The Nut King of Montreal

Our visibly different newer immigrants need more help settling in, says Baljit Singh Chadha in his challenge to all Canadians

Peter C. Newman July 25 2005

The Nut King of Montreal

Our visibly different newer immigrants need more help settling in, says Baljit Singh Chadha in his challenge to all Canadians

Peter C. Newman July 25 2005

The Nut King of Montreal


Our visibly different newer immigrants need more help settling in, says Baljit Singh Chadha in his challenge to all Canadians


THE THIRD WAVE of the Canadian Establishment (the original WASPs being the first and the post-war influx of European entrepreneurs the second) is distinguished by the obsessive longing of its members to be recognized as trustworthy Canadians. The individual who has climbed furthest in this quest is Baljit Singh Chadha, 53, a Montrealer who is a major player in Canada’s nut trade, and whose title, “Honourable,” describes his lofty official standing as well as his intentions. I call Chadha Canada’s Nut King based on his success in establishing and expanding Balcorp Ltd., his privately owned international marketer of nuts and other food products, with sales worth up to $100 million a year.

But Chadha also holds a vital public position that is at the very heart of Canadian democracy. He is one of the five members of the


Ottawa-based Security Intelligence Review Committee, which provides an external (and presumably unbiased) review of the operations of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. To work in that touchy arena means he is privy to whatever secrets our secret service has uncovered. That requires top security clearance, which in turn demands a drum-tight oath of allegiance. Thus he is entitled to the title “Honourable,” and to the initials P.C. after his name, denoting that he is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada, and has taken the same oath as ministers of the Crown.

tising Sikh complete with turban and bushy beard (though one who refers to himself as “very liberal” in his thoughts and beliefs), sitting in judgment of CSIS. Apart from the dilemma of stereotyping, this could be a potentially tricky situation at a time that same agency proved to be astonishingly incompetent when it wiped telephone surveillance tapes that would have been crucial evidence at the recent Air India mistrial. Chadha won’t comment on that issue.

He is not a barrel of laughs. Always serious and unfailingly polite, he spent a couple of hours with me discussing

Established in 1867, Canada’s Confederation year, Besides heading a successful his feelings about Canada. Unlike many other to advise the Crown (that is, the government), this nut business, Chadha plays members of this third-wave group of newcomers, august and seldom publicly mentioned body packs the a vital role at the heart of our he doesn’t let his passionate admiration of his new

kind of silent clout that speaks the loudest in Ottawa’s democracy, serving on the corridors of power. All federal cabinet members becivilian board overseeing long to the Privy Council for life, as do chief justices the activities of the national and other distinguished individuals. In Chadha’s case, security agency, CSIS his membership denotes the trust placed in him by the man who sponsored him in 2003—then prime minister Jean Chrétien. (The other current members of the CSIS review committee are former premiers Gary Filmon of Manitoba and Roy Romanow of Saskatchewan, former Alberta Reform MP Raymond Speaker, and New Brunswick lawyer and businesswoman Aldéa Landry.)

It was a ballsy appointment to have Chadha, a prac-

homeland stop him from criticizing it. During our conversation, he suggested some interesting ways of improving our national potential. His thoughts are worth considering because they reflect not merely his concerns but the profound worries of most of the newcomers, who generally still feel too insecure or too shy to express them.

Chadha is different. He was self-confident in India and feels equally secure here. Born and brought up in an upper-class home in Bombay, he was educated in English at Catholic schools, then earned a B.Sc. at Bombay University. Chadha’s father, Jagjit, wanted him to join the family food business


but, seeking to broaden his horizons, the youngster sent out letters to a dozen business administration schools. He got lucky when he was accepted in the University of Western Ontario’s M.B.A. course, one of the best in the world. He eventually switched to Concordia University in Montreal, working part-time with his cousin, who was a chartered accountant.

Renting desk space from his cousin, Chadha went into business for himself in 1976. While still a student, he started importing and exporting foods from and to India, specializing in nuts and dried fruit. Almonds, pistachios and walnuts from California, cashews from India and Brazil, peanuts from the U.S., India and Argentina.

