Canada’s 150th birthday evokes some fond memories of the land I have called home for exactly 30 years.
Some of my fondest memories of life in Canada are from the early days. This was when I divided my time between Toronto and Blind River, a little town of 3000 on the North Shore of Lake Huron. My husband moved there first to pursue a job at the Uranium Refinery, Cameco, while I completed my Masters in Toronto. Our daughter was with her grandparents in India.
I would take the Greyhound to visit him. While on the bus, I would sit by the window and stare out into the cold vastness of our new home and wonder about our decision to move here, abandoning the bustle of India and the East. I was still grappling with a new vocabulary that included snow squalls, black ice and freezing rain. Often, I would make conversation with fellow travelers and learn a little more about this land and it’s polite and gentle folk. I met old women who lived by themselves and survived on frozen dinners and young folks who had not graduated school and were in dead-end construction jobs that did not get them a ticket outside of the Province let alone the country. On occasion, I would meet young folks who were grateful they had left their small towns but who travelled back for a dose of nostalgia. They would speak fondly about childhood experiences riding on a truck over the frozen lake and family trips into the bush when they snowshoed, hunted, trapped and ate wild game. I was always impressed by the sheer physicality of their life experiences in the great outdoors through long winters, and building barns, decks or even homes, laying tiles and hanging up drywall through the short summers. It appeared there was very little even those with no formal education could not do. I always enjoyed these conversations as it gave me insight into that part of Canadiana that I knew nothing about.
It was during these bus rides that I discovered cloyingly sweet butter tarts, licorice candy and corn puffs which I picked up at the pit stops and washed down with cold Sprite or luke warm bitter coffee, depending on the time of year. To this day these foods evoke fond memories of those early days getting to know a new country and it’s people. Oddly, I allowed myself these indulgences only on those bus rides.
I was always excited to see my husband at the end of that 6 hour journey, which ended in Blind River around midnight. However the destination itself, being a sleepy small town with very little happening, was terribly anti-climactic. I would perk myself up with my plans to play house, cooking, cleaning and shopping at the local IGA while I was there. I would also forget about school and life outside this cocoon for the duration of my stay and just revel in the experience of being there with no purposeful action, just enjoyment of the isolation and the freedom to spend our time any way we chose. Given there was nowhere to go to in Blind River, we would drive for two hours to eat at a restaurant in a nearby town or to catch the train to go on the Algoma Trail. We would try our hand at cross country skiing in the backroad trails, swim in the waters of Lake Huron on warm summer days or try our hand at bowling. The key to our enjoyment was the absence of any agenda! Occasionally, Canadian friends would invite us over and go to great lengths to prepare us a vegetarian meal. Our friends Hal and Lise introduced us to scalloped potatoes, delicious homemade cheese pizzas with pineapple and interesting berry salads. On cold Saturday evenings we would pick up wedge fries at Wongs and watch videos, curled up under large comforters. We would watch Saturday night live and late night comedy and sleep in on Sundays. After washing down egg burji and toast with coffee on Sunday mornings, and if the cold did not freeze our tear drops, we would dress in layers and walk around town, making a trip to our cozy local library with its old books. We never found any book we were looking for but enjoyed the time browsing and hanging out as young kids of all ages cheerily researched and completed homework assignments. On these walks we would discover new side roads, admire the waterfront properties, discover tiny brooks or creeks and even parks with teeter totters and swings. We always marvelled at how house proud Canadians were, constantly working on projects to improve their homes and gardens, even in this remote corner of the country. In the winter, we would walk down to our local ice hockey arena and watch the kids skate as we drank hot chocolate, our warm breath forming shapes in the cold air. We had one movie theatre in town and would catch a late movie after.
My husband lived in a little apartment that first year and most of our neighbours were simple folks with working class roots – young single mothers barely in their teens, French Canadian construction workers who chain smoked outside showing off fit bodies in jeans and t-shirts no matter the outside temperature, and lonely old folks who appeared to have no visitors and who took a cab to go anywhere in that small town. I did not feel great envy for any of their lives and therefore no guilt over my own indulgences during these sojourns. It was only the fact that I had no timetable out of Blind River that caused me mild anxiety then.
Briefly after my Masters I lived in a basement apartment in Bloor West in Toronto. Oh how I enjoyed walking all over downtown, discovering its ethnic diversity. Then on to law school and the York University campus, where I met and mingled with some brilliant minds and learned a whole new way to approach life and learning. I became interested in grassroots work and for the past twenty years have worked building a social enterprise. I have sat at many tables alongside decision makers challenging the status quo and arguing for change. During this time I have met an incredible array of accomplished and courageous people from all over the world, each one with a unique story.
We have raised our daughter to love this country. She has learnt to play ice hockey, skate, ski, swim in the lakes and oceans, sail, kayak, hike, bike, camp and generally embrace our beautiful outdoors. She is also passionate about social justice.
What I love most about Canada is the fact that it has allowed me to maintain my cultural identity as an Indian. Fortuitously, in Toronto, where I live, there is such a proliferation of South Asian culture now that it is home away from home.
Every once in a while I think back to those early days when every experience was so unique and wonderful, when the four seasons held me spellbound and I feel immense gratitude over my accidental choice to make Canada my home!