Canada, the Great Mythical North American Land Became my Home
Name: Gwynfor Richards
Occupation: Professor, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Brandon University
Country of Origin: Wales
Current City: Brandon
Dr. Gwynfor Richards is a professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Brandon University. He is married to Gill with one daughter who is 30 years old; his daughter is a doctor in Winnipeg and married but no grand kids yet :(. He was a professor at the University of Wales for 2 years before coming to Canada. He was born in Cardiff, the capital City of Wales. He has three brothers all of whom still live in Wales; his mother is 90 years old and in Wales.
I didn’t think my story was anything. I thought I was a privileged immigrant and I am. I met an elderly lady who came from Britain 30 years before me and she told me the same thing. ie she is a privileged immigrant and her story is not special. I however listened to her story and my jaw dropped. People do not think their story is special, when in fact everybody’s is.
I am a son to a war veteran – basically, I am a war baby born in the 1950s from Wales. Education was the key to advancement and the man I am now. My father is Welsh and spoke both English and Welsh fluently, as do all members of the family. My grandfather was a seaman and grandmother was a business woman. My father had no educational background as he left for war at the age of 15 years; the same age my mother left school because her parents could not afford to send her school.
My other parts of the family were coal miners from the South Wales Coal Fields and were part of the immigration to the industrial areas in the mid-1800s. Coal mining was required then for the expansion of the British Empire and that led to the immigration of people into the coal fields. This area was heavily industrialized, the conditions and the poverty was beyond description.
My wife’s side of the family was a working class family and used to live in a caravan in the 1950s, and here we are two generations on and our daughter is also a doctor. My eldest brother was the first one to go to university. It was a remarkable thing as going university was considered an unusual thing from our area. My brother is a very clever and smart guy, he is a linguist, and he studied Gaelic languages. I was the second one in our family to go to university and it was such a huge thing for my parents.
You know, when I look back at my background, my great-grandfather was a gardener at a manor house in the village where he lived and now his great-great-granddaughter is a Medical Doctor and it is such an amazing transition.
I had my Bachelor’s degree in Abstract Mathematics from the University of Wales and then did my Masters in Applied Mathematics at the University of Reading where I had moved with my girlfriend. Finding accommodation then was quite hard because we were not married. We needed to get married to find a flat so we bought some rings from the market and we pretended to be married; we felt shameful but we needed to find a place to stay. My wife was working in London so she commuted every day from Reading until I finished my Masters. Upon finishing my Masters we decided to go back to University of Wales to pursue our PhDs. I quite luckily and got lectureship which was my entry into the academic world.
What made me move to Canada?
I was 25 years old and I had finished my PhD and had become a lecturer during Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Margaret Thatcher slashed the universities and I was way down the ladder going nowhere with little pay. I expected more and I was quite good at what I was doing. I looked at my low wage there was little job security. I looked at the people ahead of me and I said to myself, I do not want to end up like them in 5 years’ time.
You know at that point in life, around mid-20s+, any slight decision can change your life forever. The changes can be very positive but also negative.
One Thursday afternoon at work, I turned up for coffee when I usually do not go and somebody mentioned someone from Canada had asked if anyone was looking for a job. At that moment I didn’t think much of it, it entered one ear and went of the other, but in the evening I thought I might respond to it. The person who had came to our faculty and asked was none other than Dr. Anderson who was on sabbatical, with Dr. McMaster visiting him. I submitted my Resume and the following morning and I got a response back saying “see you on Saturday morning for an Information Session.” Off I went and a week later I got a job I didn’t think I was applying for. At 25, I signed the contract and came out to Brandon in August the following summer.
How did it feel leaving your country?
I was leaving the university and town I had been at for so long; I had done my undergraduate and post graduate there. I was leaving family, wife (yes, before I left, we got married for real this time) and friends at the same time. As I was leaving, I turned back and looked at the bay, the town and I burst into tears because I knew I wouldn’t be there again, and I wasn’t for another 7 years until I returned to that place.
The journey to Canada
In 1982, I flew out of Heathrow and the security then was just a metal detector you walk through and that was it then, nothing more. There wasn’t the worry as there is now days. I arrived on top of Quebec and saw North America for the first time and it was quite impressive. As we neared Toronto, the feeling was so surreal; there I was above this great mythical North America land which I have heard of and read about.
I landed in Toronto and I was pulled into a room for interview to know where I was from, where I was going, and how I got the job. I had a very pleasant experience with the lady who interviewed me. We had a good conversation; I find it not so pleasant now days.
I remember the guy in front of me was Arab and they tore his luggage apart; it was quite humiliating and I couldn’t understand why? When my time came, I opened my suitcase and waited for the same treatment as the guy before me but they waved me through and there I was standing in Canada. The immediate difference was the accents but the airports did not look that different. My flight from Toronto to Brandon was another awe-filled one. We had a stop-over in Thunder Bay, but on my way to Brandon it hit me how big a place Canada is. Above Lake Superior, I thought this is outside my realm of experience and I said to myself, “you came out here to give yourself a shock; well this is it.” There was the infinity of the horizon and flat land going on for ever. You would never see the horizon of the land where I come from because it is hilly; you just don’t see it and I had never seen the horizon.
