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Books Four books that capture what it’s like to be a refugee arriving in Canada

Jazz artist Remi Bolduc. HANDOUT

From 'Membering, by Austin Clarke:

We are at the border. He has by now convinced his Canadian girlfriend to let him drive. He is stubborn. He is a Trinidadian man. He is macho. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto in biology, first-class honours. His student visa is expired. She is a first-year student in a general B.A. degree course. He is a know-it-all. His Canadian girlfriend does not argue. She remains quiet. She has right on her side. I become nervous; for my career in broadcasting is on the tip of his tongue should he mispronounce "Toronto"and cause us to be sent back across the border, into the cold, dark blackness that is a Canadian night in November. But I am practising my pronunciation, just in case the immigration officer should ask me first, "Where do you live, sir?," since we do not have the visa necessary to enter the United States.

"Trahnnnh! Tranno! Trannah!"

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We are silent in the car. And we extinguish our cigarettes, as if this act will save us. The radio, WLIB, a Buffalo station popular among black people in Canada, that plays good jazz and better rhythm-and-blues, is turned down. We do not want to appear to be uncultured, shady, illegal students skipping across the border, to live in the luxury of American wealth and full employment, and generous unemployment benefits.

"Turn the radio to CBC. The classical programme."

I do not know who has said this.


I do not know who has said this.

"Sounds better."

And suddenly Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral," comes through the speakers, like a tin, or a large grater, being scratched by a nail.

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We can see the border. It is dark and foreboding, meaning the cement structure, and the stalls, and the Stars and Stripes; and the music coming through the tinny speakers does not help our mood. And, before we know it, the three of us are shaking inside the darkened car, and, beside us, bending down, to see who sits in the darkness inside the car, and making a sign with his hands that the window should be rolled down, is an American, an immigration officer, shivering in the Canadian cold to which he has been exposed during his eight-hour shift. And when the Trinidadian has succeeded in his fumbling to lower the window – it is a manual window – we hear the foreboding question … "Where were you born, sir?"

Silence is no measurement of time, or of fear, or of success. Beethoven is no longer soothing to the nerves, no longer the symbol of our sophistication. Beethoven is now like the night: cruel, and silent and no longer effective for the case of nerves. We sit in the silence. We know the American is losing his patience. It is cold outside where he is standing with his hand on the cold side of the car. The loss of voice becomes the fear in our bodies that the Trinidadian, the man at the wheel, has now forgotten his coaching in the pronunciation of a simple word, like "Tranno." But he regains his voice.


Under different circumstances, the two of us would have applauded his repossession of voice. We would have cheered that he had not lost his vocal chords completely. But in the unbelievable coldness, in the unbelievable Trinidadian pronunciation of the word – "Toe-ron-toe!" – following the miles and miles on the 401 West, and now into this winding road, no larger than an alley; after all these hours driving in a rickety car with faulty steering, and faulty speaker system, and faulty windows, and having to return to Toe-ron-toe … "Where, sir, do you live?"

And we prayed that he would ignore the immigration officer, and refuse to answer, and not put us deeper into the jeopardy of his egotistical attitude with the pronunciation of strange words, especially cities.


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I cannot remember if the immigration officer said, "Turn round, sir." I cannot remember if his words were, "You are refused entry," and we therefore knew that we had to turn round and retrace our steps. I cannot remember if the immigration officer said anything, at all.

From 'Membering by Austin Clarke © 2015, Austin Clarke. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press

From Intolerable, by Kamal Al-Solaylee:

As I settled into my seat on the flight from London to Toronto, I was terrified but arrogantly optimistic. I was now putting two continents and an ocean between myself and my family and heritage. That should be enough physical and emotional distance. If Toronto lived up to the guidebook copy, I'd create a new family and traditions for myself. It was a lot to ask of a city (and a country) I'd never set foot in. My friend Liz from Nottingham University–the one who suggested I check out the Globe and Mail and Maclean's–had moved there a few months before my arrival and was my only contact.

