Electric car booster, author and proud Canadian immigrant: Colin Dhillon shares his spiritual journey

Colin Dhillon is heavily involved in a state-of-the-art vehicle made in Canada. He’s also busy telling his story in an autobiography and self-help book he was persuaded to write by one of Canada’s most popular sports heroes.

“It all started because of one individual, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons,” Dhillon said of the former Toronto Argonauts football player who is currently the team’s general manager.

Dhillon is the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association’s technical director and lead on Project Arrow, a zero-emission vehicle to be unveiled later this year. The 51-year-old is also the author of ‘The Three Houses: A Journey to a Better Life’, in which he shares his spiritual, creative and social journey. Both autobiographical and motivational, it includes a generous sprinkling of short stories and one-page illustrations.

“I wanted the words to seem like they came from an ordinary, average person. This guy talks like he lives next door to you,” Dhillon said. “One of the reasons I’ve woven some of my philosophies is that people read it and get something out of it that benefits them in their lives, but don’t feel like they’ve been in a class or to be lectured for.”

Dhillon met Clemons eight years ago through a mutual friend and their relationship grew from there. They both had common backgrounds as immigrants – Dhillon from England and Clemons from the United States – and encountered racism.

Dhillon grew up in Tipton, an industrial town in the West Midlands, where he and his brother were encouraged to anglicise their names by their school headmaster. They were the only Sikhs and both wore turbans. Dhillon, whose birth name is Kulbir Singh Dhillon, suffered verbal and physical abuse because of his appearance.

Clemons, who grew up in Florida, said he’s also been through what it’s like to be marginalized, adding that it’s “a shadow and it can be overwhelming”. He said he was impressed with Dhillon’s character when he first met.

“He’s obviously very intelligent, but he still has this tremendous spirit of unity, collaboration and is able to be patient enough to give people a voice, even if he could be better versed in something,” said Clemons. “He has a great way of being inclusive and bringing people together. During the conversation, I enjoyed it so much that I turned around and said, “You should be the mentor here.”

Dhillon said he was surprised by Clemons’ comment, but “it’s Michael. Very humble. And Michael knows how to get the best out of someone,” he said.

Tell his story

After Clemons kept pushing him to write a book, Dhillon, who moved to Canada in 1993, finally decided to do it. He found a publisher to help him, someone he met at an event hosted by the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, of which he is president and president. He began writing the book nearly seven years ago, completing most of it over an 18-month period.

Dhillon put the book on hold when he joined the Auto Parts Manufacturers Association so he could focus on his new job. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his family and friends — including Clemons — encouraged him to finish it.

In the book, Dhillon talks about the challenges he faced, including the prejudice he faced in Canada from potential employers because he wore a turban and had a long beard, two proud symbols of his legacy.

“I’m an industrial designer by trade and Colin Dhillon on the phone sounds like a white Anglo-Saxon guy from the UK,” Dhillon said. “I would be encouraged to show up for an interview after reviewing the faxed version of my resume and portfolio. But when they saw me, I was this guy with a long beard and wearing a turban and I was rejected several times. It was definitely a time employment-wise where I felt like maybe I was coming home.

Dhillon said he is deeply grateful for what Canada has given him. “One of the things is love and respect,” he said. “I have never, ever felt second class in Canada beyond my initial job search. My outlook on life and the challenges I faced in the early days led me to have a lot of internal conversations, and that’s the crescendo of the book.

“You can have tough times, but you literally have to have a mindset where you can wake up and forget what happened the night before because you have no control over it. It’s the past. Don’t Don’t carry yesterday’s luggage, travel light.

It was also in Canada that he met his future wife, Cindy, who is also Sikh. A matchmaker, who knew both her parents and future in-laws, facilitated the union. He and his wife have now been married for over 27 years and have two children.

“My wife built this kind of utopia of love and respect, and the people we have around us who are influential to us and our children are also like-minded people,” Dhillon said. “I created my own spiritual journey.”

Project arrow

This professional, personal and spiritual journey continues with his work for the Auto Parts Association. Dhillon said he is indebted to its president, Flavio Volpe, and their work on Project Arrow is a key part of that relationship.

“One of my responsibilities is to read the tea leaves,” said Dhillon, who came up with the idea for the Arrow project with Volpe. “We are looking to the future in technology to make sure Canada is ready. One of our tea leaf reading sessions was to (ask) how can Canada attract electric vehicle assembly, technology and growth?

“Rumors were circulating from Michigan about the adoption of electric vehicles three years ago, and so we said that for Canada to continue the trajectory in the automotive sector, we must come up with a project that helps demonstrate the capabilities of Canada in electric vehicles and autonomous vehicle technology.

He said they are in phase three of the project – engineering and building a prototype – and the vehicle will be unveiled at the end of the year. The project includes participation from established automotive companies, but also what Dhillon said are the “new kids on the block,” digital and tech startups.

“We imagined Project Arrow literally on a plate of Welsh cheese and red grapes. It’s amazing what good food can do,” he said.

Copies of “The Three Houses: A Journey to a Better Life” are available on Amazon, with proceeds from the book going to SOCH Mental Health, which promotes mental health awareness in the South Asian community, and Pinball Clemons Foundation. For more information, visit kcsd.ca.

Lola R. McClure