As nearly any Canadian knows, 1972 was a momentous year: after all, Paul Henderson scored the decisive goal against the Soviet Union in the ice hockey Summit Series in the midst of the Cold War, sparking national pride.
But 1972 also saw a string of conflicts across the world. In Uganda, it was the year when the country’s dictator, Idi Amin, ordered Ugandans of Asian origin to leave the country within three months. Forced to find new homes, many of the refugees found shelter in Canada.
The ordeal of expulsion and forced migration has weighed heavily on many Ugandans. However, for those who migrated to Canada, the experience also meant new hope and a promise of a fresh start. This new opportunity made it easier for many immigrants to focus on the future, challenging as it was, rather than dwell on the past.
The refugees from Uganda, as well as those who followed from other parts of East Africa, generally knew very little about Canada. Many had never had a home outside of East Africa. Canada seemed far away and utterly foreign.
And yet it was Canada that opened its doors to those forced to leave East Africa, and embraced all, regardless of national background, ethnicity, class or religion – the immigrants from Uganda were Christians, Hindus and Muslims, diverse in a number of respects. Some of these immigrants still recall the assistance of the Canadian mission, and the kindness with which they were received.
In my own community of Ismaili Muslims, the Asian exodus from East Africa to Canada is part of a larger story of migration. In the 1970s and after, Ismaili Muslims came to Canada from various countries and walks of life. They included people from England, France, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and many other countries. Some, like the Ugandan immigrants, arrived as a result of political strife and instability, with few possessions. Others were professionals or students who were able to consider settling in any number of places, and ultimately chose Canada as their new home.
Regardless of where these immigrants came from, or their circum-stances, the process of settlement presented a daunting challenge. However, over time, they adjusted to the nuances of Canadian life, which included the cold weather and the need to speak English or French fluently, as well as – of course – the fervent attention to hockey. More accurately, they grew to appreciate all of these.
Canada in 1972 was a different place than it is now. But even then, the notion of multiculturalism, and the idea of accepting diversity, set Canada apart. Canada welcomed East Africans and other immigrants in more than a symbolic way: it also provided an environment in which those new immigrants could begin anew and flourish. It offered respect for those who came with different traditions, as well as educational and professional opportunities for all, in addition to security and order. It placed a premium on values that we recognize as our own: of equality, of fairness, of caring for others. These values allowed all of us to put down roots.
In return, we have sought to give back to the country that became our home more quickly and more solidly than we might have expected in the beginning. Many former immigrants, even those who started with very little, are now productive citizens who con-tribute to society in a number of ways: working hard, raising and educating children, volunteering at community organizations, extending a helping hand to those who may need it.
Each immigrant story is different, forged in different circumstances, stemming from different places, but no doubt there are certain commonalities. Some of us came in a state of despair, others were filled with hope. Often we had little or no idea what to expect. In the end, though, we found a new home, and the happiness that comes with belonging. We built foundations for our families and for future generations. For those who immigrated in the 1970s, our children understand immigration only through our oral histories. Canada is their home, the only one they have ever known. And over time, even those of us who came to Canada as immigrants stopped thinking of our-selves that way. Like our children, we think of ourselves as Canadians.
As Canadians, we all have stories of immigration – perhaps from generations past or present – and it is important to keep those stories alive. But these stories are not simply about people who fled one country. Rather, they depict people who came from many countries to this one, which gave us the gift of full Canadian citizenship and all the privileges and responsibilities this entails. We are Canadian in every possible way – and proud to be so.
Anar Popatia is president of the Canadian Club of Vancouver, a non-partisan organization dedicated to the celebration and promotion of Canadian diversity and identity. www. canadianclubvancouver.com
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