50 Years in Canada: Reflections of Gratitude

By Farhad Desai. © 2020 Beyond Binary Consulting. 

My first memory of life was in December, 1970. I was two-and-a-half, holding my mother’s hand, and walking to Thorncliffe Plaza in the freezing rain – or pokey rain, as I called it then. We walked into the plaza, where the Salvation Army was doing a Christmas Toy Drive. One of the volunteers asked my mother if it would be alright if they put me on top of the toys and then put my picture in the paper. Welcome to life in Canada.

Just a few months earlier, on May 22, 1970 – 50 years ago today – my mother, father, brother and I arrived in Toronto as immigrants from Bombay, India. At that time, there was no social media, no What’s App, no Zoom, and not even email to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. There were very expensive long-distance phone calls that you had to arrange in advance with the operator. There were letters with stamps that took weeks to reach their destination, and then weeks to get the reply. There was limited access to news, sports, and entertainment from India – or many other parts of the world. There were no translation apps, and no YouTube videos of people talking about their experiences before and after moving to Canada. No cultural training.

In 1970, Toronto was Canada’s second-largest city and Montreal, the largest. But the 1970s brought terrorism against Anglos in Quebec. That started to unnerve all the corporations that had Headquarters in Montreal and there soon began an exodus to Toronto. Small businesses and families followed.

And it didn’t stop with people from Quebec. Toronto grew as Canada’s business city, and people from all over the country came here for jobs. Plus, every year in school we had students arriving from different parts of the world. Of course, we were from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. But there were also kids from England, Scotland, Ireland, Poland, France, West Germany, Austria, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Japan, Egypt, Armenia, Greece, Portugal, and Italy. We got American refugees, avoiding the draft for the Vietnam war. Add to that, new students arriving from Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and I’m sure I’m still leaving out so many more countries. After a few years, Toronto overtook Montreal as Canada’s largest city.

Back then, we still had the six boroughs that made up the city – this was the main inspiration behind the nickname, the 6ix, as Toronto is popularly known today. Of course, there were no Raptors yet, no Blue Jays, and perhaps most amazingly, only three years removed since the Leafs last won the last Stanley Cup. We were still six years away from bragging about the CN Tower, and nineteen years before we saw Alan Thicke open the SkyDome. Toronto had a modest skyline, not yet filled with bank towers and condos.

The touristy neighbourhood districts like Little India, Little Italy, and Greek Town, were not touristy areas yet. They were known as foreign districts of the city, neighbourhoods where new Canadians would begin their lives here.

There was no citizenship test and no ceremony. We’ve watched the Canadian government create the immigration system we know today, create policies and infrastructure, and even a ministry of multiculturalism. In 1982, we witnessed the creation of the Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This helped judges clarify their definitions of human rights, and that has led to changes in equity and quality of life in Canada in a remarkably short time.

These days, my wife and I take walks in a ravine nature trail near our apartment. Along with the breathtaking views and wildlife all around us, we marvel at the number of languages we hear. In 1970, new Canadians would be very cautious and mindful about speaking their native languages publicly. Today, the PM tells us diversity is our strength. And I agree with him.

Countries today compete over who gets the most qualified immigrants. The words, multicultural and international are beginning to describe every major city in the world. We live in a time when more people have the ability to choose where they want to live and move there in a matter of hours, not days, weeks, months, or years.

Cities and countries around the world are all trying to figure out how to successfully integrate new citizens. The nations that learn to leverage the diversity of the world for the betterment of each nation will be the leaders. Canada is in a good position to be one of those leaders.

Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, and one of the key founders of the Dominion of Canada, was a Scottish immigrant. He was only five years old when his family made their long trek to Upper Canada in 1820. His family came here because his father was in debt and wanted to start a new life for his family. This country accepts people from all over the world, puts them in a position for success and then reaps the benefits of a happy, healthy, well-educated, engaged, productive population.

Today, it feels like my life has come full circle. My wife is American. We lived in the US for five years, where she sponsored me as a permanent resident. Now, 50 years after arriving in Canada, I’m sponsoring her to be a permanent resident here, as we stay with my parents during the lockdown. And who knows, if she decides she wants to be a citizen, I’d finally attend my first Canadian citizenship ceremony.

So many of us have come to Canada for peace and opportunity. All of us together, over the years, have created the nation that we all enjoy today.

15 thoughts on “50 Years in Canada: Reflections of Gratitude

  1. Farhad I’m so very very proud of you for writing this blog .
    Celebrating 50 years since we have come to Canada.
    It’s so well written, you are amazing.
    I love the picture of you when you were 2 and a half years old.
    It brought back such happy memories
    I’m so blessed and grateful to be in this country.
    Dad and I are so happy to have Kendra in our family.
    She is so loving, caring, helpful and always smiling.
    I wish you and Kendra all the best in life.
    Your everloveing……mom.

