Grewall first Indo-Canadian to hold office of mayor in Canada

Mission's Naranjan Grewall was also a CCF candidate in 1956

Mission has always had a vibrant Indo-Canadian community, and I have been very fortunate to call this my home. I have always been interested in local history and have long been fascinated by the story of former mayor of Mission City, Naranjan Grewall. It’s actually 60 years ago that he was appointed as mayor, making him the first Indo-Canadian in Canada to hold such a political office.

Four years earlier, he was elected to city council, making him the first visible minority and Indo-Canadian elected to public office in this country. He was later nominated as a provincial candidate for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1956, making him also the first visible minority to run as a candidate in Canada. He was narrowly defeated by Socred Labour Minister Lyle Wicks.

It was not his candidacy that inspired me; it was his commitment to changing how government does business in this province, paving the way for future generations. And one of those legacies he left behind was the Mission Tree Farm. In 1958, Mission was the first municipality to be given responsibility to monitor their own forest called Tree Farm License #26.

The District of Mission has managed this resource since 1958 and it is often cited as an excellent example of how a locally managed forest can provide benefits to the community. Since 1990, surplus revenues have provided approximately $5 million to capital projects.

The incident between former B.C. premier WAC Bennett and Grewall demonstrated how fierce political battles were fought in B.C. and could have been one of the deciding factors of granting the tree farm.

During the much-heated 1956 provincial election, Grewall, as a CCF candidate, commonly addressed the issues of taxes, bridges, farmers and the forestry industry, which he claimed were being “monopolized” by a handful of large companies in the province.

Grewall referred to these stakeholders as “timber maharajahs,” and said the system would revert to a “form of feudalism, which I left 30 years ago.”

He spoke passionately before the provincial cabinet and testified at the Sloan Commission on behalf of small logging operators in B.C.

Just before election day, the premier spoke in Mission City, which was supposed to be the last leg of the long summer campaign. During Bennett’s Social Credit address, many of the uninvited CCF supporters gathered and heckled him from inside and outside the hall, making it one of the most memorable moments in B.C. political history.

Bennett spoke for more than two hours and amplifiers carried his voice to the crowd and those unable to squeeze into the hall.

During the first half of his speech, the premier’s smile was well in evidence as he jibed back at his hecklers. Bennett showed no fear of his hecklers, combining humour and charisma to fight them. At one point he even called out: “I just love hecklers.”

When Bennett announced there would be no debt by 1962, a heckler cried out: “You won’t be here in 1962!”

The premier shot back: “I’ll be here in ’82!”

Bennett said efforts were made to get the Mission High School auditorium for the meeting, but it was not available, “which shows that schools are not owned by the government and I am not a dictator.”

At this point a voice was heard shouting out “baloney.” The heckler was CCF candidate Grewall, who proceeded to enter the hall and began to seat himself on the stage, “to the accomplishment of mixed cheers and catcalls.”

The premier continued his speech, as many cried out to hear Grewall speak. Bennett said that the CCF and Liberals could rent their own hall if they wished to address the gathering.

I spoke with former premier Dave Barrett in 2003 and recalled hearing many incredible stories about Grewall, when he first arrived in Canada in 1957.

Barrett said during the interview: “He was an icon, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting elected in his riding. He lost the election, but won the hearts of many.”

When Barrett became premier in 1972, he was invited to the Sikh Temple in Vancouver and was presented with a ceremonial sword.

As he received the sword, he told the audience: “This isn’t for me, this is for Naranjan Grewall. He is our true hero.”

Barrett and Grewall never met, but he started his political career in Grewall’s former riding of Dewdney, when he first got elected to the B.C. legislature in 1960.

When Grewall was nominated as a candidate for the CCF party in the Dewdney riding in 1956, this drew excitement. But, according to Barrett, Grewall faced open discrimination on the campaign trail.

“The former mayor knew the risk he was taking and many people were surprised he took this risk to enter the race,” said Barrett.

Barrett said Grewall overcame many racial insults along the way.

“Every kid in the North Fraser, who thinks he or she is being discriminated against, should read the Grewall story and the challenges he faced.”

Grewall was later found dead in a Seattle motel room with a gunshot wound to the head in July of 1957. He was 47 years of age.

Ken Herar writes monthly for the Abbotsford News on diversity issues.

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