I am an immigrant

The pearl earring giveaway is cancelled; the pair I received from the vendor who offered them (no one I have ever mentioned here) were not acceptable, and were immediately returned.

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. 

















17 comments

materfamilias said...

First of all, wow! you could really wield a blow-dryer! Very impressed at how straight you managed to get your hair back in '71, sharing the curls and remembering the technologies available.
But mostly, what a wonderful post, sharing your own experience and vulnerability to address such an important issue. I'm working my way to recounting a horrifying, if fairly brief, episode involving Syrian refugees in Bordeaux last week. The solidarity that many xenophobes are marshalling at the moment needs to be swiftly and firmly and repeatedly countered by a stronger solidarity of those of us who know the value of immigrants and who know that cultures can--must?-- accommodate change, they don't stay still any more than time does. (or hair styles, for that matter).

and btw, I've done the math and you were a wonder back in '71, with your newly-minted M.A. . . . and such wisdom and determination. xoxo

Lizette said...

This really hits home! After 40 years as an immigrant in Canada, from the US, I still struggle with my old roots and "new" status in Canada. However, as a global citizen, I feel stronger and stronger every day that we need a global plan for immigration and refugees. We are all on the move. Lack of water, rising water, and war are pushing us out of our homes and we have to go somewhere. For us in Canada, with lots of land, water and peace, it's easy to turn a blind eye. As you said in your excellent post: we all come from somewhere. I am an immigrant. Where are your people from?

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: First, the important thing: I slept on beer-can rollers and also used an iron. I don't mean a curling iron, an iron. But shortly after that photo I walked into a salon and asked fora style I could wear as my hair is. Got a curly shag,never looked back.

Yes, I had the MA at 22; I took a heavy credit load and went straight through, no summers off.

Lizette: Although I know my experience was much easier than those of many, Canada took me, an untested 22 year old. A generous gesture for which I have always been grateful.

Mary said...

I have worked in refugee resettlement in the US for more than 26 years. If the xenophobes actually met a refugee, sat in their home (where they would be treated to amazing hospitality), heard their stories about how these refugees came here with the hope that safety, education and survival would be available for themselves or their children, rather than the bleak, no hope existence in a refugee camp, there would not be the howling. But they won't.

Sadly, these days, facts are trumped (ironic) by lies, especially when the falsehoods come from folks who know better (or are contentedly ignorant, but now have power), yet prefer to fan the flames of hatred for their own purposes--none of which will ultimately benefit the country.


lagatta à montréal said...

Yes, it is very upsetting to hear the nasty things said about migrants and refugees these days, whether from Trump or the various European "populist" parties (at least the one in Austria failed to win). And of course they exist here too.

Mary, if those xenophobes had the slightest clue about how wonderful Syrian food is...

Hmm, I was about to head out to those funny little shops on St-Hubert; I've been terribly busy working on a CV for a project I very much want to do... Hope you did find a coat there. Many shops and private citizens gave winter coats and boots to Syrians arriving here almost a year before...

It is horribly upsetting and not the only place ordinary families are facing hell. I worked at a Nobel Women's Initative conference on sexual violence in conflict and while it was fascinating, the stories were unbearable. The pop singer Corneille's autobiography about the Rwandan genocide has just come out; I've known his uncle, the journalist Léo Kalinda, for decades. He was always the freewheeling man-about-town type and suddenly found himself the guardian for a traumatized teenage orphan...

Lynn L said...

If people just understood....I wonder sometimes if those who are anti-immigrant simply decide not to understand. The white nationalists in the US would be comical if the issue was not so serious. How can anyone claim that this nation was white at one time when the Native Americans were here far longer and some of the first white settlers brought slaves with them? I've spent some time working in refugee camps in Thailand and Africa, and the courage of the people is amazing.

Unknown said...

Again another blog post that should be required reading by everyone...yes we are all immigrants. I was five years old when we arrived in Canada. Where are your people from.

Duchesse said...

Mary: Hello, and thank you so much for this comment. yes, like so many times when we make a person 'the other', if we could just sit with them, we would see things more broadly if not differently. I suspect this work has affected you profoundly.

lagatta; I fear that if persons do not wish others to be present their cuisine would not matter. I have donated to both clothing drives and fundraising for Syrian immigrants here and in other provinces, but also other groups. My experience was relatively comfortable and I know not the usual.

Lynne L: Exactly, and I wonder what obliterated that personal history.

Unknown: Thank you. Perhaps we can start a meme?

Everyone: I recommend the book Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. A multiple prize-winner or shortlisted this year but never mind that, most worthy on its own merits.

Melissa Hebbard said...

Immigration is a very complex subject. As a non Aboriginal Australian, I come from a host of immigrants who left their homes several generations back hoping to find a better life. In some cases their family had lost their work because the copper ran out, or the industrial revolution killed off their sort of work. In other cases they fled conflict. Many became pioneers of parts of Australia, and were leaders of their towns. They have played their part in shaping Australia as it is now.

