My Yellowknife, Our Canada
By Nalini Gopaul Naidoo
I am part of a story that began in the 1800s in a tiny village in coastal south India. It began when my great-great grandparents travelled by bull carts to Madras, where they were shipped to Durban in South Africa to work for the equivalent of 16 cents a month as indentured labourers in a sugar cane plantation. I am also part of a story that began in 1960s when Indians frustrated by laws that institutionalized a system of racism and segregation, that dictated where they could live, who they could marry, where they could go to school and what sort of jobs they could take, left South Africa in search of a different life away from Apartheid. Now I find myself as part of the Canadian story of multiculturalism, reconciliation, and faith in the future of Canada. It feels good to be Canadian, and I feel responsible for taking care of this country that has been shared with our family.
My parents immigrated to Alberta in 1970 with two suitcases and thirty dollars, then later moved to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in 1973. With adult eyes and my own family, I am now beginning to understand the magnitude of the risk they took. They stepped onto that plane with no idea what they would encounter on the other side. They came as mid-life professionals, constantly reminding my brother and me that we too must become professionals-- that regardless of the colour of our skin no one can shut a door on you if you are qualified to do a job. In fact, my father’s rule was that I could not bring home a boy until I had a designation after my name.
I was raised in the Hindu faith. The highlight of our year was celebrated at St. Patrick’s, Yellowknife’s Catholic high school. Each fall, our small group would plan our Diwali celebration, the festival of Lights that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Teenagers emceed the event, and families would plan for weeks to make sure decorations were perfect, food was cooked and desserts were ready. Samosas, biriyani, sweet rice, soji, gulabjam, and barfi filled rows of tables in the school gym. Walls were decorated with sarees and a selection of top 40 bhangra blared from the sound system. We performed traditional dances, sang songs and acted out famous scenes from Indian storybooks.
But the most important part of the night was that each family had to bring someone to the event that was not Indian or Hindu. The festival became a gathering of all kinds of people with different beliefs and lifestyles. These yearly events were my introduction to faith, community, leadership, acceptance and the celebration of difference.
Decades later, Yellowknife continues to teach me what community support means and how to care for each other through tragedy and celebration. From the birth of our children, to the passing of our elders, we’ve been gently carried by the people in our community. They are the eyes on the street when our children walk to school, they are the community leaders who thank me for my parents’ service to the Northwest Territories, they are the people that gather in our homes to grieve our losses, they are the neighbours and strangers that bandage up our children’s cuts and scrapes, they are the adults at the back of the room standing tall when we succeed, and they are the same adults that wipe our tears when a parent dies.
While travels have taken me away for periods of time, I always return home to Yellowknife. Our community embraces us, takes care of us, and provides us and our children with safety and limitless opportunity. The same as my parents found upon their arrival. My parents chose a wonderful country for us to spread our wings and be free.