Photographs, words and sounds
Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

Thank you


Thank you. Thank you for all the comments and tweets and Facebook updates and emails on the previous immigration post. I am trying to catch up with all of it and I am pretty sure there are on-line conversations that were going on that I am not aware of at all. I will try to respond and follow all of you who decided to say something about it. Maybe that is what is needed the most – one big conversation to figure out how do we all deal with each other’s differences, expectations and needs. It won’t be easy, but let’s keep talking.

And a special thank you to a couple of you who commented on the photographs on this blog. When all is said and done, I am first and foremost a photographer so keep coming back. There may not be great discussions about hot button issues here every time you click, but there are always going to be photographs.

On immigration…


I am about to write something I promised myself I will never write.

A friend in Saint John, New Brunswick, who runs an interesting little media company called WickedIdeas, posted on her Facebook account a story about the provincial government urging everybody who has something to say about what New Brunswick can do to attract and retain immigrants to do so. I had this post in me for a long time, but I always thought that maybe I am holding too much of a grudge and that the time is not right to air all of it. But, since they asked, I’ll oblige.

We lived in New Brunswick for eight years. We moved there as starry-eyed newlyweds after driving across the country in a 1973 volkswagen SuperBeetle. It was older than either of us, rusty and packed to the roof with everything we owned including a bicycle. We drove for over 4,000 kilometres from Calgary all the way to Bathurst and we did not even have a shoe string budget. Probably the craziest thing we ever did.

Bathurst was an eyeopener in many ways and not good ones. I worked for an insane editor who did not dare to bully me, but he did bully everybody else. That is not what made us move. What made us move was the fact that my wife had rocks thrown at her as she walked down a path because she was an “English bitch” as one of the charming young men called after her. We moved because after we went to Youghall Beach on a Sunday with a pressman and his fiancé, I was summoned into my darkroom by his foreman who warned me not to socialize with those people because their class status is below mine. We moved because people called daily to ask my editor why he hired a foreigner and not a local person.

We lasted six months and than we moved to Saint John. It was better. We both had jobs and we made some friends – come-from-aways like us mostly, but not all. Those of our New Brusnwick friends, and you know who you are, you have no idea what your friendship meant to us because it was such an exception.

Our first daughter was born two years after we moved to Saint John. I came to work a couple of days later and the person working in the office next to mine walked in. She did not offer her congratulations. She did not ask about my wife and the baby. What she said was: “You know it takes three generations to become a Maritimer?”

Every once in a while I would get a call at work from somebody ranting against immigrants. My favourite was a lady from St. Martins who called me at the charity I worked for because she thought we helped a little boy from Afghanistan get a heart surgery in Canada that saved his life. Unfortunately, that good deed had nothing to do with us, but it did not stop her from telling me that all those dirty immigrants are just coming to take local jobs, if not outright steal from honest New Brunswickers.

My wife was an investigative reporter at a daily who had her work belittled and stolen by those who hired her. When she broke a major story implicating local businessmen and politicians in an immigration scam, she was told that she does not understand local business culture, being from away and all that. She was told not to write anything longer than 500 words without a special permission.

Our second daughter was born. Then the government canceled Early French Immersion program effectively denying educational opportunities to our children. That was in many ways the last straw.

On top of that, my wife’s workplace became downright abusive. At that point, I freelanced full time. I could get work for  Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK as well as on national and regional CBC programs, but not locally.

Our friends were experiencing the same brick walls of nepotism and cliquishness we faced. They started moving away. And so did we.

Let me tell you about our very first day in Newfoundland. We’ve never been to St. John’s or to Newfoundland and we did not know a soul here. That first day we went for a walk downtown to find the French immersion school our daughter was going to attend. We found it and liked it. We walked down King’s Road towards Duckworth Street when this grizzled old man ran out of his house and yelled: “Wait, wait, wait…” We were rooted to the spot not quite sure what the heck is going on – our five-year old standing beside us and the one-year old in a stroller. The old man came back carrying a giant polar teddy bear and he said: “I won this in a raffle once. I’ve been waiting for a little girl to pass by so I could give it to her. So, here you go.” My older daughter, hugging this teddy bear almost as big as she was, was speechless and so were we. I would stop and chat with this man sometimes after we moved into that neighbourhood – he did not remember I was the dad of the girl he gave that polar bear to a year ago. I am not sure he even remembered the incident. It was just something he did. I know his name. I know he would have preferred if Newfoundland became a US state rather than a Canadian province. I even made a photograph of him once.

