June 26, 1992 – Welcome to Canada

I still remember that evening, even though I was physically exhausted and was experiencing my first ever jet lag. On June 24th, we left Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, had a rather long stop-over in London, never leaving the customs area (we had no papers or status). Somehow we managed to lose an entire day (air travel wasn’t much slower then, but I honestly just don’t remember what happened on 25th) and finally, in the evening on 26th, we landed at Pearson, in Toronto. Whoosh. Welcome to Canada, kid!

This was twenty five years ago today. I doubt my parents remember it – they stopped keeping track of this date a while ago, and with good reason: double immigration (first RUS -> ISR; and then 18 months later, ISR -> CAN) were tough enough. But doing that double-jump in the hectic early 90s, when Russia just started crumbling, Kuwait/Iraq were flinging SCUDS at each other, and Israel was dealing with First Intifada, as Canada was grinding through its late 80s Real Estate/Economic Slump, that was fun times guaranteed for all. That immigration was a culture shock after an information shock, wrapped up in a language barrier. And maybe I can tell you some of these stories one day. But not today.

Today I just want to acknowledge this one tiny, isolated number, one day. Twenty Five Fucking Years! A milestone. Quarter of a century since my little mishpukha came here with lint in our pockets, and started rebuilding, started giving roots. By far the best gift Mom and Dad gave us was to stop waiting for things to improve back in RUS, and to bolt the hell outta there. Gorbachev has opened the borders, (somewhat) lifted the iron curtain, and Israel was on a recruiting spree. And we would have stayed there too, if it wasn’t for lousy timing. A week after we came to ISR, Saddam/Bush Sr have decided to escalate the Gulf War – so we literally had to hide in bunkers and carry gas masks to schools, while SCUDS were flying by. Few rockets ended up in cities. Luckily, most have ended up in the desert. Certain countries have always been exceptional at blowing up sand. I was 14, my sister was 9, our two cousins – even younger.

Not a good environment to grow up in. My parents decided to move on, as soon as they could afford it. And so we came to a whole new continent – had to fly over the ocean and everything (why do I keep digressing?)

My first passport, activated on June 24, 1992 in Israel, and stamped two days later in Toronto.

On that evening of 26th, as a taxi with a dark-skinned driver (how things have changed) was zipping us across what was called a highway #401 (did they really have so many highways in this country?), I was looking forward to our new home. Or rather, our two rooms – one for each family. The 4 of us stayed in one room, and my uncle and aunt with our cousins in another. Modest beginnings, I know, but we made it work (does this qualify as a #humblebrag?). And the minute we could afford to move to a bigger place – we did.

It must have been end of the week, Thursday or Friday – because I remember the very next night we went out, all 8 of us – to celebrate a big holiday – Canada Day. It was a big round number – 125 years. Which felt so weird – Israel was barely 44 years at the time, Russia has been around longer, and our republic – Uzbekistan – had history going back centuries. We came with a lot of historical baggage, but not much of an actual one (zing). Back then Canada felt young, fresh – with so much potential and so much energy.

We had no cars, borrowed a bike from neighbor (bought two bikes at a garage sale a week later, so we can at least do grocery shopping on our own, and some of us could get to work sans TTC). Our idea of going out was literally, going out. On foot. I remember we shlepped uphill on Cummer Ave. (former Willowdale neighborhood, look it up, it’s right around East Don Creek, one of my most favourite biking/walking routes to this way), all the way from almost Leslie St. to Yonge St. (BTW, that’s where we did most of our groceries – 1.5km from house – because that chain, Food Basics, was much cheaper than the IDA right across the street on Leslie). Cheapskates, all of us immigrants are horrible cheapskates. :)

Our first house (or rather, two rooms) in Toronto. I took this photo in 2012, during a bike ride. Not much has changed — the tree was much healthier in 1992.

When we got to Yonge, we turned south, walked past Finch St, which at the time had nothing else besides those two pink Xerox buildings and a funky looking circular Kiss-n-Ride from TTC (what, this city has a subway, too?). We kept walking to North York Centre (the library was already there, the square wasn’t yet named after The Mayor that everyone in downtown hates, no, that other one, from the 90s). And the south-east corner of Empress ave. was an empty construction site. No Loblaws, no Famous Players – just an empty lot.

And that’s where we saw fireworks – and heard it ‘simulcast’ over the radio (I had a functioning walkman, bought it back in Tel Aviv). It was amazing – a show of light, and music, just when Symphony of Fire was a Big Deal around Toronto, during June-July weekends. Parents have heard about this event, and have surprised us kids, with a brisk 4km walk to see bright lights in the sky. And you know what – it was truly unforgettable.

