2017-10-18

Meet the B.C. property giant who wants to give a major gift to Bridgewater

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Stephen Sander, who changed his name from Sukhwant Singh, went on to found Vancouver&#8217;s ominpresent real estate company Hollyburn Properties after leaving Bridgewater. In 1960, Sander (then Singh) was recruited from abroad by the Bridgewater Junior Senior High School to teach baby boomers physical education.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Hollyburn Properties&#8217; apartment building in North Vancouver, named Bridgewater. The residential complex won the Rental Development of the Year Award from the Canadian Federation of Apartment Associations (CFAA) as part of the 2017 Rental Housing Conference in Toronto earlier this year.</p>

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At 83, the Vancouver real estate magnate and philanthropist, Stephen Sander still holds a soft spot for Bridgewater.

Last year, his billion-dollar company, Hollyburn Properties, named its award-winning Vancouver high rise tower after the town.

And now Sander and his company have reached out to LighthouseNOW to say he wants to make a major contribution to the town itself.

"I would like to donate some money ... So I thought first of all tell you, and you can spread the word," Sander told this newspaper in a telephone call from Vancouver.

Communicating on behalf of Hollyburn and Sander, company spokesperson Shawnessy Luke explained further in an email he intends to make a "major monetary contribution to the community as a way to give back for the kindness and welcome he received many years ago when he arrived to Canada in Bridgewater, N.S.

"Mr. Sander looks forward to discussions with the mayor about how his contribution can best serve the community of Bridgewater, N.S."

It's no idle offer. As Luke pointed out, from looking at the private company's website, "it is easy to see we are a large company and worth more than $1.5 billion."

Moreover, Luke added, the company has donated "two MRI's in Vancouver at a cost of $1-million each and are hoping to find a way to positively impact the lives of as many members of the Bridgewater community as possible."

An article in The Globe and Mail described the company that Sander founded 45 years ago as "among the largest managers of rental buildings in Canada."

The family-run business currently operates 85 rental apartment communities with more than 5,400 suites in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa, according to its website.

Sander's life is a a veritable rags-to-riches story beginning in Gujanwala in Punjab, now Pakistan.

But he credits the start of his good fortune to the town of Bridgewater.

In the early 1960s, Sander, who then went by his birth name - Sukhwant Singh - was recruited by the former Bridgewater Junior Senior High School to teach physical education. And he's never looked back since.

"I am so blessed that the people of Bridgewater worked so hard for me," he told LighthouseNOW.

Sander was born in 1934 into a Sikh farming family. His grandfather was given the title of Rai Bahadur: an honour bestowed during British rule in India to individuals for their service to the Empire.

His family was separated and lost its wealth during the partition of India, which meant for a time he was virtually living on the streets.

Nonetheless, he managed to continue his studies in English, largely because he excelled in athletics. He was hired on as a teacher at a private school in New Delhi, Lucknow College, and was part of the Indian Olympic delegation as a cyclist.

It came to his attention that Canada and England were recruiting teachers from abroad to cover shortages amid the Baby Boom. He decided to pursue a job in Canada, aware that many Sikhs had come here in the past to help build the railway.

According to Sander, he sent off "maybe 25 or 30 letters" to schools in Canada.

"My attitude in those days was beggars can't be choosers. I would just take whatever I could get," he recalls.

He received a telegram from the Bridgewater Junior Senior High School indicating the school was looking for a physical education teacher.

"And they said they would be very happy to give me the job."

As a young, fit athlete familiar with a variety of sports including basketball, gymnastics and running, Sander was confident he was well qualified.

His reply to the school: "'All right. I'll be very happy to go to Bridgewater and teach there.'"

Sander recalls the "shell shock" he felt upon learning Canadian immigration authorities refused him residency status because his medical exam revealed he had trachoma, a contagious eye condition.

"As soon as you walk into a cold country, it disappears within a week," he insists.

Through a series of twists and turns, Sander then found himself teaching at a private school in England's New-Castle-Upon-Tyne.

"I was very, very poor. So I raised the money for my fare from relatives, literally in nickles and dimes.'

Still, determined to make it to Canada, he would later contact the Bridgewater school asking if the position had ever been filled.

"And as amazing and surprising as it may sound, they had not found a teacher yet," recalls Sander.

However, again his Canadian immigration was rejected. While his trachoma had long since cleared up, Sanders says this time he was told the then yearly quota of immigrants from India already had been filled.

As Sander tells it, the Bridgewater school officials were "very frustrated," and not only did they help push the issue through government channels "and got the special permission for me to come," but they secured the money to pay his airfare from England.

He recalls being met at the airport on a chilly fall day by the school principal and the head of the provincial department of education's physical education division, whom, he surmises, had expected "a little man from India."

"But I am a Sikh, and I was around five-foot, 10 inches. I was very healthy and very fit. And I spoke adequate English anyway. That was their main concern, whether I could speak any English."

Sander settled into a rooming house and was encouraged by the principal to attend the first day on the job wearing his turban and Indian garb.

Although Sander had long since abandoned his native dress and sported a western-style hair cut, he happily agreed, surmising that most students had never seen a Sikh.

"The school kids were thrilled to see me. They were just so happy left, right and centre. It was an amazing experience. I will never forget that."

While that would be the only day he wore traditional clothes, he said the broader community received him "very, very, very well."

For his part, he was equally thrilled to discover the school's athletics equipment - rings, bars, ropes and a pummel horse. "They had everything I had in England, plus more."

According to Sander, he drew from his own Olympian training and led the students into a series of medal wins at interscholastic competitions.

Eventually, he would go on to teach in Windsor, Nova Scotia and later obtain his master's degree in physical education from Springfield College in Massachusetts. He settled in British Columbia in 1963, drawn to the large Sikh community there.

He changed his name to Stephen Sander, based on his mother's last name, and eventually became a Canadian citizen.

In his early years in B.C., Sander taught school in a number of smaller communities, including Ocean Falls, Trail, Clearbrook, Prince Rupert, Aldergrove and Ladner.

He married and was given what Luke described as "(two) generations worth of dowry."

He came to own land near the Canada-U.S. border, which he sold in 1967. Inspired by the profit he had earned, Sander began dabbling in real estate.

As time went on, he says, he realized the profits to be made in real estate. He stopped teaching in 1972 and founded Hollyburn Properties.

Eighteen years later, the Bridgewater Junior Senior High School invited him to speak at the 1990 graduation ceremonies. When in Bridgewater, Sander was also presented with a key to the town.

Sander recalls that the only other notable to receive such an honor from the town was the actor Donald Sutherland, who once attended the Bridgewater school.

Sander told LighthouseNOW once again he would like to set his sights on the town that launched him on his life in Canada.

He describes his time teaching in Bridgewater as "probably the best start of my life.

"I'm not going to forget that. I'm going to pay it back in one way or the other," says Sander.

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