I fell in love with Toronto instantly. Once I cleared Immigration, the nice officer actually said, "Welcome to Canada." I felt that I was indeed welcomed to this city. No one asked me if I had a history of infectious diseases. That was taken care of in the medical tests I'd done in Nottingham as part of my visa application. The first ride on the Toronto subway on my second day there was a revelation. I was accustomed to being the only person of colour on the buses in Nottingham or in certain parts of Liverpool. Now, to be surrounded by so many people who spoke different languages and came from almost every part of the globe instantly laid to rest any self-consciousness I might have had about being the FOB–fresh off-the-boat–immigrant. Even after eight years of absorbing local life in England, I'd still felt like an outsider.

In less than ten days in Toronto I was sharing an apartment with a gay man and a straight woman in the Little Italy neighbourhood of the city, which looked both refined and bohemian, just like one of those exterior shots in the American sitcoms I'd watched for years in Cairo and in England. The clincher for me was the stop for the Wellesley bus, Number 94, a mere five-minute walk from my new home on Markham Street, which took me directly to Toronto's gay village at Church and Wellesley. None of this would strike readers who have lived in Toronto or other Western democracies as anything special. But after Cairo and Sana'a, where I lived a furtive and then closeted life, and despite the time in England, that bus ride had all the significance of a moon landing. A transportive experience, literally.

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From Intolerable © 2012 by Kamal Al-Solaylee. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Read The Globe and Mail's review of Intolerable.

From My Journey, by Olivia Chow:

When winter came that year, I would often take the subway to city hall and skate under the arches at Nathan Phillips Square–built just five years before the Chow family came to Canada. I think I fell fifty times the first time I put on skates; I came home black and blue. But like all immigrants to a new country, and all teenagers, I wanted to fit in. Knowing how to skate seemed a quintessentially Canadian skill, and it was the first one I acquired. . . . The move to Canada was supposed to give us a wonderful new life, but, like many immigrants, we experienced setbacks and shocks. My father, the former school superintendent, and my mother, the former teacher, suffered a perilous decline in both income and status. At first, the only work my mother could find was as a seamstress in what can only be called a sweatshop. I worked there, too, for several months, sewing decorative buttons onto blue jeans (as was then the fashion). . . . I wish I could report that when my mother finished her grueling shift she found respite at home, but there was none. My father could not find a job teaching, though he was qualified and spoke English well. There wasn't much work for him as a substitute teacher, and when he did get called in, he found it difficult to control the classroom; he complained that Canadian students were not as obedient as those in Hong Kong. He tried pursuing a master's degree, but it didn't seem to make any difference. He lasted a year delivering Chinese food at low pay. Then he worked for a few months as a taxi driver, but found he couldn't understand the rapid-fire dispatch orders. He worked occasionally as a labourer, but he never found a niche or made much money, so he was increasingly frustrated and bitter.

From My Journey © 2014 by Olivia Chow. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Read The Globe and Mail's review of My Journey.

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From I Am My Father's Son, by Dan Hill:

While education was one highly effective way of transcending the colour barrier in the 1950s, Dad understood that geography played a determining factor as well. The general rule that the further north you ventured, the less oppressive the racism was a major reason why he'd moved to Canada. Compared to what he'd experienced as a soldier in America's Deep South, Toronto's "polite racism" at times intrigued and bemused him. For instance, when my newlywed parents had tried to rent a basement apartment in Toronto, the landlord would typically take one look at the two of them and apologize, claiming the apartment had just been rented. This was obviously a lie, but from Dad's point of view, it still beat the American south, where miscegenation was against the law.

Since a typical Canadian wouldn't admit to being racist, Mom simply had to show up at an apartment for rent with a Caucasian friend and leave a deposit, and then Dad would take the place of her Caucasian friend a few weeks down the line, when it was time to move in. But as Dad's educational credentials became more impressive, even incidents of polite racism lessened. Class trumped race in almost every situation.

From I Am My Father's Son by Dan Hill © 2009 by Out of Control Limited. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Read The Globe and Mail's review of I Am My Father's Son.

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