Integral to Canada’s economy, immigrants deserve more support

July 22, 2016

By John Ralston Saul, the Globe and Mail |

Six Degrees: Experiments in Pluralism is an essay series devoted to exploring Canada’s emerging identity as an experimental society. The inaugural 6 Degrees “citizen space,” presented by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, will take place in Toronto from Sept. 19 to 21.

One of my great-grandfathers came from a family so poor that his parents abandoned him in Trafalgar Square. He somehow ended up in the hands of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was sent from London to Canada as an indentured child – a virtual slave – and began his new life as one of those little boys running messages up and down the transcontinental trains.

He ended up driving the trains – chief engineers, I believe they were called. His son became a doctor in Winnipeg, then ran the St. Boniface Hospital. His daughter married a businessman, Merle Saul, my grandfather – and perhaps more successful as a hockey player. He played rover, a position for the fastest, most agile. His grandfather had immigrated to Montreal in the 1840s to work on the great Victoria Bridge. He was an illiterate stonemason and ended up in Camden East, west of Kingston, Ont., with a 100-acre land grant. More important, he became a very successful builder.

His youngest son married the descendant of United Empire Loyalists – that is, a family of refugees who’d arrived from the United States in the 1780s having lost everything. They seem to have built solid, if unremarkable, lives in and around the neighbouring town of Napanee.

In any case, that youngest son and his new wife moved out to Winnipeg in the 1890s, and did well – Saul and Irish, builders of large stone buildings.

His grandson, my father, left university in 1940 to volunteer for the Winnipeg Rifles and found himself landing in the first wave on D-Day. He had already married a girl he fell in love with in England while waiting to be sent to fight – a war bride. Forty-eight thousand of them came to Canada as young wives, bringing 21,000 Canadian babies and small children with them. Immigrants. I call them the refugees of love. They had left family and country to follow their husbands to a land they didn’t know.

As for me, I married a refugee who arrived here as a small child. They had lost everything, and she did pretty well.

All of these are immigrant stories; a surprising number are refugee stories. All people making their way. Contributing. Some are ordinary stories. Some extraordinary. The small abandoned boy in Trafalgar Square. The young woman following a man to a country she knew only through him. The young man running up the beach of Normandy on the cusp of history. The little refugee girl becoming governor-general.

So, when I hear people debating the economics of immigration and refugees, I am always surprised.

Speaking for my own family, trickling in here over two and a half centuries, we all arrived with nothing, except my mother who arrived with a little boy, my older brother. So, yes, some of us arrived with families, the core of Canada’s success. And we brought our ambitions, our skills, our talents, our hopes. And we made our way.

Our stories have key shared elements. We were all products of the public school system, all people without privilege, and the Canadian system gave support to each to help with the transition. It seems to me that, from the immigrant point of view, Canada has been built in good part by people who arrived in need, received some form of support, and reinvented themselves. For several centuries much of that support came from Indigenous peoples, who were, in effect, the government of what is now called Canada.

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