However, the more I look at immigration, the more I come to realize that the coming of my ancestors and their like, had a devastating impact upon the Aboriginal people. Their compatriots coming the USA and Canada likewise devastated the lives of the First Nation People. I was pleased to see that Cavalry officer bend his knee to ask forgiveness at Dakota.

What our people had was an arrogant belief that our God was the true God, our religion the best one, our culture and way of life better than those who already lived on the land we came to. It gave our people a lack of respect for the First Nations. We forced them to convert to Christianity, to give up their way of life, languages, costumes, and culture, and eventually we out bred and out numbered them and drove them off their lands and made them third class citizens.

I think what sits behind many people's fear of immigration is that understanding that not all immigration is good for those who already live in a place. Those who come with a similar culture and respect for that culture will integrate well and improve and enrich society, but those who have a way of life and belief that clashes and an arrogant belief that they are better will be a problem.

All immigration will alter the host country and its people in some way, and not always for the better. I note that you were permitted to stay as long as you behaved yourself and respected the laws of Canada, otherwise you were out. I think this must be the best way of dealing with immigration. Let them in and give them a chance but on the proviso that they respect the people and the way of life of those who already live here.

Kristien62 said...

Thank you for such an honest and thought provoking post. In 1971, I also wanted to emigrate to Canada. My opposition to the war and my love for Quebec made me want to leave the US. Unlike you, I would have given up my citizenship in a heartbeat to become a Canadian. I had lived in Newfoundland as a child and loved Canada from that time forward. But in 1971, my young husband couldn't make the move. And so we stayed.

I am not happy with the way things seem to be moving in the US and, from recent events, in Europe. I fear for the new immigrants and hope that those of us who are sympathetic can help.

Duchesse said...

Kristien62: It's a while different thing when two or more must make the decision.

Duality was, and is presently, permitted. If Canada had required giving up US citizenship in order to become a permanent resident, I would have done so.

LauraH said...

Thank you for sharing this special part of your history, it was fascinating to read your story.

Margie from Toronto said...

It is such a difficult subject - especially these days. My family are immigrants from Scotland in the late 50's and the one thing I do try to remind people now is that this type of move was not as easy as some now believe. Yes, we were European/White and spoke the language which was certainly an advantage - BUUT -

.my dad came first, leaving mom to follow with me, a 3 yr. old and my infant brother on a propeller driven plane that had to refuel twice along the way - my mother had never flown before & both my brother and I threw up most of the way.

.we lived with relatives who had sponsored us and had to be financially responsible for us - no welfare, nothing - you were on your own.

.we ended up living in a large apt. bldg. with fellow immigrants from all over Europe and the Caribbean - many didn't speak English when they arrived. Most had never been in contact with people from different countries or with people of different colour or religion. Things were much more insular then - people didn't travel like now and there was no internet. This was a huge cultural shock for everyone - AND - there were still lingering feelings over WWII even then.

.BUT - and I give all these immigrants huge credit for this - they came here to Canada for a better life for themselves and especially for their children. So differences were put aside and people made a huge effort to get along for the sake of their children. I don't think that these immigrants from all over get the credit that they deserve. Many of them came with very little money, didn't have the language or the education needed for anything more than manual labour jobs - didn't have a social safety net to fall back on - and experienced cultural shocks equivalent to what many now experience and yet often I find them spoken of as having had it so easy. Well it wasn't easy but those are the people who built the country that we now have and I think they deserve more respect than they usually receive.

I am all for immigration - and I believe in human rights and the rule of law - but I also believe in social responsibility and personal responsibility and adherence to the laws of the land - and I sometimes find that this second part of the equation often gets short shrift these days. It can't be all take - we all have to give back at some point.

I hope that Canada will always be able to give refuge to those who need it in this troubled world and i'm glad that you were able to find it when you needed it Duchesse.

Duchesse said...

Margie: What a story! What city did they settle in? Yes, people would have been more isolated then, and the barriers to integration were high. with few programs like the job training centre for immigrant women where I volunteered.The press sometimes focuses on "welfare fraud" and other problems and does not give the acknowledgment- as you have so eloquently- to lives of sacrifice and dislocation.

Rita said...

Thank you for this post Duchesse.

lagatta à montréal said...

For those here who understand French, a video about Syrian refugee children after their first year in Montréal:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys2Rw5FcAME

They speak slowly and carefully, so should not be too hard to understand. Of course, they learn far faster than their parents.

Frugal Scholar said...

i am (I hope) sensitive to this issue since all my grandparents and one of my parents immigrated to the US. I have such fond memories of all the accented English I heard spoken by that generation--accents my children will not hear.

And re Lagatta's comment above: Last summer in Montreal, we were waiting for a bus along with a Syrian (?) family: the son of about 10 had a book open and was teaching his mother French. A moving sight.