Canadian Dream, Interrupted

Darrell Hookey

Martin, Robin, Poornima, and Geet Goshi of Roblin Gas Bar.

[This article ran in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of The SCOOP.]

If the community of Roblin has a centre – a heart – it would be the large table tucked into the brightest corner of the Roblin Gas Bar. This is where you will find the locals who gather whenever they want good talk, good company and, on a very good day, a new friend to share their thoughts with. This morning, we are talking about the beleaguered owners of Roblin’s only gas station, confectionery and whatever else the community needs it to be.

“They just got caught in the middle,” says Claude, a retired farmer who moved here in 2005. Previously, he summed up the situation with a euphemism that could very well be used to fertilize the surrounding rolling fields of corn.

“Yeah, like Claude says,” adds Tom, who has been coming to this table three years longer than his friend. “It’s a shame. He’ll have to sell a pile of gas before he gets back what he lost.” “Couldn’t ask for a nicer couple”, says Ted, who had just returned with a Moon Pie. “Look,” says Claude, pointing to a plate in the centre. “They bring us treats.”

The triangular pastries have a sweet, spicy centre; and they were still warm - and half-gone. “It’s an Indian dish,” says Geet Joshi, who owns Roblin Gas Bar with his wife, Poornima, the subject of this morning’s chat. Geet is pleased to hear the treats were well received. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for this community.”

Indeed, there wasn’t much this community wouldn’t do for this new family in their midst.

It is a tumultuous story that began, literally, halfway around the world. It was 1998 and Geet was living in a small town in the Himalaya Mountain region of India. He was a computer software engineer who owned his own business in this small town of 15,000.

His parents had found him a good match and, six weeks after meeting Poornima, they were married. Geet says arranged marriages are common in rural India, and this one is good. His smile is easy and modest, but it is now coyly pulled up to the left as he says, “Our love started after the marriage.”

Geet knew Canada only by its reputation: a welcoming place for immigrants, first-place ranking for living standards, nice people, clean.

After he read a newspaper published by the Canadian High Commission that invited Indians to emigrate, he and Poornima moved to Mississauga, Ontario where he worked as a quality inspector at a plastics company that serviced the food industry. He later transferred to its Brampton offices. Meanwhile, he started up a trucking company. But he and his wife yearned to move to a small, rural town where they could both benefit from Canada’s opportunities while enjoying the clean air and nice neighbours. They felt that Toronto was not a good place to raise their sons, 13-year-old Robin and Martin, 10. “Lots of crime, lots of drugs, lots of fighting,” says Geet. So, with the help of a real estate agent, they found the Roblin business that had been owned and operated by the Hart family.

The family of four moved to Roblin right away, moving into the apartment upstairs and working downstairs each day. The boys who have their school work to do, (and extra homework assigned by their parents) also help out whenever they can with such jobs as filling the cooler with drinks … otherwise, they play soccer or basketball - like kids anywhere.

On that first day in May of 2011, they thought they had found the home for which they were searching. But the dream became a nightmare just four months later. Although the buried gas tanks were tested and passed the prepurchase inspection, they began to leak. A neighbour found gasoline in his well and the tanks had to be emptied, dug up and replaced; it would be a year before business could resume as usual.

“I didn’t sleep well for a year,” says Geet today. “I was depressed. My insurance company said I wasn’t covered.” There is a lawsuit pending, but it will be a long time before it gets settled. Just two days after “the incident”, the Joshi family had no money. But Geet says they had hope … and they weren’t let down. “The community supported us.”

Roblin residents encouraged and supported the new family making purchases at the store when they could have gone into Napanee. The community helped keep this local business alive – the only one like it south of Kaladar and north of Napanee – until a private lender, from Toronto, showed the same faith in the Joshi family as the Roblin residents.

The new gas pumps are working now and business has improved. The Roblin Gas Bar offers a variety of services: propane tank exchange, an ATM machine, sale of lottery tickets, sale of hunting and fishing licences, a post office and DVD rentals - where there are no membership cards (you don’t even have to show ID). Then there are the groceries that are needed often -- and often quickly -- such as canned goods and bread and milk. There is a wide variety of munchies that include locally made baked goodies, chocolate bars, and eleven types of sausage sticks. As well, the small kitchen serves up sandwiches year-round and soup in the winter, and ice cream in the summer.

In those dark days, Geet says they felt like “poor people living in the corner”. Today, they truly feel they have found the Canada they had dreamed of, a place where they can raise their family in safety and among nice and caring people. “I will never forget the kindness of the community in Roblin,” says Geet. “I can’t ever repay them. We came here and found a good life, an easy life, a peaceful life - life as it should be”.