Our Canada

From Forced Mi­gra­tion to Higher Learn­ing

Born in Uganda to par­ents orig­i­nally from In­dia, the road to a new life in Canada was dif­fi­cult

- By Gregory Dias, Mis­sis­sauga

Pres­i­dent Idi Amin of Uganda made an an­nounce­ment to his peo­ple in Au­gust 1972, say­ing, “I have dreamt that, un­less I take ac­tion, our econ­omy will be taken over. The peo­ple who are not Ugan­dans should leave.”

The pres­i­dent or­dered ev­ery Asian to leave the coun­try within 90 days, thus thrust­ing the large Asian com­mu­nity into a state of shock. Each fam­ily was al­lowed to leave with $55 and a few be­long­ings. All other monies and as­sets were frozen.

My par­ents had em­i­grated from Goa, In­dia, 30-years pre­vi­ously. I was born in Uganda and had taken for granted that Uganda would al­ways be my home.

The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment was in no po­si­tion to ab­sorb an in­flux of 50,000 Asian hold­ers of Bri­tish pass­ports in such a short time.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and Pres­i­dent Idi Amin be­gan im­me­di­ately. The Asian com­mu­nity hoped that his un­prece­dented de­ci­sion would be re­versed, but the pres­i­dent was adamant.

For­tu­nately, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment stepped in and agreed to help the refugees. Prime Min­is­ter Pierre El­liot Trudeau, in partnershi­p with the Aga Khan, agreed to re­set­tle 8,000 Ugan­dan-asian refugees by the end of 1974. This was Canada’s first ma­jor re­set­tle­ment of non-euro­pean refugees in Canada.

My sis­ter, Matti, and brother, Placido, passed the screen­ing test set by the Cana­dian High Com­mis­sion three days be­fore the dead­line and made their way to Mon­treal in Novem­ber 1972. My par­ents ul­ti­mately opted to re­turn to Goa and brought me with them, since I was un­der age and did not qual­ify to go to Canada. I con­tin­ued my stud­ies in Goa at a col­lege that was a˜ffil­i­ated with the Univer­sity of Bom­bay. My par­ents could barely pay my school fees. I was left with no money to buy text­books. For­tu­nately, fel­low stu­dents came to my res­cue, lend­ing me the books that I used to study dur­ing the bet­ter part of the night and re­turned the books the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

Life was a con­stant strug­gle in our vil­lage house in Goa. There was no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter, ameni­ties that we took for granted in Uganda. My brother and sis­ter wrote about their lives in Canada. They had glow­ing re­ports of the Cana­dian way of life that I ab­sorbed and was happy to learn more about. It was then in­stilled in my mind that I would im­mi­grate to Canada even­tu­ally. Af­ter two di˜cult years in In­dia, this dream was about to be­come a re­al­ity when my brother and sis­ter spon­sored me to come to Canada. I made sev­eral trips to Bom­bay for my in­ter­view and med­i­cals. I was ec­static when I passed the screen­ing process and was des­tined to go to Canada. It was a joy to see my brother and sis­ter for the first time af­ter two years. I was ex­cited about start­ing my life in this great coun­try. With only two dol­lars in my pocket, it was im­per­a­tive that I find a job. I was re­fused

em­ploy­ment on the grounds of hav­ing no “Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence.” That was tough to swal­low. How could I gain Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence with­out be­ing given a chance to get a job in Canada?

How­ever, a friend of mine was able to get me into an en­gi­neer­ing firm as a ju­nior drafts­man. Al­though I started work­ing in Mon­treal, I was soon sent to Fer­mont in north­east­ern Que­bec. The job al­lowed me to save money to re­turn to univer­sity. The only English univer­sity in Mon­treal that offƒered a pro­gram in chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, my pref­er­ence, was Mcgill, but I re­al­ized the pres­ti­gious univer­sity was un­likely to ac­cept me with­out hav­ing any Cana­dian school­ing. In­stead, I de­cided to first ap­ply to the Fac­ulty of En­gi­neer­ing at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity, where I was ac­cepted.

Long hours of hard work and de­ter­mi­na­tion helped me achieve ex­cel­lent grades in my first year. I then ap­plied to Mcgill Univer­sity, con­fi­dent that I would be ac­cepted into chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing for the for the new se­mes­ter. I was dev­as­tated for a time af­ter my ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected.

Thanks to a pro­fes­sor I knew at Con­cor­dia, I was put in touch with a man named Shel­don Az­i­mov, who hired me dur­ing the sum­mer to help out with his home busi­ness. Shel­don’s mother felt sorry for me and took me un­der her wing, treat­ing me like a son. Mrs. Az­i­mov was the one who sug­gested that I ques­tion why my ap­pli­ca­tion had been re­jected by Mcgill Univer­sity.

I took Mrs. Az­i­mov’s ad­vice and de­cided to call Mcgill dur­ing the Christ­mas break. I spoke with a Pro­fes­sor Dou­glas, in­form­ing him of my eƒfforts and on­go­ing de­sire to at­tend Mcgill. He gra­ciously agreed to meet with me, ask­ing that I bring all my cre­den­tials and tran­scripts with me. What­ever the learned man did on my be­half af­ter for­ward­ing my case to the ad­mis­sions o‘ffice, I did not know, but two weeks later, I was ac­cepted to study for a Bach­e­lor’s de­gree in Chem­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing.

I how­ever needed more money to be able to con­tinue my stud­ies at Mcgill, so I reached out to stu­dent aid for both a loan and bur­sary, and was ini­tially re­fused. The stu­dent ad­vi­sor I spoke with af­ter­wards, David Elisha, was puz­zled why I had been de­clined, given my dire fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion, and de­cided to look into my ap­pli­ca­tion a lit­tle fur­ther. I was granted a loan and bur­sary a few months later, and to­gether with steady sum­mer em­ploy­ment and ev­ery odd job I could find, I was able to make ends meet.

Suc­cess and Grat­i­tude

I grad­u­ated with my Bach­e­lor’s de­gree in Chem­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing in 1980 and set oƒ to work in my field of study. I would go on to work for Union Car­bide for eight years, where I even­tu­ally be­came a lead process en­gi­neer. I then moved on to Sun­cor En­ergy and have held sev­eral diƒer­ent ti­tles dur­ing my 31 years of work­ing for them.

I am grate­ful to the many peo­ple who helped me in the pur­suit of my ed­u­ca­tion and the es­tab­lish­ment of a re­ward­ing life and ca­reer in Canada. My big­gest thanks of all go out to my fam­ily, my sis­ter and brother in par­tic­u­lar, and to this beau­ti­ful coun­try for giv­ing me the op­por­tu­nity to achieve my life-long dream.

Clock­wise from op­po­site page: Gregory at his Mcgill grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony in 1980; a fam­ily photo taken in Uganda with Gregory’s par­ents and all of his sib­lings on hand; another fam­ily gath­er­ing, this time a re­u­nion in Canada.

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