In September of 1954, my wife Shirley and I arrived in Canada as landed immigrants. We did not intend to stay, but thought we were simply in transit towards a return to New Zealand, which we had left four years before. In the interim, we had lived in Australia and India each for six months, England and Scotland for a year each, and had twice made the obligatory tour of Western Europe, first on a tandem bicycle and then on a scooter. Though we had each worked enough to keep us going, the suffocating class structure in Britain prevented us from thinking of it as a permanent place of residence.
I was brought up to regard foreigners as of great interest, although during the Second World War we were taught to hate Germans. That particular anomaly was modified when I went to Germany and found young people of my own age were just like us. And it was finally put to rest on the day of our arrival in Canada when, walking out of the train station in Toronto at 10.30 pm with no idea where to go next, we were approached by some Germans who had come to the station to offer help to people they knew would be coming off the immigrant ship. So we weren’t the Germans they expected? Not to worry, they offered to find us a room, did so, and then cheerfully waved goodbye. How could you hate such people?
I cannot pretend that we were ever in any way comparable to the immigrants of the present day. In the 1950s, being white, English-speaking and with a passport declaring us British subjects, we travelled freely, and only Canada of our four countries of residence on the way had insisted on any immigrant formalities. All we needed was fifty dollars, which we obtained at the last minute by selling our scooter, a clean bill of heath, and presumably no criminal record to be immediately acceptable.
Still, having once been an immigrant, I always feel sympathetic towards them, because I can recall what my fellow workers said to me when I took a temporary job on production lines in Melbourne, Australia.
They’d ask “Eh, where you from, then, mate?” And when I told them they’d say, “ah, you one of us then, not like them,” indicating all the Yugoslavs, Russians, Greeks, Germans, Italians and the occasional Dutchmen who were our fellow-workers. Just a bunch of Balts, Krauts, Dagos and the like, with the occasional whinging Pom thrown in. In 1950, when we were there, they were still living under the White Australia policy, almost the first actions of their newly-formed federation in 1901 having been to restrict all non-white immigration. Living in Mackay, northern Queensland, we occasionally saw around the streets a mysterious race referred to as Kanakas, hangovers from the so –called “blackbirding” expeditions by which Pacific Islanders had been impressed to work in the sugar fields, often by trickery or seizure. White Australia was finally abandoned for good in 1975. (Canada, early on, had similar experiences, but corrected them more successfully).
It was very similar in London. As soon as I opened my mouth with my strange Antipodean accent, they’d say, “Eh, you ere’ reg’lar, then?” And the same response when I told them where I was from: ‘Oh, you one of us then.” Not like the Dutchman and Greek woman who were the only foreigners on the floor, and were always blamed whenever anything went wrong.
After arrival in Canada the only time I remember being treated as an immigrant was just after I arrived when I turned up at the offices of a newspaper looking for a job. They said, “Unfortunately you haven’t had any Canadian experience.” Okay, how do I get that? I asked innocently. “You have to get a job, I guess,” they said, shrugging their indifference.
Eventually I was offered a job in a town in northern Ontario called Kirkland Lake. It was the only job going, we were running down on our limited money, so I took it. Kirkland Lake turned out to be a workaday little town, built around gold mines, most of which had already closed. The town was populated with immigrants: the main street lined with shops owned by foreigners. No one was the slightest bit interested in where we came from. No one ever bothered to ask, and didn’t expect us to ask them. The reporting staff comprised a South African, a Jamaican, an English descendant of the poet Wordsworth, who was, frankly, slumming it for a bit of experience, not really an immigrant, but always ready to go back to the baronial home --- and me. After three months my wife got a teaching job in a small country school just north of Kenora, nearly 859 miles to the west, a small town on the immense Lake of the Woods, which, we quickly learned, is reputed to contain 14,000 islands. Our first lesson about Canadian life was that it was easy to save money, even on the meagre salary of $45 a week. That paid for our train journey, and in Kenora, as in Mackay, Queensland we became conscious of a similarly barely-recognized minority, that of the so-called Indians, who at least were often seen around town, whereas in Mackay the equivalent group, the Aborigines, were never allowed into the towns.
The journey across Ontario’s middle north, through vast forests, a landscape of rocks, trees and lakes, was another eye-opener: it was New Year’s Day, and as we stopped at the succession of small logging towns, a group of mostly Finnish bushworkers would get on the train on their half-drunken way to visit their neighbours in the nearest village 90 miles away. The whole of my home counrry could nestle comfortably into that part of northern Ontario.
