1. Indian Arrival Day in Canada
2. Indo-Caribbean Arrival in Canada :
3. Las Lomas boy comes to Winnipeg in 1955: Trinidad’s Harnam Singh one of earliest arrivals in Western Canada
4. Ruby Maharaj, arrived from Trinidad 1965
5. Ram Maharaj, arrived from Trinidad 1964
6. Rudy Lochan, arrived from Guyana 1988
7. Roop Misir :My coming to Canada- Choice or Expediency?
8. Marking the first century of Indo-Caribbean Arrival in Canada
9. Stories of Indo-Caribbean Arrival in Canada: Dr Deoraj Narine, Manshad Mohammed, Anonymous, Indra Ramdass
INDIAN ARRIVAL DAY IN CANADA
By Ram Jagessar
Indo-Caribbeans first came to Canada as far back as 1908, but the first celebrations of our presence did not start until the eighties as Indo-Caribbean Heritage Day. As to why the event became South Asian Heritage Month and did not stay as Indian Arrival and Heritage Month or Indo Caribbean Heritage Day,
let me explain.
The earliest celebrations of the Indian presence in Canada
with the Toronto group called
OSSICC (Ontario Society for Services to Indo-Caribbean Canadians) in 1988, when they marked the 150th anniversary of the coming of Indians to the new world (on May 5, 1838 in Guyana) with a series of events. For many years later OSSICC carried on an annual event called Indo Caribbean Heritage Day. This celebration was limited to the Indo Caribbean community.
In April 1997 the Indo Trinidad Canadian Association was formed and
immediately started Indian Arrival Day celebrations that year. In that
year too , community activist Asha Maharaj organized a display of Indian artifacts, the
Trinidad and Tobago Association of Ottawa held its first
celebration, and an Indian radio host organized a small Indian Arrival
By 1998 ITCA had decided to celebrate the event as Indian Arrival and
Heritage Day, and held a huge show/display/dance at the Etobicoke
Olympium. It was never an Indo-Caribbean for ITCA but always Indian,
meaning all people with roots in the Indian subcontinent.
By 1999 ITCA had moved to celebrate the month of May as Indian
Arrival and Heritage Month. At this stage only ITCA, OSSICC and the Trinidad and Tobaog Association of Ottawa were
organizing events but the number would expand greatly in later years.
From the year 2000 a Council for Indian Arrival and
Heritage Month was set up, composed of people from ITCA, OSSICC, the
Guyanese group GEAC, the Hamilton group CICA and several individuals.
You should noted that the catch line from the letterhead for the
Council in 2000 was "Commemorating the 162nd anniversary of the
arrival in the Americas of the people and heritage of the Indian
We were marking the arrival of Indians in the West as 1838 when the
first landed in Guyana, and 1897 as the year the first Indians (Punjabi
Sikhs actually) arrived in Canada.By that time the number of events for Indian Arrival and Heritage
Month had gone up to 11, and the council had support from the following groups:
Canadian Indo-Caribbean Association
Caribbean Educational Association of Canada
Educators of South Asian Origin
Guyanese Association of Manitoba
Guyanese East Indian Association of Canada Indo-Trinidad CanadianAssociation
Indo-Caribbean Golden Agers Association
Jahaji Association for Indian Advancement in Guyana Lakshmi Mandir
Ontario Society for Services to Indo-Caribbean Canadians
Nritya Kala Kendra
Other Eye Publications
Riverdale Immigrant Women's Centre
Satya Jyoti Cultural Sabha
Shiv Shakti Gyaan Mandir
South Asian Women's Centre
Trinidad and Tobago Association of Ottawa
Vedic Cultural Centre
West Indians United
Note that three of these groups CASSA, Riverdale Immigrant
Women's Centre and South Asian Women's Centre were composed of
continental Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans.
Those who actually held events in 2000 were:
Saaz-O-Awaaz (Academy of Indian Music)
Canadian Indo-Caribbean Association
Other Eye Publications
Indo-Caribbean Golden Agers Association
Indo-Trinidad Canadian Association &
Knox Presbyterian Church
Voice of Dharma Mandir
Guyanese Association of Manitoba
Guyanese East Indian Association of Canada
Canadian Indo-Caribbean Association
Indo-Trinidad Canadian Association
Trinidad and Tobago Association of Ottawa
Ontario Society for Services to
Satya Jyoti Cultural Sabha.
It must be said that since 1997 ITCA and later the Council
for Indian Arrival and Heritage Month had decided not to make this an
Indo Caribbean event. We knew that Indo Caribbeans were only about 10 per cent of the "Indian" group in Toronto, and if we confined Indian
Arrival to Indo Caribbeans that we would remain forever a marginal
But even though we tried to attract the support of the other
groups, it was a hard sell and we did not get a positive response. IN
Trinidad and Guyana when we say Indian, we mean everybody who came from what was then united, colonial India. In Canada it was
different. When we said Indian here, everybody assumed we meant
people who had come from India, if they didn't confuse it with Red
Indians. Many of the Punjabi Sikhs hated India
because of their
political problems with Indira Gandhi, and did not want to see
themselves as Indians, The Pakistanis hated India
and would have
nothing to do with any Indian Arrival events. The Sri Lankans also
said they were not Indians and ignored Indian Arrival and Heritage
Month. But they could all be happy with the coverall term South Asian.
The Indian Arrival celebration was going nowhere.
So when we held our 2001 launch in Toronto
and the only
South Asian member of parliament Raminder Gill said he would
introduce a bill in parliament to legitimise the event , we were
happy. When he told us that the legislature would not accept Indian
Arrival and Heritage Month because it would cause confusion with
the Indian Act and other laws relating to native Indians, we had
no great problems with South Asian Heritage Month.
There was never any intention of making it the Indo Caribbean
Heritage Month festival. Some people from among our group were
unhappy about the South Asian tag and at least one left the group, but
the majority were supportive. We told the Indo Caribbean groups
that they could continue to celebrate Indian Arrival Day, as part of
South Asian Heritage Month, and some like the Satya Jyoti Cultural
Sabha still do so.
Once it became South Asian Heritage Month, the other groups
have picked up the event big time. It's gone like a rocket, and we have
events in parliament, in universities, in business places, in schools,
events organized by the Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Indians, and all over.
I've stopped counting and believe there could be as much as 100 South
Asian Heritage Month events in Ontario alone.
It's true that some of the non Indo Caribbeans don't acknowledge the
Indo Caribbean contribution, and some of them don't know about it. But
we don't really want that, because shoving ownership of the event in
their faces is the surest way to kill their interest.
For us in the Council for Indian Arrival and Heritage Month,
later renamed Council for South Asian Canadians, it's enough that South
Asians celebrate their month in Canada.
