Review: Big Plans

Canada has never seen anything like it. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the nation with Muslims soon outnumbering Anglicans. In Manitoba, Tagalog as eclipsed French as a second language.

We remain a country largely comprised of descendants of dirt-poor European fishermen, lumberjacks and sodbusters, but these deep currents of post-1967 immigration are about to break the surface. Newcomers now are educated, eloquent and outspoken. Much will change, and some things will not change at all.

“What does it mean to walk down the vast, wintry streets of Toronto and know no part of you had a hand in what looms there?” writes novelist Esi Edugyan. “I stand before the museums and public statutes of Ottawa knowing that no one in my family is represented in such edifices. The wars they fought were elsewhere.”

Edugyan is one of the accomplished voices of the New Immigrant Experience. Born the daughter of a Ghanaian economist – her father was one of a “line of minor chiefs in Gomua-Kumasi”, she writes – Edugyan was raised in Calgary from the mid-60s. In Dreaming of Elsewhere she recounts the familiar story of conflict and disconnection known to many first-generation Canadians: “I would often be asked where I’d come from. ‘Canada,’ I would reply, and then brace for the inevitable next question. ‘Yes – but where are you from really?’”

“My life has been an uneasy one in relation to the ground under my feet. Home, for me, was not a birthright, but an invention,” Edugyan writes; “It is difficult to ignore the creeping suspicion that we are not wholly free here, that some part of us is still not over there – wherever ‘there’ might be.”

Dreaming of Elsewhere is vivid and intimate. This is the voice of change. If pre-war immigrants were hyper-assimilationists, pathetically grateful to live free of pogroms, police corruption and hyperinflation, post-1967 Canadians are skilled professionals with commensurate expectations.

“The laws I obey, the borders of the country I occupy, all were determined by others, by people who were here before I or any of my bloodline had arrived,” Edugyan explains. “And that is the crux of it. The roots do not go deep; the past is not one’s own. Having been born here, I feel as much a Canadian as anyone.”

And then: the rest of the story, the part that has not changed at all. In 2006 Edugyan visits Ghana for the first time in her life. The air is bad, she writes; the traffic is unnerving; the store signage is comic: No Bad Deed Goes Unpunished Vulcanizing Service. Her host is a cousin who drives a BMW and boasts of a suburban bungalow with indoor plumbing. “We did not belong,” she writes.

Visiting her grandmother’s village, one woman leans over: “Eh, Obruni, why don’t you come home?’” “Come home, she’d said. Not go home. It wasn’t until later I learned obruni meant White Person”.

For every newcomer whose introduction to Canada is the arrivals gate at Pearson International, or a grandparents’ struggle across sub-Arctic plains with oxen, the quiet rewards of citizenship remain exactly the same: a big, rich land of non-conformists where most everybody is left alone to be what they want to be.

Edugyan recalls her encounter with a Toronto immigrant, a former professor of physics from Accra. He was driving an airport cab, a grinding job: “‘Do you miss Ghana?’” I asked, thinking of my parents. ‘No.’ ‘You don’t miss being a professor?’ “Eh, I will not drive a cab forever,’ he laughed. ‘I go to night school with my two sons. I have big plans, big plans.’”

By Holly Doan

Dreaming of Elsewhere by Esi Edugyan; University of Alberta Press; ISBN 9780-8886-48211; $10.95

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