My Canada Part 1

Writer: Belaluddin Category: আত্মজীবনী (Memoir) Edition: Dhaboman - Winter 2017

While in UK, I had worked with J Lyons - the Tetley tea company, British Oxygen and GE. I had also completed my accounting studies in the UK and was already a designated accountant. I also owned a home. I had a good job, a nice car, a great social circle and really had no financial or professional reason to leave the country because all in all, I had it good in the UK. My reason for migrating to Canada was somewhat different. Although I had never faced open racism while living in England, I “felt” it constantly - underneath the polite faces, pleasant words and fake smiles - everywhere. For example, while working for GE I used to report to Keith, an Englishman about my age who had not completed his accounting education, neither had his boss Michael, another Englishman who was the controller. One day my boss Keith told me “we are leaders, you are followers, so just follow and you’ll be fine.” This was coming from a man with half my education and even less job experience – only because he was white. Although nothing drastically negative ever happened to me in UK, my life there was peppered with such smaller unpleasant experiences between the good ones.

My best friend Bashir, a fellow Bangladeshi who understood my feelings came to Montreal for a visit in 1980. He called me from there and said “My friend, I am in Canada. It is minus 20 outside. I’m looking out my window and it’s sunny and beautiful! Is it sunny and beautiful in London? No? The people are fantastic here! Are they fantastic in London? No? Well then, if you want to live in a beautiful country with no racism, Canada is THE place to be. There is no racism here!”

I looked up Canada on the map -  just for reconfirmation, then located the Canadian consulate in London and contacted them. After verifying my credentials, they asked me where I would like to live in Canada. Since I didn’t know anything about the country I asked the interviewer to suggest a location but he said that he wasn’t allowed to suggest. However, he said “there is a boom in Calgary, that might be a good place to start.” So, within a few months I sold my house, packed up my British memories and on Friday May 8th, 1981 found myself at the Calgary Airport being greeted by a cheerful Mountie who shook my hand very warmly and said, “welcome to Canada”. No one ever said that to me in England! I had about $30,000 in cash from the sale of my house and thought I was all set for my new life in Canada. All in all, it felt very good. Little did I know what Canada and Canadians had in store for me!

I didn’t know anyone in Canada, so I checked into a downtown hotel upon arrival. First thing Monday morning, I went to see an employment agency called Robert Half, located in downtown Calgary. I was interviewed by the manager Marvin. One of the first things Marvin told me was that I would find it very hard to find a job! I was very surprised to hear this from a reputable employment agency for accounting jobs. Not only was I a qualified accountant with a UK designation, I had also received very good quality training from highly reputable companies like British Oxygen, General Electric and J. Lyons & Company (the Tetley tea company) - combined with the fact that Calgary was going through a phenomenal economic boom at that time, I was lost for words! Besides, no one ever said that to me in England! I finally asked him why and he promptly replied, “it’s the color of your skin”. I asked him how employers would know the color of my skin from my resume; he replied, “they’ll go by your name”.

Very disheartened and disappointed, I bought the local newspaper on my way back to the hotel and started going through the classifieds as soon as I was back in my room. Soon I noticed an ad for an accountant at a cattle feeding company in Airdrie just outside Calgary. I called them up, got an appointment and on the 20th of May 1981, started my new job as “controller” at the feed yard at a $25,000 a year salary. That was more than what I was getting paid in UK!

I needed a place to stay. I found an ad for an apartment in Sunnyside close to downtown Calgary. I called the management company and went to visit the manager Reg and his wife Irene who were from England. They had a son and a daughter. A very nice family and we hit it off right

from the start. They gave me the apartment immediately. I used to suffer from migraine headaches in those days and when I got one, it lasted the whole day. I walked in to see them with one of my headaches. I noticed at the time of leaving that my headache was gone! I told them that and Irene replied, “we seem to have that effect on people”. I was puzzled and asked her what she meant and she said that they were spiritual healers! I made many friends through Reg and Irene. One day I was approached by Norman, a prominent lawyer and two of his friends. Joe owned a large construction company and Martin was a high level Federal employee who later became a judge. They said that they run the Sunnyside Non-Profit Housing association and are looking for a secretary/treasurer. They said that I would be the perfect candidate for the voluntary position. I accepted and through Sunnyside, I signed off on a million-dollar cheque in September 1981, the first in my life. It was a lot of money in those days.

I was also approached by the local Bangladeshi Association and served as their treasurer. Before accepting me, the opposition asked me “what can you do for our association?” In reply, I asked “how much grant money have you received from the government so far?” They proudly replied, “we acquired $500!” and I said, “then I’ll get $15,000” and they all laughed. They weren’t aware of my connections through Sunnyside. Within a few months I brought them a cheque for $15,000 from the Federal Government.

