The Gift of Multiculturalism

  • October 31, 2022
  • Yasmin Visram

The Gift of Multiculturalism

The Gift of Multiculturalism

Fifty years ago, today I arrived in Canada as a refugee.

My family arrived at Longue-Pointe Canadian Forces Base in Montreal on October 31, 1972, on one of the last few Canadian chartered flights carrying refugees from Uganda. The next day the Canadian government would send me and my extended family to Leamington, Ontario, where we were “settled.” This was the beginning of our life in Canada.

My family was expelled from Uganda, along with 60,000 other South Asians, by military dictator Idi Amin Dada. Idi Amin was notorious for his cruelty and his erratic behaviour. He had given himself the title of “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” and once declared himself to be the world’s best politician. The idea of the ethnic expulsion came to him, he would say, in a dream. The South Asians were sabotaging the Ugandan economy and they had to go. They were given 90 days to leave and could take with them only what they could carry.

By the end of the 90-day period, Canada had chartered 31 flights from Uganda carrying 4,400 refugees to safety. Several thousand more displaced Ugandans arrived in 1973 and 1974 – many from refugee camps around the world. This would mark the first time that Canada had accepted so many non-European immigrants and it would put the government’s year-old policy on multiculturalism to the test.

Like most of the families that had been expelled, my family lost everything. Homes, businesses and any savings were confiscated by the Ugandan government. Those leaving could take few valuables and many were strip-searched for cash and jewellery at the airport. By all accounts, however, we had gained more than we had lost. We were accepted quickly and generously by a country where ethnic diversity and pluralism were encouraged. Our family had not been subjected to any violence and we had stayed together. We counted ourselves as lucky.

The bargain was not an unequal one; Canada was lucky too. The thousands of South Asians who arrived as refugees in 1972, as well as those who arrived as immigrants in the decades that followed, have made Canada a better place to live. This community – my community – and our families born and raised here have made contributions to this country far beyond what could have been imagined 50 years ago. We are your co-workers, employees and business owners. We serve as community advocates and philanthropists, nurses and doctors, teachers and students. We are celebrated actors and artists, renown journalists and award-winning authors. We have been elected to every level of government, appointed to the Senate and sit as judges across the country. And yes, a few of us are even lawyers. Most importantly, we are your neighbours and friends. We are Canadians.

In the weeks after Idi Amin announced his infamous dream, then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau made a commitment to help the expelled South Asians. Canada, he said, was prepared to “offer an honourable place in Canadian life” to those refugees in need.

Thank you, Canada, for that gift. It has served us both well.

Yasmin Visram is Senior Managing Counsel at iA Financial Group (Industrial Alliance), where she works with a group of talented and collaborative lawyers who provide strategic legal advice within a highly regulated industry to a broad cross-section of business partners. She is responsible for managing the Toronto legal team of iA’s law department and external counsel across the country. She has been recognized with the 2019 Canadian General Counsel Award for Litigation Management and included on the 2020 Legal 500 GC Powerlist Canada.