scholars of BC’s lumber industry, but I wanted more personal detail on Johal’s life and politics presented in a rich storytelling fashion.

Terminal Sawmill on the Fraser River at Richmond. Johal’s Terminal Sawmill Group employs around 500 people

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Gurpreet Singh

Gurpreet Singh is an independent journalist and a broadcaster with Spice Radio (1200 AM) in Burnaby. He is also a newscaster and talk show host. He publishes Radical Desi, a monthly online magazine based in Vancouver that covers alternative politics, and he writes frequently for The Georgia Straight. He has published four books, all non-fiction, and is also a published fiction writer. He is a grassroots-level activist involved in various human rights and social justice campaigns.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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Asa and Kashmir Johal celebrate 70 years of marriage, December 7, 2018, when Johal was 96. Courtesy Asa Johal Family Collection
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