A philosophy of philanthropy: Barjinder (Barj) Singh Dhahan

June 4, 2018
Barjinder (Barj) Singh Dhahan

From a young age, Barj Dhahan learned that giving back isn’t what you do. It’s who you are.

“My mother used to say, ‘Live with open hands. All the resources of the universe are not just there for your own use. They are meant to be shared,’” says the founder and chief executive officer of the Sandhurst Group of companies, which includes convenience centres, food services and commercial real estate in British Columbia.

Dhahan’s success has afforded him the ability to support numerous national and international health, development and education programs in Canada and India.

He is most proud of the nursing partnership he helped create between the University of British Columbia and the Guru Nanak Medical Mission and Educational Trust in Punjab, which his father founded in 1979.

The collaboration provides employment opportunities through quality nursing education for women, especially those living in rural areas.

In the late 1990s, there were only two degree-granting nursing institutions in Punjab for a population of 20 million people, or about one for every 10 million people. By comparison, Canada had one for every one million people, he says.

“That’s the kind of gap that existed in terms of nursing education and opportunities.”

Historically, nursing has been an undesirable profession in India, Dhahan says.  It’s largely been thought of as work for lower castes—those with the lowest social status believed to be impure.

“Body parts and bodily fluids under India’s traditional world view are considered to be dirty or pollutants,” Dhahan says. “Anybody cleaning up people, their bodies, and so on, are seen to be doing dirty work.”

The partnership attracted significant media attention when it launched in 1998, which helped begin to raise the profile of nursing as a respected profession in Punjab, Dhahan says. The program included exchange visits by both Indian and Canadian faculty and students, providing opportunities for mutual learning.

“People in the state of Punjab began to see that nursing is a well-respected, well-paid position in Canada and an opportunity for young women to get a quality education,” he says.

Residents of Punjab have enjoyed improved access to health care and more than 2,000 women have graduated since the program began. Graduates now not only have access to secure employment, but also support the health of their families.

 “What we did through this partnership totally revolutionized the nursing practice, curriculum, standards and social status of the profession in the state of Punjab.”

Creating education opportunities in Canada has also been a priority for Dhahan. In 2016, he spearheaded the establishment of a $400,000 Centennial Scholarship Fund for Indigenous students at the University of British Columbia entitled “Honouring the Truth, Centennial Scholars Major Entrance Award for Aboriginal Students.” He says he was inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action.

 “I was left with the feeling that I must do something tangible as a Canadian, as a son of immigrants and an immigrant myself, to get involved with the truth and reconciliation commission,” he says. “I really think that every Canadian needs to participate in whatever way they can.”

Through the award, Dhahan hopes to provide opportunities for underrepresented groups in the university.

“Setting up the award is one thing I thought I could do,” he says. “My family and I have been blessed and benefitted so much by being in Canada—its natural resources, its infrastructure, its opportunities to learn, and yet Indigenous Peoples have not received the same benefit.”

For those Canadians with fewer financial resources to give, Dhahan says his mother’s advice is no less salient.

“In our lives, we are all recipients of others’ kindness but we also need to be givers,” he says, recognizing that financial support is just one of the ways we can share with others.

“One thing we can all do as Canadians is to think of our communities as much more than people who share the same background as we do. Community is everybody who lives in a neighbourhood or city and we need to just find creative ways to support one another.”

For his contribution to reducing inequality in Canada and India, and his commitment to creating enduring prosperity through education, Royal Roads University will present Dhahan with the Chancellor’s Community Recognition Award at the Spring 2018 Convocation Ceremony June 12.