    1. Thanks, Mum! You and Dad had the biggest challenges, adapting to life in a new country and new culture at a time before we were mixed and globalized like today. People like you helped so many other new Canadians settle and feel welcome. Love you too 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this delightful blend of reminiscences and glimpses of the present. The sweep of your history is a testimony to the widespread changes in Canada over the past half-century. Your description of the broad blending of cultures in Toronto reminds me of what I love about the same rich blending of Canadians in Vancouver.
    All the very best to both of you.

    1. Thank you, Bryan. And the blending of cultures across the country continues today. Hope you and your family are doing well.

  3. Memories make such a wonderful story. There’s not much I know about Canada, but this article gives the history of the growth of this country in a precise manner.

  4. Farhad, nice to know how well all of you have blended into a wonderful mulit cultural society. My parents were permitted immigration to Canada in 1964 but due to some family issue could not shift..
    Wish you, Kendra and your parents a wonderful life in Canada, contributing to it’s progress!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Diana! I didn’t realize that your parents thought about moving to Canada. You’re right, Canada is a wonderful, multicultural society. All the best.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience! It really has been quite a journey for Canada in developing their immigration rules. I always wondered why my father chose Canada instead of a warmer part of the states to immigrate to, he said he didn’t want to enroll in the Vietnam war. Such beautiful stories make up our beautiful heritage.

    1. Thank you, Shermeen! You’re so right, such beautiful stories do make up our beautiful heritage. There’s so many people like your father who chose to move to Canada because they wanted to choose peace. This energy is what makes this place so wonderful.

  6. Farhad: Well written and it is accurately reflecting our thoughts about Canada. We arrived 3 years earlier than you and your parents. You have succinctly brought out the immense changes that have taken place in our adopted country. Every anecdote you describe were experienced verbatim by both my wife, Karrnika (Nairobi, E.Africa vintage) and I (of Indian heritage). My eyes well up when we read about Blue Jays, CN Tower and Skydome. We witnessed World Championship in person and to this day Joe Carter’s home run in the bottom of the 9 th plays over and over like a never ending movie in our minds. Yes we were there. In person. We screamed , danced and rejoiced till wee hours of the morning. We both share all the such memories with you and the reminiscences. Your blog is spot on.

    1. Bala and Karnika: Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. So many people like you two have come to this country and made it as wonderful as it is. We really are blessed to live here. I wasn’t at SkyDome for the World Series, but I was still dancing and rejoicing.

  7. Many thanks for this very interesting blog post, Farhad. You were a cute little kid on top of that toy pile! I remember Toronto from those days, we called it Toronto the Good, and it was parochial and devoid of good food options. But that all changed in the 70s, when Pierre Trudeau created policies to make Canada a beacon of multiculturalism. A fun fact…my brother-in-law’s brother, Norm Cafik, was Canada’s first Minister of State for Multiculturalism. He had won his federal seat in Pickering by a mere four votes, giving Trudeau a slim two seat minority government. So Pierre rewarded Norm with the ministerial post and Canada became a much more interesting place.

    Best wishes for your settling back into life in Canada. Hopefully we might meet up some day, it would be great to meet your wife and of course to see your lovely parents.

    Cheers, Brian Baetz (and Rashne)

    1. Brian (and Rashne), thank you so much for your response. That’s quite an amazing fun fact/crazy coincidence about Norm Cafik. Without his victory, there may have been no Trudeau government, no ministry of multiculturalism, and perhaps no constitution. It’s amazing to see how connected everyone and everything is. From Toronto the Good to the 6ix. It’s been such an amazing journey to watch and be a part of. Keep shining your lights, friends. And it would be wonderful to meet soon.

  8. Beautifully written. I have only visited Toronto as a tourist and through the descriptions from your wonderful mother and father, who I was privileged to meet and become friends with. She is rightly proud of you. Hopefully when this craziness is over and the lockdowns are finally lifted, I will be able to return again to Canada and meet with you all.

  9. Greetings and Namaste Farhad! Congratulations to my dearest friend Hirra Sammy, and welcome to daughter Kendra.
    What a beautiful well written letter of love and gratitude to Canada! We chose to come to Canada and were accepted with open arms.
    Your writing reflects the happy, Carefree time of your early childhood and boyhood.
    And your ethos and Spirit is so Canadian,; it reflects this attitude of grateful openness, peaceful co-existence with Nature and peoples of diverse backgrounds. and countries.. Toronto works! Young Canada works!
    Blessings for the future years!
    Prabha Khanna

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