MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Being around the trucking business a few decades has given me an opportunity to watch waves of immigrants and new Canadians take their place in the workforce. Once the domain of th...
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Being around the trucking business a few decades has given me an opportunity to watch waves of immigrants and new Canadians take their place in the workforce. Once the domain of the descendants of white European settlers, today’s professional drivers are as ethnically diverse as the United Nations. Scots, Brits, Filipinos, Poles, Portuguese, Italians, Jamaicans, Russians and Chinese have taken their turn behind the wheel. And they’re still coming: Somalis, West Africans and Koreans are among the newest arrivals.
But the most tenacious and resilient group has to be the East Indians. Despite blatant racism, language and cultural barriers, and subtle forms of discrimination, truck drivers from the subcontinent have clawed their way into the mainstream.
It’s not surprising then, to see a vibrant trucking association springing out of this community. And even less surprising to hear they have no problem attracting members. Secretary General Najib Iqbal has a role of 700-plus members and he’s hoping to attract more recruits at their first annual Great Canadian Indian Truck Show at the Powerade Centre in Brampton, Ont. August 30.
“The Indian Trucking Association is open to anyone,” says Iqbal, “but it’s primarily made up of members of the Indian community, both East and West. Most of us have some connection to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.”
The association is also thinking of opening a chapter in Surrey or Abbotsford, B. C., two cities that have large south Asian communities and lots of trucking activity.
About 12 years ago I wrote a story for Truck West exploring industry attitudes and perceptions towards truckers of colour. One Sikh driver, who spoke flawless Canadian English, told me he had talked on the phone to a personnel agent of a large Ontario trucking company who invited him to fill out an application. But when he arrived at the terminal he was promptly told:”No jobs here.”
His hunch was that they had an unwritten “no turban” rule.
This was a major Ontario carrier that today has several south Asian drivers. But acceptance by some companies and some drivers has been an uphill battle that continues to this day. Just listen to the CB radio when traffic is snarled around Toronto; racially denigrating comments are not unusual.
But Iqbal has a different take on the issue.
“Racism is everywhere in the world. It’s not just white on black, it works the other way too,” he says. “There is still racism in the industry, but in my seven years with J. D. Smith, I’m proud to say I’ve never heard the ‘P’ or ‘N’ word once. But there’s not much you can do about 1% of the world’s population that doesn’t like someone because of their skin colour.”
Iqbal himself, doesn’t fit any stereotype. He goes to bluegrass festivals and admits he grew up watching the Dukes of Hazzard and Leave it to Beaver.
“My mother worked at Tonka Toys on Airport Road in Mississauga, and my day care on Dixie Road was right next to a trucking company.”As well, many of his Indian neighbours in Brampton were getting into the trucking industry at that time in the early 80s.
“Trucking is part of our business and lifestyle,” he says. “And we’re proud of it.”
The genesis of the Indian Trucking Association started a few years ago with a small group meeting to discuss problems encountered by the South Asian drivers and ways to get their voices heard. This group now forms the backbone of the organization with many of those original people sitting on the executive board.
Iqbal sees the ITA as an educational resource.
“So many people run into problems because they don’t know the language and they don’t know the issues. And a lot of drivers don’t want to cross the border because their English skills are not too good. We can help them with that, too,” he says.
The best way to gain acceptance is to work hard, Iqbal says. But understanding the lingo is also key.
“That way they’re able to approach the job with more confidence and gain skills more quickly,” he says.
Iqbal suggests that the ITA can also help members running a small business, and provide information about health and safety and issues like sexual harassment.
“Driving a truck here is not like driving one in India,” he adds.
He also feels strongly about getting rid of the negative elements plaguing the industry.
“It’s best for every community to clean up its own dirty laundry and take responsibility for itself. That’s why we say no to drug smuggling, no to organized crime, no to fly-bynight driving schools, no to fly-bynight companies that don’t pay for weeks at a time. We’re looking for a high standard of professionalism. Our association is working to make our drivers decent, respectful, honourable Canadian citizens.”
The ITA has already been involved in meetings with the OTA and other industry stakeholders.
“We’re a grassroots organization and we want to work under the other associations out there, such as the OTA and CTA,” says Iqbal.
The Great Canadian Indian Truck show promises to be a memorable event with lots of exhibits, trucks, a Show’n’Shine competition, and seminars. They’re also going to be offering Indian food, music and dance performances.
“Like it or not, we’re going through an evolution right now. What we’re trying to do is spread a little goodness in an industry that some would say, is in dire straits,” says Iqbal. “Either you change with the times or you go extinct like dinosaurs.”