Barj was born in India, and moved to Canada at the age of 10, settling initially in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. “Starting in grade 8 in Port Alberni, I began to work after school and weekends at Dunbar’s General Merchandise store”, he recalls. “A lot of what I have done in my business life – how I built my career and business, came from my working experiences at that store.” The family eventually moved to Vancouver in the mid-1970s as Barj’s parents wanted to be closer to Barj’s siblings, who at the time were in university. He completed the last two years of high school at John Oliver Secondary.
While attending university, Barj worked with his father in home building. “My father was an extraordinary entrepreneur,” he says. “He was always interested in activities that not only benefitted his family but also generated prosperity for others as well.” This entrepreneurial spirit was clearly passed down to Barj.
Early on in his career, Barj had an opportunity to work for a small oil company. He moved up within the company, eventually becoming an assistant manager. “From there, I got a taste of operating a business,” he recalls. He soon took ownership of a gas station, overseeing over a dozen employees. “Initially I thought, okay, I have a business which can support my family.” After a few years, he decided to expand and grow his enterprise.
Over the past thirty years, Barj has successfully operated businesses in land development, construction, retail, and food services. He is Founder and President of Sandhurst Group of Companies, which is one of the largest Esso dealers and Tim Hortons franchisee in British Columbia.
While overseeing a highly successful business enterprise, Barj simultaneously began to pursue his passion for equality and social justice. From his own family, he witnessed firsthand the importance of giving back and uplifting others. His father sold most of his real estate holdings in 1980 and returned to India to establish the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust. “My father wanted to establish a charitable medical college,” Barj recalls. “He felt that there were not enough learning opportunities, especially for rural Punjabis. I had the opportunity to visit him in India in 1986, nineteen years after I first came to Canada. It was during the two weeks I was there that I was able to clearly see the charitable work my father was doing. I developed this strong connection with both the country I was born in and the country where I now lived.”
Barj’s appreciation of the two nations has resulted in his deep involvement in numerous local, national and international initiatives. He is a founding donor and Board Member of the Canada-India Centre for Excellence at Carleton University in Ottawa, as well as the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability (IC-IMPACTS) with its office at the University of British Columbia. Barj also helped launch one of the first international collaborations in nursing education between Canada and India through the Canada India Education Society (CIES). Nearly 2000 young women have graduated from this nursing program at Dhahan-Kaleran, Punjab. And Barj is also the founder of the Dhahan Prize Literature Prize.
As noted on the website, The Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature “celebrates the rich culture and transnational heritage of Punjabi literature and language. The prize aims to promote the growth of Punjabi language globally, as well as encourage new, emerging, and established writers working in the two Punjabi scripts, Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi.” Prizes are awarded to both youth and adult writers. “I wanted to create a prize where we draw attention to the rich literary works and the rich literary history found within Punjabi communities,” Barj explains.
When asked about who inspires him, Barj states “Many historical figures have inspired me. Among them Guru Nanak and Jesus have influenced me greatly. They were radicals and social innovators. They talked about life and how to live it. Their way and teachings are straight forward and practical. That whatever we need, the universe provides. Both Jesus and Guru Nanak valued honest work, being truthful, and sharing with others. They lived in different parts of the world, at different times, but the messages were often very much the same.”
To learn more about the Dhahan Prize, visit the website at dhahanprize.com