Coming back to the Feed yard, it had two owners, Cam & Ken. Ken was the one who ran everything. They both had a small airplane each. Cam had an old “champ” with a joystick and Ken had a 4-seater Cessna. Cam often used to fly low to supervise the sileage harvest operation. One day I went up with him during harvest time and he was flying very low – just showing off. We were laughing. Suddenly out of nowhere a bunch of electric wires appeared directly in front of the airplane! We were just about to hit the live wires when Cam pulled hard on the joy stick and the “champ” hopped over the wires and with a loud thud, crashed on the ground! My neck made a nasty cracking noise and I thought I had broken it. But after the initial shock, everything seemed okay. Incidentally, more than 30 years later, I found out through an MRI that my neck had been severely damaged because of that accident. I still have no pain, but I’m afraid it might start affecting me as I get older. By the way, a couple of years later, Cam was found dead in his “champ” in the middle of nowhere. He had been missing for a few days before he was found. His neck was broken. Perhaps something similar happened which took his life. The Toronto Star carried the news.

Things went quite well for about six months. I used the money I brought from UK as down payment and bought a house in Airdrie as well as an investment property in Trochu, an hour and half north west of Calgary where a gas fertilizer plant was being built which would employ thousands of people. Property prices were supposed to soar in the area. Then the 1981-82 recession hit like Armageddon! I had never seen anything like that in my whole life, I still haven’t! Companies started going under by the dozen every day, thousands of people gave their house keys to the banks and just left home penniless. Mortgage rates went up to 19%. Many sold their homes for a dollar just to transfer the mortgage. The beef business started declining and my company started downsizing. They even fired the veterinarian! Needless to say, I soon followed and was out on December 22nd, 1981 - three days before Christmas and within 7 1/2 months of my arrival.

I had invested all my money into the house in Airdrie and the property in Trochu. Because mortgage rates were exorbitantly high, most of my pay checks were going into satisfying the bank, like most other Calgarians at that time. I started having difficulty paying my rent and decided to move to a room in Airdrie. I found an ad for a room and called the landlord, another Englishman named Leon. On the phone, I told Leon “I am looking for a room, I am brown. If you are prejudiced, we shouldn’t waste each other’s time.” Leon said, “I’m not prejudiced and I hope you aren’t either.”  It was the start of a great friendship. I moved into Leon’s home in Airdrie. Leon was a nature lover. He had a large German Shepherd as a pet. We used to go fishing and camping in the Rockies. One day he told me “you shouldn’t eat so much frozen stuff; frozen dinners are very bad for you. Why don’t you pick a good restaurant and I’ll buy you a proper nutritious dinner one evening?” So, one evening we went to an exotic restaurant of my choice in Calgary and I picked an expensive item with a long name from the menu. Leon’s food came quickly but mine took ages to arrive and when it finally did, it was a highly decorated six-inch-long piece of something like a sausage. I was very disappointed and Leon almost fell off his chair laughing his head off. So much for my nutritious dinner! Frankly, it was embarrassing. I never went back to that restaurant.

The 1981 Winter Olympics project created openings for some landscaping companies with government contracts. I found out that one of those landscaping companies was looking for an accountant. I called them up, got an appointment - and on the 28th of January 1982, started my second job at $36,000/year salary. My new job came with

a company car!  The new job lasted only for a few months. Because of the recession contracts were cancelled and the company had to let everyone go. By mid-1982 I was out of a job, again. The owner of the company was a mean old SOB. He fired everyone without any notice, without any pay for the last couple of weeks. He didn’t even pay anyone the vacation pays which he was legally required to pay. The female employees started crying. I was asked to surrender the company car and take a cab home at my expense. I was very upset and told the owner that I was driving the car home and that it could be picked up from my home later that day.

That afternoon there was a knock on the door and Leon came up to me quite shaken and said that there were two policemen at the door to arrest me for “stealing a car”. I was read my rights, handcuffed and taken to the police station. I was charged and was required to get a lawyer. I had sunk all my money in my property investments and had nothing left. I didn’t even know how I was going to pay next month’s rent without selling something but everything had gone south on me. There were no buyers. I called up a law firm on 14th Street NW and “hired” a charming female lawyer who defended me in court against my ex employer. The bitter monster came ready for a kill with all kinds of lies – but my smart lawyer had a posse of disgruntled employees who were only too delighted to shred the monster to pieces. When the judge finally spoke, the monster looked like a mouse! I had no money to pay my lawyer. Fortunately, she seemed okay with the truckload of gratitude I told her I owed her.

I surrendered my room in Airdrie, said goodbye to my friend Leon and moved in with a fellow Bangladeshi accountant Yaser who at the time was working for Coopers & Lybrand in Calgary. He was living in a 2-bedroom apartment and was happy to have company. We became “flat mates”. He offered me free rent, but I insisted on paying for my room whenever possible and he was comfortable with that. I immediately started looking for a job, but it had become VERY difficult to find a job and by December, I had become frustrated and needed to get away. So, I called up my sister in Los Angeles and flew there for a short break.

I arrived back in Calgary from LA on December 21st, 1981. It was minus 21 degrees. As soon as I arrived home, I called my flat mate who used to work downtown Calgary, which was a 20-minute walk from the apartment across Princess Island. He invited me for lunch and I decided to walk it in my light LA spring jacket. I had no experience of temperatures that cold. About half way across Princess Island, my body started to freeze. It felt like my ears were about to fall off and my feet really hurt from the cold, but it was too far to walk back. I looked ahead and noticed steam escaping a street vent of an underground garage. I stood on the vent for as long as I needed to thaw out and then finished the walk.

Belaluddin is a Chartered Management Accountant, living and working from Brampton, Ontario.