We think it's foolish and
self defeating to tie them down to the "Indian" tag, which they see
nationality and not ethnicity. As for ourselves, we are content to
call ourselves Indo-Caribbeans, one segment of the South Asian
community in Canada.
Changing the name has enhanced the event tremendously, and we
have hopes that in time South Asian Heritage Month will become an
accepted event for the 33 million Canadians and not just the 11 million
in Ontario at present.
To my mind, the renaming has not destroyed any Indo
Caribbean celebrations. Some organizations have gone dormant, and one
or two have just stopped doing Indian Arrival events for internal
Caribbean based groups still doing events include Satya Jyoti
Cultural Sabha, Trinidad and Tobago 50 Plus and Seniors Association,
West Indians United television, Canadian Indo Caribbean Association,
Guyanese Association of Manitoba, Trinidad and Tobago Association of
Ottawa, Toronto Arya Samaj (at the Vedic Cultural Centre) and a few
others that don't come to mind immediately.
Indo-Caribbean Arrival in Canada :
Las Lomas boy comes to Winnipeg in 1955: Trinidad’s Harnam Singh one of earliest arrivals in Western Canada
Harnam A. Singh was born in Trindad, Las Lomas in September 21. 1929, the son of indentured immigrant Hoolas Singh who had come from Indian in 1875 , and Rookmin Singh, the daughter of an indentured immigrant.
He went to the only schools available, the Las Lomas Roman Catholic School and the St. Helena Canadian Mission School, both primary schools. His father got 25 cents a day first at the Centeno agricultural station, so there was no money for the further education he wanted.
Hari started working at 16, spraying mosquitoes in the Malaria Division and later became a messenger, the highest rank possible for him. He became the founder and secretary of the Las Lomas Community Council, and helped bring a government primary school to the area in 1950. He also helped set up the Las Lomas Community Cooperative Society in 1948 on land donated by his parents.
Hari went into Hindu organizing as executive member of the Sanatam Dharam Association. He was a member of the special group which united the Association and the Maha Sabha into the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Trinidad’s largest Hindu organization since that time.
He was part of the Hindu school building program that started soon afterwards and delivered education for Hindus all over the country.
But our man from Las Lomas was not a lazy man. Hari became Las Lomas Guardian Correspondent and covered both political, social, religious and cultural events even in areas where he was not accredited. He was also a free lance photographer and had many of his photographs published in the Trinidad Guardian, Some of his gurus in the newspaper business were Len Chong Sing, Therese Mills and Charie Vishnu Ramsumair. One had to be a good writer to be a penny liner, who was paid a penny for each line published in the newspaper.
It was not enough for him to be a journalist, community organizer and Hindu leader, as well as a messenger. In those days an ambitious boy without a secondary education had very little room to advance. His father could not help him with the fees needed to go to a private secondary school.
COMING TO CANADA
Hari was not satisfied with post primary education and reaching the highest rank of messenger in the government service. He wanted badly to get a higher education, but that was not possible in Trinidad at the time. Canada seemed like the way out.
From his friends Mohammed and Siew Ramlogan he realized he might be able to enter the University of Manitoba to pursue a Diploma in Agriculture program. His boss Dr. Horace Gillette gave him a great recommendation, and so did trade unionist Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine Tewari), a friend and and founding member of the SMDS. Hari applied to the University of Manitoba and was accepted as a mature student, using his own money, and some savings from newspaper work. He arrived in Canada in September 1955 at age 25 to take up the one year program.
At the time there were less than 20 Caribbean people in Winnipeg at the time, including his friend Siew Ramlogan, Moonie Beebhakee, Solomon Mohammed, his sister, Florence and brother Horace, an Indian named MacDonald from British Guiana, and a Dookeran from Trinidad.
You couldn't find any curry in Winnipeg for love or money. There was no Hindu temple, no Caribbean group, no Caribbean restaurant or grocery. They were strangers in a strange land, and most were lonely and homesick. They had to learn to cook their own food, something the men had not done in Trinidad or British Guiana. Luckily, the Friends of Overseas Students group in Winnipeg was available to get the students invited to Winnipeg homes every weekend, and that eased some of the pain.
Hari stayed in a tiny eight by eight flat in a rooming house on Portage near the Bay that first winter, which was bitterly cold with temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero. He would come close to freezing up as he went back and forth to the campus, where he studied animal husbandry, repairing small engines and all it took to be a farmer. Even so, he needed money, and had to work part time in the post office.
After the course finished in April, Hari applied for a summer job and got one working in a logging camp as a chokerman. He would run down the slopes and tie the felled logs so they could be winched up to the road. It was hard work, the hardest work he had ever done. “I would feel my bones cracking,” he remembers. After two weeks the foreman told him he couldn't cut it as a chokerman, and he moved to Vancouver where he worked for a time as as a groundsman. Later that summer he picked up a job on the trains as a sleeping car porter, one of the few jobs open for minority workers. He travelled back and forth from Vancouver to Winnipeg, which was as far as the train went.
While in Winnipeg, he applied for leave of absence from the Colonial Secretary in Trinidad. But the Secretary denied him, saying he could get the same training at the Caribbean Institute for Agriculture at Centeno. Students without the Senior Cambridge did not get much respect at the time.
His student visa expired and he told the Winnipeg immigration officer the truth about his situation. Hari's brother in law, who had had stood his security, had died in an accident in Trinidad, and he had no funds to continue university . The sympathetic office renewed his visa, and he took a year off from the university. Working part time, he finished his Grade 12 by correspondence and attended a private secondary school.
Hari now had qualifications to enter university, and he was accepted at the University of British Columbia as a mature student to study for a BSc degree in Economics and Mathematics. There were about 30 other Indo-Caribbean students in BC at the time, but no residents as far as he knew. Rodhan Gopaulsingh, Lloyd George Edwards, Reggie Beebhakee, Sam Haqq, Chick Siew were among the Caribbean students, and there was the Trini neuro pharmacologist Dr. George A. Ling who helped tremendously in getting Hari accepted at the UBC. Some Indians from India worked as lecturers in BC, and the majority of Indians were Punjabis working as businessmen or in the lumber trade. One of the Indians was the distinguished lawyer Dr. Durai Pal Pandia, who had helped organize the centenary celebration of Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad in 1945.
Three years later, Hari went out job hunting with his BSc degree in hand. He couldn't get any jobs in his field. Job discrimination was rampant in those days. He started driving a bus while getting more qualifications. After completing a Diploma in Adult Education and a Bachelor of Education degree, he applied for a job as an adult education educator. His professor recommended him highly but the superintendent of the school board changed his mind when he was informed that Hari was of Asian origin. He continued his service as one of the most educationally qualified bus drivers with BC Transport.
