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Archives for January 3, 2014

Vancouver entrepreneur Barj Dhahan has found success in business …

VANCOUVER — Canadian. Immigrant. Corporate president. Philanthropist. Punjabi. Sikh. Christian. Certified yoga teacher. Property developer. Gas station owner. Tim Horton’s franchisee. Globe-trotter. Adviser to governments. Husband. Father. Son.



Barj Dhahan is all of these things. And more.

He is a boundary crosser. He has followed many paths and fills numerous roles. He readily acknowledges he is one of those residents of multicultural Canada who has multiple identities.

“I feel fortunate in who I am. My life has been one of … exploration of ideas, incorporation of different thoughts, leading to a greater sense of self-discovery,â€� he says.

When he was 10, Dhahan, his mother and three of his four sisters left his family’s ancestral farm in the Punjab region of India to join his father in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.

Budh Singh Dhahan had already been in Canada for almost a decade, working in the lumber industry. He was “very entrepreneurial,� Dhahan says of his dad, who later moved into home construction in Metro Vancouver.

The father’s go-for-it attitude rubbed off on his son. At 57, Dhahan is president of the Sandhurst Group of companies, which specializes in Tim Horton’s outlets, Esso gas stations and commercial real estate development throughout Metro Vancouver and B.C.

However, as much as Dhahan enjoys the challenge of leading a corporation with more than 150 employees, he and his family have probably become best known for their big, imaginative philanthropic ventures.

The Dhahan family’s latest effort led last year to special events in B.C., India and Pakistan, where Dhahan and others announced the world’s first Punjabi-language prize for fiction writing, worth $25,000.

The Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize is one of several major non-profit brainstorms of the Dhahan family and the Canada-India Education Society, which they co-founded.

The family’s first major philanthropic project has been a game-changer. It arose in the 1980s when Budh Singh and others helped establish the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust, which now operates a 200-bed hospital in the family’s ancestral village of Dhahan-Kaleran, which is 100 kilometres from the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. In a partnership with the University of B.C. and other organizations, the trust runs an affiliated 1,600-student public school and a program that has graduated about 1,800 nurses and midwives.

During a wide-ranging conversation at the family’s Kerrisdale home, Dhahan said he does not think business should be conducted “to pursue money, but to provide wellness and a good life.�

Even while he explained his route to corporate success, Dhahan emphasized his passion for community, spirituality, the social safety net and the fast changing multicultural experiment that is Canada.

Dhahan is not without criticisms of Canada’s racial past, but he’s grateful for what his family has been able to accomplish here. It was near-despair that drove Dhahan’s father to leave India for Port Alberni in 1959.

It was almost impossible for a decent man at that time to get ahead in the Punjab region of India, Dhahan says. “You either had to be wealthy or crooked. And my father was neither.�

In British Columbia, with its functional economic and political system, Budh Singh had a chance to progress on hard work and merit. As a result, Dhahan doesn’t take for granted Canadians’ general sense of fair play and openness.

The family’s casually elegant home has many architectural features, memorabilia and art, which help highlight some of Dhahan’s values and passions.

Barj and his wife, Rita, believe everyone should integrate fully into Canadian culture. That’s why they intentionally chose not to build a fence around their front yard.

“We must mix and get to know our neighbours. We must cross boundaries,� he says. “In Canada we run the risk of moving into ethnic silos and not talking to each other.�

Dhahan is concerned some newcomers from India and China can now come to Metro Vancouver and spend all of their time within their own ethnic enclaves, without having to inter-connect or learn English.

Another revealing object in the family’s living room is a black-and-white photo of one of Dhahan’s turbaned grandfathers in California in 1923. It shows the family’s roots in both South Asia and North America.

The high-ceilinged entranceway also features an imposing painting of early 19th-century Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, whom Barj admires for his “remarkable� ability to run an Indian kingdom based on peace, fairness and prosperity.

Also on display is a small painting of an icon of Mary and Jesus as a baby. It was painted by Rita, who was raised in B.C. in a Mennonite family. The icon points to the deep commitment both Rita and Barj show toward their spiritual lives, which blend elements of Sikhism, Christianity, yoga and other traditions.

Before explaining Barj’s views on multiculturalism, spirituality and social values, however, it’s worth highlighting how he became a success in business.

Dhahan and Rita had next to nothing when they married in 1977.

But Dhahan was raised by parents who did not emphasize “leisure� as much as modern-day parents, such as himself. He was taught to work diligently and not expect to have it easy.

While attending multi-ethnic John Oliver high school in east Vancouver, Dhahan helped his father build single-family houses. So he understood business.

