Charan Gill Interview Transcript

Oct. 11
Charan Gill
Executive Director
Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS)
#109 Ė 12414 82nd Ave.
Surrey, BC V3W 3E9
604-596-7722
Fax Ė 604-596-7721
Email Ė charan.gill@pics.bc.ca

Dave Beckwith:
How did you get into organizing?

Charan Gill:
Well, there are two things I think that cause organizing, that are wrong. One is racism, and the other is of course, human rights, social justice issues. And Iíve always worked in social justice issues.

You started in Agriculture?

Yah. That was in 1974 or 75. I was a volunteer. It was going up to the bar that was the thing. I first as an activist had interest when I was kicked out of the bar, they said that we don't allow you to have beer, we donít serve to brown people here.

Where was this?

It was in Maple Ridge in 1973 or 74 around there, and then I felt really bad. I was at that time on the human rights council of the NDP new democratic government, because I was an activist in many Indo-canadian communities. I was familiar and I told the bartender that I would like as a human rights activist bring here, if he harassed me, I'll file a complaint and I went to the bar tender and he said, yes, I will serve you beer and then they start actually to get a big wrench to beat me up! So I got out of there in a hurry, but that was the start I took up again something and then I found what to do about it and there was lots of people, lots of activities going on. Then in 74, 75, there was a barrage of racist attacks at East Indian homes, also physical attacks on some people and then we found, some people got together and said somebody should do something about it, they didn't say me should do, just somebody should do it. A few of us were talking and said, something should happen, and no one was taking the lead, who will do it. Finally after 2 years of talking and I said to them, 3 of them, well why don't we do it? They said that's fine. Then we got together and said how do we get going, where will we start, who will be sympathetic to our cause and who are our enemies, identify our enemies. And then we went to the labor union and presented our case that our workers had been exploited in the fields, there is lots of discrimination. Some are Indo-Canadian people who are exploiting their own people some are others and working conditions are very poor, all the details. Anyhow, I went over it quickly then he said okay. We went to IWA, who were the most active union at that time. Strong and active. So one guy and IWA was working as a worker by the name of Stony. He was one of the neighbors. He said, well I don't care, I will help you out. So what we did, then we organized a big meeting to explain to the family, to the media, to the people at large that you don't know whatís going on right here in your homeland, right here in front of your nose, and to our amazement we had 600 people and media was going crazy that something is happening. So we start, like Cesar Chavez in California did, organizing a committee. At that time we had space and other things from the labor union. Anyway, we went ahead though, and in about 18 months we formed a union, The Canadian Farmworkersí Union. I became a member at that time and still am, 25 years later. There's a lot of struggle then, we were nationally recognized, we were two people, I was president, we went to the Canadian Labor Congress convention. Our English as a learned language was not that great at that time. But we did okay. Then we went to the media. In our organizations, people can understand us and of course we knew that sometimes we get excited and we couldn't understand somebody! So basically that's a part of organizing. You need not only this intellectual understanding, you need emotional attachment, emotional understanding, and we got together both of them and then you need stamina and lots of patience, and you need lots of patience, to pick yourself up not only one time, 3 or 4 times. And then of course when we were truly activists, and the farmers try to break you, saying like don't come to my farm, that kind of stuff. I remember once when Cesar Chavez was here and I was complaining to him in a community meeting that that's what was happening to us. He said, that's good, it means you are successful, I said, my god, he is saying the truth and we're going to get killed here! And he said that's great!

That must have been tough!

Anyways, after that in Canada, in 1980, David Duke, a Ku Klux Klan guy was on CJR, radio, a very popular radio. He said all of the Indians should go back to their countries. This is like most countries, he said, and they have no right to stay here. And that time it came to me, we should do something. I was known, popular, very known, in 1980, not even worrying about my life or anything, setting up demonstrations. We had worked with Christian people on issues; we went on WBC and worked on health and safety issues. So it was what happened, we formed the BC Organization to fight racism. Nobody wanted to be president because the Klu Klux Klan is very powerful here. Anybody who goes in is going to get killed, that was clear, so I said, what the hell, and I'll go ahead and a couple of people with me, very good, strong people, we had anti-racism formed in 1980. I think I actually, being by background a social worker, some people think that I'm a revolutionary, but I'm going for social change. Actually you can't bring revolution into Canada, though I understand what you are saying, bring some social change, something positive for people. You know, they accused me that I am being too aggressive, too political. Those people who work with me, and other people, who were saying that, you know they were accusing me that I stopped to be a social worker and became a politician. So over the years and I became one! I ran for MLA and if you see the write up in the paper, it's my background, I keep it around just to think that I am somebody.

You were talking about politics.

