I’m Canadian by birth. My life’s path was affected by the choices my parents made. In Canada my family enjoyed a safe and happy land of choice and opportunity. How many Canadian families share a similar story?
My parents are Sikh, from the Punjab. They enjoyed success and a good education. My grandfather Dhanraj Singh Gill was a member of the Indian Provincial Parliament. My father Baljit qualified for India’s 1984 Olympic field hockey team. Dad never made it to the Los Angeles games due to the fateful acceptance of his immigration application in 1981; he went to Toronto instead.
Life here was difficult at first. Everything seemed unfamiliar and there were few other Punjabis at the time. They had little money. And perhaps they were naive at first with little appreciation of how difficult the immigrants’ life can be. It is the naivete most of us have in confronting life’s challenges.
My father had a master’s degree in economics but worked in a factory for the first time in his life. Dad also worked part-time as a security guard to support the family. Mom has a master’s in education but worked as a bank teller. It is difficult for immigrants to understand why their qualifications don’t count.
My dad had been living in Canada since 1981 and mom since 1983. Like most parents, they had to start making decisions of how and where they wanted to raise their children. With me on the way, due in late 1984, they wondered if they would ever enjoy the same level of comfort in Canada as they did in India.
In June of 1984, Punjab descended into chaos. The Indian army used rocket and tank fire against the Golden Temple of Amritsar, a site sacred to Sikhs. Subsequent violence was catastrophic; the official toll counted 4,284 dead in the state by 1988, nearly ten times the number of Canadians killed in the Korean War.
My father eventually opened an auto shop while driving a taxi. Amid success and setbacks, I never heard my parents say a disparaging word about our country — not once. Mom defined Canada in her own terms: the people are polite, she said, the government works well, and health care is great. Even though business was good, my parents’ families were in Punjab along with all of their connections. It was the violence in Punjab just before I was born that highlighted one of Canada’s greatest attributes, a peaceful nation.
I was born in Toronto. My brother and I grew up in Mississauga, enjoying a wonderful suburban childhood. We cruised the streets on our bicycles, played road hockey and went to Temple. My first job was paperboy for the Mississauga News. It was quiet and peaceful, the Canadian dream.
When I stand in the House of Commons and see all the faces of the 42nd Parliament, I see Canada. My parents made a wise choice.
(Editor’s note: the author is Liberal MP for Mississauga-Streetsville, Ont.)