When he was 16, his parents sent him to Toronto at the urging of his older brother, who had moved to Canada years earlier and said there were good opportunities to build a comfortable life. Young Hassan came alone and lived with his brother while upgrading his high school qualifications.
Initially, he says, he hated Canada, missed his family and friends, and was upset by the overt racism he encountered.
“Toronto was not a nice place in the seventies if you looked like me. It didn’t matter where you came from, if you were riding a subway, anyone who looked South Asian was called a ‘Paki’ and people would say it without hesitation.”
But he made friends, and spent evenings working at a movie theatre and drinking with fellow employees after their shifts ended.
“I was struggling with: ‘Is this a place I’m going to be temporarily and then go back to Guyana?’ And then it came to me one day: ‘Hassan, you need to get over this. You’re not going back anywhere. This is home.’ ”
He became a certified welder while still a teenager, and quickly got a job. He just as quickly realized he did not enjoy welding. “It was a lot of smoke, and I thought this can’t be good for your health.”
After asking his boss for a raise to his $4-an-hour pay, and being disappointed with the offer of just 35 cents more, he says he walked out at lunchtime the same day, changed his clothes, and spent the same afternoon applying for a job as a mechanic at Canadian Car & Foundry’s trailer-manufacturing facility.
He was hired on the spot at CanCar as apprentice trailer mechanic with a starting salary of $7.35 an hour.
It was at CanCar that he caught the union bug. After attending just three meetings of the CAW local at the plant and listening to officials talk about health and safety issues, he agreed to stand for election as chairman of the bargaining unit.
He says the older work force, many of them immigrants and Second World War veterans, supported him because he was young and willing to stand up to management. They were nervous about risking their own jobs by being too outspoken. At 18, he was their union leader.
Mr. Yussuff says he quickly realized he needed to get more serious with his life, and that leadership wasn’t about “swearing at managers” on behalf of his members.
One of his early tasks was to persuade provincial education ministry officials to offer a practical hands-on test at the plant to certify mechanics, because he was upset that so many older employees were earning less money because of their inability to write the certification test in English.
“They all passed their tests, and they all got $3-plus increases in their pay, which to me was quite remarkable because they deserved it,” he recalls. “It ensured they were not treated differently from their other co-workers who were doing the exact same work. That gave me a sense that the purpose of a union was to use it as a vehicle to help people.”
His next job was at the now-shuttered General Motors Trucks Centre in Toronto, where he worked as a mechanic and again got involved in union activities. In 1986, he defeated the incumbent plant chair in an election and became head of the plant’s bargaining unit while still under 30.
From there, he attracted the attention of CAW leader, Bob White, who asked Mr. Yussuff to join the union’s staff in 1988 as a young organizer. In 1999, with Mr. White’s support, he decided to run for election as a vice-president at the CLC, saying he wanted to try shaping pro-labour public policies.
“Everybody thought I was nuts – I was in the prime of my work in the union and I had some credentials,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned in life is you’ve got to take a bit of risk, and the CLC would give me a lot of opportunity to learn things I didn’t know.”