More Than 50 Years in Canada
In 2004, the Canadian Malayalee Association recognized me as the first Malayalee still living in Canada. I was surprised; but am accepting it since I have not heard from anybody to the contrary. This makes me feel old; but it is a thought I cherish. In this article, I am pleased to give my biography and early experiences living in Canada.
I was born in Kottayam, completed my high school there and was the first batch of Pre-University at Thevara. I arrived in Halifax on Sept.11, 1958 by travelling in a cargo ship for 21 days non-stop from Kochi with 11 other passengers. I had just turned 17 at that time. I thank God for the good life I have in Canada ever since and have no regrets in making Canada my home.
I came to Canada as a student. Fr. Simon Kottoor who was studying in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at that time and later the principal of Uzhavoor college, secured an admission for me at St. Mary’s University in Halifax with a full scholarship (ie. free room, board and tuition).
I want to give you some examples during my first days in Canada which illustrate the fair, compassionate, accommodating and compromising nature of Canada, and the Canadian people.
We had 64 students registered in Chemistry 1 and in the first class, the professor announced that he only had 60 seats in the lab and therefore four had to go. He first asked for volunteers. Nobody stood up. So he proceeded to administer a test. The next day the results were posted and four people were dropped. In the next class, the professor announced that he did not include any of the foreign students since they came a long way to attend St. Mary’s and therefore should be given a fair chance to accomplish their goal.
The English 1 course was spread over 2 terms. The first term was old English and included Chauser and the Canterbury tales. I did not understand the textbook or what the professor was lecturing about. I heard the word Hamlet mentioned by the professor several times in the first term. I did not understand any of the questions in the Christmas exam. I assumed there must be something about Hamlet and I had studied the story during my pre-university class at Thevara College. So, I wrote the story of Hamlet as my total answer paper. Later, I found out that there were no questions about Hamlet and the professor had emphasized that everybody read the Hamlet story before coming to the second term. I expected a big Zero. However, when the mark was posted, I got 50%. In the next class the professor announced that there was a student who knew so much about Hamlet, he gave him a pass.
My first three years were covered by the scholarship; but it was not sufficient for all my expenses. I had various summer jobs and did some work during Christmas holidays to get additional money. Of course, I could always count on help from the Jesuit fathers at St. Mary’s especially since the son of an eminent parishioner was a Jesuit priest at Darjeeling working with my cousin who was also a Jesuit. They allowed me to make an occasional free phone call to my parents. In those days, we had to book a call and wait; and, when you did get through, the line was often very bad. However, it was a nice of them to do this.
In spring 1961 I received my Engineering diploma from St. Mary’s University. That summer, I worked in the northern Quebec bush for about 12 weeks as a land surveyor helping to lay railway track to Sheferville. The work was hard; but, the money really good. I went to visit New York City and blew most of my savings. There were 2 more years of Engineering studies at the University to obtain a degree. There were no government programs for student loans at that time and I was short of money. However, the Jesuit fathers from St.Mary’s came to the rescue. They let me stay free in the residence for one more year; but made me pay a nominal amount for my food. I obtained a flexible part-time drafting job across the street from the Technical College. Needless to say, I could not carry a full load and took an additional year to obtain my degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1964
Two people from my Halifax days who, I will always remember and am very grateful to are my old boss Mr. Jack McElmon and the assistant to the president at St. Mary’s, Mr. Sterling Dorrance. Both men invited me to their homes on several occasions especially during Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. I would urge you all to show the same compassion to the foreign students living alone. Another person who helped me considerably during my early years in Halifax was my mother. She used to write me every week, which kept my sprits up and perhaps kept me away from mischievous deeds.
Engineering jobs were plentiful in those days and almost everybody had a job before graduation. Some had several to select from. Only 6 out of about 100 who graduated with me did not have a job – all foreigners – myself, two from the West Indies, two Chinese and one from Kenya. This was perhaps due to racial prejudices for employment into professional ranks and may be compounded by the student visas we were holding at that time. However, I must say that I have not come across any direct incidence of racial prejudice during all my life in Canada. The only Malayalees I knew from my early days in Halifax were the late Dr. K.P. George from Kottayam and his wife who went back to India, and Messers Tom Moolecherry and Joseph Kulathinal both followed me at St. Mary’s and currently living in the Toronto area.
After convocation in May 1964, I ventured a move to Montreal with some borrowed money from Mr. McElmon to look for a job. My status was changed to landed immigrant. It was just a matter of going to the immigration office, submitting an application and getting a stamp on your passport the same day. Shortly thereafter I got my first Engineering job with CAE to design and build flight simulators. The following year, 1965, I moved to Winnipeg to work at Bristol Aerospace in the Canadian Rocket Program, which sounded very interesting, and glamorous.
In 1967, nine years after I left India, I returned to home and got married to Kunjumol, a neighbor from Kottayam. She still reminds me of the polyester and terylene shirts that were in fashion in Canada; but terribly hot for the Kerala weather which I wore during that trip. She joined me in Winnipeg in 1968 after completing her MSc. Degree. In 1969, CAE offered me a job and an opportunity to do postgraduate work in Aerospace at McGill. I jumped on that chance and returned to Montreal. In 1972, we went back to Winnipeg to work again on Rockets. Since then, I worked for Bristol in various capacities until my retirement at the end of 2003.
In the meantime, my wife and I raised three children. The first born, Jimmy is now married to Rehna – a Malayalee girl from Bangalore and makes their home in Winnipeg. They have a 3 year old daughter. My second son, Jay lives in Mississauga with his wife Yasmin – a Malayalee girl from London, Ontario. My daughter Sherry is married to Tom Thachet – his dad and I came in the same boat in 1958 – and now live in Chicago with their six year old son and 4 year old daughter. So my wife and I are empty nesters.
Many people ask me what my plans are for retirement. I continue to work as an Aerospace Consultant on a part-time basis. I have a passion for all card games, especially Bridge, and spend a lot of time on it. I regularly attend the Canadian and North American Championships. I have also participated in the North American 56 tournament for the past 5 years and I invite all 56 players to join in this fun weekend event.
The cold weather and snow in Winnipeg is starting to bother me; but Winnipeg is one of the best places to live in the summer and it is my home. I may have to find some warmer place for a few weeks in the winter.
Thank you all for reading to my life story. I hope I did not bore you with it.
Jose Tharayil, P. Eng,
44 Shillingstone Road, Winnipeg