Ravinder Athwal, a driver for Trimac, left India where he was a biologist to pursue a new life here in Canada.
Athwal behind the wheel of his Western Star while making a delivery.
The journey from India to Canada is a long and sometimes difficult trek, but for one Ontario driver, it was a long haul worth the journey.
Ravinder Athwal left his native India over 15 years ago in search of a better life for his family – a better life he found on the road.
The first challenge Athwal faced was saving the $10,000 proof of funds required by the Government of Canada for Federal Skilled Workers seeking residency – monies that cannot be borrowed and increase by $3,000 per dependent, which for Athwal, meant a $16,000 savings before he, his wife and young son could be granted citizenship.
“There are other ways to enter into the country, methods that aren’t as expensive, but I wanted to move into Canada as a skilled worker,” Athwal said.
In India, Athwal holds a bachelors degree in science with a concentration in chemistry. He worked as a chemist in the marketing division of a large pharmaceutical company in India.
“The company I worked for in India had a branch here too,” said Athwal. “I contacted them and told them I had experience with their company.”
While he had a degree from a university in India, to retain a position in his field he would require a master’s degree. At the time Athwal made the call to the company, to further his studies would have cost almost 20 grand and on top of proof of funds, tuition was not another expense for which he could budget.
“There was no way I could (afford) that. So, I had to find other work,” said Athwal.
His second and third challenges mounted quickly – he had to leave his wife and son behind and find a job.
“I told my wife, ‘Let me go first for four or five months and I can find a job and a place to live’,” said Athwal. “It wasn’t easy, believe me, I didn’t know anyone here. I came here for three months and worked two jobs. I worked at a gas station and I washed the cars and a month or so later I got another job as a labourer at Freeze Co. Systems. Once I was working at that job, I became fascinated by seeing the trucks on the highway. I was a very good driver back in India, so I thought I would do some research on a career in trucking.”
Already in Canada for three years, with his family in tow, Athwal decided to undertake the challenge of acquiring his A/Z licence – a decision that Athwal credits to giving him and his family a life in Canada that he may never have had in India.
Admittedly, it’s a long way from being a chemist and a career Athwal would not have considered back home.
In India the roads and trucks are small and they can’t travel more than 60-70 km/h.
“I wouldn’t think of doing that kind of job in India,” said Athwal. “Driving there was very hard. Nobody cares about the rules on the road or whether their car gets dinged or scratched.”
In May 2001, Athwal had earned his A/Z licence and found work soon thereafter.
“As soon as I got my licence I got a job at Cargill Foods and that company gave me exposure in Canada, especially in Ontario. I used to deliver meat – chicken and pork – I used to drive all over,” said Athwal.
It had taken Athwal a relatively short period to carve out a career for himself, but his challenges weren’t yet over. Athwal was happy driving truck, but he wanted to own the vehicle in which he spent the bulk of his day.
It took four years to save money for a down payment on his first truck.
“I was new to Canada, so it was very hard for me to get a loan,” Athwal said. “So I saved some money while I was working at Cargill and I used that savings to buy my first truck. It was a very good Mack truck and I drove it for almost five years, it was getting old and I was making a lot of runs to Quebec so I decided to sell that one any buy my Western Star.”
When he first bought his truck, it was a financial challenge juggling payments with other daily expenses, but that eased over time.
“I take my work very seriously and I work very hard. If you work properly in a company, you’ll get enough work to make your payments,” said Athwal.
Still, there was one other leap Athwal would make – from Cargill to chemicals.
After countless runs on the road, he began to think that as a driver, he should venture into the transportation of dangerous materials, as he had experience working with chemicals.
This decision led him to Trimac Transportation – a company that provides bulk transport of chemicals, industrial gas, petroleum, oilfield services and many other materials.
It was a juncture in his life where his past experience had finally intertwined with his present – a point in time where he knew many of the challenges he faced were behind him and he had found a company where he loved working and knew he could grow.
“I have a lot of opportunities here,” said Athwal. “In fact, Trimac has given me opportunities to grow as a driver-trainer. I go to various truck shows and help (recruit) safe drivers.”
He enjoys the independence working on the road offers and he especially loves the drive itself, where he can enjoy the diversity of the Canadian landscape , its seasons and its people.
“Since I have come here, I have met so many people from all over the world living in Canada, just from driving a truck,” said Athwal. “If you like travelling, it is like you are being paid to travel. You get to see so many different places. I know so many people who work in factories and I have told them to do research on trucking and get their licence. It’s a great opportunity and (there are) so many ways to grow within the industry – recruiting, driver training, product handling – there are so many opportunities if you want them. People see a truck driver and they think, ‘He’ll be a truck driver all his life,’ but I don’t see it that way. It’s all how you view it.”
Sitting behind the wheel has given Athwal the chance to become a valued member of a community, a role he relishes.
“I worked as a Road Knight with the Ontario Trucking Association,” said Athwal.
OTA Road Knights are first-class drivers that value safety and professionalism. These drivers travel to schools, car clubs, community groups and other organizations as ambassadors promoting safety, how to share the road with tractor-trailers while also touching upon the professionalism of drivers and the vital role they play in every community.
“I used to take my own truck to schools and show the kids how to walk or bike safely near a truck,” said Athwal, who was one of seven knights chosen because of his safe driving record.
“It is important for people to know that a truck driver isn’t just about his truck – it’s about safety, accountability and education,” Athwal said. “It’s a great job and it pays well.”
When his tenure as an OTA Road Knight was over, Athwal didn’t slow down. He decided to volunteer his time with St. John’s Ambulance as a car seat technician.
“About 70% of people don’t know how to install the car seat properly,” Athwal said. “Installing a car seat is a two-person job. It’s a free service and it definitely helps to save the lives of kids.”
From St. John’s Ambulance, Athwal decided to devote a little more of his time to volunteering, as an auxiliary constable with the Toronto police, division 22.
“I’ve been working with the Toronto police for one year now. We do a lot of crowd control and patrolling in the police cars (with an officer) on the weekends,” said Athwal. “A uniformed presence always makes the community safer.”
Being a part of a community is an important aspect of Athwal’s life, and something his wants to instill in his eldest son, and a younger son that followed after settling in Canada.
“It’s important for me to show my children that community is important,” said Athwal. “We all live in a community together, so we should all do our part to give back. I wouldn’t have the nice life I have if it weren’t for my job, for Trimac and for my community. Canada has given me a lot and I like to give back.”
It’s been a long road for Athwal, and the starting point veered dramatically from the destination, but it is journey he says was worth each step.