Our next move was to Winnipeg, where I was offered a job on The Winnipeg Free Press after submitting to them a freelance article on something or other.
Now the endless boreal forest was behind us, and we were in the middle of the endless prairie. My wife got a job teaching and found their system was relatively civilized, although I discovered, when required to write up the conclusions of a new, massive survey report on the education system, that unlike the system we grew up in, where everything was equalized between districts, the quality of the schools offered in Canada depended entirely on the wealth, or lack of it, of the district’s population. This was certainly not the ideal democratic system that Canadians apparently believed they had.
I remember a few small things that other immigrants might have been subject to as they were enveloped for the first time by the Canadian winter. When I was still in Kirkland Lake, a friend drove us out to the continental divide, the point at which rivers either ran south into the Great Lakes, and to the north into Hudson Bay. The winter was on the way, and when my friend told me to grab the iron bar holding up the sign, I found that my hand seemed to stick to the bar. I was astonished as the winter closed in, to find that everyone drove around carelessly (as it seemed to me) on ice-covered roads: that had an unhappy result for me, because the afore-mentioned friend, a charming, enthusiastic fellow who was employed by the National Film Board to distribute their films in and around Kirkland Lake, later died when his car ran off the road on his way to visit his mother in Toronto, because he fell asleep at the wheel. Thirty or forty years later, I did the same thing, unsuccessfully fighting black ice while making a February drive from Montreal to Ottawa, but I was lucky: if my head had been six inches to the left I would have been killed. As it was, I was merely severely bruised.
Later, in Kenora, when I lucked into a comfortable Lakeside home for the winter, I sat mesmerized at the unheard of spectacle of huge trucks running across the ice to a nearby island, something I had never even been able to imagine in my home country. My neighbour, a brawny working man, spent the winter cutting great squares of ice from the lake, storing them for use in summer refrigeration. Another unheard of thing.
One of my first assignments was to cover the Winnipeg Grain Exchange for three months leading up to the end of the year. From October I walked to work along Portage avenue every morning, more than a mile, it felt like, in temperatures I had also never imagined feeling in my life, arriving frozen to the bone, but quickly warmed by the centrally-heated office building. I was the more amazed because in the summer I had spent my walking time dodging into the shade from any available tree so as to escape the burning heat of the sun, in the very same streets. Remarkable, I thought that.
Later, when I was working in Montreal, I was assigned to cover the 1959 visit of the royal family. I don’t like the royal family, and detest the monarchy as an institution. But I took the job as a means of seeing Canada, and in that it was a spectacular success. I travelled, by boat (along the St Lawrence), train, air, from Montreal up to Dawson City in the Yukon, where I was so astonished by the purity of the newly-broken day (at around 1 a.m.) that I stayed up two nights to watch it arrive. Then back through the provinces all the way to Halifax. Along the way I made it my business to meet many of the people the Queen was meeting, and thus made by first acquaintance with some indigenous people, and some long-time Western residents who had never learned to speak either of the official languages even after decades in the country.
In Winnipeg I re-made the acquaintance of John Hirsch, who, when I lived there, was a producer in the CBC, but who later became a theatre director well-known across the continent. The Queen had a specific thing to do demanded by the charter granted to the Hudson’s Bay
Company, which had its headquarters in Winnipeg --- I think it had something to do with presentation of a beaver --- and as part of that ceremony, Hirsch had produced a remarkable procession of the ethnic communities who make up the Canadian mosaic. Each of these communities has a specialty of some kind --- one makes a particular kind of bread, another paints eggs, they each have their distinctive traditional clothing ---- and each had chosen a small team of three or four people to present a sample of these ethnic specialties to the Queen, and lay them at her feet. It may sound slightly corny, but I found it profoundly moving, something that gave me a fuller understanding of what Canada is, probably for the first time.
Later, since I had never really settled in my own mind that I belonged in this strange northern country, I did the traditional immigrant thing, and moved back with my family of four children to New Zealand, where I discovered I could make half a living before succumbing to offers of employment again in Canada. Twenty-six years after we first set foot in the country, I took out my Canadian citizenship, responding to the judge’s question as to why it had taken me so long by saying I was slow to make up my mind.
So here I am, a Canadian at least in official terms, a Canadian who hates anthems and flags, having reconciled with the country to the extent that every time I return to it after being abroad, I think how good it is to be back, how Canada seems a decent nation, on the whole, and, even if closed to the socialism I would myself much prefer, at least a country willing to consider the option, holding out hope for something better in the increasingly alarming future.