It has been more than 10 years since I immigrated to this country from India in March 2001. Looking back over this time period, I can tell what it means to be a Canadian citizen, especially from the standpoint of an immigrant.
First, I want to confess that I never wanted to leave my home country—unlike many other Punjabi men who wish to go abroad to pursue their dreams. I was doing a respectable and adventurous job as a journalist, although I was not earning enough money to fulfill the desires of my small family. However, I enjoyed my work as a reporter covering virtually everything from crime to politics and social to cultural issues.
It was my wife who motivated me to move to Canada. Due to lack of opportunities to grow back then—or my inability to grab them—I started feeling frustrated and gradually decided to immigrate to Canada. My wife had an ambition to go abroad and believed I could do a lot better with my professional degree and experience in journalism in this country, which has always been known as a land of opportunities.
Her parents had many well-to-do friends in Canada. Their lifestyles may have influenced her family, who always wished to send their daughter abroad. She was the principal applicant for Canadian immigration and both me and our son were her dependents.
She, being a drug de-addiction counsellor, applied under her professional category. We were called for an interview at the Canadian High Commission. The officer who interviewed us gave an impression that we, as professionals, would have opportunities in Canada. But he also cautioned us that we might have to start everything from scratch.
Our enthusiasm knew no bounds after a letter confirming our immigration was approved. The first few days in Canada seemed very exciting, with beautiful scenery everywhere and a noise-free environment. We don’t hear car horns here except on some occasions, such as when the Vancouver Canucks win a game.
Going to ICBC for a driver’s licence or getting a telephone connection is not a big deal in this country, whereas in India, you endlessly wait for your turn because of the cumbersome processes and red tape. Sometimes you try to bribe officials to avoid delays.
I bet every new immigrant from India feels relieved to experience such a comfortable official environment in this country. The transit system and the good manners of the bus drivers impressed us. People smiled and shared greetings freely everywhere we went, from the Stanley Park to the malls. We found ourselves in a happy country—or so we thought.
The signs in Punjabi in a number of offices and public places made us feel at home. Ujjal Dosanjh was the premier of the province back then. Being the first Punjabi to reach that post, he became a source of inspiration for many new immigrants, who thought that they could also become successful like him in a foreign land.
I had an opportunity to visit his house with a mutual friend. He was facing a tough election, which he lost to the B.C. Liberals. There was no vulgar show of security guards and policemen at his home. This was in sharp contrast to what I have seen in India.
The VIPs there hardly move around without gunmen. I had reasons to be impressed with the Canadian system. But the real test was yet to come.
After spending several days with a family friend, we rented a basement in Surrey. Some friends donated an old car, a TV set, and used furniture for us to start a new life. Since the small amount of money we brought with us was not sufficient enough to keep the family going, I desperately started looking for work. Friends blunty told me that I wouldn't find a job in my field.
Even the South Asian media was out of bounds. The big media outlets wouldn’t hire a newcomer like me. The job hunt was a painful experience. I did not have much choice even in the menial jobs. I thought of doing janitorial work and even tried to be hired at a corner store, but nothing was available.
Getting a job in a new country required some kind of connection. And that’s how it happened. A close family friend who drives cab for MacLure’s took the initiative. He came up with an offer of a job of a call taker and gas jockey at his company in downtown Vancouver.
The transit service was hit by a long strike around that time. Except for SkyTrain, everything had come to a halt. I had to get rides from kind neighbours and friends to the nearest SkyTrain station in Surrey just to reach Vancouver. From a station in downtown, I just marched every day to work.
I used to do a night shift that started at 4 p.m. and ended at 4 in the morning. The employers expected me to take calls, clean up the mess, and fill propane-run cars. It all seemed very difficult in the beginning, but as I started earning money, all the sadness disappeared for a while.
My first earnings came in the form of $25 in tips. The drivers, whose cars I filled with propane, generally tipped anywhere between $1 to $5. I went home with a lot of excitement next morning and bought a tricycle for my two-and-a-half-year-old son. When I got my first paycheque, we bought our first portable stereo system.
Sometimes to overcome homesickness, the three of us used to dance to the music. Most of the drivers at the cab company were very kind. Many used to give me rides to work, and others brought me back to Surrey the next morning. But some were rude and try to bully me at times. I sometime used to wonder why I was there taking such crap when I had been doing journalism in my home country. More than the nature of the job, the work environment troubled me.
Since I failed the driving tests at least three times and could not get a licence until several months had passed, I was dependent on others. Incidentally, MacLure’s celebrated its centenary this year and I attended the party. It was good to see all those helpful drivers in their party suits after 10 years.
Of course, I had some bad experiences at work and was not really enjoying my job. Nevertheless, it helped us in starting our life as new immigrants without looking for help from others.
I never experienced blatant racism myself, but often at the cab company, the drivers brought the stories of racial taunts and abuse directed toward them. Since the majority of drivers were Indo-Canadians, we often used to chat in our own mother tongue. Many of them told me their stories as new immigrants.
Meanwhile, my quest for job in journalism continued. I kept sending emails to editors with a hope of getting an opening one day. I never heard anything from the mainstream media.On weekends, I used to get sad and often cursed myself over my decision to come to Canada. I also used to dread the beginning of the weekdays.
Finally good news came when my wife got a well-paying job at a professional organization. She was so strong that she asked me to take a break until I got a better job. That's because she could now earn and look after the family.
