Canadian Goans Write Back

By Selma Carvalho

Canada has been in the news lately for the implied racism of its prime-minister Justin Trudeau. Perhaps what’s relevant to the large number of Goans settled in Canada is not Trudeau’s faux-pas but questions about Canada’s history of racial exclusion and how it might have impacted their lives.

Unlike their diasporic counterparts in East Africa or England, where some chronology of Goan immigrant history has been documented, not much has been written about Goans in Canada. Who were the first Goans to arrive in Canada? Cursory research will throw up the name of one 37-year-old Silvestre Fillipe de Souza, who arrived in Montreal in 1917. He then spent some time in the lumber mill town of Deseronto which offered plenty of employment to casual workers, before docking at a United States port where he was ‘debarred’ from entering. Although the handwriting is barely legible, the ship manifest shows his occupation as ‘Steward’, his wife’s name as Leopoldina, and his nationality as ‘Portuguese Indian.’ Was Silvestre working onboard a ship when he docked in North America? It was not unusual for Goan seamen to spend some time working at the port cities they docked in, before returning home. Possibly, his family would be able to shed more light on this story.

Working and living in Canada for Asians, however, was near-impossible. Canada remained extremely hostile to non-white immigration and by 1908 had enacted legislation to curtail Asian immigration, particularly from China, Japan and India. Deputy Minister of Labour, Mackenzie King, who later became a long-serving prime minister of Canada, formed the opinion that ‘the native of India is not a person suited to this country.’ Only after World War II did Canada glacially start liberalising its immigration policy, chipping away at its discriminatory practices until entry into Canada was determined by a points system where skill, education and age were major considerations rather than racial or religious identities.

In the 1970s, the Asian exodus from decolonised British East Africa, particularly Uganda, prompted the first strong wave of Goans to arrive in Canada. This was followed by other waves equally compelled by the need for refuge: Gulf-Goans who are perpetual guest-workers without the possibility of attaining citizenship in the Arabian Gulf, Kuwaiti-Goans after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Karachi-Goans fleeing religious persecution, and Goans from India, seeking better futures for themselves.

Ben Antao, author of several books, first arrived in Canada in 1967. In 2010, he edited Goa Masala, an anthology of Canadian-Goan writings. Antao acknowledges that most of those who contributed had emigrated from East Africa.  Their writing spoke longingly of that lost home now preserved in memory as a sort of idyll. When East Africa yielded ink to other experiences, it was not Canada that they recalled but Goa. Homelands are not just geographical spaces we occupy but memories we inhabit. That Goa continued to be a centripetal force for first-generation Goan immigrants is perfectly understandable.

But now, writing presented by second-generation Canadian-Goans deepens our understanding of the Canadian experience. Recently, Derek Mascarenhas released his debut collection of short stories titled, Coconut Dreams (Bookhug Press, 2019). Mascarenhas was born in Burlington, Canada, where most of his stories are set. It is this sense of being firmly pinned to Canada, which lends to it a distilled purity. There is for instance, this admission of being embarrassed at school lunch times: ‘I avoid sitting near Tommy because of what happened yesterday, and because Mom packed me a brown paper bag with a juice box and two chapatis … Chapattis are tastier, but sometimes I wish I had the same lunch so I wouldn’t have to explain what I was eating.’ This need to constantly explain the differences, the ‘otherness’, leads often to an erasure of the self. Second-generation immigrants become part of new homelands without a sense of former history. But when they do come face to face with a past, it is an alien past, and this too brings with it a sense of something borrowed and ill-fitting.

Mascarenhas depicts this painful paradox in a story titled, ‘So Far Away,’ in which Delilah from Goa visits her sister Clara in Canada. Delilah is awkward, unable to interpret the sounds and sensibilities of Canada. But it is Delilah who is an enigma to Clara’s Canadian-born children. Clara is the bridge between two worlds. She is the cultural broker that has to navigate the nuance between Goa and Canada. Aiden, Clare’s son, finally asks Clara, ‘Why did Delilah come here, Mom?’ To which Clara responds, ‘if one of you were in a nice place, with lots of opportunity, wouldn’t you want your family to be there, too?’. This perhaps underlines the driving motivation for Goan immigration. That despite the challenges, the west is a ‘nice place with lots of opportunity.’ And where opportunity exists, human beings thrive. The success of Goans in the diaspora has been phenomenal. Not only are most second-generation Goans university educated, home-owners, and almost entirely engaged in white-collar jobs, but so many are shaping public life through political and social activism, academic research and writing.

In the end, Mascarenhas’s book is a coming of age story. Aiden, the main protagonist, the Canadian-Goan who populates most of the pages of this book, comes full circle when he visits his uncle Quinton in Goa. It is a trip many Goan children born in the west undertake; a quest to find themselves. As Aiden is leaving by train, uncle Quinton tries to hold on to his hand. ‘He let go when it got too fast but kept running beside the train – and I felt it then. Whatever I’d come here to find. What I thought I’d been missing. Running alongside me.’

Perhaps Goa is always there, existing on the edges, amongst the shadows, a place we inhabit in some inexplicable way, running alongside us Goans in the diaspora.

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Derek Mascarenhas is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program, a finalist and runner-up for the Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, and a nominee for the Marina Nemat Award. His fiction has been published in places such as Joyland, The Dalhousie Review, Switchback, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Antigonish Review. Derek is one of four children born to parents who emigrated from Goa, India, and settled in Burlington, Ontario. A backpacker who has traveled across six continents, Derek currently resides in Toronto. Coconut Dreams is his first book. Coconut Dreams can be purchased here.