Richmond-based lumber baron died peacefully on July 5, just shy of his 99th birthday

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When heavy-hitters such as Mac-Blo, Slocan and Doman dominated B.C.’s lumber industry, Asa Singh Johal stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them as the owner of an independent lumber company.

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“He was up against giants and he succeeded,” Balwant Sanghera, who knew Johal for 35 years, said. “He was very hard-working, but he was also very humble, he never bragged about anything, he was always very respectful.”

Johal, born in India on Aug. 17, 1922, died peacefully Monday just shy of his 99th birthday. He founded Terminal Forest Products in 1965, doled out millions-of-dollars to charities, was the recipient of the Orders of Canada and B.C., and the holder of an honorary doctorate in law from the University of B.C.

“This guy was an icon, an amazing guy,” said his longtime friend Wally Oppal, who last saw Johal at a service for Oppal’s mother three weeks ago. “The remarkable thing about Asa, he was so successful and he gave so much of his wealth away to philanthropy, but he never ever wanted credit for it.

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“He recognized he was a beneficiary of all the good things Canada had to offer him, he worked extremely hard and cared for so many other people.”

Prime Minister Paul Martin visited Asa Johal, left, at the Terminal Forest Products sawmill in 2005.
Prime Minister Paul Martin visited Asa Johal, left, at the Terminal Forest Products sawmill in 2005. Photo by Ward Perrin /Vancouver Sun

Johal’s parents left India for B.C. in 1924. As a boy, it was Johal’s goal to one day own a lumber mill and he left school at age 14 to pursue his dream, beginning by selling sawmill trim ends as firewood. By 1965, he’d built his first sawmill on Mitchell Island.

His life has been chronicled in Terminal Forest Products: How a Sikh Immigrant Created B.C.’s Largest Independent Lumber Company, by Vancouver author and producer Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, and Johal served on UBC’s board of governors.

B.C. Children’s Hospital, of which Johal became a director, received $2 million from the philanthropist, his son Darcy said, after a nephew who had a rare blood disorder with a 50/50 chance of living had his life saved.

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The Canadian Cancer Society, Rotary Club-Polio Plus and so many others, including a girls’ high school in his home village of Jandiala in Punjab, were beneficiaries of Johal’s and his wife Kashmir’s kindness and generosity.

The lumber baron was a founder and became chairman for life at Gurdwara Nanak Niwas, the India Cultural Centre of Canada, which was the first religious institution built on Richmond’s No. 5 Road, known today as Highway to Heaven because of the preponderance of places-of-worship.

“If I look back, one of the things I love most about my father is talking to him about being a young kid and making five cents less than the person working beside him,” Geven Opal, Johal’s daughter, said. “I’d say, ‘Dad, did that ever bother you?’ and he’d say, ‘Nope.’ ”

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Her dad asked the foreman whether he would be paid a fair wage if he got his grader’s certificate, and the foreman said yep.

“He was always willing to work hard and he was always looking in front,” Opal said. “He never looked back, he never looked at the negativity, he was a very positive human being.”

His only regret, she said, was not having attended university, although as someone who had mastered the logistics of the lumber industry, he needed no degree.

Asa Johal, founder of B.C.’s Terminal Forest Products, as he was at age 18 and in business for himself for the first time.
Asa Johal, founder of B.C.’s Terminal Forest Products, as he was at age 18 and in business for himself for the first time. PNG

Decent, caring, respectful of others, generous, diligent, outstanding role model with a passion for seva (serving others): The attributes flowed in to Johal’s family.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a tweet that Johal’s humble beginnings and drive to succeed inspired people across B.C.: “Asa Uncle Ji may be gone, but his light shines bright in all the lives he has touched,” the MP for Vancouver South said.

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And Harry Bains, who had worked with Johal, told Postmedia News that Johal not only helped South Asians get established and flourish in B.C., his wisdom and entrepreneurship was also key in developing B.C.’s forest industry, creating hundreds of good-paying jobs.

“He achieved all of this considering the challenges that the previous generations faced — when we were not considered equal here in Canada,” the provincial labour minister said. “Asa Singh Johal and the generations that came before committed to making an equal Canada.

“It’s because of his generation that we can now sit as members of the legislature, members of parliament, be owners of large businesses. It’s because of the struggles his generation overcame that we now live in a more inclusive society.

“Our community lost a great leader.”

The words of affection bring a smile to his daughter’s face.

“It’s really who he was,” Opal said. “I’m hearing this from everybody.

“To me he was just dad and it’s really hard to put into words the affection I have for him, the affection he had for me, and the pride he took in his family.”

Johal was predeceased by his granddaughter Roop Johal. He’s survived by his wife of 72 years, Kashmir, his son Darcy Johal (Manjit), daughter Genev Opal (Avtar), five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

gordmcintyre@postmedia.com

twitter.com/gordmcintyre

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