Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
As a Canadian, my ‘mygration’ story is not unusual – a mix of different places and several unknowns. The father of my grandma arrived in Canada as a young child, and his family had left Russia because antisemitism was (once again) on the rise. The story goes that my great-grandfather was whipped in the face by a policeman on horseback, leaving a permanent scar under one eye. This was the final straw, pushing the family to leave Russia and make the tough ocean crossing to Canada.
My father’s side is a bit of a black hole. A typical Canadian activity for middle school students is to make a family tree, tracing your lineage and where you came from. When I did this my father told me that his family had come from Poland. Yet, my maiden name is de Guerre (translating to of War in French) – which implies a French origin. My father told me that his ancestors had changed the spelling of the last name simply because the best school in the area was French.
(Years later at my older brother’s engagement party I told someone this story in front of my Dad, who looked at me and said, “Where did you hear that?” I told him “From of you of course”. He laughed and said he’d probably made it up, so I’d have a good story for my school project. He didn’t know where the name or family came from [Thanks Dad!]. I then asked an uncle, who said maybe the Netherlands or France – or in between – so Belgium? Basically, no one knows where the de Guerres came from.)
In Canada though, none of this really matters. My ancestors came to Canada for freedom and generations later I am privileged to have always experienced such freedom. I am Canadian, my parents are Canadian, as were my grandparents, regardless of when or how they came to Canada. This is the story of Canada. Despite what languages were spoken before, or the antisemitism experienced, or the migration drivers that brought my ancestors to Canada, upon arrival everyone had the freedom to find their own way and live their own life. That is not to say that it is always easy or that old problems are not experienced in Canada.
Just one example is my own grandfather. In 1948, he was 25-years-old and started a new job in high-end men’s clothing in Toronto. At this time he changed his name from Ellenzwig to Allan as he was afraid that with a Jewish last name he may be a target for antisemitism and perhaps lose customers. This fear is still one experienced by many in Canada today with regards to Islamophobia, antisemitism, or other forms of xenophobia. We must not forget that although equality and freedom are strong Canadian values, racism and xenophobia are still realities for many in Canada.
Fast forward to my world
My own life has been largely shaped by migration. My upbringing was strongly shaped by internal migration. When I was five-years-old my parents bravely moved from Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, where they were both raised, to Fort McMurray, Alberta – a town with a population at the time of 30,000 people (now closer to 100,000) located in the north, a five-hour drive from the nearest major city. Fort McMurray is so far north that at the time my parents received a ‘northern hardship’ tax deduction for populating Canada’s north.
I remember at primary school that the cut-off for going outside at recess was -25 degrees centigrade in winter (and I still remember the feeling of having my eyelashes freeze at -40C). Like many Canadians my parents went both west and north for work. Fort McMurray is a town of people from somewhere else, most commonly from the Maritimes and Newfoundland on the east coast. I think I only ever had one friend who was actually born in Fort McMurray. As a child, I played Ringette (a very Canadian sports game) and I remember not being able to understand my coach through his thick Newfoundlander accent – an accent that emerged through the interactions of Irish, English and French settlers in Newfoundland. Without doubt, growing up in a small town in northern Alberta was radically different from your average childhood in Toronto.
Today I am an international migrant who has lived in the UK, the Netherlands, and currently Italy. My family and I have been lucky enough to experience different places and cultures. My daughter speaks English, Dutch and is starting to learn Italian. I am often reminded as well of my good fortune to be Canadian. Last week, when I told an Italian I was from Canada her reply was: “Oh you are lucky… Justin Trudeau!” And I do agree — I am grateful to come from a country where my past does not matter, where I am accepted as a Canadian and judged on who I am, not where my parents came from, my religion, language, etc.
As a migration scholar, I know that the freedoms I have experienced are not afforded to many. Canada values diversity, enshrined in official policies of multiculturalism and bilingualism by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. These messages are regularly stated by his son and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has become a global symbol of diversity and inclusion. To conclude, in his words: “We have a responsibility—to ourselves and to the world—to show that inclusive diversity is a strength, and a force that can vanquish intolerance, radicalism and hate. Canada’s success as a diverse and inclusive nation didn’t happen by accident, and won’t continue without effort. The future is never certain. It depends on the choices we make today.”
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo/Mark Garten