Asian Heritage Month: An Immigration Tale

Asian Heritage Month represents different things to different people. For some, it is a recognition of the long historic ties Canada shares with the greater Asia region, and for others, it is a celebration of our diverse multi-ethnic society and the need to foster cross-cultural awareness. As for me, Asian Heritage Month will always remind me of Roncesvalles Avenue, or less cryptically, the story of how my family immigrated to Canada.

My family comes from Kerala, a state located on the Southwestern tip of India. Within India, Kerala is known for its historically socialist governments; high scores in the Human Development Index (HDI); and its Tom Selleck like moustaches that never go out of style (among other things). The official languages of Kerala are English and Malayalam (one of the lesser-known palindromes) and its people identify themselves as “Keralites” or “Malayalis” (speakers of Malayalam).

The circumstances regarding my relatives’ immigration to Canada focuses mainly on my father’s family, since it is they who predominately decided to emigrate from India. My father grew up as the fourth youngest in a family of ten siblings. His family lived on a rural farm situated in the outskirts of Cochin (the largest urban area of Kerala) and was dependent on their rice patty fields for both nutritional and financial subsistence. Despite their meager means, my father was fortunate to attend university (the first of his family to do so) and after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, it was only natural to find himself a suitable life partner. My mother bubbled to the top of an exhaustive list of arranged-marriage “candidates” (3 in total). This was in part due to the fact that she was the only one to fulfill the robust criteria my father’s family required of a potential bride: 1) She had to be Malayali, 2) She had to be Christian, and 3) She had to be educated (my mother was finishing her medical degree at the time). As a result, my parent’s families arranged for them to be married in 1974. After their marriage, like many other Malayalis, they would seek greater opportunities overseas.

Reforms in Canada’s immigration policies in the 1960’s would pave the way for my family’s arrival in Canada. Most notably, both the elimination of racial discrimination via the new Immigration Act (1962) and the Pearson government’s White Paper on Immigration (1966) had significant influences on facilitating the flow of “skilled” immigrants from the developing world (especially Asia). With these new policies in place, one of my father’s oldest sisters (with her husband) became the first of my relatives to immigrate to Canada. After settling in Southern Ontario, they would sponsor the next couple in the family, and in turn, that couple would sponsor the next subsequent pair (also known as chain/serial migration). My parents were one of the last to arrive. With their lives packed into a few suitcases and 64 Rupees each (at the time approximately $8 CAD), they were ready to start a new life in Canada.

My newly immigrated relatives all lived in one small house on Roncesvalles Avenue in Parkdale (five families in total). It was a situation that must have been reminiscent of their life back in Kerala, since out of necessity, personal space was limited. At that time, Parkdale was an area known for its low-rent (read “slum-like”) housing and thriving migrant diaspora groups. This made it an ideal place for recent immigrants to transition into their uniquely different “Canadian” lives. My family’s limited social capital in a strange, new land made this initial transition difficult. However, as their social network expanded over time, they were easily able to adapt to their new social setting. This was chiefly enabled through cultivating ties with the growing Malayali community in the greater Toronto area.

As each family became financially self-sufficient, they would move out of the shared house and purchase houses of their own. For the most part, they all remained in the same neighbourhood, until they communally decided to relocate to the newly formed city of Mississauga in the late 1970s. The close kinship ties that my extended family exhibited both in India and as new arrivals to Canada has continued with my cousins, my brother, and myself. On my father’s side of the family, 80% of us still reside in Mississauga, all within a 15-minute drive of each other’s houses.

Consequently, when we reflect on what Asian Heritage Month means to us Canadians, I cannot help but be drawn to the tale of my family’s immigration. Their journey to Canada is hardly unique, as it is just one thread in the rich tapestry that makes up our country’s diverse cultural identity. But, even still, I am constantly reminded of the sacrifice my relatives have made for the sake of their children. This is why, for me, Asian Heritage Month brings about mixed feelings of guilt and appreciation. Moreover, today, it is something that provides me with motivation to succeed and why I can never forget Roncesvalles Avenue.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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