When we approached Brandon in the aeroplane the sun had set and there was this sea of darkness going from one horizon to the other, with the lights of Brandon right in the middle of it. I remember I said to myself, “what the bleep bleep have you done?” – I did! I did say that to myself.
On arrival, I was greeted by two sets of people: my wife’s relatives from Wawanesa which we thought were in BC or Ontario and we looked at it on the map and it was just outside of Brandon. Then, there was Dr. McDonald from the university. I remember I was flabbergasted. I greeted my wife’s relatives and made plans to visit me the following day. As we were driving to the university, I found driving on the right hand side very unusual.
I was put up with Dr. McDonald and he asked me to go for a walk, it was time I had walked about in North America. The first thing that struck me was every house was different and detached which was very different from where I came from. Mostly we had semi-detached, ie duplexes, and terraced (ie row) houses, except for the rich then.
Challenges in my New Life
I finally rented a house and there was no furniture apart from one single chair, I had bought at a yard sale, and a sofa bed. I only had one pot I used to cook in. I still have that chair 35ys later.
It was August, I went into the university and there was nobody in the department for two weeks as they were away for holidays. I nearly went home to Britain, but I didn’t. I then started teaching in September and it was an education system I was not familiar with. I was not familiar with the idea of taking course units or how the lectures were put together. I had no idea what a GPA was. People talked about this mythical thing called a GPA and there was no internet to look it up and I was too vain to ask. I worked till Christmas, three months later, to know what a GPA was.
Even though I spoke the language, I still had linguistically difficulties. I had difficulty with a multitude of things you take for granted, eg how the banking works and how shops are organised. I also had cultural differences mostly with norms like greetings and what was considered an insult or a compliment. Because I was young and brash I was able to learn from my mistakes, I was also shameless and difficult to embarrass
I started missing my wife and I got homesick from time to time. If you have never been homesick, it is difficult to describe it to anybody. It was really hard at first, but wonderful when my wife came. I finally got over my homesickness but the spells continued on and off. I missed my mother’s cooking, chocolate bars and the beer.
The first year in Canada was terribly hard; the winter was very harsh and here we are 35 years on and I still find it harsh. It is not so much the cold but the length of it.
Being new in an environment some people might be prone to bullying and I was vulnerable to it, and because of this façade of civility it is sometimes hard to see. I was taken advantage in my early years. This happens to everybody new; there is some vulnerability that some will take advantage of and it was disappointing to see but is part of human condition. I was however young, tough and eternally optimistic. Having said that, I found the vast majority of people wonderful.
There are things I missed from home, my family, the hills, the scenery, the sea and the sound of the waves; although, I never liked the beach much, I was always aware it was there. But, there was some other thing I was missing; I couldn’t figure it out and it took me four years to figure out what it was. It was something you wouldn’t think of. It was one April morning, I was standing outside in the first rain of the year and I remembered that I had done this every single year. It does not rain here from November to April; it snows and where I come from it rains all the time. I thought about how one gets conditioned where you are from.
How did my decision to move affect my life?
I left my country because of job insecurity and not wanting to end up like my more senior colleagues. Now here I was in Canada with a good job and a standard of living higher than I imagined – much higher than Britain. For my first paycheck I thought I was paid too much, I looked at my paycheck and went “Oh my God, they made a mistake”. But it was in fact correct, I realized then I had more money in my pocket than I have ever had before. The houses on the market were now affordable and I had stability with a chance of a good lifestyle. It was such a wonderful feeling, something I did not feel in Britain until I came to Canada. I had done relatively well compared to the life I would have lived in Britain.
I bought the beautiful house which I had seen during my walks and I bought it very easily. I just came from Britain where people lived in terraced houses; comparing the prices of the houses, I have been able to live such a good life because of that difference.
I got tenured very quickly after three years. I now had a permanent job, I was very pleased.
After three years, I went back home to visit my family and there was so many changes. I noticed police with guns as the coal miners were on strike. It was my first time seeing people with machine guns. I also noticed how my country was dirty and poor and I found it rather shameful and sad that I had looked at my country relative to Canada.
I did not go back to Swansea till after six years in Canada for Sabbatical. We had our daughter then, our first born. While in Swansea, my wife and I had a decision to make on whether we were going back to Canada or staying in the UK. We decided on coming back to Canada for good.
Going home was always something I looked forward to. Getting off the plane at Heathrow and catching the bus to Reading, a town I know very well. I then get on the train to Wales. At the entry into South Wales is a bridge called the Seven Bridge, it takes you from England into Wales. As soon as you pass the Seven Bridge, you eventually pass a sign with a big dragon and the words, “Croeso I Gymru” which means “Welcome to Wales” – I say “I am here … I am home”; telling that story is emotional.
One thing I noticed whenever I went home is the sense of rejuvenation. The feeling of me immersing myself in the culture, going with my brothers to the pub, driving to the countryside to the places I was familiar with; going to the sea; going to the places I used to go to; seeing people driving on the left hand side of the road and buying the chocolate bars. I miss home less and less with time, going home is not as special as it was before. I still however think of my home and my youth from time to time.
On homesickness, you need to go out and do things to get your mind off things. Never forget where you come from and pass your culture onto your children