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Immigrants have had been looked down upon since centuries, not for the person that they are but for their colour, creed and race. There was a need for people to step up and set an example for the world that both natives and immigrants matter to the well-being and economy of a country.

Among many, 96-year-old distinguished personality Asa Singh Johalis one who has shown the world that everyone will be benefitted if people are given equal opportunities to express their ideas and accepted for who they are.

In search of hope

Born in 1922 in Jalandhar, Punjab, Asa was just 18-month-old when he, along with his parents, set out for Canada in search of a new home and a new hope. They started off from Kolkata in a cargo ship that was bound for Hong Kong. From there, they reached Vancouver via a Canadian Pacific steam ship on February 15, 1924.

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Vancouver, a part of British Columbia, was under the British rule at that time. Life was already miserable with abrupt economic depressions, dearth of jobs and lack of a healthy lifestyle. And being an Indian in a British colony was even worse because of the rampant discrimination against skin colour, accent, and racial profiling.

Asa’s family settled in Vancouver near the Oak Tree bridges and his father worked in the lumber mills like most Sikhs did then. Having saved up enough, he was finally able send his son to school. But alas! All the progress the family made was wiped out during the great economic depression that started in 1928 and lasted into the 30s. Asa’s father lost all his savings and they moved to North Vancouver and later to Squamish. Asa could thus only study upto STD 6 and was forced to work to survive under those uncertain times.

“The wage was 25 cents an hour in those lumber sawmills. I got 10 cents less because I was under age. And Caucasians used to get 10 cents more,” reminisces Asa.

Building an empire at 19

Throughout his teenage, Asa kept on working in sawmills, learning things and with his spendthrift lifestyle, he saved up some money for himself. During those times, there was no oil or gas or electricity. People used fire wood to heat their houses. This gave Asa the idea of delivering firewood to homes in 1941, at the mere age of 19, he started a business using the small savings he had and the knowledge he acquired during the sawmill work in Mitchell island in the province of Richmond.

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The year 1955 is a turning point in Asa’s life. Until then, he was running a partnership business that involved managing a private forest, cutting and delivering fire wood. In 1955, after starting a small sawmill, it was time to divide the business. Asa took charge of sawmill and his partner looked after the forest and firewood delivery. Starting the sawmill business with a staff of nine was the launching pad of his business explorations. He named itTerminal.

By 1973, Asa’sTerminal Group of Companies had two major saw mills and 125 people working for him. His operation grew from cutting 15,000 feet wood per day to cutting 485,000 feet by implementing technology that was considered state-of-the art back then.

Presently, he owns two sawmills and a remanufacturing plant in Washington State in the US. His company – Terminal Group of Companies - employs over 500 people at various divisions of his daily operations. Today, Asa’s wealth is counted in billions and he has rightly called the Lumber Mogul in the lumber industry in British Columbia for his exceptional work in creating an industry simply based on an idea.

More than just a billionaire

But there’s more to this man than just his wealth and influence in the lumber industry, as he is the first person that comes to everyone’s mind when it comes to philanthropy. This soft spoken stalwart of the Indo-Canadian community has donated millions of dollars to various worthwhile causes and organizations. Be it the Children’s Hospital, UBC, Cancer Society, or any other cause, Asa is there to help.

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He has donated more than $4 million (Rs 27.5 crore) to the BC Children’s Hospital so far and has committed to donated $100,000 (Rs 68 lakh) in each of the following four years. Furthermore, Asa and his family have donated $1.5 million (Rs 10.3 crore) to the Cancer Centre and funded the building of an impressive auditorium worth $165,000 (Rs 1.1 crore) in Girls’ Higher secondary School in his hometown Jalandhar.

In 1988, he was honoured on Canada Day for his outstanding contribution to the Indo-Canadian community. Recently, he was awarded Doctor of Law by the University of British Columbia for his generosity and community service, the highest civilian honour of the province. Asa was also in the board of governors of University of British Columbia for three years and is currently a member of the board of directors of BC Children’s Hospital.

From earning 25 cents an hour to becoming a billionaire in a foreign land, the journey of Asa is truly remarkable. His immense work ethic and desire to explore the unexplored paths are the ingredients to his massively successful life. Lastly, his exceptional contributions in philanthropy shows that above all, a person is not loved for what he possesses but what he is as a human being.

- By Shreshthangsha Sayan Biswas