From his early years in rural Kenya in the 1940s and ‘50s, living in villages without plumbing or electricity, Kanwal Sethi came to know the value of volunteering. “When you grow up recognizing that you’re lucky to have what you have,” he says, “it’s part of the culture that you share with your neighbours, family, and those around you, at work and where you live. That characteristic got embedded in me—never to look at something as if it’s mine alone.”
On January 1st, Sethi, who now lives in Richmond Hill, received the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers for his efforts in Canada, including with the Royal Canadian Legion in Minden and Canadian Forces College (CFC) in Toronto. Before he came to Canada in 1980 and started a marketing business, Sethi was a military officer in newly independent Kenya. He trained in England at Sandhurst and Camberley, where, he recalls, he met “people of different backgrounds, cultures, outlooks, persuasions, goals, and ambitions,” in environments that encouraged his view that, as he puts it, “sharing must rank as part of leadership.”
It was a philosophy Sethi further developed in Kenya, as the child of Indian immigrants working among people of many different ethnic groups. In his colourful memoir, Shaping Destiny, he recalls a frightening nighttime drive on a narrow road, where he and his men encountered a pride of lions. He delegated command to a sergeant with experience of dealing with the animals, and the soldiers were able to manoeuvre their way out carefully and safely. His time in the army was also typified by bravery and resourcefulness—for instance, in rallying his troops after being shot in the thigh during combat, for which he was awarded Kenya’s Distinguished Service Medal. In the face of devastating floods, he helped evacuate villagers and restore infrastructure and sanitation.
Sethi draws connections between this work and the efforts of the Canadian Armed Forces, who, here at home, have provided much-needed assistance during floods, and who have joined the fight against COVID-19 by delivering vaccines to remote communities and providing support in long-term care homes. Sethi knows from experience the importance of strengthening ties between the military and the communities it serves. As a volunteer, he organizes events at the CFC that bring officers, local businesses, and community members together.
Sethi and his wife, Aruna, have also acted as sponsors for international officers at the College, which he sees as “paying back”: “I was at the receiving end of humongous hospitality overseas when I was growing up, and I owe my success to strangers coming along the way and opening the door.”
In 2015, he and his family created the Sethi Inukshuk Award at the CFC ; it is given annually to a graduate who, he says, “surpasses expectations for leadership” and displays a spirit of “co-operation and unselfishness.”
Often, on Remembrance Day, Sethi is invited to speak about his experiences. At schools for adults who are new arrivals to Canada, he likes to encourage the students to “reach for the sky,” and also to volunteer: “There are umpteen ways you can help. The important thing is, it should come from your heart. It’s good to receive, but it is better to give, and to see a smile on somebody’s face because you supported them.”
One of a Lieutenant Governor’s great privileges is to celebrate Ontarians from all backgrounds and corners of the province. On January 1st, 2022, I made a special presentation of the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers to Major (Retired) Kanwal Sethi, Maduba Ahmad, and Olga Lambert. Begun as the Caring Canadian Award, the medal recognizes exceptional volunteer achievements, and I could think of no better way to start the New Year than to celebrate Kanwal, Maduba, and Olga’s passions and remarkable commitment to serving others. Learn more about the medal here: https://www.gg.ca/en/honours/canadian-honours/sovereigns-medal-volunteers.
The Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario