A motorcycle club answers a stranger’s call for help

The Thomas family had just moved to BC a year ago, and they didn't have a local network to draw on after a landslide damaged their property during November's floods.

By Joti Grewal | February 14, 2022 |5:00 am

The group of 20 men had put in four days of intensive labour. They had cleared away the large boulders and debris left on a property by a landslide. It was the final day of the project and the group was putting the finishing touches on a new railing in the yard. The street was filled with sounds of recurring laughter, and friendly teasing about who was working harder. A fire helped the men stay warm during breaks as they sipped on hot cups of tea (ਚਾਹ).

The men were members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club who had answered a call from a stranger. They were finishing repairs on a property just east of Harrison damaged by a landslide in November.

It was a Saturday afternoon in mid January, and the Thomas residence was filled with optimism. That hadn’t been the case several weeks earlier. Then, the only sounds heard were those of the cascading waterfall that plunged into the creek behind the property, and the clash of helmets from a football game on the TV. Then came the sound of a freight train.

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Mervyn Thomas had jumped off the sofa and rushed to a window at the back of the house. He couldn’t see anything but he knew what was coming. Home alone, he rushed to a bedroom in the north-end corner of the home. He closed the door and turned to face a wall, bracing himself for a landslide to wipe away his home along with him inside.

The sound quickly stopped. Mervyn was unharmed, still standing in the room. The house was also undamaged. A look outside revealed a different story. The primary entrance at the back of the house was blocked by a heap of boulders and debris, but Mervyn managed to exit the home from the lower level and found his neighbour. The pair attempted to drive to Harrison, only to encounter a landslide that had blocked Rockwell Drive. They turned around and waited to be extracted by boat by Kent Harrison Search and Rescue.

Mervyn and his wife Sabena returned days later to assess the damage to their property.

Large boulders littered the ground. They had come tumbling down the mountain behind the property and now formed a pile six feet tall, blocking access to a neighbour’s property.

Sabena explains how the landslide narrowly missing their home, and changed the landscape around their property. 📷: Joti Grewal
Sabena explains how the landslide narrowly missied their home, and changed the landscape around their property. 📷: Joti Grewal

The Thomases called the District of Kent for help. They were told that because the debris was now on their property, it was their problem. Removing it would require heavy machinery and thousands of dollars, the couple estimated. Having moved from Calgary a year ago, the pair didn’t have a large local network to draw on. They didn’t quite know what their next move was until they received a phone call from a friend in their former city.

The friend told the couple that they had heard in the news that the Sikh Motorcycle Club was assisting flood victims. But Sabena was hesitant about making the phone call and whether the volunteers would travel all the way to Harrison.

She needn’t have been.

“I called and it was such a wonderful reception.”

After a brief visit to the property, Azad Sidhu returned in late December with heavy equipment, a dump truck, and roughly 20 of his fellow club members.

“When I looked at it, it was devastating,” Sidhu recalled.

With temperatures dipping below 15 C, members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club cleared away the heavy boulders, trees, and repaired the roadway. The club was hoping to have the work done in one day, but it ultimately took four.

There were, Sidhu said, “maybe 50 truckloads and all kinds of debris. The trees were down, [their] fence, [their] car was in the ditch, [their] boat was all crushed… It was chaos.”

It wasn’t the first call the group answered after November’s flooding and landslides. The first was from one of their own.

A mudslide had damaged a club member’s property in Yarrow, so the group banded together to help. That’s where the idea came to help others who might be in similar situations. So they put a call out for those who needed assistance.

The next call came from a resident in Princeton, where floodwaters had washed away the driveway on several properties.

“There were six, seven properties alongside Highway 3, and they were disconnected due to the flooding,” Sidhu said.

The highways were closed at the time and the club wasn’t able to travel to Princeton. So instead, they arranged for gravel to be delivered to the properties. Sidhu estimates the project cost the club about $3,000.

The club has also helped people in Columbia Valley and Abbotsford.

The idea of service is one entrenched in the faith-based club. Seva, or selfless service, is a cornerstone of Sikhism. Sikh groups have taken a prominent role in the post-disaster response, with a Surrey Gurdwara cooking meals for stranded people in Hope, Khalsa Aid Canada, heavily involved, and Pritpal Singh Sekhon organizing airlifts and trucker convoys to help supply communities.

Before the floods gave way for an opportunity for the club to give back, members had been involved in a number of other efforts.

The club has chapters across Canada, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. Last year, the group held a ride to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. They exceeded their fundraising target for Diabetes Canada and raised $115,000. They also collectively raised another $115,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society, and have provided countless meals and PPE to numerous groups during the pandemic.

But the group isn’t just about giving back; it began 20 years ago as a means to educate the public about turban wearing Sikhs.

“Motorcycling, and especially turban-wearing riders on motorcycles—that’s a conversation starter for us,” Jagdeep Singh said. Singh is a member of the Ontario chapter who travelled to the Thomas residence to volunteer.

The difficult part, Sidhu said, is they often don’t know where they are needed.

“The unfortunate thing is this, that we’re not getting calls. A lot of people, especially in the Punjabi community, don’t like to get donations even though they need help. They don’t speak out. So my request to them is: you can help somebody in later stages if it’s needed. If you need help now, you can shout at us and we’ll be there.”

Sidhu estimated the labour and machinery to restore the Thomas property cost about $20,000. The cost to the Thomas family: nothing.

A large boulder (right) is all that remains in the Thomas yard as Mervyn (right) says his final goodbyes to members of the club. 📷: Joti Grewal
A large boulder (right) is all that remains in the Thomas yard as Mervyn (right) says his final goodbyes to members of the club. 📷: Joti Grewal

Sidhu credits the ongoing restoration work to the community at large. The equipment was provided by club members Jadgeep Singh Raiwal and Gurpreet Singh Tung, a new railing was donated by Daljit Thind of Thind Properties. Money was donated by Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in New Westminster, as well as the Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council, and the Ontario chapter of the Sikh Motorcycle Club.

“The response was so amazing,” said Sabena. She and Marvin were at a loss for words, and so were their neighbours. “It’s changed the whole neighbourhood. The other neighbours couldn’t believe that we were getting the help.”

And Sabena couldn’t either. She was taken aback by the support she and her family received from the Sikh Motorcycle Club. And the experience of these strangers showing up at her doorstep and asking for nothing in return is one that will stay with her.

“It’s changed me.”

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Joti Grewal

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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