IMMIGRATION: Father’s decision to leave comfortable life in Pakistan proved far-sighted

Noreen Rodrigues (foreground) and her family — brother Darryl, sister Daphne, mother May and father Walter — on the way to Plattsburgh, N.Y., their first trip out of Montreal after moving there in 1966. Submitted photo

NOREEN RODRIGUES
POSTMEDIA NEWS

My parents made a big sacrifice when they decided to leave Karachi, Pakistan, and immigrate to Canada in 1966. They left behind a close circle of friends and family in Karachi’s Cincinnatus Town, a largely Catholic community whose residents and their ancestors (like my grandparents in the early 1900s) had come there from their native Goa, the Portuguese colony in India, in search of jobs.

My mother, a primary-school teacher, had never had to cook a meal, wash a dish or do laundry. Our meals were prepared by a cook, who ground fresh spices daily for hot curries. Our clothes were washed by hand and dried on the grass in the hot sun.

Why give up a comfortable life in a small town for the wide open spaces of Canada, thousands of miles away?

Because life as we knew it was about to change. The British Raj had ended, and Goans working in British-run companies, chosen for their education, talents and English-language skills, were concerned that their jobs were in jeopardy. One office memo announced that a change in hiring practices was imminent, and that Christians need no longer apply. Stories in local newspapers about religious differences were creating a climate of unease. A fierce debate on the merits of staying or leaving began in the Christian Voice, a monthly Goan publication, and letters to the editor flew back and forth. My father was not one of those who worked for a British company (he was a superintendent and photographer with the local police), but friends of our family did. My father was adamant that there was no future for us, that Pakistan was on the brink of an Islamic upheaval.

My uncle had been offered an engineering job in Canada in the early 1960s, and had moved his family to Montreal. Sadly, he died a year later of a heart attack. My aunt, alone with three young daughters, sponsored our family, and we arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1966. I was 19, my brother and sister a few years older.

Life was utterly simple, and blissfully stress-free. In one week we had all found jobs, an apartment near my aunt in Pierrefonds, a church five minutes away, and a train that took us downtown in half an hour. My mother learned to use a vacuum cleaner and cook Canadian meals; she discovered convenience foods like hotdogs, sloppy joes and sliced white bread. My father was 55 when we came here and, knowing that his age was a drawback, was prepared to take any job. He became the king of the returned-goods department at Handy Andy, a chain of hardware/sports-equipment/electronic-goods stores.

On weekends we shared lively meals with our cousins, who now spoke with Canadian accents. Skirts were shorter here, and we were amazed to see young and old, regardless of shape, wearing shorts and skimpy tops in the summer. When our Pakistani tunics and loose pants were mistaken for pyjamas, we decided to stash the ethnic garb and buy new clothes.

Occasionally we ventured into what was for many West Island anglophones “foreign territory,” shopping at Enkin’s Meat Market on St. Laurent Blvd., the only grocery story selling Indian spices and exotic meats. One Saturday my dad tried to buy a live chicken at a store at Dorchester and St. Laurent to make a spicy roast. I was glad they were sold out; I remembered our cook in Karachi bringing home live chickens and cutting their heads off while they ran around the yard!

In those days, the only French we spoke was what we had learned from textbooks. There were few opportunities to practise the French conversation we learned at evening classes. English was spoken at work downtown, and at home in the West Island.

Looking back over the past 40-plus years, it’s amazing to see how dramatically life has changed. Students graduating from high-school immersion programs speak perfect French, and most people I know are fluently bilingual. I’m as comfortable strolling in the Plateau as in my Pointe-Claire neighbourhood. Most in my family own our homes, and have close ties to our communities. My three generations of cousins have great jobs and career opportunities.

If I were asked about my Canadian identity, I’d reply that I’m a Canadian and a Quebecer, with ethnic roots. It’s the second time around for Goan-Canadians, who first faced discrimination as a religious minority. Now we’re part of an anglophone minority, struggling to retain access to bilingual services in this province.

My father was far-sighted in his dreams for a new life, and we left before tribal groups altered Pakistan forever. His life-changing decision was a wise choice for our family. The rest, as they say, is history.

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