In 1966 Hari visited Trinidad and applied for a job with the bus company. He was interviewed by the general manager George De La Grenade but did not get the job. He was not a a card carrying member of the PNM. He met government minister Kamal Mohammed, who offered him a teaching job that was paying $300 to $400 per month. Hari turned down the job, as he was making more than that as a bus driver in British Columbia. He returned to Vancouver .
Ten years later Hari tried again, taking a two year course in industrial education studying woodworking and electronics. The principal did not want to recommend him for a job as an industrial education teacher, and nothing came of this upgrading. Hari remained as a bus driver until he retired.
That was not the end of his story, as Hari was not the kind of man to sit quietly on the sidelines. He went into union organizing in the Transit Union and became a member of the executive. He joined the credit union, and was the first Trini to be a vice president and director of a credit union in B.C. He became a grassroots worker for the New Democratic Party of B.C., and moved up to become president of the Point Grey Constituency of the NDP, and a member of the NDP's Provincial Council.
In the 70's Hari was a founder member of the first Hindu organization in British Columbia, The Vishwa Hindu Parishad of British Columbia. Here he served as a director with people from the Caribbean, India , and Fiji .This organization still exists today.
In 1995, with a group of Indo-Trinidadians Hari helped organize the first Indian Arrival Day function in B.C., with Dr. Dura Pal Pandia as one of the guests and guest speaker. Dr. Pandia, a champion of minority rights, passed a way in 2004 at the age of 91.
In 1995, with a group of Indo-Trinidadians Hari helped organize the first Indian Arrival Day function in B.C., with Dr. Dura Pal Pandia as one of the guests and guest speaker. Dr. Pandia, a champion of minority rights, passed a way in 2004 at the age of 91.
In 1988 Hari was invited by Basdeo Panday, then foreign minister in the NAR government, to come back to Trinidad, but by then he was reluctant to leave his life and his benefits in Canada. He knew Panday from the seventies when Panday had visited Vancouver with Kamal Mohammed at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference.
He is one of the founders of the Indo Caribbean Canadian Cultural Society of British Columbia in 2000, and served as secretary and director until 2006. He is still a member of the Society. He is also a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Society of British Columbia where he served as director.
Hari was married in Canada under Sikh rites to a woman from Trinidad . He is perhaps the first Trini of Hindu Origin to become a member of the Sikh Community. He has three sons and they are doing quite well with good jobs.
He has no regrets for remaining in Canada. “Canada has been very good to me, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to the people, “ he says.
Even after 52 years, Hari has not forgotten Trinidad. He is a regular visitor to Trinidad and is also a Trinidad citizen. He had given an annual scholarship for three poor students of the Las Lomas Government School who had passed the examinations to go to the secondary schools. This programme was continued for many years but he stopped it recently because of lack of interest by the school administrators.
Now retired, Hari lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, full of memories of his life as a pioneer in Trinidad and in Canada. He would love to tell you more, if you contact him at
or by phone at 604-731-4354.
Ruby Maharaj arrived from Trinidad 1965
. My husband Ram had come to Canada in 1964, and I and the five children came six months later. It was February 24, 1965 in the dead of winter.
We had no idea how cold it was in Toronto. When I was in Trinidad I ask somebody how cold it was in winter, and if it was cold like the night in crop time in Trinidad. That tell you how much I know about winter.
So I come up in sari and slippers, no coat, no hat, no scarf, no boots. I nearly get frostbite walking from the plane to the immigration place. Lucky for me Mrs Russell from my husband workplace come and put on scarf and coat for me and the children.
We rent a place and send the children to school with warm coats. They were the only Indian children in the school. The other children start calling them chocolate face and pie face and Eskimo because the coats had a little fur on them.
One of my boys come home one day and say he want to take a bath. I ask him why and he say the children tell him his skin dirty so he should take a bath.
One day one of the boys get lost coming back from school. He miss the street and went wandering all over, wearing the terylene shirt we bring from Trinidad. He couldn't find anybody to ask for directions because all the doors were closed in winter. Ram had to go out and look for him before he freeze up.
My next door neighbour had never seen a dark person before. So one day she come up and ask me, Are you a negro?
In those days you couldn't see your people anywhere in Toronto. I never see a Indian until 6 months after I come here. We got friendly with a black man and his wife who had come from California. One day the wife ask me if I want to meet some Indian people from Trinidad, and that's how I meet some people from back home.
In the beginning I didn't want to stay in Canada. I used to cry every night to go back home and the children used to cry to go back home too .
My husband had told me we didn't have Indian things here, so I bring up dhal, masala, geera, googul to do puja , one pound of sindoor, and my religious pictures. We didn't have any temple to go to. They didn't have one single Hindu temple in Toronto. Later on we joined up with some Indians from India and start having Hindu temple services in Don Mills United Church. That was the start for the Hindu Prarthana Samaj in Fern Street.
I open up my roti shop in 1967
I used to cook for some people who set up a little business on Dupont Street. Three teachers. I used to cook the roti at home and they would come and pick it up. The three people start fighting. They ask me to buy it and I bought the place and that was how it started.
I used to live in 3346 Selmore Drive in Cooksville and I don't know for what reason I decide to open a roti shop. I never went to college. I didn't have much education and I couldn't work in the office. So I told my husband I want to open a roti shop. He ask me who going to buy it. I say I don't know. Try it.
One day I paid $2.50 by cab from Cooksville to Highway 5. Then I paid 75 cents by Grey Coach to go down to Bloor and I spend 25 cents again to go to Dupont Street. And from 11 o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock in the night I sold one roti for 85 cents.
Lots of children used to come to my shop and cry for their mother. I help a lot of people and treat them like my children and I married a few people in my basement. My house was like a open house.
Ram Maharaj, arrived from Trinidad 1964
It was September 1964 when I came. When I got to the airport they gave me three nights at the Ford Hotel on Dundas and Bay for $5. That hotel does not exist now.
I got a job on the third day and my driver's license the fourth day. The owner of the garage where I worked sold me a car for $5 down and $5 a week. Insurance and gas was on the house.
Now I was learning the rules how to drive a car and I have to go to Highway 10 in Mississauga where my job was. How do you sit in a car and drive from Avenue Road and Bloor five days after you come to Toronto from Trinidad? I can't make a mistake and go to the other side of the road because here we were driving on the wrong side.
As I got in the car I start talking to myself. Stay on this side. Stay on this side. Well, I came through that and then my family came six months later and life changed.
Let me tell you how I got my first house. I went to road test a car and I saw the subdivision sign on Highway 5 in Erindale Woodland, saying sod turning. So I turn in and went to the sales office. This might sound ridiculous, but the sign said you can put $25 down and reserve that as a downpayment on a house.
I look at the guy and give him the $25 and say give me my receipt please. I couldn't trust the guy. I couldn't believe. The price for the house at the time was $16,690 for a four bedroom semi-detached backsplit. Six weeks after my family came we moved into the house.