He wasn’t exactly clear what his university studies were leading to, however. So he leased a “mom and pop� gas station. It went pretty well. “We’d spruce them up, do some landscaping.� Then he leased another.

While he and Rita raised their three children, Dhahan added some Tim Horton’s franchises, some more gas stations, stepped into commercial real estate construction and began developing convenience and professional centres.

“It all adds up to a little bit of everything,� he says. Dhahan owns three gas stations (at one time he operated seven) and six Tim Horton’s outlets, the latter of which may be the most profitable of his businesses.

Given the national controversy over the high number of temporary foreign workers in Canada, Dhahan readily offers he was “one of the first� in Canada to bring them in to serve his Tim Horton’s customers.

He defends the use of temporary foreign workers (known as TFWs), stressing they are sincere, hard-working people who send much of their money back to places such as the Philippines and should be treated as “human beings, not just TFWs.�

He’s tried to help some immigrate to Canada. He’s all for giving newcomers a chance in this “land of opportunity.�

What Dhahan doesn’t like, however, is people who come to Canada or were born here who mostly take advantage of it, complain and give nothing in return.

He’s disturbed, for instance, about the “exploitive� business practices of some South Asian and Chinese business people in Canada. He says they treat employees of their own national origin harshly, because the staff don’t understand their rights under Canadian labour law.

Dhahan is also bothered by the lack of national pride and loyalty shown by residents of Canada who head across the U.S. border to try to save money on retail purchases.

And he’s decidedly unimpressed by Canadians who whine about paying taxes.

“The two things that are most important about Canada,� he says, “are its social-safety net and universal access to public education and health care.�

Inspired by the legacy of New Democratic Party founders Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth (both Christian ministers), Dhahan says citizens have to be prepared to pay taxes to take care of “the portion of the population that is challenged.�

Holding on to such values, Dhahan has gradually forged many connections in politics and higher education.

He is well known to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and B.C. Premier Christy Clark (who, with Dhahan, was in India in 2011 to visit the Guru Nanak hospital). He’s often jetting off on government trade missions.

Simon Fraser University professor John Pierce says Dhahan “is promoting change by broadening his entrepreneurial activities to include a rich variety of social, cultural and medical initiatives at home and abroad.�

After meeting long ago through the Canada-India Education Society, Pierce, head of SFU’s environment department, says Dhahan’s business acumen, communication skills and thoughtful approach give him an unusual ability to bridge cultures.

“His unique set of talents, combined with the growing inclusiveness of our political system, make him an ideal candidate for a future leadership role in Canada.�

Dhahan’s resume notes he’s been involved with the Vancouver Quadra Liberal riding association. Does he harbour any political ambitions?

He’s not interested in power, he says, but in “developing policies.�

Far removed from high-flying business, politics and global philanthropy, however, there is another side to Dhahan — the inner life.

Although raised in a Sikh household, he does not regularly attend a gurdwara. As a young adult he was drawn to Christianity. He obtained a diploma in 1985 from Regent College, an evangelical school on the UBC campus.

But he’s shifted since then. In 2009 he obtained a yoga-teaching certificate from Langara College. And now his living room is peppered with eclectic spiritual books such as The Essential Mystics, by Andrew Harvey.

Dhahan and Rita don’t belong to any religious organization, but find guidance in the inter-spiritual teachings of people like the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, particularly in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ.

Since Dhahan is highly aware of his multifarious ethnic, national, professional and spiritual identities, he also makes clear: “I’m a big promoter of multilingualism.�

Speaking English and Punjabi, as well as some Hindi and French, he would like to see every Canadian become fluent in both English and French (“since they bind us as a nation�), plus a third language.

His ambitious dream of a more multilingual Canada is one reason Dhahan felt compelled to create the Dhahan International Punjabi Literary Prize. He wanted to display more loyalty to both his mother (who remains more comfortable in Punjabi) and his “mother tongue.�

Canada has 650,000 people who speak Punjabi, he says, with 200,000 of them in B.C.

Dhahan would like to see the literature prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2014, build more bridges. Prize recipients will have their book translated into English.

Going further, Dhahan even wonders whether the literature prize could build bridges between the often-hostile residents of Indian and Pakistan, who make up most of the 100 million people who speak Punjabi.

His voice fills with hope as he says: “One consul-general told me, ‘Maybe this prize will help bring India and Pakistan together.’�

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Hartford Expects $500000 For Albany Avenue Improvements

The State Bond Commission is expected to approve $500,000 for streetscape improvements in the Upper Albany neighborhood when it meets next week.

The funding will be used for the first phase of improvements to the area, state officials said, and includes an assessment of all properties on Albany and Homestead avenues and façade enhancements along Albany Avenue.

