To answer the question “What does it mean to be Canadian?” I go directly to a quote by the great Canadian and musician Gordon Lightfoot: “You just get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you.” The people I’ve met, the sport of hockey and the vibes from my many life experiences have shaped my Canadian identity.
First, I think of Mr. and Mrs. Gray when I think about what it means to be Canadian. My mom, Fay, worked with Mrs. Gray at the Sudbury Steam Laundry. One day, Mrs. Gray overheard her talking about her upcoming trip to Toronto International Airport to meet her three sons, who were arriving from Jamaica. My mom had no idea how she would make the five-hour trip by herself: My dad, Sylvester, was scheduled to work and could not afford to miss his shift. Missing work would mean less money for clothes, food and a roof over our heads.
So Mr. and Mrs. Gray volunteered to drive my mother to Toronto to meet my brothers and me. I was 12 years old, Patrick was 10 and Markel was 8. The Grays even refused to take money for gas.
On the trip to my new home in Sudbury, Ont., I ate a hot dog for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Gray’s treat. The food filled my stomach. Their kindness and service filled my heart. Their helping, giving and welcoming spirit influenced my sense of what being Canadian means — we help ourselves by helping others, I learned.
Our family moved into the upstairs apartment of a two-storey building on 293 Peter Street. I looked out the window and told my parents I was never going outside — it did not look like Jamaica. My parents did not know what to say to me.
I looked outdoors another day, saw kids who did not look like me and told my parents I was never going out there. They both looked at me and, again, did not know what to say.
I heard the kids playing and speaking a language I had never heard and didn’t understand. My parents told me they were speaking French. I told them that the kids didn’t look like me, talk like me or want to play with me, so I was never leaving my apartment.
My world had no door until I went to school.
When the cold weather came, the hockey players came out to play street hockey. My life changed the moment the kids invited me to play with them. I used my landlord’s son’s hockey stick to tend goal. I knew how to catch, block and kick out the ball. I made a few saves and some new friends. I learned a new game and had a few laughs.
I even had a new dream: to be Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens. How I looked or spoke did not matter to my teammates or to me. The only thing that mattered was that I was in the game and on a team. That is the Canadian way.
The francophone kids on Peter Street could have turned on me, or turned their backs and made fun of me, but instead they invited me to play with them and to be like them. I became a hockey player and a Montreal Canadiens fan because of the kids on Peter Street. And kids like them can be found all over this great land.
I became a Canadian citizen in 1975. I cried tears of joy while I sang O Canada. The vibes, those good feelings generated in the moment, took hold of me and became the light shining on my path as I moved forward in a big country with a big heart.
Becoming a Canadian was not an event but rather a process shaped by the positive vibrations of my surroundings. I thank Mr. and Mrs. Gray and the kids on Peter Street for giving me Canadian vibes, and a positive feeling about what it means to be Canadian. It’s about bringing people together to make a better community, country and world.
I lived it, and now I am sharing it.