By Daniel Tarade
In my grade 9 geography class, I stood up and recounted my family’s story. We were speaking on the pros and cons of immigration, and I found myself overcome by emotion. I arrived in Canada at the age of sixteen months. Migration is but a ghost in my past. Still, I identified with nameless, faceless, voiceless refugee that my classmates strawmanned and proselytized. Even if I could never experience the war that made my parents flee Bosnia, I could speak to our trials and tribulations in Canada. As I stood up and spoke, I became a stand-in for all immigrants because I had a name, a face, and a voice. I wanted to convince my class that the immigrant’s story is Canada’s story. That the odd jobs worked and sacrifices made were emblematic of the Canadian dream. That it would be immoral to bar people an opportunity at a better life. Further, that the government ought to support immigrant families. When I finished speaking, the debate was over — our geography class was pro-immigration. Yet, cracks appeared in the facade that soon existed only in my brain. I have no pretensions that anyone else from that class remembers my speech. But my mind floats back to that moment. I see myself in the third-person and judge the words I hurled. Pure sophistry. Nothing I said was dishonest, but through omission I was a liar. In the grand tale of my parents’ hard work, I not once mention the patrons and friends who supported us. My Canadian dream was that of the self-made family. That dream is dead.
I was born in the December of 1993. A year-and-a-half after Bosnian independence and the subsequent war, I was one of the first to be born in this new nation. With no electricity, a wood-burning stove heated the family apartment, which housed three-generations of Tarades. The first time my mother brought me outside, after the winter cold had dissipated, a mortar landed near our apartment landing. My father ran out into the smoke certain that we were both dead. Instead, a neighbourhood kid told my father that we were able to take shelter down some stairs. My parents resolved to leave as soon as possible. Waiting was no longer a possibility. After selling their possessions and my father’s small billiards club, they left for the relative peace of Croatia. At a military checkpoint, an officer warned my Muslim, lacking-papers mother that she would be turned away at the border, while my Catholic father and I would be able to pass. Rather, we drove through an unmanned border without pause. In Croatia, my parents began applying for asylum in America, Australia, and Canada. Only the latter accepted our application. It was only a few hours before learning of our possible Canadian emigration that my parents finally landed a steady job. The Spanish consulate hired my parents to foster orphans in a seaside Croatian home. We instead departed for Canada and landed on a snowy day in April 1995. My parents describe the shocking juxtaposition of sunny Croatia and snowy Canada. We received coats at the Toronto airport, but they didn’t have one that fit my father. On the domestic flight from Toronto to Windsor, my father also discovered that alcohol was no longer complimentary. Because he couldn’t afford a five dollar beverage, the flight attendant provided one on the house. Why Windsor? There were manufacturing jobs, which was great for my father who lacked the english skills to put his geology degree to use. In those early years, we moved from apartment to apartment, leaving due to rat infestations or malicious landlords. We settled on a dead-end street in an affordable housing division, and my father settled into work at a tool and dye factory, and my mother settled into raising two children (my brother was born in Canada). So it went. For seven years, my father toiled in a non-unionized position at the beck and call of a foreman who had no appreciation that a father was missing out on his children growing up. My mother ran a household on a poverty wage, and my brother and I enjoyed a minimalist childhood. The local parks and wetlands charged no admission. Then came the evening when the no-name factory laid off my father. I was nine. The automobile manufacturers kept moving factories to Mexico. Downsizing, their labour force and our life. My mother broke the news with the gravity one reserves for death. It was a testament to my parent’s industriousness that I was not worried. I never knew we were poor. Who needs a job anyway? My father applied everywhere and received no offers: not from factories nor from grocery stores. He was offered a job in his old factor if he went back to school to learn machine programming. So he attended St. Clair college, whose claim to fame is that they are the southern-most postsecondary institution in Canada. He was proud to attend school in Canada and would bring me to visit the campus. We would always sit in the cafeteria and order Tim Horton’s coffee as if to say we belong. He had taken to Canadian culture, raising me to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs and to drink double-doubles. He needed to feel included and wanted me to fit in as well. To support the family while my father was in school, my mother began working two jobs: babysitting and cleaning houses. She would babysit for $2 a kid per hour. In comparison, cleaning houses for the elderly was a joy. Those