The assessment will include vacant buildings and lots. Once it is complete, design standards will be drawn up to craft a “comprehensive façade improvement plan,” officials said.

“We’re really pleased that the [Department of Economic and Community Development] sees the value and real opportunity in this area,” state Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said Thursday. “It’s a competitive grant process. It’s good Hartford was able to put its best foot forward to win the grant.”

“Revitalizing local commercial centers is a key component of our economic development strategy,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a prepared statement. “Not only are we advancing our efforts to help small businesses grow and create jobs, but we are also improving the quality of life in communities around the state, making them more attractive to employers and residents alike.”

The bond commission is expected to approve the funding at its Jan. 9 meeting.

The improvements are part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the Upper Albany neighborhood.

Earlier this year, officials from the Urban Land Institute presented their initial impressions and recommendations for renovating the mile-plus-long corridor. Hartford was one of four cities chosen for the institute’s Rose Fellowship program, which aims to create successful, long-term development plans. The city decided to focus the study on Albany Avenue.

The institute’s ideas included two mixed-use developments, one near the Hartt School of Music and another at Albany Avenue and Woodland Street.

Albany Avenue has long struggled with crime, but has had its successes. In the late 1990s, the Artists Collective opened at the corner of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street and, more recently, the new YMCA, the new Upper Albany Branch of the Hartford Public Library and the expanded Community Health Services Center have opened.

An estimated $17 million in state and local funding is earmarked for streetscape improvements. The upgrades — sidewalks, lighting and landscaping — could provide an additional boost, sprucing up the street’s appearance.

The $500,000 would be in addition to the $17 million, Ritter said, and would help revamp privately owned businesses as well as public properties. He said the first phase of improvements would begin later this year.

Staff writer Kenneth R. Gosselin contributed to this story.

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Vandals steal landscaping equipment from Carmichael nature area

The Earl J. Koobs Nature Area in Carmichael got a rough start to the new year after vandals broke into a shed and stole lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment worth more than $5,000 in total.

The 4.6-acre nature area, next to the former La Sierra High School, has become a base of exploration for students studying the environment since its establishment in 1971.

On Thursday afternoon, Linda Jones, chairwoman of the nonprofit committee overseeing the area, waited anxiously for Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies to arrive and take a report. Without the equipment, she said, volunteers would struggle to maintain the landscaping.

“I can’t imagine what they did to get this off,” Jones said, pointing to the large brown door of the shed, now half open.

She said the break-in happened between Tuesday evening and Thursday morning.

The door wasn’t just pried open with a crowbar. Instead, vandals dismantled it altogether by unbolting the sliding mechanism.

With its lush grass and tall oak trees, the plot of land inside one of Sacramento County’s older suburbs is a reminder of simpler days. Volunteer crews maintain the preserve year-round, mowing the grass to prevent fires.

A steady stream of supporters and friends – and even Earl J. Koobs himself – stopped by as word of the burglary spread.

Koobs, 94, was a key figure in founding the preserve when he taught biology at La Sierra High.

“The kids gave me hope that this country would rise again,” said the soft-spoken Koobs, a World War II Navy veteran.

Half an hour earlier, committee member Glen Pinnegar peered into the damaged shed. Pinnegar already had ideas for preventing a repeat of what happened, perhaps by building a wrought-iron fence all around.

But he noted, “If someone wants in, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.”

Over the last few decades, thousands have been touched by the nature area. Elementary-school students hike the trails and observe monarch butterflies during the school year. Countless Eagle Scout projects have been completed inside, including a network of elevated boardwalk trails and an information booth.

The nature area also is home the state’s first-known Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Jones said. About 200 people gather there on Veterans Day every November to remember lost lives.

One thing preserve volunteers share is a sense of community.

Jones, who has led the steering committee for 18 years, said her upbringing in rural Los Altos Hills pushes her to keep the area open. She could hardly contain her enthusiasm as she pored through a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings showcasing the nature area’s history.

“Community,” Jones said. “That’s something to be happy for.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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LaGrange Garden Club to review native plants at Monday meeting

The snow that fell on New Year’s Day is just an appetizer for a blast of bitterly cold weather that is about to hit the region. Residents woke up Thursday morning to between 2 and 4 inches of snow to sweep off of driveways and sidewalks plus a wind chill reading that was in the negative. By the time Monday hits, however, those weather conditions will be balmy in comparison.

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Longwood lawn battle brewing


Some neighbors want a Longwood man to clean up his yard. But he says it’s a garden and has every right to keep it.

Sean Law loves his garden. He has all sorts of fruits and vegetables growing in his back and front yard.