I quit after a few months of being hired, and babysat my son the whole day. I must acknowledge that this experience helped me form a strong bond with my son. I played as a mother for him. But I became depressed when I could not find another job for three months.
By then, I had lost hope of getting job in the media. But one day, Radio India in Surrey announced that it needed people. My wife suggested that I must apply, even if it meant volunteer work. She wanted to uplift my self-esteem. I went to the station with a little hope, but to my amazement, Maninder Singh Gill instantly hired me after going through my resumé. This was despite the fact that I did not provide him any references.
All he wanted was that I start as a volunteer and learn broadcasting first, as I had no radio experience. I had only worked for the print media back home.
I started as a newscaster and midnight entertainment host, so that I could take care of my son in the morning. He was kind enough to allow me to bring my son to the studio if need be.
Ironically, I had worked for English newspapers in India but here in Canada, due to lack of opportunities, I was employed by a Punjabi-language radio station. As I lacked formal education in Punjabi, I needed the help of my wife and others in writing news bulletins. I can fluently speak and read Punjabi, but my writing in that language was horrible.
When my employer gave me the first paycheque I was extremely delighted and we held a small celebration at home. I had finally gotten an opportunity where I could use my journalistic skills and draw job satisfaction.
Broadcasting in the Indo-Canadian community has its own challenges. The religious fundamentalists in the Sikh community started complaining about my liberal and anti-extremist approach. My commentaries often offended them and they began complaining to my employer, who stood behind me like a rock.
When the Air India trial began, it brought more challenges as the suspects were from the Sikh community. Any suggestion by me that the Air India bombings were committed by Sikh separatists was received with cynicism—fundamentalists continue to blame the Indian agents. I often received angry calls. In subsequent years, I also got death threats.
I never cared for such things, as I had been through similar challenges in India. I received threats while working in Punjab, too. Once, a member Parliament had tried to intimidate me over the phone. He was offended after I reported how he was shielding a supporter accused of murdering a person inside the police station.
Hindu and the Islamic fundamentalists also used to get offended because of my editorials condemning religious fanaticism of every shade. I also made some blunders on air, which caused me to lose a defamation suit. I regretted doing that, and promised to myself not repeat such mistakes.
Here, I went to BCIT for several part-time courses in broadcast journalism to enhance my skills. My employer provided me with this opportunity. And despite differences of opinion with him on a number of issues, he has always been respectful to me.
He also sent me with Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his first official visit to India in 2009, and later bought me a ticket to visit Ireland to cover the 25th anniversary of the Air India bombings. That’s the reason I have continued to work at the same place for the past 10 years, though my hunt for a full-time job in the mainstream media is still going on.
One of the saddest parts of my job in radio is that most media colleagues are not professional journalists, so there isn't sufficient professional stimulation in this way. Another thing that bothers me is that most of the time, we focus on coverage of issues related to the state of Punjab in India. There is a general lack of interest in Canadian issues.
In addition, a section of the Punjabi media has strong affiliations with fundamentalist groups that have always tried to silence moderate and secular voices in the community.
In the meantime, I have had an opportunity to do freelance writing for a string of publications, including the Georgia Straight, whose editor Charlie Smith has provided me immense opportunities to write. More importantly, he also let me write about non-Indo-Canadian issues.
Looking back over the span of my 10 years in Canada, I can say that the life of a new immigrant to this country is always challenging. Yet others have had much more difficult times than me, particularly the taxi drivers, who had a much more difficult life when racism against Indo-Canadians was at its peak. Judging from their bad experiences, I have no reasons to complain.
But I have mixed feelings about becoming a Canadian. Although we came here for purely economic reasons, certain virtues of Canada motivated us to become citizens of this country in 2006. The citizenship test back then was easy. Now, thanks to the Conservative government, it is going to be very tough for new applicants.
One of the virtues of Canadian society is that people from virtually all over the world live here in harmony. That’s why I have many Pakistani friends. It would be virtually impossible in India to have lots of Pakistani friends, due to the long-term hostilities between the two neighbouring countries, here we meet more often without any restrictions.
We felt great the day we took our citizenship oath. The ceremony was attended by people from about a dozen countries.
Canada has a wonderful history in terms of its struggles for social justice and equality. Many progressive Indo-Canadian pioneers contributed to these struggles. We should all be proud of the legacy of Pierre Trudeau, who gave this country charter of rights, or universal healthcare that was brought into practice by Tommy Douglas. Terry Fox, another inspirational figure who is also revered in India, was Canadian.
I am also happy that my son plays ice hockey—the national game of this country. Another virtue of coming to Canada is that a beautiful daughter was born here in 2008. She is the only Canadian-born member of our family.
Since I am still struggling to get accepted in the mainstream and feel little out of the place in the Punjabi media, I find myself as a misfit in this society. At times, people like us feel as though we are still in India as we hardly speak a word in English throughout the day.
While I might still become a part of the mainstream one day because of my journalistic skills and connections, what about the refugees who come to this country with so much hope, but who end up getting deported or working in an unsafe environment for lacking status? What about other vulnerable unskilled immigrants, who not only endure racism but also exploitation at the hands of their employers? Why are they forced to live in cultural ghettos?
The answers are very simple. Immigrants like me and others who come to Canada for better future have a strong motivation to become Canadians. But if the mainstream does not want us here, where should we go then?
The Canadian establishment should also learn to accept the immigrants with open hearts and arms and give them room to get into the mainstream, rather than talking tough on immigration policies and alienating them as outsiders.
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.