invisible people stowed away within their homes appreciated the company she provided; my mother not only scrubbed and cooked but also chatted and listened. My father did graduate and obtained a new job at his old firm. This new spell of employment lasted a month. Another layoff. He was expected to learn a new program on the job and failed. So my father joined my mother in business. She continued to clean homes, and my father would offer other ‘handyman’ services. This included snow removal, lawn mowing, and raking leaves and, on certain occasions, landscaping, painting, and air conditioner installation. Chauffeuring the elderly also became a big part of the job. I would help. My father, big and strong, had a hernia from his years at the factory and could no longer lift heavy objects without being incapacitated for days. I, the young teenager, was up to the task. My father and mother never stopped looking for other opportunities. I helped quiz my father when he studied for his taxi license. He quit after one day when he realized that many hours would go by without a single call. Cab rent was too expensive to sit in a grocery store parking lot all day. I helped my father distribute flyers to try and expand their home service business while stifling pangs of embarrassment because I knew school friends who lived in the neighbourhood. But throughout all of this, we persevered. We made it! My mother went back to school to become a nurse. Back in Bosnia, she had one year of medical school training under her belt that she had to abandon. In Canada, she graduated in the top five of her class. It was still a struggle to find a job, with her being twenty years older than the average nursing graduate. First, she worked as a long-term living facility. Later, she earned a position at Windsor Regional Hospital, where she still works in the ICU. Today, we have paid off the mortgage and the car. Today, my mother has maxed-out her salary. Today, my father performs the unpaid work in the home and has some great hobbies. Today, my brother begins his Master’s in Physiotherapy, and I continue in my PhD studies. That is the Canadian Dream that I shared with my classmates. One where hard work results in a good life. Where opportunity is the sole requisite.
My family became close friends with some of my parents’ clients. In particular, Miss Joan and Miss Henny became fixtures in my life. It was for them that I mowed lawns, shovelled snow, and raked leaves. They paid well. They took our family out for dinner on our birthdays. They supported my brother and I in our scholastic endeavours. But their patronage extended far beyond employment and moral support. These two life-long friends never had children; they instead took care of our family. They paid off the last half of our mortgage. They paid my mother’s tuition. They sent money to my grandparents in Bosnia. My family owes a lot to these selfless individuals. As Miss Henny and Miss Joan aged and began to suffer from dementia, my parents continued to care for them. Even though my mother was busy as a nurse, she could not forget or ignore our greatest friends. My parents were the first contact in case of emergency and drove them to urgent care more times than I can care to remember. They were there for the falls and surgeries and incontinence. Miss Joan passed away in the fall of 2018. Miss Henny faced the loss of her friend with great resolve. Following the funeral, my parents helped Miss Henny move into an assisted-living facility and continue to visit and call. I will not forget what Miss Joan and Miss Henny did for our family. It would be an insult to continue chanting the individualistic mantra of the Canadian Dream.
I spoke for many years about the ultimate nature of self-resilience and of frugality. Do not want for better pay or benefits or pension, I pronounced. Greed corrupts the soul, I argued. Instead, work hard and honest. Everything will work out. If it doesn’t, you have no one to blame but yourself. But a cognitive dissonance gripped at my seat when I spoke such words. How can I bemoan criticism of our economic system when the economy failed us as well? It was not the free market that allowed us to afford a home or tuition. It was the charity of two people. Our family made it, not because of the system but in spite of the system. What of the people in the same economic situation who never had the privilege to befriend someone like Miss Joan or Miss Henny? For all our hard work and tenacity, we had only paid off half of our mortgage within eight years. A mortgage for a house that only cost $80,000 in the first place. The meagre process that we made came from sacrificing much and by cashing in my father’s RSVP after his first layoff. Would my mother be able to afford nursing school, which yielded the employment that clawed our family out of the lower class? How much debt would we have accumulated? I have come to resent the notion that I ought to be grateful to Canada for my family’s good fortune. Did the country provide a respite to the violence of war? Yes, but that is a low bar to clear. My parents laboured in anxiety for many years, worried about finances and their future. They suffered physically in their toil. It was not the Canadian government or laissez-faire capitalism that provided the life of comfort we have come to enjoy. It was two ladies.