Canada’s first-ever South Asian physician died at 92 in New Westminster, B.C., last Sunday.

Dr. Gurdev Singh Gill made history in 1958 when he became the first Indo-Canadian physician, according to the B.C. government.

Gill moved to Canada from India in 1949 at a time when the Canadian Encyclopedia estimates there were only about 2,000 South Asians in the country. Shortly after they gained the right to vote, according to Elections Canada.

He would go on to become president of Vancouver’s Khalsa Diwan Society, overseeing a new gurdwara building in South Vancouver at a time when few existed for local Sikhs.

His grandson, Imran Gill, said his grandfather lived “a very selfless life,” devoted to “uplifting others” not just in Canada but building sanitation infrastructure in Punjabi villages, including the one he left in 1949.

“He was the best grandfather who always made time for his family,” Gill recalled. “Being the first grandchild of his, I got to spend a lot of time with him — and so I’m fortunate.

“His drive and his commitment to helping others in everything he did was what stays with me.”

Awarded the inaugural Order of B.C. in 1990

Gill said among his grandfather’s proudest moments was being inducted into the Order of British Columbia in 1990 — the first year B.C. ever gave what it calls “the highest form of recognition the province can extend to its citizens.”

He received the award in its inaugural year, alongside luminaries such as musician Bryan Adams, Olympic medallist gymnast Lori Fung and businessman Jim Pattison.

“Being on stage with all those other wonderful Canadians,” Gill said. “He was so proud of that recognition.”

He displayed the medal proudly in his home, and wore it during his grandson’s wedding three years ago.

Dr. Gurdev Singh Gill, Canada’s first South Asian doctor, received the inaugural Order of British Columbia alongside Bryan Adams in 1990. (Submitted by Order of B.C.)

‘It’s with God’s blessings I met him’

One of Gill’s decades-long patients thanks the physician for his very life.

Rajinder Singh Pandher, 81, recalled an incident at a Vancouver Indo-Canadian conference in 1977.

When Pandher was suddenly struck by a bad headache, Gill noticed and, after some questions, insisted Pandher get tests done through his clinic.

Within a day he was in hospital for a month of life-saving surgeries with a neurosurgeon.

“I have no words to express my gratitude and thanks,” Pandher told CBC News. “It’s with God’s blessings I met him so I can be in front of you. Since then, he was my doctor and looked after me until his last day. I salute him.”

Pandher’s son, Harman Singh Pandher, was also one of Gill’s patients, and later became a children’s author. He remembered his childhood doctor as a role model. and heard his life story recounted by his father.

“To see him in that role — there weren’t many doctors of Indian descent at that time — it was a source of pride for me back then,” Pandher told CBC News. “It showed me I could be anything I wanted to be.”

He described Gill as a “pioneer in our community,” particularly for his leadership of the gurdwara, or advocacy for Indo-Canadian rights and contributions to the family reunification immigration program.

“The work he did fighting for the rights for our community, for the South Asian community at large, he was definitely an integral part of that,” Pandher said.

‘Great contribution to the Sikh brotherhood’

A medical certificate from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. for Gurdev Singh Gill, dated 1958.
Dr. Gurdev Singh Gill’s medical certificate from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. in 1958, when he became the first South Asian doctor in Canada. (Submitted by College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. )

The former president of Khalsa Diwan Society said Gill made a major contribution to the Vancouver Sikh community during his time in that role.

Jarnail Singh Bhandal, currently the South Vancouver gurdwara’s assistant secretary, said Gill’s presidency was marked by a provincewide effort to raise funds for a new, larger building to host worship, meals and community events for the burgeoning faith community.

“The community was getting bigger and we needed a bigger place,” Bhandal told CBC News. “We are grown up now and we have so many gurdwaras, but at that time there were very few. 

“This was his great contribution to the Sikh brotherhood. We should follow in his footsteps and try to serve the community with honour, dignity and with ethics, as Dr. Gill did.”

‘Make a difference’

Harman said he hopes his childhood family doctor’s legacy will inspire others.

“He’s maybe not a household name,” he said. “But he needs to be.”

Whether through his doctor’s practice in New Westminster, or helping bring clean water and sanitation to more than 25 villages in Punjab through his Indo-Canadian Friendship Society, his grandson said helping others be healthy was about more than simple health care.

“His medical practice was more than a medical practice,” Gill told CBC News. “It was a community hall where new immigrants came for guidance and advice.

“He used to always say, ‘If we can all live a life where we can … make a difference in the lives of others and uplift others, then it’s a successful life.'”

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