I move from job to job and had some very nice work experience.
I had one guy, a Scotsman. He sat on a tire of one of those big Louisville heavy truck that run from Toronto to Windsor and he was calling out to a guy on the other end of the garage. He say never ever did I think that this day would come in my life.
I listen to it and say hey, what you talking about? He say yes, boss. I never thought the day would come when I have to take instruction from somebody who is not white.
We have had massive changes in this country. Albion Road was a gravel road and all this was abandoned farms and people used to go around and pick apples from the farms.
We used to play host to several young families who came to settle in this country. They were home sick. We used to welcome them. And now some of them they bring their grandchildren and their teenagers and say such nice things about the family.
Rudy Lochan, arrived from Guyana 1988
Today’s celebration is to reflect on our long journey since our fore parents left India over 150 years ago. I was asked to share with you my Canadian experience.
I arrived in Canada on Jan. 1, 1988. I had visited Canada on many occasion and thought that this was a great country to live in. I was advised that I can apply and immigrate as a professional. I did exactly that. At the time that I applied I was teaching at technical college on Jamaica.
On arriving on Canada I stayed by a most wonderful and supportive Guyanese family in Scarborough.
I immediately started looking for a job in my field. I am an engineer. I quickly realized that that was not going to happen in a rush. With the help of a Guyanese friend I found a night job in a factory. Every day I would religiously hit the companies in Toronto with my resume.
I finally gave up hope and called the col lege in Jamaica asking back for my old job. They said anytime. I bought a ticket back to Jamaica..
The day after I bought the ticket, Bell Canada called in for an interview and offered me a job as a design engineer in London Ontario. I started out at Bell in May of 1988. I was very happy and enthusiastic.
However, it slowly dawned upon me that most of the old Bell boys weren’t too happy to have a non white work in their midst. After one year, I was told that I didn’t make the grade and I’ll have to leave.
I was kinda happy because I wasn’t really fond of London and the work environment. I was back in Toronto job hunting after a year. I got a job as an operations engineer with that then CNCP Telecommunicaion which later turned into AT&T Canada.
After being in operations management for 3 years, I moved to Project Management in AT&T. Again, the white Canadian boys made it clear that this was an exclusive area. I got fed up of the attitude and took a job in Europe for a year.
In 1995 I returned to Canada and took a Consulting gig with MCI consulting group flying non stop around the USA doing engagements. I got tired of that since I was always away from my wife and young daughter Nalini. I looked around Toronto and found a job with IBM as Project Manager where I did some major domestic and international projects.
Over the years I became convinced that no company can offer Rudy what Rudy wants; that is recognition and reward for my work and creativity. That was my frustration. As a visibility minority we live the illusion that Canada is ready for us, in reality Canada is not. Mainstream Canada sees us immigrants as a source of labour for the factories and unskilled jobs. That is why so many professionals arrived here and experience broken dreams that sometimes lead to broken homes and shattered lives.
I decided to go on my own. I left IBM in February this year to start up my own Mortgage Broker Company. I am the happiest man in Toronto today. I am finally free.
What I have learnt over the past 19 years being in Canada is that the greatest help came to me from my community. Just as the original jahajis stuck together in Guyana and Trinidad we ought to help each other. In my case I did get tremendous emotional and material support from friends and family.
My advice to every other immigrant is that in as much as possible go to the self- employment route. The system is programmed to keep us down. Only by achieving the highest education level and self employment can we live out our Canadian dream. It is possible!!
Roop Misir: My coming to Canada-Choice or expediency?
Dis a na wan Brer Anancy Story! [This is no cock n' bull story.]
By Roop Misir
During our study of British Empire history and geography in colonial British Guiana, no other country fired my imagination so much as far away Canada. The defeat of French General Louis Mountcalm in a decisive battle in the French and North American Indian wars by General James Wolfe in 1759 heralded British supremacy in Canada.
Like the much later (Indian Mutiny/ War of Independence) in 1857, we were conditioned to believing that colonial Britain was chosen by some higher force to civilise non-white savages. Thus we had little choice but to take pride in our empire over which [in the minds of loyalists, at least] the sun would never set. But the independence of India was to prove that even though the sun is fixed in the firmament, what goes around does come around….eventually.
We were subjects to the Crown though still not strictly British citizens. Yet we could travel to certain sister counties like Canada without the need for travel visas. The expansive Canadian prairies, literally as a major breadbasket of wheat for a hungry world, and major port cities Halifax on the east coast, and Vancouver on the west coast, conjured in me vast opportunies for the future. If there was any place I’d like to visit, certainly it had to be Canada.
Many British Guianese had shown the way by going abroad. During WW II many went overseas to defend the Empire. A few returned, but many decided to settle and stay in foreign lands. Those who returned on rare visits would paint pictures of what wonderful places there were beyond the shores of our tiny country. Stories like these stood in striking contrast to those Guianese who went to study at overseas institutions of higher learning. Having concentrated on their studies and graduated as accountants. doctors, engineers and lawyers, the vast majority of them were only too happy to return home where they could be placed in plum positions upon their arrival. Many would get married, and live happily while serving the country with dedication and at times distinction ever afterwards.
As I was fast tracking my studies in High school, the now infamous politically-inspired riots of the early 1960’s were in full swing. Undoubtedly, these left on my impressionable mind memories so indelible that perhaps one explanation for their ever-reminding presence is that some events became imprinted into my gene pool of permanent recall. One such incident sometimes referred to as the “Wismar Disturbance”, or the “Wismar Massacre”—a period in May 24-26, 1964.
During this ordeal, Indian people were murdered, Indian women raped, Indian-owned properties burned, and hundreds of Indians forced to flee from their homes. Why were fellow Guianese victimized and demonized? No doubt, among Guianese one’s ethnicity defined and highlighted one’s differences!
So what does this say about the British and the demanded loyalty expected of her Guianese subjects? Was our connection with the Crown and Mother Britain fading? Despite being taxpayers and free men and women of the British Empire, are we now being abandoned? I guess that as the colony was “maturing”, Guianese were expected to solve their domestic problems—regardless of the consequences!
Shortly thereafter, Guianese were to learn that our country would be granted political independence two years thence. And what would be that date? You may guess it by now. May 26 1966. Who set that date? Why was that date chosen? Your guess may be as good as mine! Forty years later at the May 2006 “Guyana Festival” in Toronto, talking about Wismar is still a taboo topic. Why? National political leadership groups have thus far remained mum on the topic. Was it because its severity was overblown in the first place, as some might have suggested? No doubt, future generations of Guyana’s sons and daughters may not know, or be able to speak and come to terms with this Wismar incident.
