When I Came To Canada

COMMUNITY EDITORIAL BOARD
When we came to Canada

By Rose DeShaw
Friday, June 28, 2013 8:49:58 EDT PM

I always seem to roll the universe into a ball and throw it at the big questions around Canada Day. Why did we come to this country, and what did we find here? Was it worth leaving family and friends behind?

When we immigrated in 1968 from the U.S., it was in the company of an estimated 100,000 young men of draft age. Normally no more than 10,000 at most would cross the border in any one year.

In 1967 Canada had instituted the Points System, nine criteria to see whether or not independent applicants would be useful to the country. This information trickled down to us in a small U.S. college town where my husband, Dick, had just been awarded a fellowship to the University of Waterloo. But once the letter announcing this great gift had been sent, a mail strike fell on our plans like an anvil off a cliff.

In those pre-Internet days, we could not afford to contact the university by phone, and we could not find the town of Waterloo on any maps as it was always lumped in with Kitchener, like a distant relative. To compound things, I lost the letter in the turmoil of packing up Dick, myself and our two-year-old to leave the country.

Finally, at a farewell party, someone brought refreshments in a Seagram’s carton labelled Waterloo, Ont. Without the letter, we hung onto a piece of that box like some official document. We would have to go 3,000 miles, clear across the mountains and prairies of this new country, to find out whether or not there really was a Waterloo.

My husband was a graduate in philosophy and I was a hippie, though not the drug-taking variety. Mostly it was because of the music, the great sense of community and the belief that we could change the world. I marched in protest rallies and subscribed to socialist journals while my husband worried over whether or not we could between us come up with the minimum 100 points that allowed you to cross the border.

You needed to have proof of $300, no criminal record and some skills that the country needed. What was unsaid is that by the summer of 1968, the border was being flooded by bearded, long-haired draft dodgers. We could be caught up in the country’s initial rejection of this wave, solely by our appearance. My husband got out his honourable discharge from the army, got a haircut and shaved his beard. I bought us outfits from Sears and dressed the two-year-old in polyester.

We had an old Studebaker from a farmer’s field, a heavy canvas Second World War army tent from my father and exactly $300. Avoiding the bigger ports, we decided to cross at an tiny Okanagan border town that didn’t get much traffic.

With no money to spare, I packed a picnic lunch before we left. That night we slept on the beach in our old clothes, putting the baby between us rolled in blankets. Both of us stayed awake that night, watching the moon rise over cold, dark water and wondering separately what we would do if this country that sounded so wonderful, rejected us when we applied the next morning.

They had a smiling prime minister with a rose in his lapel who made you feel as though he’d listen when you talked to him; that his government was a reasonable, approachable kind of thing. Behind us was a grey bureaucracy of unfeeling stone that had already sent many of the young men in my husband’s graduating class to their deaths in Vietnam.

Probably the baby having a good night’s sleep was what got us in. He woke up delighted with his new outfit and we rolled into customs as soon as it opened, where he sang and danced and talked about what a wonderful time we were going to have. They passed us right on through, smiling. What had seemed a huge obstacle just melted away.

And we immediately began spending the $300 as we started across Canada in the old car with the pounding hammer of the mail strike shutting down the country. We used the unwieldy old tent till Dick pitched it, in the darkness, across a drainage ditch in Killbear Park near Sarnia. Water ran into our sleeping bags all night. We drove straight through after that, to Waterloo.

I have often thought about what I would say if I had the chance to advise those we left behind. All immigrants deal with that question when they hit the tough times. We had it easier than most. While the law says we couldn’t become citizens for five years, we were landed immigrants who didn’t stand out, knew the language and positively boiled over with education. My husband would go to school on the fellowship, the two-year-old would go to daycare and I would get a job to supplement the fellowship income.

Except I got pregnant, one of those “stop-working-immediately-or-there’ll-be-trouble” sorts of pregnancies. Unplanned. The two-year-old quit daycare and my husband quit school, needing to quickly find a job – which were not growing by the roadside ripe for the picking. We interviewed our way around Ontario till we reached the end of our rope.

There was just enough gas left in the Studebaker to get us to the last of the interviews. What money we had went for a motel room on a side street in the small town where the interview would take place the next day. We had a bit of food left for one more meal for the baby.

I was very low, though I knew all immigrants surely came to worse than this at one time or another. I borrowed an iron from the motel office to press my husband’s suit, taking the baby with me. A kind woman at the office seemed to have figured out, from my disinterest in suggestions on where to eat, that things were pretty rough.

Getting passed through customs meant we’d promised not to become a drain on the country. So if the coming interview didn’t produce a job, we’d be crawling back to our parents for a loan to return home, the “I-told-you-sos” falling thick and fast about our ears.

A stranger knocked on the door of our room that night. He was laden down with all sorts of fantastic food. A bar mitzvah had been held at the motel and there were lots of leftovers. Would we do them a favour and take some of it off their hands? As I resisted the urge to fall down and kiss his feet and those of the woman at the front desk, I resolved to help whoever I saw in trouble from then on out.

Rather quickly the next morning, Dick was hired with a month’s advance in salary and the address of a fully furnished house for rent. The fact that the landlord, his large family and nine Siamese cats with fleas would remain with us there for a while, too, while I cooked and cleaned despite the pregnancy, is another story.

What happened at the motel gave me what some scientists are saying at the Perimeter Institute back in Waterloo; that we carry our prior beliefs into any situation to interpret it. In this case, my prior became that neighbourliness is not confined to a street address but happens wherever good people hold out their hands to help. That I will strive to be one of those good people has been my prior ever since.

Rose DeShaw, a member of the Whig-Standard’s Community Editorial Board, is a retired bookseller with prison library experience, and is employed part-time by our community credit union.

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