Navigating through Rural Ontario: A Vegetarian Trucker's Tale
Varun Joshi in conversation with Sukhpal Singh
January 11, 2024
Sukhpal Singh, a dedicated long-haul truck driver for the past 4 years, offers a unique perspective on life on the road in rural Ontario as a vegetarian. Sukhpal’s job requires him to traverse between rural and urban spaces every week. Hailing from a background rooted in farming, Sukhpal's journey as a trucker illustrates the challenges and triumphs of maintaining his vegetarian lifestyle while traversing the vast landscapes of rural Ontario.
As a devout Sikh, Sukhpal views vegetarianism as an extension of his faith, respecting life in all its forms. While the road might be long and demanding, his commitment to vegetarianism remains unwavering. Citing the tenets of the Sikh faith, Sukhpal feels that if he can access nutritious vegetarian meals, he has no desire to harm another animal for his sustenance. Maintaining vegetarianism is a means to continue eating meals that are indigenous to Punjab and reinforce a healthy relationship with animals and land. Being vegetarian is one way for Sukhpal to practice maintaining his Sikh identity and connection to his family back in Punjab. His wife and mother are happy to prepare traditional Punjabi meals as Sukhpal takes pride in eating a protein and fibre-rich vegetarian diet that has continued in his family for over 4 generations.
Sukhpal laughs as I ask him what dish his wife makes the best compared to what his mother makes. For him, Sukhpal’s wife makes a delicious shahee paneer, while his mother’s specialty is saag.
Sukhpal Singh's connection to rural Ontario is a multifaceted tapestry woven with threads of nostalgia, contrast, and appreciation. Born in 1990 and raised in the heart of Punjab, India’s breadbasket, Sukhpal carries with him memories of working on tractors and trolleys, immersed in the agricultural rhythm of Chotian, the village where he grew up. This early exposure instilled in Sukhpal an appreciation for rural life and a natural affinity for navigating daily life using vehicles appropriate for the 20 acres of farmland where his family grew potatoes, rice, wheat, and sugar cane.
Sukhpal’s uncle worked in trucking in Kuwait and would send pictures of the vehicles he operated and maintained, which fueled Sukhpal’s interest in trucks. It's no wonder that the transition from driving tractors to commanding massive 18-wheelers came more seamlessly than anticipated, bridging the gap between Sukhpal’s rural upbringing and his new career. Prior to emigrating to Canada, Sukhpal drove long-haul trucks in Australia for 2 years. In 2021, Sukhpal’s family settled in the Windsor-Essex region of Ontario, and he has driven long-haul trucks across Canada. His usual routes are along the 401 between Windsor and Quebec (usually on route to Montreal), between the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Michigan, or towards Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and northern Ontario. The Windsor-Essex region has a population of 230 000 and the places he stops to unload his cargo are often highly dense metropolitan areas. However, Sukhpal states that most of his time on the road is spent in rural regions, characterized by agricultural lands, wilderness, and sparsely populated regions.
A typical day in Sukhpal's life unfolds with meticulous planning and adherence to regulations. His truck, a home on wheels, houses not only the tools of his trade but also provisions that keep him true to his vegetarian principles. Wherever he goes, Sukhpal ensures that he can consume homecooked culturally appropriate foods. Like several truckers, Sukhpal keeps small appliances like a microwave, toaster, mini fridge, cutting board, and stovetop in his truck to ensure that he can prepare food that he enjoys. These foods range from home-cooked meals that his family prepares to simple meals he can prepare with limited supplies on the road. His breakfast begins with a large glass of milk, while he chops vegetables and paneer for a sandwich. As he prepares his sandwich, Sukhpal will put on a pot of Punjabi chai that he has with his sandwich before starting his daily drive.
Sukhpal’s wife and mother assist him by preparing 4-5 days' worth of home-cooked food that often consists of two dry sabzi (curry), one daal, several chapati, and a large salad that he can snack on for a few days. There is always a month’s worth of dry fruits stored in his truck, that Sukhpal snacks on along with his salad, but not just for the taste. Driving long-haul trucks is exhausting and Sukhpal states that having something healthy to snack on helps him stay awake without having to resort to frequent coffee stops. Occasionally, Sukhpal will keep snacks like chips on hand, but he prefers dry fruits as these are traditional snacks that reinforce his connection to his heritage as farmers in Punjab have used to maintain energy levels while farming.