There were many such incidents.

My wife wrote a story for Toronto Star on storytelling tradition in Newfoundland and for that story she interviewed actor Andy Jones – the same way she interviewed hundreds of people in New Brunswick. A month or two later, it was a Sunday and we were walking to Sobeys to pick something up around 2 p.m. when Andy came out of his house and said: “Come in, come in. I have a new puppy. The girls would love to see him.” We left close to midnight that evening after a dinner and an afternoon and evening filled with stories and laughter.

Of course, there have been terrible moments here. We had professional disappointments. We had a nasty landlord. We had a leaky roof and a wasp nest under the clapboards. We had a drug dealer on our street, but we worked with our neighbours and we made the neighbourhood safe again. Childcare has been hard to organize, and housing and food are expensive and there are days in March when you wish to be anywhere else but on this rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. And then a friend comes over and you have a cup of tea or mulled wine and you forget that the wind is blowing at 130km/h and the uncanny mix of rain, snow and ice is falling sideways as usual.

We’ve been here five years. People ask me every day where I am from. They don’t ask because they are angry I have a job, but because they want to fit me into the master narrative of this place or, if I am on Change Islands or Fogo Island, they simply want to know what is that my people fish. That’s what they are like, these Newfoundlanders. They somehow learned how to take what they like and share what they have with those who come from just about anywhere. They will teach you how to make fishcakes in exchange for a Mediterranean fish soup recipe or simply for a good story. They are comfortable with who they are, so they let you be who you are.

If New Brunswick wants to attract immigrants, New Brunswickers will have to make peace with who they are. They have to stop being paranoid about everybody and everything. The world is not out to get you, although there are some very rich folks among you you should keep a better eye on.

Immigrants are not some exotic species of a bird that you can attract by planting the right kind of a tree. You have to accept that we are no different than you. We are not less human than you or more entrepreneurial or smarter or dumber or better or worse educated. We want the same things you do: good neighbours, safe streets, jobs, decent housing, good schools that give our children an opportunity to be the best they can be. We may not speak perfect English or prefect French, but we might speak Croatian, or Urdu, or Farsi, or German, or Dutch, or Mandarin or any other of the hundreds of languages out there in the world. Make us feel like there is a place for us and we will share everything we have with you and be just as passionate about your province and your communities as you are even if we are not third generation Maritimers and even if our family did not come to New Brunswick shores on the first Loyalist ship or during the terrible tragedy that was the expulsion of Acadians. We will volunteer and contribute to our new communities if you give us a chance to build some stability in our lives without feeling like permanent outsiders because we have accents, darker skin, or sometimes wear funny clothes. Don’t expect all of us to be entrepreneurs – most of you are not. Some of us will be entrepreneurs, others will be teachers, and potters, and photographers, and chefs, and some of us will sell delicious samosas at the City Market.

What you do need to understand, though, is that treating us like outsiders even when we spend years trying to make New Brunswick home will make us leave and we will never come back.

My family, we miss our New Brunswick friends. We miss the City Market and the skywalk and the library and the museum and the Buskers’ Festival and every June our older daughter talks about the fair and the rides at the Harbour Station. We miss Canada Day and New Year’s fireworks over the harbour – they don’t do fireworks quite as well here. We miss our landlady terribly. She was like a grandmother to our kids. She was an immigrant, too and her kids are only first generation Maritimers so not yet a real deal, I guess. What we don’t miss are petty snubs, blatant nepotism and constant reminder that we are not part of the place we chose to call home.

If you want immigrants from abroad and from other parts of Canada, you will first and foremost need to be kind. It will make an enormous difference.