4 June is a special day for me. It was the day my youngest son, Will, was born. It was also the day that I landed in Canada with my oldest son, Cris, who was just six weeks old as a political immigrant from the Vietnam War. As the plane began its descent into Winnipeg, the thought going through my head was It looks just like Oklahoma but with black soil! You have no idea how disappointed I was.
My parents made sure that I had the best education they could afford but, still, this meant that I learned Civics, American history, Oklahoma history and because I was at Mt St. Mary’s (The Mount as it was called affectionately), I had lots of classes in Latin. What I did not study, like almost all Americans then, was global history or global geography. There was one course in International Relations. Indeed, I was not the exception, this was the norm. And, I am told that this is much the same in middle and high schools throughout the United States. It is a very insular view, one that traps people into not appreciating the differences and beauty between cultures – the food, the literature, the music, and, even religious beliefs. The Internet might have closed that gap somewhat, I do not know because, today, I have been so fortunate to have lived and travelled around the world for the past thirty-five years.
At the time of my immigration, however, my knowledge of Canada came from four very different things, three from news coverage (both the telly and print) and the other from my family collection of knick-knacks.
The first was that handsome, globe-trotting, sandal wearing Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. Like the Kennedys were to so many of . my mother’s generation that Camelot, fairytale political family, Trudeau was the same to me. He was a kind of demi-god, good looking, intelligent, charismatic, and alive. What a contrast between Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in on 20 January 1969. Like night and day to my eyes. Trudeau was on all the newsreels at the theatre, on the telly, and in stories in the popular magazines that my mother bought such as Time and Life. For many young female Americans, Trudeau was a heartthrob – me, too.
The second was Expo ’67. I wonder how many people realize that it was Moscow that had won the first bid to hold this international showcase but, having dropped out in 1962, Jean Drapeau insisted that it come to Montreal who had been in second place. The site was to be the man-made islands in St Lawrence which were made more substantial due to all of the rubble left from the construction of Montreal’s underground. Images of the eighty-metre diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller to be the US Embassy were in all of the newspapers and magazines. Today, it still stands without its original plastic covering that burned away in a fire in 1976. Other structures that survived are Habitat 67, the Casino de Montreal and the Place des Nations.
The third was a television show, Sargeant Preston and Yukon King. Growing up in Oklahoma meant that snow was, at least at the time, exhilarating. It was such a rare occurrence that everyone on our street would run out and take photographs. Cars would skid on them, and they would have to put chains on if it lasted more than a day – which seemed even rarer than it falling in the first place. The snow was magical then! The RCMP officer, dressed in his scarlet uniform with high black boots, rode a horse called Rex. The dog team was led by Yukon King. Together they helped solve crimes, a typical good versus evil scenario filled the television screens for half an hour with the show lasting from 1955-58. Like all of the others, it was rebroadcast over and over again and was shot entirely in colour. It was 1957 and having moved into a new house, my father came home with brand-new colour television. We were the first on the block! Then those gorgeous tall pine trees really came to life with the blue running rivers. Little did I know that the whole thing was shot in the state just northwest of us, Colorado. To me then, and in 1969, that was my visions of Canada: snow, babbling brooks and fast running rivers, and lots and lots of pine trees and deer.
This understanding of what the Canadian landscape was reinforced further by several ceramics figurine groups that stood in our windows. My mother’s mother was a collector of clay ornaments. They were mostly roosters in some kind of salt and pepper configuration. When she died, my father inherited them. In our living room, there was a picture window about 12 feet long and 6 feet tall. Not being an architect or interior designer, I can only describe that window as being made of individual glass panes set in wood forming boxes with 3-4 inches of a ledge. This was where the ceramic figurines lived. Several included images of RCMP, a dog or dog and sledge, and a pine tree.
These four things cemented in my mind a vision of Canada, my new home. I had left the United States because of the Vietnam War. Oklahoma is a very conservative state, but the city of Norman is much more liberal-minded, helped along by the presence of the University of Oklahoma. I started classes when I was 16, first in Pharmacy, with a quick switch to the art school. I had a very dear friend, Chris Wilson, who later met a young man from Berkley, Bill, who became her husband. They immigrated to Canada as well. I have lost touch with Chris, but we did manage to spend time with one another- the pair of them living in Winnipeg and I was living in Carman, an hour away, for a few years. They married at the lovely little stone church on St. Mary’s in Winnipeg and hung out with Mitch Podolak, one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Carman, Manitoba was my first home in Canada. The population was about 3000 at the time. There were two Chinese restaurants. The Rex that was always busy and The York who wasn’t. On the window of The York Café was a sign: Banana splits 65 cents. But every time I stopped there, the Chinese man had no bananas. One day, I bought bananas and took them to the York so that the Chinese owner would have to make that banana split. I was intrigued. There was an old-fashioned soda counter if my memory is working correctly, but no one was ever in there. It turns out that the man was a member of Mao’s red army and had escaped to Hong Kong and eventually immigrated to Canada and was sent to Carman. There was a theatre run by Bob Diemert’s mother, a bakery, and a few other shops. Mr Klos, a Dutchman, came in a small pickup selling fruits and vegetables (incredibly fresh) to your door while milk products were delivered daily. Blue Boy ice cream was delicious! You just put a sign in your window, and the delivery man would stop. Both were a tremendous help to a mom with an energetic baby. Coming from a city caused a bit of culture shock, but the people were terrific. I remember all of them with great fondness and see a few once in awhile still.
