Iserdeo Jainarain: Educator. Leader. Father. Inspiration. Born Nov. 27, 1928 in Demerara, Guyana; died April 4, 2020, in Victoria, of organ failure; aged 91.
As with many immigrants, Iserdeo Jainarain left Canada a more diverse, more generous and much stronger country.
Born to a large farming family in British Guiana, he used education to build a better life. Always a top student, he became a teacher after finishing school at 16 and began working in a tiny village school supported by the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Although he was born a Hindu of the Brahmin caste, he converted to Christianity in order to teach. At his second teaching post in Ogle, he met Edith (Elsie) Rambali, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and they were married in 1951.
While still teaching, he earned a high-school diploma by correspondence, obtaining one of the highest final grades in the country. Also by correspondence, he studied at the London School of Economics, and graduated with a Second Class degree in economics in 1960, perhaps one of the first in the Caribbean to do so. He was then offered a scholarship and spent a year studying at the LSE in London, while his wife and young children remained in Guyana. Money was tight, and he was thankful for the funds sent by the Presbyterian Church of Canada after hearing of his plight.
Back in Guyana, he worked for the colonial government in the planning department but could not put further studying out of his mind. In 1966, he received a Ford Foundation scholarship for a PhD in development economics at the University of Manitoba. This time he took Elsie and their five children (aged 4 to 14) to Winnipeg, where the entire family made lifelong friendships. Among the highlights of this period was a 1968 cross-Canada road trip – so memorable for a family from a small Caribbean nation.
In 1970, Jai and his family returned to Guyana, where he taught in the newly formed Department of Economics at the University of Guyana. But his research on the connections between multinational corporations and the development of small Caribbean countries brought him into conflict with the increasingly authoritarian government of Forbes Burnham, and in 1976 he made the difficult decision to leave the country. With his family and little else, they landed at the University of Alberta on a temporary teaching contract. Two years later, he found full-time work at Okanagan College in Kelowna, B.C., where he was based until he retired in 1993. He also began to teach distance education through the Open Learning Institute, pursuing his passion until he was 85. He refused, however, to use a computer and may have been the last person in the country to teach university courses entirely by mail and telephone. His colleagues and students loved him for it, and he took great pride in teaching thousands from all walks of life, including prisoners.
He was a proud Guyanese, and enjoyed listening to Indian music and cooking Guyanese food. His children especially loved receiving the rum-soaked black cakes he sent every Christmas. But he also firmly believed in embracing his community. In Kelowna, he and Elsie tended fruit trees and kicked up their heels square dancing all around the valley. They were also fierce badminton competitors, although Elsie had the better of him on the courts. Losing her to cancer more than 30 years ago was the cruellest blow of his life, but he refused to let it derail him from being an inspired father and leader. His children have followed in his footsteps, helping to make Canada a vibrant multicultural and multiracial society. He has 20 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, and they promise to do the same.
Randall Germain is Jai’s son-in-law.
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