At the end of this dry recital, I ask him how Canada fit into his story, and why he decided to stay here. “My personal philosophy,” he replies, “is that the most important decisions in your life, you really don’t make yourself. They are presented to you, and you just follow their path. I just happened to be here, and this is going back to when there were no faxes, and I had to depend on telexes, telegrams and even trunk calls—overseas calls you had to book ahead. But it worked, and in hindsight, I think it was one of the best decisions in my life to stay in Canada, and to stay in Montreal. India was then a controlled economy, and in the mid-1970s, when they started to open up the economy, there were certain opportunities that presented themselves. I could start doing business out of California to India, and was the first to do so.”

Then came the essential turning point in his career, his proof that opportunities appear out of nowhere and that you must not only believe in this magical notion, but also depend on it and, above all, take advantage of it. This is Chadha’s story of that defining event in his career:

Chadha-with Chrétien in 1996 and with thenB.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh in 2000-came to Canada on his own as a student and built a successful importexport business

“I USED to deal with a Canadian bank—I won’t name it—and as a student had a $20,000 line of credit. It was a lot of money, and the thing was that I dealt with an assistant bank manager, and that was his limit, the maximum that he could give. I used to present him with cash flows and business plans—30 years ago, even big corporations didn’t do that—and he had total confidence in me. And then what happened, I started a business in California and he got transferred. So I started dealing with the bank manager, and I said ‘Look, I’m starting this business, I’m going to start getting orders and letters of credit, et cetera, for thousands of dollars,’ and he said, ‘no problem, when they come in, we’ll look after you and everything.’ Finally, when all these orders and letters of credit came in, he tells me they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. ‘You have orders on hand to ship out of California, but what’s a 25-year-old person doing with such large amounts of orders and businesses?’

“So that’s what happened. And at the same time, the supplier who was supposed to put the goods on the boat calls up and says, T need the money in advance, otherwise these goods are not going.’ I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was make it or break it, and you had no choice. I think the initial orders were for a shipment of $50,000, and the subsequent orders were a couple of hundred thousand dollars. To fly to California in those days, you had to go through Toronto. I was reading a newspaper on the plane while going there, and saw an ad from the Standard Chartered Bank, a British bank that was opening a Toronto office. And I said to myself, ‘Gee,

that rings a bell. It’s the bank I think my family used to be with in India.’ I called the bank, and it was a small rep office, with only three people, and I talked to the manager. This is when, as I say, the most important decisions you don’t make, they’re presented to you.

“I said I’m looking for financing for shipments, et cetera, and it’s a problem, things like that. He kept listening to me, and at the end, he says, ‘Are you by any chance related to ... ’—the name he mentioned was that of my grandfather. I said, ‘That’s my grandfather.’ He said, ‘Go ahead, do your business. Tell us where you want me to send the money.’ It was US$50,000. Amazing. I had not even met the gentleman. ‘When you come back, we will do the paperwork,’ he told me, and I was on the way to California.”

CHADHA STAYED with that bank until it closed its office 15 years later. He, though, chose to stay in Canada. “I could have been anywhere. I could have been in the Bahamas, and not paid any taxes or anything,” he tells me. “But I stayed in Canada, specifically in Montreal, and it was the best decision of my life.” After a few years, he says, he grew to love the city. (He and his wife, Roshi, a governor of McGill University, now live in Westmount. They have a son, Harkeet, and daughter, Gurveen, both in their teens.)

At the same time, Chadha is rightly concerned about how much still has to be done in Canada to achieve fair representation of different communities in different sectors, whether it’s public service, government, politics or corporate. He is exercised about the glass ceiling or glass door that separates them. Chadha looks back to the wave of Irish who arrived in Montreal in the 1840s, fleeing famine. “They came from the great hunger, and settled in Griffintown, where they faced discrimination. Then a second

Chadha-with his wife, wave came from Europe, and they inRoshi, and Hillary eluded a number of Jewish immigrants,

Rodham Clinton at a who also faced a lot of discrimination, recognition ceremony in Then the third wave were the people who New York City in 2000came in during the 1970s and 1980s, presays Canadian society dominately from Asia, and they are going needs considerably through the same thing. And it will hap-

more open thinking pen to the fourth wave. We’re living in

the 21st century, we say we are educated—why does it have to happen with every wave? Why can’t society, why can’t government, be prepared?”

