I came here when I was eight years old. We moved to Montreal in 1977 just months after Bill 101 passed. We read information on Canada: it's an immigration friendly country! it has two official languages! it's a big country with lots of natural beauty! I guess one out of three isn't bad.
Thirty three percent. I think that's about as much of me wants to be here right now.
It began poorly. Our belongings sank in Halifax harbour. The wealthy were allowed to recover their things first when the containers had been recovered. By the time we were allowed to view our own stuff our silverware and many family heirlooms had disappeared. I recovered a dear rabbit and dog who's stuffing smelled of ocean bottom.
Someone in Barrie decorates his house with our family's history now.
Meanwhile on the streets of Lasalle I found myself in a bad situation facing a long run home from school every day. The French kids thought it was fun to set their German shepherd on me. If the dog didn't get me the kids did. I came home with the hood hanging in tatters from my shoulder. I'd been swung around in circles by my neck, laughing faces blurring by until it ripped.
We eventually moved into a better place and I got to take the bus to school; much safer. Suddenly we were moving again. My parent's couldn't win the battle they had been fighting.
"Dear Mrs. King, your children are not Canadian enough to attend an English school in Quebec. If you don't send them to a French school you will be charged and jailed."
True North Strong and Free... free to move I suppose. We came to Mississauga as refugees and made a new home. It was a better fit perhaps because I tried so hard or perhaps because the Constitution actually meant something here. I learned to skate years after others in my class had. I learned to play hockey and I thought I finally knew what it was to be Canadian. I still had trouble with bullies though. Being the kid with an accent makes you the target.
I stumbled through school keeping my head down and trying to be average on purpose. When I graduated it was as a survivor. I wasn't looking forward to work, survivor's don't make very good money. If I wanted first dibs on the salvaged container I needed to be wealthy; money is happiness in Canada.
I went to college because I couldn't stand subsistence work and then dropped out. I worked in battery acid and axle grease, it was dirty money. Finally pulling myself together I did the bravest thing I'd ever done: I went to school like I meant it. Working full time I was going to high school four years older than any of the other students. I woke up at seven went to school from eight to two forty five got to work at three and worked until eleven. I went to bed at 1am and then I got up and did it again. and again.
Universities took my application seriously. I had my choice except for the one I wanted. I begged and they let me in. I spent four years hard at it. I never had the chance to buy a stereo with my student loans, but I learned about the past and started to see the future. I learned about post colonialism and how Europeans had been pillaging the world for centuries and I thought about my little fishing village in England and wondered who got rich from all of this history. It certainly hadn't been us.
Half way through school I stood in line with a thousand others waiting to get my student loan.
"If you don't sign this you won't get the loan!"
"But I already have a contract with the federal government for my loan."
"The banks are taking over the loan handling. Signing this nullifies your previous agreement."
"But I don't want a bank administering my loan."
"Look if you don't want it don't sign for it."
"But tuition has almost doubled since I started here. I can't afford to pay it with summer work alone any more."
"Then sign the paper. If you're not going to sign it please step out of the line."
I signed the paper. I was finally doing something I knew was inherently valuable and I couldn't abandon it. Surely this would all work out for the best.
The bank mishandled the loan and mistreated me. The government made vague gestures of protection which the bank ignored. I was once again working up to my arms in hot industrial filth making more dirty money. I could barely afford to put a roof over my head and feed myself. They demanded half of my yearly income in a lump sum payment and then sixty percent of my monthly income for the next ten years.
"If you can't pay it perhaps you can put it on your credit card."
"My credit card is maxed out."
"You really need to handle your finances better you know."
I found love and in that I found reason enough to save myself (yet again). We had an opportunity to go to the other side of the world. I could teach, actually doing work that required my education. In a country as far from where I was born as I could get I gained respect, perspective and a degree of success. Perhaps it was because there I knew I was a stranger. There's a freedom in knowing that you don't belong because you can see everything with an outsider's eyes, and in the end you don't invest your soul in anything other than yourself. In Canada I tried to belong and when I couldn't I pretended. I tried to see myself as Canadian not knowing that I never would be. I invested my soul in a lie.