Presumably, part of the political silence of collusion designed to promote national harmony and integration—aiming for the utopian ideal of One Country, One Nation, One Destiny? Can we see any parallelism of the Guyana Wismar Massacre with the consequences of pre-European occupation and ethnic cleansing in India? Not on the same scale in British Guiana, perhaps! But still not very pleasant! The hearts of reason clearly clashes with the mind of acceptance! As I watched helplessly, Indians were increasingly kicked around. Many taking it on the right cheek would at times be forced to turn the other cheek. An eye was not for another eye. Mahatma Gandhiji once said that this tit for tat thing would make the world truly blind. And wasn’t it Lord Jesus Who saw it coming, didn’t He, when He spoke these prophetic words: “Verily, I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” A consolation for the helpless many? But certainly this ahimsa and UN-cheeky stuff’s not for me!
With almost every economic entity, except the corner cake shop or rum shop, now the property of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, jobs were plentiful yet scarce for most of us. And job-seeking Guyanese had to have party cards to be considered for placements. Plus, monthly monetary contributions to the Party were a must. And toeing the party line were required to keep one’s job. With no hope in sight for the restoration of sanity in our country, many Guyanese were forced to stake their future and fortune overseas, mainly Canada, the USA, and the UK. Later, as things got really desperate, others were forced to go to any country that would take them, including impoverished Haiti and parts of Mother Africa.
Our country and its people were in a state not unlike present-day Zimbabwe. Here with another African strongman for life Robert Mugabe reigning supreme, he blames former colonialists for his errors of governance and sheer incompetence. Another third rate political misfit with a trait for ignorance and arrogance, if not downright stupidity? For me though, life was reasonably allright. Having completed studies in Science and Teaching at the University of Guyana, the only way for me was up. And yet somehow, I felt uncomfortable that some day I might be required to fall in line with party policies if only to achieve my career objectives as High School teacher, and not be harrassed by the local politburo informants. Then a party hack confided with me: “Comrade, times are changing. You “coolie people” are behaving as if you are still INDIANS, not GUYANESE.” “So how could I be a Guyanese, a patriotic one too?” I inquired. "For starters, join the Party. Someone as bright and smart as you should command a much higher status—in your profession, in the party, in the community, and in the country.” To me this sounded like a religious zealot admonishing me that world peace can by achieved only through mass conversion to supposedly the only religion that seeks true peace! Eliminating the problem rather than addressing it in a rational way seemed to be the Party’s stated unofficial policy. So I told him that while I could understand his line of reasoning, I’d have to get back to him shortly. But for how long more could I take it? Shortly afterwards, I left the shores of my beloved country. Having been convinced that I would live to serve our country, I proceeded to Universities in western Canada where I studied agricultural sciences, majoring in Animal Science. A growing population needs food, much of which is imported, but which can be produced locally, I thought. My father, himself a rice farmer was not too thrilled at the prospects of me studying agriculture—the same type of work for which our ancestors were shipped like beasts of burden from our ancestral home India to Guyana, the Caribbean and other parts of the Empire following the abolition of African slavery. Indeed, he said: “Babu, why not study Medicine? If not Law, why not Accounting, or Engineering? Eventually, I was able to convince him that my choice was not unreasonable in view of my stated determination to be part of Guyana’s nation building team if and when conditions improved. Hopefully by then, a new and more representative government would be in charge of the affairs of the nation. And so after studies at the University of Manitoba, and thereafter at the University of Alberta, and some work experience, I felt qualified to return and make my contribution in the land of my birth. Just about this time, we heard stories of hardships unimaginable. Of Guyanese from every walk of life leaving in droves. And of how professional people and rich farmers would drive up to Timehri International Airport, park their Morris Oxford and Vauxhall Velox cars, board the plane and head off to distant lands. Leaving all their worldly possessions including mansions, lands, cattle, tractors and combines, and not even looking back! As one friend having established himself in Winnipeg reminded me later: “Babu, once there’s life there’s hope. As long as I live in peace, I can always start over fresh and rebuild.” So after graduation and working for a year when I asked my wife if she wanted me to go and work in Guyana, she exclaimed: “You maad, nah man?’ (Are you mad, man?). Then later: “If you really want to go, you can go and give it a try. Myself and the children will wait and see how if you like it. Then we will let you know what we’ll do.” That was over 25 years ago.
Later with the restoration of democracy following free and fair elections in 1992, Guyanese from every walk of life were ecstatic, if not euphoric. Many who could were heading back home. I myself did make the trip after an absence of over twenty one years. But sad to say: Did I feel so truly welcome in what is supposed to be my home and native land?
“Ah weh you bin deh all dem year wen abbee poor peeple dese bin a punish?” (Where were you all these years when our people were punishing?), some of my very own friends would ask me?
“Now dat tings OK yu wan fu come to hang yu mout weh de soup a leak. Da de prablem bout yu foreigner!”(Now that things are OK, you want to come and hang your mouth where the soup is flowing. That’s the problem with you foreigners!)
Deeply hurt, I soon realised that I might have been too long away from my matri bhoomi (mother country).
Perhaps, I may have to adopt Canada, and consciously adapt myself to life in my new country, I thought.
Did I have much of a choice then? Canada and other recipient countries need skilled immigrant to fuel their economic engines of growth. Was this why these countries didn’t raise any objection while Guyanese were fleeing with their lives and scant possessions by the scores of thousands for their shores?
With my parents and most of my siblings and relatives safely out of Guyana, are we now the new crop of Guyanese exiles who’d love to return, but somehow feel unwelcome in the country of our birth by the very people who've grown up with?
True, reality can strike hard, especially when it does sink in.
In my heart of hearts, I’d like to think that I vowed always to be Guyanese. But since by culture and no accident of history I’m Indian, I am now living in Canada. Here though I may be a citizen equal in law to every other citizen, I have since resigned myself to being referred to as Indo-Guyanese Canadian.
So here we are, and coming full circle. Born and raised in one colony now living in another former one, far removed in time and geography. One now fighting for its survival as it haemorrhages through backtracking, politicking and intriguing; the other, the envy of the world in terms of economic prosperity and the quality of life. Both sharing aspects of the same colonial history.
Perhaps what is consoling is that I can still intermingle amongst so many of my Guyanese compatriots that I feel as if my proverbial navel string (umbilical cord) is somehow now transplanted into my adopted country. A land where citizens of long standing welcome me and address me by my first name. In contrast to my own people in my very own Guyana who call me funny names, citizens of my new country are not ashamed to welcome me as a friend and greet me as a fellow Canadian!
Marking the first century of Indo-Caribbean Arrival in Canada
By Ram Jagessar
A year like this one will only come around for Indo-Caribbeans in Canada in the year 3008. This year we mark the first century of the settlement of Indo-Caribbeans in this country.
For the small number of the 200,000 odd Indo-Caribbeans who don’t know, let me repeat the old story.
