HERAR COLUMN: Controversial death in Seattle remembered

Sixty years later and mystery still surrounds the case of Mission man’s death

by Ken Herar

Columnist

“It’s murder!”

The words of Helen Grewall were echoed by many friends of her late husband – former Mission Mayor Naranjan Gill – after his suspicious death in a Seattle hotel in the summer of 1957.

Naranjan Grewall was a leader and pioneer who was truly ahead of his time. He became the first “Hindu” (the colloquial term for South Asians at the time) elected to any political position in Canada when he was voted in as a member of the Mission city council in 1950. Later, he would top this feat by becoming mayor in 1954.

Always known for never shying away from any battle, Grewall’s legendary dust-up with then Premier W.A.C. Bennett at the Mission Legion in 1956 was the culmination of a battle for the “little guy” that Grewall had fought for all his life.

Not only was Bennett caught flatfooted and speechless at the audaciousness of Grewall’s fearless foray into a Social Credit rally, Grewall so turned the tide of opinion that Bennett had to be escorted by the Mounties out of town.

Grewall’s run for a seat in the BC Legislature as a member of the CCF came as no surprise to anyone. He was first and foremost a man of the people. He saw the way the forest industry was being monopolized by large companies with what seemed to be too-close ties with government. His testimony at the Royal Commission on Forest Resources in 1955, where he compared the new system of forest licences to the feudal system that he had left behind in India 30 years previously, certainly fanned the flames of “The War in the Woods.”

Although he lost the election in a close battle, Grewall was later proved correct when then Forest Minister Robert Sommers was forced to resign over allegations of corruption in the granting of some of those same licences. Sommers was convicted of accepting bribes two years later and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for five years.

Needless to say, Naranjan Grewall was a polarizing figure. He was a wealthy man who gave freely and generously to worthy causes yet fought against many of the practices that were responsible for the wealth of many of the businessmen with whom he rubbed shoulders every day.

He was well respected in the community of Mission and beyond – yet there were 14 suspicious fires in sawmills he was part owner of and his own house was set ablaze by an unknown arsonist.

His wife was well aware of the dangers he faced although he kept to himself his suspicions as to who was behind the threats. True to his self-reliant and honourable reputation, he refused to name anyone or make any official complaints without proof.

Naranjan Grewall’s death, which occurred on a business trip to Seattle, was officially labeled a suicide. Some of his close friends went to Seattle to try to make sense of the tragedy. What they discovered only raised more questions and indicated that the police investigation was certainly very limited in scope.

There were reports of a loud quarrel in his room at the Star Motel and later that same night he moved to a different motel. There was alcohol found in the same room as his body and Grewall was never known to drink, yet the police insist that he was alone in the room at all times.

Why would a man who was going to end his life call his daughter and tell her that he had arrived safely in Seattle and everything was going well?

The Spanish-made .32 automatic pistol was found clutched in his right hand. Although not unheard of, police statistics show that fewer than one-quarter of people who shoot themselves while standing are still holding the firearm after they fall. Further to this, Naranjan’s wife claimed her husband had a fear of guns and would not have had one in his possession for any reason.

This month marks the 60th year of Naranjan Grewall’s death. Although we will probably never know the truth of what happened that fateful night, we do know that the courage, honesty, and indomitable will of this one man helped guide Mission along the path to becoming the thriving and diverse community it is now.

– You can contact Ken Herar at kenherar@gmail.com.

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