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A Simple Immigrant: But a Guy Who Worked His Ass Off For His Country

November 4, 2010

Updated September 29, 2011

My Dad and his younger sister in Vancouver, BC, 1945 after VE Day

I’m the son of an immigrant. A guy who was born in 1917 in Glasgow, Scotland, and who immigrated to Canada through Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1920. I’m a James (now long a Jim); my Dad also Jim, and my Grandfather (who died shortly before I was born) also a James.

My Dad grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I don’t know much about his upbringing; it was pretty painful from what I’ve learned. His youngest sister (now mid eighties and to whom I talk to occasionally) lives in Cleveland.

Despite a rough upbringing, which involved a divorce between my grandparents when my dad and aunt were quite young, he completed high school and then worked in the Canadian National Railway shops in Transcona, then on the fringe of Winnipeg (later my birthplace).

A few years after working in the “shops,” all hell broke loose in Europe. Great Britain, the motherland to Canada, desperately needed its help to defeat Hitler’s aggressive moves to annex adjacent countries, and more. Meanwhile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was working furiously to loosen up the isolationist attitudes of Americans.

My Dad wanted to sign up to the Canadian Armed Forces but my grandfather objected, wanting his son to complete his machinist journeyman papers with CNR. So in 1942, with papers in hand, my dad joined the Canadian Navy, apparently a popular call to Prairie boys who had never been to sea.

One of the Corvettes my Dad served on

My dad served on two Canadian corvettes, tiny ships that bobbed around on the ocean like corks. Being a machinist by trade he was in charge of the engine room as a Chief Petty Officer. The role of a corvette was escorting merchant marine conveys and naval ships, in my dad’s case to the mid Atlantic, at which point other escort ships took over. They also did minesweeping duties. My dad, who died one month short of his 89th birthday in February 2006 (and buried at the National Military Cemetery of the Canadian Forces in Ottawa) had fond memories of his trips from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Halifax, Nova Scotia to New York to Boston.

After the War he continued his work with CNR, retiring in 1976 and then worked on rail safety with the former Canadian Transport Commission for almost a decade. Subsequent to that he worked as a rail consultant, mostly in Pakistan, for five years before finally packing it in at age 72.

I’m not singing Kumbaya. My Dad was a tough bastard, and being the oldest son of two was not the easiest gig in town while I was growing up in Montreal; Battle Creek, Michigan and Toronto. But I tried as I got older and raised a family to understand his background, upbringing and foibles. We ALL tote around personal shit. No one is perfect, even remotely.

Why am I telling you this?

For a couple of reasons.

First, there’s a whole lot of hating going on around America and, yes, sweet-old Canada when it comes to immigrants and what they bring to our respective great countries. When I listen to the crap on some of the American news networks about immigration I wonder how informed the reporters are. The attitude almost seems to be that the current population has always existed here. Go tell that to a First Nations person.

Second, the birth rates of the traditional ethnic (read Caucasian) populations of Canada and America are NOT sustainable. We need to procreate if we’re to maintain some semblance of a diversified labor market, and to not place an unbearable taxation load on young people as they move through their careers.

America is in pretty good shape, thanks largely to a rapidly growing Hispanic population. Canada has the highest per capita immigration levels among industrialized nations, an important part of maintaining a diversified population. Look at what’s happening in some of the new emerging economies (India, Philippines and most of Africa) with respect to their demographic dividends.

But the paranoia, fear and hate have to stop.

Too much is happening around the world for people to continue subscribing to hate-filled mongering, that our “Leave-It-To-Beaver” return to yesterday will somehow materialize. Sorry to disappoint you folks, that’s long gone. It’s now about knowledge and how to use technology intelligently.

My dad didn’t know a computer from a mouse. But he knew what a ball-peen hammer was when he was young (Google it). At his funeral, one of his former CNR bosses came up to me to express his condolences. He said to me, “Jim, your dad sure knew locomotives.” Indeed he did. He was a recognized international expert, working during his 55-year career in far-off countries. How many of us can say we’re a recognized international expert in our field?

One vital thing my dad instilled in me during my upbringing was the critical importance of learning and continually improving myself. That, he was successful on. I can only hope that my four adult “kids” will carry that belief forward with their own careers, and pass that on to their kids one day.

When it comes to your own personal goals, look at how you can incorporate service to your own country and embrace what those from far away bring. And ask yourself: “How tolerant am I when it comes to other cultures and beliefs?”

Real education consists of drawing the best out of yourself.
– Mohandas Gandi


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2010 5:27 pm

    Fascinating story about your dad’s life, Jim. Clearly, he was an accomplished man who passed along his excellent work ethic and love of learning to his son.

    On a separate note, isn’t it amazing how much has changed in just one or two generations? The life my parents and especially my grandparents led was a world apart from my life today. It’s hard to believe, but I’m sure our children will one day say the same about us.

    • November 7, 2010 6:01 pm

      Thanks Susan. Yes, you’re right-so much as changed. Just look at how much has changed since we Boomers were growing up. Even when I look at my four Gen Y kids who span 10 years in age, the “baby” (21) and her friends are quite different from my oldest daughter (31).

      I posed a question to a friend (on Canada’s West Coast) the other day during a phone call about what kind of parents will young Gen Y and the upcoming Gen Z will make in the future. My friend paused, and said that’s a question she’s never heard before. I think it will be truly fascinating to watch today’s young people raise children. I don’t want to miss the show!

  2. Mary Mimouna permalink
    November 5, 2010 1:45 pm

    You’ve touched on a lot of varied topics here, Jim. Each one would make a good expanded separate post, by itself. I enjoyed seeing the picture of your father and aunt in 1945.

    • November 5, 2010 6:19 pm

      Indeed there are many topics embedded in the post. The photo of my dad and aunt in Vancouver is interesting, since he was deployed from the Atlantic fleet, following VE Day, to join the Pacific fleet for the imminent force to be sent to fight the Japanese. Of course, that didn’t happen because of the dropping of the two atomic bombs. So not long after, he and many others returned home to continue their lives.

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