.One hundred years ago, when our Caribbean homelands were still colonies, when Indians were still being brought from India as “bound coolies” to work on the sugar estates, one young man decided to come to Canada.
He was young Kenneth Mahabir from San Fernando in Trinidad, a bright 19 year old graduate of Naparima College looking for new horizons. His connections with the Presbyterian Church turned him on to Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in 1908 young Kenneth sailed over to pursue a course to become a medical doctor. The day he came to Canada is really our Indo-Caribbean Arrival Day.
That was just 11 years after the first Indians from India visited Canada in 1897, and began the march of South Asians to Canada.
Kenneth completed his medical degree and remained in Halifax for the rest of his life. He even served in the army medical corps in World War 1 and saw action in Europe. He even saved the life of an Arab sheik during the war. Back in Canada, he served his patients and reared horses, a respectable occupation for a gentleman at the time. He is the first Indo-Caribbean whom we know of as an immigrant to this country, and his life is well known.
Less well known is the identity and life of M.E Santoo, a native of Guyana (then known as Demerara) who by sheer coincidence also came as an immigrant to Can ada in 1908. He passed through Halifax on his way to Montreal as an immigrant. We think he may well have been an Indian or born in Demerara as the child of an Indian immigrant.
Wouldn’t it be a marvellous accident of fate if he were in fact an Indo-Caribbean, giving us Guyanese and Trinidadian co-pioneers in the same year?
From such small beginnings have sprung our now large and growing Indo-Caribbean community in Canada. 1908 is by any count our birth date in this country, and like any birthday well worth celebrating.
Few others came during the 59 years heading up to 1967, when the Liberal government of the day opened up Canada’s doors to immigrants from all over the world. Before that people like us were deliberately excluded from Canada or kept out by legislation and regulations.
Since the sixties of the last century, our numbers have steadily grown by migration and birth. Indo-Caribbeans have settled in all provinces, but the majority gravitated to the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal. The largest number came from Guyana and Trinidad, but over the years small groups have been coming from over 12 Caribbean countries. They include Martinique and Guadeloupe, Suriname and even French Guyana, Jamaica, Belize and a surprising amount of second migrants from Britain, the United States, the Middle East and every region you can think of. Not many of those who end in Canada ever return to the Caribbean or move on to other countries, except for some fleeing the cold in Florida and warm southern regions of the United States. For most of us, Canada is a final destination, just as it was for the jahajis for well over a hundred years in the Caribbean.
Today we have rough figures of 200,000 Indo-Caribbeans in Canada, with about 125,000 with roots in Guyana, over 50,000 with links to Trinidad, and smaller numbers for at least 10 other Caribbean nations.
Generally it is true that we have done well in this country. We have been a law abiding, hard working people who have largely maintained our culture and heritage while making serious contributions to Canada.
We have much to be proud of, and little to be ashamed of when we look at our record in Canada.
That is what we must mention when we celebrate our first centenary in 1908. Just as the jahajis came to work in the Caribbean but stayed to build many nations, so have we stayed to help build Canada. Most of us came here voluntarily, at the invitation of the Canadian government. We can say with pride that we are Canadians, and with equal pride say that we are Indo-Caribbeans. Our
Indian and Caribbean heritages can fit well with the Canadian heritage we are developing here. Most of us know by now that our initial ideas of staying for a while in Canada and returning to the Caribbean will not be carried through.
So I ask our many Indo-Caribbean readers to plan to do something to mark our centenary this year, not just in May when South Asian Heritage Month comes around. Each organization, each family, each individual should make it a point. It’s our responsibility to have our birthday parties. Happy Centenary to all.
My Arrival story in Canada
I came to Canada from Guyana
on September 1st 1979 to attend Acadia University in Nova Scotia for
an Msc in Chemistry. At that time you could fly from Georgetown
to Trinidad, Bermuda and Halifax. I landed there all dressed up
in this polyester suit and it was freezing cold in Halifax at the end
of August. Halifax as you know is next to the ocean.
I settled in there and it was quite nice but very, very cold. There
was loneliness of course. If you were there you wished the plane
would land and you could step out of there and fly back to Guyana.
But it didn't happen. You know we have to live out our dreams.
One of the funny things about conditions under colonialism is that
you never see white people dig a drain. You never see them doing
manual work. You see them riding on horse with cork hat or driving in
The next day I was going to register at
the university. There I was walking down Main Street in
Wolfville, Nova Scotia and there was this white guy digging a
drain. You may not believe this but I stood up for about three
minutes staring at this guy. Believe it or not. It was
The guy came up to me and
asked if something was the matter. I say no no no. It was so
fascinating to see, here's a white guy digging a drain. But as a
colonial I was totally brainwashed! I had never seen a white person
digging a drain!Then you realize what was normal here wasn't normal
in Guyana. That was one of my seminal short term experiences in
Nova Scotia .
Later on my family came down, my wife
and two kids and we got a place to live. The average Nova Scotian was
very friendly. One family gave us a plot of land to plant a small
garden. The garden was so spectacularly successful we told the owners
to pick as much as they wanted!
During the fall
myself, my wife and two kids picked apples and raspberries. We
were paid per basket, but this was mostly for fun. I had a
scholarship and my wife was doing typing theses for students. She was
One of the most amusing stories we
had was on a trip to PEI with my visiting brother-in-law and his
family. We rented a Crown Victoria car and we loaded everyone
inside. They was eight of us , three kids and five adults. We drove
to Bathurst, New Brunswick, took the boat to PEI and we got off at
the Ferry in Charlottetown. We drove to Summerside and it was getting
late. We were looking for a place to sleep and after some searching
we located a bed and breakfast place. I went to the owners- two
middle aged white ladies and asked if they had space. When the
eight of us went in there these two people got scared. But they
wanted us to stay because it was $125 for the night. They
apparently wanted the money. But this was the first time they
had seen so many brown persons for the first time and they were a bit
What was funny was that we had two
little babies and every time the babies would get up these two ladies
would come out looking to see if you use the spoon or the cup or
anything like that. They thought we would walk away with
the place. They seemed to wake for the whole night. Next
morning they were so drowsy.
In the morning we were
given bread and butter and tea. We paid the $125 and repacked the car
and were about to leave and you visibly see the relief on the faces
of those ladies. We had a good laugh at the experience and moved
We had this other experience when my son
was a little baby and my neighbours, a white family, fell in love
with this guy and they wanted to adopt him. And we say no, you
can't adopt our child. They actually wanted to steal this boy
and adopt him! So we had some problems there and had to make sure not
to go to their place. It was really hilarious.
These are some of the stories. Fortunately, I found the Nova Scotians
were very friendly people, so we hadn't any of the racial problems
you had in Toronto. When we were there we heard of problems
with Paki-bashing and all these things we had to undergo.