Actually there's not much I want to say, the only thing is that, what I want to say is that as a volunteer person I was carried down over the years, running both in the provincial legislative race and for a seat as member of parliament. I'm never disappointed that I'm not elected because I was using the platform for my issues and to advance single issues, and many many times over the years I trusted that way that I found something. I founded B.C.Anti-racism, I founded KIDS, which is in Vancouver, this progressive intercultural community social society, the Canadian anti-racist society, I founded that and it's going very well. And this anti-hate group and do research and communications. We are doing the consulting process, recently, so what I said to my activist friends is I know it's an endless job. I have been at those times counted out, thrown out, and then come back again. Over the years I will do that. When I need to have time out, I will take time out, and go away and have a drink and just lay down. And then when I will see that it is time again, then I will leave, then I will go at it again.

I have a few key questions since our time is short that I'll kind of ask across the board of organizers and activists. First is, why do you think you started in activism, secondly, what sustains you, and third is what do you think it's going to take to advance community organizing and community change work in Canada?

First thing I feel if we're going to succeed at something personally, I must have and create great feeling toward that cause, that is the first question.

What sustains you, through the hard times?

Oh, hard times, only itís very exciting, then your small successes. Then in 1980 when we got together to fight the farmers, we didn't give up until we got an $80,000 check. We didn't move until we got that. It was such an exhilarating experience.

Keeps you going for a long time.

Long time. Now we see successes and these small changes. We've got WCV, we've got anti-racism legislation, and weíve got all those successes that keep you going.

What is it going to take to advance organizing and activism in Canada?

Never give up. Carry on. Changes happen in the small ways in very long time. I think that you have to pressure politicians, local communities and come, it happens to everybody, stand up, everybody. Then there are the lights on in the communities; you can see the leadership. So then is your potential to teach the people and give them the light. Some recognition, you know. And also supportive family and supportive group of people who will not, who will be nice, who will be friends.

Where does your support come in terms of a group?

Group? Friends and kids and also from the family. Now we are doing, the visionary process on what's going to happen. Now, I started this society almost 10 years ago, 5 years ago I thought I could make it go. Not to be worried about making changes of your career, if you take risks. I left my job, with and started with 50,000 dollars 5 years ago, and now 5 years later I'm doing planning to handle our expansion. In 5 years from 50,000. to 2 million dollars, from a staff of one to 42.I know I can't do it alone, I have a group of people, who are like minded, who have vision, and they will help you all the way. And my staff is wonderful.

Now, in growing as an organization, has it lost any of the activist or confrontational edge of the anti-racism work or the farm worker work?

Only some people for their own personal agenda, and those people can get identified sooner or later, they will run away or give up, gradually as they carry out the work. Many people come to me and say they won't be able to sustain energy. I thought if everybody agreed, we might as well be dead. We canít be hi-jacked by one or two people, so I never did that. There are people who could be very harmful and very destructive and, they will bring sometimes for their own personal gain. In 25 years I think there's lots of pain that everyone shares, but then then publicly itís worse. If community is supportive, not backstabbing, politics can get all kinds of things like pulling your hair out. I couldn't believe it. In politics you can't say what you believe in.

It's a habit that's hard to lose.

So I did go there, I thought, now in retrospect, it's good in a way, I got my name out, everybody knows it, by being a political activist, but it was a waste of time in some ways. Why I thought it was a waste of time, like I ran in 2 years, 3 elections. One as a councilor, one as MLA, one as a Member of Parliament. I did 3 elections in 3 years, I raised big money. People know me. I can raise 80,000, 0,000 for elections. I raised the people with my energy that they would not disappoint me. I was always NDP and all those people, again in some ways I think we win, when the premiere of BC was always in the community. Big slogans are very important in my work. I put a slogan, hey we want to make colors that fight equality, fight for justice. Some people didn't like our slogans. We put a slogan ban the Klan, ban the Klan from BC, ban the Klan. Some what's it called, civil liberty people, they say, no, you can't ban anybody, go to hell. We had a big fight, there are lawyers.

What questions do you have for other organizers, both in Canada and in Australia?

One of the questions that I would have to say to them, how do you find ways to get energy back into the system in the first place. How you can do that, if your family really gets jeopardized and sometimes you lose your friends because you don't have the time for them. They want to sit back and chitchat and if you go down the road into one direction, how to maintain exposure, not to lose friends. Maybe let go of some, let go. So Iíve said many times over, most of my friends are very radical. I'm still community working, though I may look different now. My values, my ideas are the same. Sometimes I dress up because I have to meet other people, I didn't believe in that, but I now believe in that. You meet other people, you go, you dress appropriate, for various places. Well, everybody needs their own plan. It's helped me to let the steam off. So anyways, my question is, I can't see sometimes past the pressures, financial pressures. But Iím okay through the process, ups and downs. I have not given up yet.