July 1 marked my fortieth celebration of Canada Day. In April, just prior to the anniversary of my arrival, I completed my latest book Heart of New York. It was set in New York at Christmas with flashbacks to Calgary and my life spent there.
In my first chapter I wrote:
Back outside, the bitter Atlantic wind assaulted him once again, reminding him of his first equally frigid winter in Calgary.
Each day he would stare out of the floor-to-ceiling window at the back of the ninth floor of Gulf Canada Square. Mile long freight carts flew across the criss-crossed railway lines, puffing and bleating their way into the horizon with the wind and snow blowing every which way to slow them down.
Why had he sought so cheerfully to leave England and, prior to that, Africa, to arrive at this Siberia of the North? BOREDOM.
At the age of twenty-four, he was a qualified Chartered Accountant with a well-paid and respectable career ahead of him. Did he really want to spend the rest of his life commuting to London from his suburban home? A path, routine and predictable, lay in front of him with an obligatory maisonette and silver watch at the end of it.
He was single and craving adventure when an ad enticed him to apply, partly as a joke, to an accounting firm in Canada. A place called Calgary-a queer juxtaposition of “Cowtown” and modern oil boom with a Scottish name endowed upon it by its querulous Calvinist founding fathers.
“You’re mad!” His all-knowing mother expostulated.
“But it’s the fastest growing city in Canada. It’s swimming in oil.”
Recent years in England had been an economic nightmare. Margaret Thatcher had waged war on unions and specifically coalminers in Wales leading to unremitting strikes, riots and blackouts amid blizzards and deep snow-dubbed The Winter of Discontent. In training, he had accompanied his manager to Wales and Sheffield and Gateshead to close down coalmines and steelworks where proud and tradition-bound workers were forever discarded on the rubbish heap of redundancy. There had to be a better place to work and live. Somewhere with a boundless future.
In my last chapter, I continued:
Sitting here in a Manhattan pizza parlour, constantly demisting the window to witness the mayhem of a frigid winter outside, he realized it wasn’t the balmy weather of Africa he missed, where he had been born. It was the welcoming arms of a community. Wrenched away from his childhood home, he had never felt “home” anywhere. Perhaps too cautious to commit in case it too was wrenched away from him.
A decade after he moved to Calgary, he was returning from yet another Christmas holiday. As he looked down from his aircraft cabin window, he sighed to himself.
“Home at last.”
That’s when he understood.
Calgarians didn’t notice his colour or pedigree, nor did they practise the manners of hypocrisy against him that he had witnessed in England. In Calgary, you were rewarded for your contribution to society not for the impeccable accent you cultivated. And why shouldn’t they do so? They were, in the majority, recent immigrants, all trying their best to equally make their way.
A few years ago, I took my family – my wife and two teenage boys- to Hong Kong to celebrate my birthday on June 28th.
“Pops, where’s the Canadian Embassy?” The boys chimed together.
What an odd question to ask on holiday. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because we want to celebrate Canada Day.”
There was no doubt of their allegiance and pride in their country.