“We have to grow gardens and food everywhere on the Earth, not just in or outside of city limits,” said Sean Law who refuses to mow his lawn.

He says it’s nature’s beauty to have overgrown lawns and dead trees. He’s using a state ordinance called “Florida Friendly Landscaping” to defend his garden.

“The city says I’m violating city code, they can’t say that we don’t like the way it looks because that’s a violation of your first amendment and yard displays upheld it,” said Law.

Longwood commissioners disagree.

“He’s arguing that doing nothing is Florida Friendly whereas real Florida Friendly Landscaping is manicured bushes, pathways, things to conserve water and attract wildlife while at the same time controlling pests,” said Longwood Deputy Mayor Joe Durso.

Neighbors are furious.

“If he wishes to live that way which is his choice go to an area that accepts that. That means you go out to ranch land,” said a neighbor Kathy Ettman.

“We have all kinds of weird animals, rodents and stuff, and bugs. I have bugs that I’ve never seen before come in my house,” said Bobbie Corbitt who lives right next door to Law.

Law says it’s not his fault.

“There are ants in the world. I’m not God I didn’t put ants in the world,” he said.

“We’re constantly coming out giving code violations and there’s just a refusal to comply with city code,” said Longwood Police Officer Kevin Tuck.

Sean Law fought back. He went to the district court to fight the city to let him keep his Florida friendly landscaping. He lost so he appealed. He lost again. Now he’s filed a case with the Florida Supreme Court.

“We’ll see if they accept the case or not,” said Law.

Law says he will continue to grow his pineapples, sugar canes, and bananas despite what his neighbors have to say.

“I don’t blame the people because people are tricked by the TV no offense to you guys,” state Law.

Longwood Commissioners will discuss the extent of the case this Monday and will take further action.

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Tips for New Year’s gardening resolutions

Happy Gardening New Year! Here’s hoping your garden grows great, and the grass gets greener but grows more slowly. What is New Year’s without resolutions to improve or do better? Setting goals is always a good thing, even if we stumble and not carry through all the way. Here are a few it…

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Your Garden Guy: Tips for maintaining your poinsettia during the year

It’s time to add Christmas 2013 to the memory book. And it is also time to do something with the poinsettias that will begin to fade.

Mine are looking pretty bad and so into the compost pile they go. But … your poinsettia will bloom again next December — with some luck, and these steps.

• Until March, water your plant, provide a liquid fertilizer once a month and place your poinsettia in a window that receives six hours of indirect light a day.

• In March, prune the poinsettia to 10 inches in height. Continue water, fertilizer and sun requirement.

• After the last chance of frost, and when outdoor temperatures remain above 55 degrees, move your poinsettia outside. Locate the plant in a place that receives morning sun with afternoon shade, or lots of indirect light. Continue with the water (do not let the plants dry out) and fertilization schedule.

• In mid summer, transplant into a pot one size larger. Prune the plant to keep it neat and attractive.

• It’s been easy so far, now for the luck part! Beginning Oct. 1, your poinsettia must be in complete darkness for 14 hours each night. Accomplish this by covering the plant with a large box. Take the box off each morning and put it back on each night during October, November and early December. Night temps must be above 60 degrees. Continue with the water schedule, making sure to water when the soil feels dry to the touch. Continue fertilizing.

• Sometime in December the poinsettia should start to bloom — usually, sometimes. It has been known to happen. Good luck!

Todd Goulding provides residential landscape design consultations. Contact him at or 478-345-0719.

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This week’s gardening tips: veggies to plant in January and New Year’s …

Vegetables to plant in January include: beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, onions, radishes, shallots, snow peas, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips. Plant seeds of tomatoes and peppers in greenhouses or under lights indoors in mid to late January to produce transplants to be planted out in March.

  • Only use garden pesticides when the problem has been properly identified and they are absolutely necessary. There is no need to spray an insecticide, for instance, every time you see a bug or minor damage. When a pesticide is recommended, always ask for the least toxic product that will do the job.
  • Try to avoid creating a landscape that demands more time and maintenance than you can keep up with and enjoy. It’s important to design a landscape that only requires as much maintenance time and effort as you have to give. Remember lawn areas and flowerbeds are high maintenance.
  • Start off the New Year with great gardening information. For information on a wide variety of garden topics specifically for Louisiana, check out the LSU AgCenter web site at Click on “Lawn Garden” or “Get It Growing”.
  • A few gardening resolutions: Pick more garden flowers for indoor vases; Show a child the wonders of gardening; Read a new gardening book; Attend as many educational gardening opportunities as possible; Try a new plant; Correct landscape problems and mistakes rather than just living with them, Subscribe to a gardening magazine; Stay on top of weeding this year.

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