I came to Canada in early 1971 with a shiny M.A., a $3, 000 loan from my parents, and a deep aversion to the Viet Nam war. About to finally join the full-time workforce, I knew that a high percentage of every tax dollar I paid would contribute to the war. I had impression that Canada was good place to spend a few years and gain some work experience, and the small Northern Ontario city where I first moved was only about 90 miles from my home.
Nearly 46 years later, I remain. This summer, I was part of an oral history project about immigration, sponsored by the Canadian Immigration Museum in Halifax, N.S. On a sunny June morning I put on a little makeup and went downtown for my video interview.
|Application photo 1971|
It's odd to recount your life on camera; I kept seeing faces from that first city: Tony, the kind and brilliant social-service executive, himself an immigrant from Holland; my colleague, Hervé, who told me he absolutely hated Americans (he eventually liked me); my family, who were either entirely supportive (Dad), or sure I would return any month (Mom).
Immigrating to Canada as an American was a cakewalk versus the situation of, say a Somalian or Syrian. I had the language, a job lead, and a couple of Canadian history courses in my pocket. I blended in, even with my Midwestern accent. But I still had to learn the different system of government, cultural norms, and the present concerns of the province and nation.
I came with a girlfriend, Christine, who was a teacher, but would have to re-qualify for a Canadian license, which as I recall now was about a year's course, during which time she would not be able to work. Christine could, however, enter for six months as a visitor. While there, she mounted a determined campaign to secure a marriage proposal from a man she truly did want, but that didn't work and when her clock ran out she returned to Akron, Ohio.
I stayed, at first for the work, then for love—love of both a man and, gradually, a country. The love of the country proved more constant, though just like love of a man, we have sometimes had our differences.
At the policy level, the complex issue of immigration includes considerations of sovereignty, economics, security and international relations. But I was asked, last summer, to speak about the experience.
My adaptation memories remain vivid: wanting to fit in, desperate to contribute as soon as possible. Longing for conversations not to begin with, "Why did you come here?" Trying to read who would be hostile if I spoke about my reason. (I had a family member serving in Viet Nam who was more empathic than some of my interrogators.)
Last weekend, I was in one of those little jumbly shops on Plaza St-Hubert, replacing my puffer coat. (Sidebar: it turns out moths just love fur trim with a down chaser.) I had a convivial exchange with the owner, one of the classic Montréal schmatte-trade men. "Every woman asks me for the one that takes off 20 lbs.", he said, "but... this is down." While I tugged on various models (this time, without fur), he asked, "Where did your people come from?"
His parents came from Hungary. But now we are here, along with so many others, including both sets of my daughter-in-law's grandparents, who arrived with little more than suitcases, started small businesses, and lived to see their children achieve notable careers. For the vast majority, the sequence is survival, then a series of halting, slow steps toward security; a much smaller segment achieve prosperity and even great wealth.
His question is one I will ask anyone who flatly opposes immigration: "Where did your people come from?" Everyone's family has someone with a suitcase, perhaps with children in tow, uncertain and hopeful, even if you have to go back many generations. (As a First Peoples friend of mine says when he hears Canadians carp, "Does this mean you're going home now?")
And in the case of refugees, the newcomers must deal with harrowing loss. My ex-husband's maternal grandparents awoke in Dublin to find their coffins on the porch with a note giving them eight hours to leave; they did, but his grandmother lost the baby she was carrying.
Not all stories are successes. A young Rwandan refugee whom my daughter-in-law helped sponsor got in with a bad crowd and was murdered last summer. If immigration were indisputably beneficial, there would not be such debate and dissent in every host country.
I do not want to diminish the essential issues of whom and how many a country admits, and the effect of immigration on citizens. But in North America, when a rigid and fear-driven nationalism gains ground, the assertion that most problems are caused because those people are here is increasingly unchallenged.
On a frigid February afternoon in 1971, I walked out of a government office with a country's promise that if I behaved responsibly, I was in—not yet a citizen but allowed to do the important things: work, get healthcare, canoe and go to Rush concerts. Friends came over for cake and coffee, even a glum Christine.
It was not that I didn't want to be an American (I have remained a citizen), it was that I sought a harbour from a tragic, futile war. Little did I know I would come to revere not just the harbour, but the entire ocean.