Phone calls came at three o'clock in the morning, voices from far away demanding payment. I made arrangements and paid off my debts - debts created from being the poor son of poor immigrants. I felt like any financial togetherness was lost in this. I paid for myself selfishly and I didn't contribute to our future. I felt guilty when we spent money on trips. I felt guilty when I spent money on anything.
Sometimes I wonder about university and how it works here. In Canada, if you rape and murder young women, you can get a free university education (Karla Homolka). In Canada if something is difficult to manage (like student loans) you give it to private companies and let them eat the very best of your young then you sit around lamenting the brain drain.
After our time abroad we came back to Canada. I make even less now than I did before we left. I got more time off at Christmas (and year round) in Japan than I do in Canada and I was respected for my work. In the world economy I made US$26K/year in 1998 before leaving Canada, US$37-44K/yr in my time in Japan and now, back in Canada, I make US$19K/yr. How is this possible? If there was an award for Most Brutally Mismanaged Economy Cretien's regime would win it, but then that is the cost of a closed power structure: stifled ideas, unimaginative conservatism and energy spent on keeping the other out rather than embracing them, their energy and their intelligence. My only hope is that the excluded groups will become strong while left out in the cold and eventually open up this ailing, closed system..
I hate this society with its materialistic lifestyle, its nihilistic politics and its apocryphal history. People here grew big and strong out of the blood of genocide.
A young native man to the Vancouver North Alliance MP during the 2000 federal election:
"Why do you want to take away support for native programs?" "This is the twenty first century. I think it's time that we all moved forward together, without handouts or tax breaks. We're all just Canadians."
"Just Canadian," makes it sound so accessible doesn't it? I wonder who is "Canadian". My guess is that it's quite specific: people of European descent who's ancestors actually took part (and so benefited) in the pacification of the country. Isn't pacification I nice word for murder, rape and betrayal? Yeah guy this his how it works: we treat you like animals and mash you into the ground for three hundred years and then we tell you to forget history and let's all be equal (even though you grew up in poverty in a concentration camp we kindly call a "reserve" and your parents have memories of the priests and how they made them forget their language and culture).
I guess I should feel so bad, even the Canadians aren't considered Canadian.
I see a constant theme in stories of people finding healing by returning to their roots even if they don't remember them. It's as though they are a part of the place that spawned them and by returning to it they realize themselves as they truly are. If it's true that we are a part of a place then a traveller is a wound torn from the earth and left wandering and I have been that kind of wound for three quarters of my life.
I can remember the time before we left home and it is happy. If my parents were battling things they did well to keep it from me. I can remember growing up surrounded by a culture that I was a part of and a family with roots as deep as can be. Did I belong? Certainly, more so than I have ever since.
Sometimes I think that if I had remained in England I could have gone to university and come out debt free then I think, 'if I'd have grown up in Norfolk I probably wouldn't have gone to university in the first place.' Sometimes I wish that I could have grown up in the familiar. If I had I certainly wouldn't be the soul seeker that I am today. I never would have developed an involuntary habit of self examination. My self as it is would probably not even be visible if it had grown up where it was born so intertwined with it's place would it have been. Is a vein of gold left in the ground less beautiful than a purified, shrunken bar?
Would going home cure me? I'm told not because I'm used to Canadian ways. Would there be a mystical reuniting of my body and soul? I'm sceptical but not resistant to it (in other words I would love for this to happen and I'm terrified that it wouldn't).
I'm feeling like Canada was my parent's dream and I've been dreaming it for a long time. I don't think this means an end to my relationship with Canada though. My own family will be half Canadian and I believe they should honour their heritage. I just don't know if that means living in it.
Perhaps these are immigrant cramps and they will pass away with me leaving my children unscarred.