I am an immigrant. My family moved to Canada from England in 1967. We arrived in time to celebrate our new country’s 100th birthday. This week will mark our 50th anniversary in Canada.
My parents were young when we came. I was 8 years old, my brothers were 6 and 12. We travelled with a suitcase each. We left behind many personal possessions and our entire extended family; grand-parents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
My father had a job waiting for him in Winnipeg, at Bristol Aerospace. The company was recruiting employees from Great Britain at the time. But, there was no family to welcome us. No house to go to.
The first shock was stepping off the plane into -30 degree weather. We were dressed for the damp cold of England, but not for the snow and bitter, “dry cold” of the prairies. We checked into a motel, and my parents spent a week walking up and down Portage Avenue looking for an apartment. Most apartments had “no children” policies. They finally found one, and scrambled to buy some basic furnishings and winter clothing for us all.
I remember those first weeks and months well. Food tasted awful. Even brands that we had in England somehow tasted “off”.
I was teased in school for my clothes and my accent. Once, my teacher asked me to share what school was like in England, I described how the early years were called Infants and Juniors.
“Infants???”, she said. “That’s what we call babies over here!”
Maybe teachers weren’t as attuned to children’s sensitive natures back then. I was crushed.
And then there was the home sickness. We try to convince ourselves that young children are resilient and able to adjust to new situations and surroundings. This may be true for some. It wasn’t for me. I missed my home, missed it terribly. I missed my friends. I missed my family, especially my grand-parents. I cried at night, and dreamed of being back in England. When I woke, I wished I could go back to sleep and return to my dreams.
I hated the immigrant experience. And yet, my parents freely chose to move us, during a time of peace, and to a country that generally shared a similar culture and language. They did it to improve our life, and for better opportunities. It was a good move.
My parents’ childhood was vastly different.
My mother and father were both born in Poland. Their families were exiled to Siberia during the Russian occupation at the start of WWII. When the USSR became allied with England against Germany, the Poles were free to leave Siberia. My grand-fathers joined the Polish army. My parents, their sisters (my two aunts) and my grand-mothers travelled south (a story all its own) to spend the rest of the war years in a refugee camp in Uganda.
After the war, because my grand-fathers had fought with the allied forces, the families were given the choice to emigrate to Canada, England, or Australia. Both families chose England, since it was closest to Poland. My parents spent their later school years in British schools, learning English as quickly as they could.
In England, we sometimes experienced the dual prejudice of culture and religion. Poles spoke with an accent, ate strange foods, and had unpronounceable names. Catholics were those families with too many children. Believe it or not, we were considered “that Catholic” family in our white, protestant neighbourhood, and we were only three children.
Being Polish in Canada in the 1970’s wasn’t always easy either. It was a time of Polak jokes and other racial slurs.
Today, I am proud of my Polish heritage. I am proud of the courage and sacrifices of my grand-parents and my own Mama and Tato. I am grateful for the life that they have given me, and continue to do so.
And, I am grateful to live in a country that strives to embrace diversity and celebrate multiculturalism. A country that continues to welcome immigrants and provide sanctuary for refugees.
I am grateful – and proud – to be a Canadian.