Legislation won’t change attitudes, Chadha adds, but our society needs more open thinking. “For example,” he adds, “if you look at the federal public service, only seven to eight per cent of the people are visible minorities. In Toronto, more than 40 per cent of the population today are new Canadians. Yet if you look at the government, right from city council, the police and everywhere, there has yet to be some sort of openness to it. A lot of people say, ‘We want this,’ but nobody applies. People don’t apply because they feel it is a waste of time. This is one of the things that really has to change in order to make Canada a good place.”

Chadha is equally concerned that immigrants in the third wave, not being of European or Judeo-Christian stock, tend to live in what people are calling ghettos. “There are people who consider that the Malton-Brampton area [on Toronto’s outskirts] is an IndoCanadian ghetto,” he complains. “If you go north of Toronto, there are Italian ‘neighbourhoods.’ Same thing with the Greek ‘neighbourhoods.’ In Côte St-Luc in Montreal, it’s Jewish. Probably because there’s expensive housing, or because it’s people of a


certain stock, people don’t call them ghettos.”

Canadians have to open up the doors for the new communities, Chadha says, while those communities adjust and integrate. “The immigrants, when they come, are always drawn together where their own kinds are,” he adds. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. At some point, they expand to get out of it.” But while that’s been the case with European immigrants, the new Canadians might take longer to integrate because they are recognizably different. “This is something all levels of Canadians have to work toward,” says Chadha, “but there’s no big focus on this happening.”

One characteristic of new communities gathering together is that they end up getting involved in politics. “That’s very strong in the Indo-Canadian and the Punjabi community,” Chadha says. “Because they’re concentrated, they have the political power.” But he has a problem with politics based on race or religion. “We cannot be talking about, T’m a Muslim,’ T’m a Sikh,’ T’m a Jew,’ or such,” he says. “We have to be Canadians first, and then the other things are secondary or third degree. Multiculturalism up to now has been fantastic, it has brought us to a very important level, but we now have to take this to the next stage.”

Chadha has put his finger on a fundamental issue with the new wave of immigrants—their difficulty in blending in easily because they are visibly different. He wants to create more of a sense of belonging, a sense of welcome and, finally, a sense of acceptance. The only way this will happen, he feels, is if established Canadians, collectively and individually, lead by example—from governments to big corporations— not because they’re following some regulations or quotas, but as a social responsibility. “The question is,” he says, “do we have to blast our way in? That’s fine, but you cannot close the door. We’re in the 21st century.” There’ll be another wave behind this one, Chada notes, “and we shouldn’t do the same thing to them. So we have to change this concept to being Canadians first and anything else after.” Chadha’s secondary concern is that too much of Canada’s trade, around 75 per cent, is with one country, the United States. He points out that if Canada was a business with one customer con-

A great country can be even better, says Chadha, with his father, Jagjit, at Balcorp’s offices,

trolling that high a proportion of its turnover, the banks would stop lending it money. He strongly advocates much more diversification, including some serious effort to boost trade with India, which now

and with Roshi in their accounts for much less than one per cent Westmount home of Canada’s exports. “We are not using

Canada as a brand as much as we should be in gaining goodwill in different countries,” he contends. “We have a lot of unexploited ground.”

But he also notes that Canada, like other countries, is starting to recognize that its relationships with other nations are not necessarily based only on trade. “For Canadian companies to be competitive,” he says, “they have no choice but to invest overseas, to have joint ventures overseas. Because if we don’t do it, other countries will, and we’ll be completely left out of the global scheme of things. It’s a politically sensitive topic because, according to a lot of people, you’re moving your jobs away. But if we don’t stay competitive, the companies won’t exist, there’ll be nothing left.”

Chadha says he sees signs of progress, and not just at the federal level. “I just came back from India,” he tells me, “and they were saying that Ontario is going to have a permanent representative there. Alberta already has one and Quebec Premier Jean Charest is going in February.”

MY INTERVIEW with Baljit Singh Chadha was a treat. As a former immigrant myself who became a Canadian nationalist, I was delighted to find another newcomer who has developed such fierce but not unqualified feelings for his adopted home country. As he got up to leave, he said, “This is our home, this is my country; there’s no two ways about it. You probably won’t find a more ardent fan of Canada than I am. We have one of the best countries in the world. And the only thing that causes me concern is that we’ve got to make sure we leave a better country than we came into.” He was speaking for both of us. lîH