We have borne it with stoicism and we have overcome. Now we are a
successful group of people over here and as people have said, you
could put us anywhere and we will thrive. Because we are producers,
we are creators and we will do things to make ourselves better.
I finished the Masters and moved on to a PhD program at Dalhousie
University. I've been in Canada since then.
The first time I came to Canada I was four years old. I came with my
parents and my sister. I don't remember much about the beginning of
these years except that it was cold.
at first on a house shared with more families than my mother
can remember now. We slept together as a family on the floor in a
corner of the living room with my parents taking turns sleeping
against the wall to keep the cold from getting to my sister or me- I
remember the cold coming from the wall, I remember water drops
on it and black stains.
I remember living in a few
basement apartments after that. I remember my mother always
wanting a house, not an apartment. I remember the smell of the cold
on her when she walked in the door after work. We didn't stay in
Canada, but went back to Trinidad four years later.
came back four years ago to to to university. Being for the most part
raised in Trinidad, coming back was a culture shock no one would have
warned me enough about.
In Trinidad I was and
In Canada I am Trini- I look Indian
but I don't speak Hindi or Urdu or Bengali- languages people come up
to me speaking in the subway asking for directions.
In Canada I'm Trini- I know chutney and dhalpourie. I don't know
pakoras or eat yoghurt with most of my dishes. Here I'm Trini.
Now when I go home I know there's a difference between Trini and
Today my sister is back in Trinidad in
her final year of medical school. My mom is here with me again
proudly waiting for my graduation ceremony from university in a few
weeks - Honours BA in political science and economics.
Everyone back home still thinks once you get to Canada life is easy-
they don't know why Mom is so proud of my degree. They didn't
see her work two jobs, they didn't see me work two jobs and go to
school full time, they didn't see how much work and support to get
just one degree.
For now Canada to me is still
a very hard place to live. People here are lucky now there is family
and a Trini community to reach out to. But for me still it's
too cold for too long a part of the year. For me still there's
too much tying me to home for me to stay here.
Mom will stay though- I think- she prefers to the cold to baking in
the heat. She's educated two daughters through so we can afford to
visit when we want to. She'll stay and work as she always has- soon
enough she'll have her house.
On arrival in Canada there was this steel stairway that kept going up
up up all the time. And would not stop. I said to myself ”what the
hell” but stood there looking. Finally I got on and to my
surprise was pushed off this end and I bump into this guy in front of
me who fell. Like a true Trini instead of saying I'm sorry, I laughed
my head off. The gentleman got up, look at me, smile and said , “Your
first time - right? I was still laughing and he kept on
What talk a lot about the migration from India to the Caribbean but
what we should be thinking of is the second migration from Trinidad
or Guyana to Canada.
I remember when I was a
little boy going to Piarco Airport on a school outing. That was
the first time I saw the Canadian flag, the Maple Leaf, on a jet
propeller plane called TCA . Trans Canada Airlines, eventually became
Air Canada. But that dream I had as a little boy to come to a country
where the Maple Leaf flag was waving never left me.
I am a product of the Canadian Mission in Trinidad. The school was
called the Canadian Mission primary school and then I went to a
secondary school called Naparima College and then I became a teacher
and went to Naparima Teachers College.
this time I was with people who were Canadian missionaries who knew a
lot about service and giving, I said to myself this country must have
a lot of nice people that they would leave their beautiful country
like Canada to come to a sugar cane plantation like where I lived.
So when I was growing up and it was time to
decide what I want to do for the future, my parents ask me why do you
want to go away? I say for two reasons, I want to go to a university
to get a degree and I admire those people over there.
Next I wanted a social change. My father say social change? What is
that? What is that going to get you? I couldn't give him more
answer than that at the time but now I understand what I meant by a
social change. It's not a knock on my past or my country or
anything like this but those of us who are in a position to help make
a difference by recording our history and encouraging our
people and by motivating and stimulating interest in what we do. We
should look at the broad terms and do these things
We are so lucky that after 163 years we have kids here who are
playing Indian music and understanding what they are doing and it is
as strong as ever and as strong as it was when I was their age. That
was the time when I was singing Jim Reeves. Now I have a greater love
for Indian music than I ever had before because I am understanding it
t is an interesting topic of discussion among Indo Canadians
as to why they chose to migrate to Canada as opposed to England or
the USA. In the 70’s there was need to get a visa to
visit the USA but not to Canada or to the UK. Many young
Indo-Caribbeans went to the UK and were absorbed readily in schools
for nursing,as a career.. They were provided with places to stay and
with meals,for a nominal cost and were surrounded by friends and
neighbours,Roma was one of those students who learnt her skills well
enough to be called by the most prestigious name,”Sister,” which
also was in line of being a Matron. She was married to an Englishman
and has shown no interest whatsoever to return to Trinidad and Tobago
to practice Nursing as she is now happily retired.
My younger brother Harold was an Apprentice at Texaco in Point –a –
Pierre . He became specialized as an Instrument Technician and was
grabbed by Kodak as a full time Employee,upon his arrival in Canada.
He remained there until his retirement. He was a Scout Master in T&T
and continued to show leadership in Mississauga. He knew his
prospective wife in T&T and that romance blossomed into
marriage in Toronto .
My plan in arriving in Canada was to get a University degree and head
back to T&T and resume my career in Teaching which began with the
Presbyterian School Board in 1959.I was employed at Hermitage
Canadian Mission(CM) School, Picton CM School and later at
Grant Memorial School in San Fernando. I also attended the
Presbyterian Institutions of Naparima College and Naparima Teacher’s
College. The years of contact with Canadian teachers and
visiting Missionaries had a huge impact in my life and helped to
choose Canada as my new home. The humility and caring of the Canadian
Missionaries had a huge impact on me as I saw their genuine interest
in educating people without any form of coercion or pressure,"To
be one of them' this did not happen to a young man who liked to sing
Jim Reeves songs together with Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and others. I
never had to become a knife and fork Indian.
of hard work and support from my wife Ramdaye, who was a stay at home
Mom, I was able to get Bachelor of Arts degrees(York) and a Master of
Education from U of Toronto and several In service diplomas from the
Ministry of Education..This helped to increase my salary as a Teacher
with the Toronto Board of Education,now called the Toronto District
I passed the qualifications to become a
School Principal in the early 1980's. I was short listed for the next
few years but never received that promotion,in spite of my glowing
qualifications and recommendations. You see, equal opportunity for
promotion of a Non White Administrator was at least 10 years ahead of
its time..You had to demonstrate that you had sterling leadership
Meanwhile,I became a member of Ontario
Studies for Services to Indo Carribbean Culture (OSSICC) and served a
a Cultural Advisor and Writer for the annual Heritage Day and Indian
arrival ceremonies and celebrations. even at public places, mandirs
etc. We arranged to celebrate Indo Caribbean Heritage occasions and
invited noted novelists and Caribbean lecturers to keep us on focus.