Although most of the meals Sukhpal consumes are homemade, he does enjoy the occasional fast food. Despite the challenges posed by limited vegetarian options at truck stops throughout Ontario, Sukhpal has discovered pockets of culinary solace. Sukhpal’s routes often take him through remote areas in Ontario, especially if during routes that require him to travel north on Highway 17 towards Manitoba, through Thunder Bay and Sudbury. Sometimes, Sukhpal will make deliveries on routes to more metropolitan centers like Montreal which lets him drive along the 401, meaning more populated areas. Nonetheless, much of his driving and rest occur in areas that have low population density, farmland, and Canadian wilderness.
A single constant for a convenient, yet nutritious meal option is Subway. Whether he is in a remote part of Ontario, America, or another part of Canada, establishments like Subway give Sukhpal food options that do not compromise his diet. Sukhpal notes that fast foods that offer a simple vegetarian pizza or plant-based burger are options as well, but his diet is not just influenced by his faith, but by his desire to maintain good health, which he finds easier to do with Subway’s food options relative to places like Burger King or Pizza Pizza. Truck stops that have a Subway offer a temporary respite from the predominantly meat-based fast-food landscape that dots his route.
Sukhpal states that while the communal and interactive nature of rural life in Punjab differed from his experiences in Ontario, he finds a distinct charm and allure in the vast expanse of the Canadian province. Rural and remote regions throughout Ontario do not have Sikh communities as established as those in urban areas. Sukhpal’s dastar (turban) makes him hyper-visible in regions where he stops as there are not many Sikh Canadians in remote parts of Ontario. Yet, Sukhpal feels as though he has been accepted in most places he stops.
In his encounters with rural communities, Sukhpal finds moments of connection and curiosity. People sometimes inquire about his turban and background but from a genuine desire to get to know Sukhpal. Most interactions are fleeting, the smiles and exchanged greetings contribute to the tapestry of his journey, validating his presence and belonging in these rural enclaves. Although it is difficult to tell if someone is a trucker based on what they wear, sometimes Sukhpal grabs a coffee or is visible at a truck stop with his headset, which elicits fleeting, but positive interactions. These interactions remind Sukhpal of the solidarity truckers and those that service truckers share. Individuals involved in trucking recognize the insidious nature of the effects of solitude that trucking can have on an individual.
For Sukhpal, the Canadian rural experience is not just a professional endeavour but a gateway to glimpses of natural beauty that he believes many of his fellow Ontarians might not have had the privilege to witness. The long-haul trucking profession becomes an avenue through which he not only sustains himself but also cultivates a deeper connection to the rural terrains he traverses. In this regard, his role as a trucker not only contributes to Sukhpal’s livelihood but also grants him a unique vantage point to appreciate the diverse landscapes and vistas that unfold beyond the highways. Despite the long-isolated hours on the road, Sukhpal does not feel that his profession is something he uses to just get by. Instead, it’s a symbiotic relationship where he provides value for Ontario and his family as a trucker, but Sukhpal benefits from unique experiences through his journey as a trucker as Sukhpal discovers scenic landscapes fellow Ontarians might not ever see.
When asked if he prefers driving in rural or urban parts of Ontario, without hesitation, Sukhpal states rural. Despite the isolation, Sukhpal finds tranquillity in the solitude of driving through rural Ontario. Sukhpal might spend hours on the road where he weaves together stories, landscapes, and experiences, as he comes across different parts of Ontario that are untouched by congestion, high-density roads, and light pollution at night. Sukhpal feels comfortable stopping pretty much anywhere at night if he feels like resting and says stopping on the side of farmlands or wilderness rarely makes him feel unsafe. Enjoying the peace of a quiet area at night is an experience common to many truckers and Sukhpal makes the most out of opportunities to rest in serene areas.
However, challenges persist. The scarcity of access to fresh produce in remote areas underscores the need for more inclusive food options. Sukhpal's desire for healthier choices extends beyond his personal preferences, reflecting his concern for the overall well-being of truckers who traverse these roads day in and day out. He envisions a future where rural communities recognize the significance of offering nutritious alternatives, fostering an environment that supports the physical and mental health of those who call the road their second home.
Sukhpal's story as a vegetarian trucker is one of resilience and commitment as he bridges the urban-rural divide daily. His work necessitates navigating between rural communities and urban centers, offering Sukhpal a nuanced understanding of the dynamics that coexist in these regions. Through kilometres and hours, Sukhpal navigates the intersection of tradition and modernity, honouring his heritage while embracing the demands of a rapidly changing world. As he continues to forge ahead, Sukhpal’s journey remains a testament to the power of conviction, reminding us all that our values are an integral part of the paths we choose to tread.
In many ways, Sukhpal's connection to rural Ontario encapsulates the complex interplay between his personal history, professional journey, and evolving perspectives. It's a narrative that underscores the richness of human experience and how individuals like Sukhpal traverse geographical and cultural boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on the landscapes they encounter.