As it turns out, there were actually more women that immigrated to Canada because of the Vietnam War than the men. Wives, mothers, and daughters all came. Some aunts. If you are interested, there are several books by Joseph Jones, a resister from North Carolina who came to Canada, first to Quebec and then Toronto where he worked on the publishing of AMEX-Canada. Retired from his position at UBC, Jones continues to maintain the War Resisters Web site. It is a treasure trove of information, facts, statistics, information on books and individuals. Joseph has been a tremendous help to me in my research. Hopefully, I will finish my book on the contributions of these amazing individuals to Canadian ceramics, and all the time he spent with me will have been worthwhile!
There is a misconception amongst the men that the women who came did not give up anything. Many said to me, “Well, you could just go back across the border without fear of arrest anytime you wanted”. While that was true (save for the female in the military), it was equally valid that, most often, there were not the finances for a trip home very often. Women gave up their friends, the ability to spontaneously visit their family easily and often, many gave up lucrative careers, professional practices. Those who were artists gave up their studios and their supportive clients. University course credit was lost as well. This meant that many of us on the verge of graduating lost years of study and had to repeat many courses all over. My loss was not being able to see my maternal grandmother who had raised me very often and not to have been there to help with her care when she was dying.
Many have asked me if I would do it all over again? Leave everything that I knew and move to a small town on the Canadian Prairies. The answer is a resounding ‘YES’. Most Canadians recognize that helping one another makes a healthy, stable society. While the Indigenous people were here long before the settlers, besides them, the rest of us are all immigrants. Today, and in the years to come, natural disasters and war will cause many more people to leave their homes. I hope that we can remain a country friendly to these people. I am certain if, given the choice, they would want to return to their homes and lives pre-conflict if it were possible.
Winnipeg has had many waves from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, India, Philippines, Vietnam, and now the Middle East. The Chinese helped build Canada’s railway system to the West. And, when I first moved here, almost every little town along the railway line had a Chinese café. If I keep mentioning it, it is because I love Chinese food and the closest Chinese restaurant to where I lived growing up in Norman, Oklahoma was in Dallas, Texas! One of my favourites was The Blue Bird Café in either Holland or Treherne, Manitoba. All of the booths were painted turquoise blue. But, what captured my heart was the ancient Chinatown in Winnipeg. In the winter, the windows of the tiny cafes would steam up. You could sit in the kitchen of the Hong Hing and watch them cook your meal while the barbecued pork and duck hung by hooks near the front. There was one shop with worn wooden floors that had ceramics piled halfway to the ceiling. It was magical. Today, everything is new and sanitized. My Polish and Ukrainian friends introduced me to cabbage rolls and perogies while the earliest Mexican restaurants (and some current ones) make me exasperated. The Mexican food in Oklahoma was nothing short of mouth-watering. Once every couple of weeks, my dad would bring home a large bag of homemade tamales that one of his co-worker’s wives had made. I miss the Sonic, chicken fried steak, and being able to enjoy watermelon ripened (for real) on the vine. And I miss my friends but, I remain a proud Canadian and thankful for that day, so many decades ago, that I landed on Canadian soil – even if it were black!
I have left Manitoba many times, always to return. The weather is terrible in the winter and the mosquitoes in the summer have made t-shirts showing a big red mosquito with the text, ‘I gave blood in Manitoba’ all too common. Still, love this place.
One aspect of this Canadian caring is in our medical system. When I go to the doctor or to the hospital, I do not pay for anything. Not a cent. Do I mind if I don’t have an emergency and I might have to wait a bit – NO. This is because I know people who have had real medical emergencies and needed immediate care. They go first. And I don’t get upset about it because there will come a time when I have that emergency and need that prompt attention and someone else will wait. Do I mind paying high taxes to support our health care system? NO. Absolutely not. I rest easy knowing that I will not be bankrupted by getting sick and having to go to the hospital. I rest easy knowing that if it comes to it, I will have the proper care in an assisted living centre that is regulated by the government with excellent standards. And if I can afford to pay, the highest rate in Manitoba is around $2500 per month. While we are certainly not taken care of from the cradle to the grave in the same way that people are in Denmark, infant mortality is low, life expectancy is reasonable, and happiness is high in Canada.
My only complaint is that our resources need stewardship, just like they do around the world. And that is a conversation for another day. For now, I am just savouring the fact that I live in Canada, that my children are Canadians, my grandchildren are Canadians and that each of us treasures the social fabric of this vast country.