We saw all kinds of people around us – all ages and colours. After the homogeneous look of Russian public, of course, Israel was a big change – but this – this was even more eclectic. If you could imagine people of every colour of the rainbow – you would bump into them here, in that little square in North York. And you would struggle to understand them, and try to explain something, and often, you might actually make a connection. Our language was not as strong at the time, but it’s much gooder now. :)

Back to June of 1992. We put the girls on the borrowed bike (we walked it, as our only mode of transportation, just in case the kids got tired), and I put the youngest cousin on my shoulders (where she eventually fell asleep). I was 16 at the time, so she must have been 7. And we started strolling back. Yep, the same 4k back to our two rooms. No biggie.

It was simply overwhelming. That entire evening, the show of unity, the multicultural public – all of it! And it was just a day after our arrival. That’s the impression Canada has left on me, and even though I know, I KNOW that it’s romanticized and idealized – that’s the picture of Canada I try to hold on to, after all these years.

We walked home, discussing our past adventures, our future opportunities, our plans for Monday morning at the employment centre, and Monday afternoon at the education ministry (turns out, we did get settled into schools relatively quickly, since they were ready to close for the summer). And this slow paced walk was our (first of many) vision+strategy+execution scrum, the four grown-ups and me, because we spent the rest of the summer hustling, getting employed, moving to a bigger place, securing all girls in schools, getting more friends, getting to know neighbors, and getting our first car. But these are all stories for another day.

We got A LOT of help back in 1992 – from Russian/Jewish/Israeli community, from neighbors on our street, our first few bosses, and our first few agents in the various ministries. Canada didn’t offer as many subsidies and support programs as Israel did, but there was sure a lot of work available. Washing windows, pouring gasoline, checking oil, handing out flyers. Our parents did it, we did it too – so our kids won’t have to.

We also saw some closed doors, NIMBYism, favouritism, and protectionism – but those are not new – every immigrant deals with this – some people just don’t want your kind. Heck, I can point to an interview I had just last month – where I knew “my kind” wasn’t welcome. Yes, it’s 2017, and it still happens. But – that’s a story for another day.

This ‘immigration’ story arc never changes – it is unique and special only to me. I have so many friends, relatives and neighbors who have exactly the same story, just a different place of origin. And so do you. They come with parents, with kids, or completely by themselves, they hustle until they can afford better, and they build.

They are us! And we are them. They make this country. So it only makes sense to continue this cycle, and help others, once you are firmly on your feet. Canada has been a welcoming, supporting, warm home for me and my family for many years. And even though it wasn’t all smooth, and wasn’t all planned and executed as we expected (Mike Harris, Stephen Harper), it was immensely valuable, not just for our education and careers, but also, it made us better citizens (personally, I can live with fewer dumb remarks about my Russian heritage – not all of us are KGB spies; some are merely reckless drunks).

Kindness and generosity are contagious. Canada has plenty of that – even if sometimes it feels like there’s just not enough for everyone who needs it. Shitty governments come and go, shitty mayors – pass even faster. Focus on all the good you’re creating. Please keep it up, keep doors open to everyone, and keep investing into the people who leave everything behind, flip their lives upside down, and move here in search of something better.

Thank you Canada, for the mind-boggling, eye-opening, wing-spreading, and root-taking twenty five years. Thanks for letting our family build something here. I bet there are a few thousand other people who would want to express the same gratitude – and that’s just from Summer of 1992. We’ll continue to build and to support others. We do not take it for granted. It’s in our blood. And it’s all your fault, Canada :)

PS: You may have noticed a bit of a hysteria with Canada’s 150th birthday this year. Lots of chest-thumping, and self-congratulatory posts. And most of them are written by people who were born here. I think an immigrant’s perspective would be a bit more fitting today. Coincidentally, this post was not in any way sponsored or supported by Canada 150 fund – so no taxpayer money here (I’m doing this whole publishing thing wrong – apparently entire agencies are thriving on this fund in ’16-’17 fiscal; I wonder what they’ll do for revenue next year). I just wanted to share a day (or two) from the summer of ’92. I might share some other stories soon. It was a pretty awesome year – remember NAFTA? Nunavut creation? Michelle Douglas?

PPS: I wonder if I’m violating any trademarks by re-using this logo at the top, as is?..

UPDATE: I did ask my family members if they remembered that date. My sister forgot it completely, my Mom teared up recalling our voyage, and Dad reluctantly acknowledged that yes, June 26 1992 was quite a milestone for us, and a beginning or something entirely different.