Some of these speakers were Dr. Cheddi Jagan, Hon. Basdeo Panday,
Hon. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, Rev. Roy G Nehall, Sonny Ramadhin, Joe
Soloman, Dr. Hedy Frye, Neil Bissoondath, and various musicians
including Karamchand Maharaj, Harold Boodoo, David Singh, Ricky
Ramnarace, Rajmanee Maharaj, Tony Ramesar and Seetal Persad and
yours truly, among others. Most of these Heritage Days celebrations
were held at Winters College,York University as one of the founders
of OSSICC was Dr. Frank Birbalsingh, a Professor on Staff. Other
strong leaders of this group was the late school Teacher, Deo
Kernahan. and Dr. Unus Omarali. I served as Cultural Advisor for many
of these functions. In 1988,the Indo Caribbean World
newspaper,published by Harry Ramkhelawan began highlighting the
efforts that OSSICC were making in the community and this continued
for many years until the eventual demise of this special group of
people who now belong to a variety of other organizations.
Television programmes were produced by Fareed Ali,Buddy Singh
and the late Ken Singh. and Sylvan Amichand and Jai Ojah Maharaj,
who is still live on Saturday nights on Chin Radio 100.7FM. The
late Mervyn Hassanali and Reaz Baksh broadcasted from CIUT Radio on
weekends. Imran Hosein was a most competent radio and television
hosts ,over many years. Life in Canada has been very
How I arrived five years after landing
At what point in my life can I say that I arrived
in Canada?. Depends on whether we are talking about the physical
action of landing at Pearson or the psychological moment when I
‘arrived ’ in mind as well as in body, at the place I wanted to
get to and stay. Did my arrival happen on my
first three-week visit to Toronto as a tourist in July/August of
1981? While I was impressed somewhat by all the usual touristy
things I experienced (you know – stuff like the CN Tower, the Ex,
Ontario Place, Science Centre, the Toronto Islands, Niagara falls by
day and night, shopping malls, all this and more), the lasting
impression that remained with me was something less grand –
something that did not seem to exist in Trinidad – i.e. the clean
streets of the city and the (seeming) mandatory patch of flowers
(usually red geraniums) in front of every residence, condominium or
apartment edifice, business place or government building.
For a few weeks after returning to Trinidad, walking down dusty,
dirty city streets, driving along main roads bordered by grass
encroaching upon the asphalt on the road, or passing a deserted
stretch of a minor road, made into a garbage dump by residents from
near and far who had no garbage pickup services, I could not stop
thinking I wanted to live in some place which were as clean and
beautiful as Toronto was (at the time). Or did
my arrival occur eight years after that first visit, when I, with two
teenage children in tow, left Trinidad for good, settling initially
in Scarborough because that’s where our closest relatives lived.
Three months after arriving, I began work for
a well-known immigration consultant, himself formerly from Trinidad.
A fairly large part of his clientele were Indo-Trinidadian or
Indo-Guyanese, either seeking to assist relatives back home to come
to Canada, or themselves applying for permanent residence from within
the country. As part of my responsibilities, I listened to stories
about their reasons for wanting to live in Canada – stories that
varied from the mundane, to the exciting or even the horrifying.
Emotionally, I identified or empathized or even rejected belief in
some of their stories, but at all times I understood that they were
confident their lives would be improved if they could live in Canada.
Did this daily dealing with people of my background, people with the
same dream of a better life in Canada reassure me that I had made the
right move leaving my native country for a new one? Yes, I
think, but maybe I wondered just a little ...
was very proud on the day my family (two children and myself)
received our Canadian citizenship. Proud of the inconsequential
things, such as the fact that the three of us finished our written
test ahead of everyone in the room and got all the answers right. And
proud of more significant things such as we could now actually refer
to ourselves as Canadians, not just Canadian residents; we could
carry a Canadian passport and we could be part of electing those who
would govern of our city, our province and our country. Was that day
our real arrival day?
In 1993, I had my first
job in a non-profit organization – one that provided services to
the Toronto South Asian community. For the first time I had dealings
with with so many East Indians from so many different countries. To
my dismay as well as amusement, I discovered that many South Asians
from India and Pakistan and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and even some
from diasporic countries in East Africa, regarded us Indo-Caribbeans
as culturally tainted.
The flip side of this
were Indo-Caribbeans I met, who declined to accept the label South
Asian, on the grounds that that their experiences of life made them a
different people from those who came to Canada directly from South
Asia. Some Indo-Caribbeans believed themselves superior because they
had been exposed to and influenced by the best of both the Western
and the Eastern world.
Partly because my job
required me to be sensitive to people of diverse cultural
backgrounds, for the first time in my life, I began to really reflect
upon my own cultural identity – I was Indian, Caribbean and
Canadian, but was I equal parts of each of these three, or was I more
of one than the other?
Then, several years
after first coming to live in Canada, I returned for my first visit
to Trinidad. I ran into someone I used to know – a person I had
admired as a self-made individual, who had overcome the disadvantages
of an extremely deprived childhood and through hard work, had
achieved considerable economic success and respect in the community.
Part of our conversation went something like this:
He – (poking fun at me)So how are you, Canadian?
Me - (feeling somewhat foolish) I am still Trinidadian, you know.
He – (a trifle disdainfully) Whatever made you decide to leave
Trinidad? I, for one, will never want to live in Canada
Me – (in irritation) Why?
He – I will never
live where I would be a second-class citizen.
Me – (suddenly very, very outraged) – Well good for you buddy,
that you live here where you believe you are a first class citizen!
And good for you that you know I am a second class citizen in Canada
though you don’t know anything about my life there now, or
what my life was like here before I went there!. Have you ever even
been there for a week to know what it is like to live there?
Regretfully, for a minute or two, I launched into a rant about all
the things that work well for me in Canada and all the things that
didn’t when I lived in Trinidad. And then stopped, reminding myself
that all the time, people, me included, form opinions based on the
information they do not have. There are wonderful as well as negative
aspects about the country where I was born and lived for the first
part of my life, and there are wonderful as well as negative aspects
about the country I have chosen to live the rest of my life.
But that conversation was the defining psychological moment of my
arrival in Canada.
I had arrived bodily in
Canada several few years before but it was at that point that I
arrived mentally and emotionally as well. And funnily enough, it
happened while I was on Trinidad soil. It just came to me very
naturally to be disturbed at criticism of the country I had chosen to
live, by someone who had never lived there.
At the end of that visit, while my niece was seeing me off at the
airport, she asked, ”So when are you coming back home for good?”
Without even thinking about it, I replied “I am going home now”.