Game Toronto

Game Toronto

Summer in Toronto is not always primroses and tulips. There’s a joke that the region has two seasons. Winter and Construction!

While winter goes in a stupor dodging ice, hail and flurries, summer usually means dodging road blocks and building sites under construction. It’s worse for new immigrants like us who are left scratching their chin on which way to go.

But the city of Toronto had a pleasant surprise for us this summer. For the first time, constructions were wrapped up and roads rolled out like red carpets to welcome the 2015 Pan-Am games.

After an initially sleepy nod, ticket sales sky-rocketed! Canada’s phenomenal performance made it a historical June!

Nothing could take away the renewed sense of pride. There was suddenly more to talk about than poutine, politicians and the hottest “back-to-school” day in ten years!

The city woke up from a long slumber. National news of wilting strawberries in the scorching sun took a back seat. Tax debts were forgotten. Traffic congestion was forgiven. Social media sites were clogged with euphoric noise.

A unanimous wave of national pride commenced with the spectacular opening ceremony. Canada’s first gold medal on the very first day marked it up further.  Local winners like Andre De Grasse from Markham gave Torontonians even more reasons to bring out the flag.

After 16 long years, the country had ended its medal drought in the 100 meters world stage. Thereafter, it drizzled, rained and poured medals of all metals every single day.

The final overhaul of over 200 medals in the largest multi-sport event hosted in the country did it. Spectacular fireworks from the CN Tower outshone the northern lights. The city sprung up for a standing ovation, showered in champagne and took to the streets flaunting maple-leaf t-shirts.

It was not just the rush of medals Canadians won that lit the patriotic fire. It was the spirit of Torontonians themselves.  The city that thrives on fundraising gave the world a glimpse of their extra-large hearts.

The Pan-Am committee sent out requests for 23,000 volunteers. Over 63,000 applicants raised their hands.

The auditorium in each sport was packed to capacity with the “loudest” crowd ever witnessed by overwhelmed participants! Nothing could dampen the elation. Not even Kanye West’s lame finish to the closing ceremony.

Athletes raved about the hospitality of the Golden Horseshoe region (GTA) where the games took place. The audience was applauded for heartily cheering participants from other countries.

CBC news gushed about extraordinary gestures by ordinary citizens: the cab driver who returned a Cuban track athlete’s lost wallet; the bus driver who rushed a Mexican mom to her daughter’s swimming race.

The city sparkled. Construction projects that dragged on for years came to a glorious halt.  The rail link from Toronto Pearson International Airport to Union Station roared to life from June. Streets felt less like the surface of the moon and more like a smooth runway, ready for take-off!

Millions of chests puffed up with pride sparking a new discussion: had Toronto come of age to bid for the 2024 Olympics now?

Over half of Toronto gave the nod. Others are wary. Media sources protest that bidding is a severe dent on resources. It takes $50 to $60 million to qualify for the Olympic bid alone. Could a city on the brink of recession afford it? Would weighed down tax-payers support it? Are we ready for more construction and training costs? Are we ready to trade peace and tranquility for the security measures that the Olympics will demand?

Yes, we have the legacy left behind by the Pan-Am games.  Many facilities are already in place.  If the dollars are well spent, new job openings and fresh inspiration could well create a new chapter for the Canadian economy. As tourism soars, so would flight tickets, hotel and retail sales! Let’s hope it doesn’t cripple us with the price tag.

Canada revels in the diversity of its people. Perhaps it’s time for the country to unify its people now.

The Great Divide

Gay Parade

Gay Parade

Canada claims to wag a stern finger on discrimination of any kind. So even if you are inked green, unsure what gender category you fall under or speak the dialect of Antarctica, legally a landlord cannot refuse you as a tenant, even in an uptight, upper class neighbourhood.

This does not mean there is no demarcation of any kind. New immigrants tend to huddle together and watch their own ethnic television channels in micro neighbourhoods.

There are suburbs where certain races are more visible than others. Brampton is alive with a flourishing Sikh community and the finest Chicken Tikkas. South Asian sweets and savouries outsell Poutine at many turns in Mississauga. For the most authentic Chinese Dim Sum, head north towards Markham. The majority of all immigrants here are of Asian origin. Caribbean, Somalians and Middle Eastern people are clustered in Etobicoke. Similarly, Woodbridge is very Italian.

However, do not be quick to bring out your placards and denounce this residential segregation as racial discrimination.

This division is based more on social, cultural and professional comfort over anything more mean. The familiarity of being with known people lets new immigrants like refugees, the linguistically challenged or those allergic to mundane sandwiches to seamlessly integrate into the Canadian fabric.

Coming back to our own story, neighbourhood selection was not based on any of these.
For us, a location based on commuting convenience was more important than sharing samosas with our brethren. So we chose to camp in the modest apartments of Etobicoke, a stone’s throw away from the Islington subway station, till we could afford something more impressive.

Interestingly, there were more people celebrating Eid in this area than Christmas or Halloween. My daughter went to a school where over 40 languages were heard during the Parent Teacher’s meeting. Toronto certainly was not as “creamy” as we expected it to be. There was a multitude of colours, flavours and textures to the city, each celebrated for its uniqueness.

This is where Canada largely differs from the USA, even though the country is globally dismissed as America’s conjoined twin.

Unlike the USA, Canada is not a melting pot where immigrants rush to shed their ethnic accents in an effort to fit in. Contrarily, Canada has a “mosaic” approach where ethnicity is celebrated.

It is common to see kids attending school in a hijab. You can shop at Wal-Mart in your traditional Indian sari, sit at the local pub in your African Gele head wrap, look for Sushi in your Japanese Harajuku doll-like attire or wait at the subway station exit in a Scottish kilt, without being made to feel like a fish out of water.

Just make sure you wear something under that kilt. The wind is strong here!

If you choose to go without one, or accidentally forget, there is a good chance it may go unnoticed. Toronto is liberal where nudity is concerned.

It is perfectly legal on some occasions and locations to flaunt your butt tattoo.

Go ahead and twerk at the world famous Annual Gay Parade (at your own risk) or sun bathe in the buff at selected beaches like the Hanlal Point at Toronto Island. It’s all about human rights and the freedom to express yourself. Why let a bit of G-string stifle you?

That does not mean that the European settlers have always been this broad-visioned.

They certainly did not greet each immigrant from Asia and Africa with a hug, kiss and free maple syrup. Or go skinny dipping with the Latin Americans in Lake Ontario to feel one with nature. Canadian cultural liberalism is a relatively new trend.

Up until 1966, non-European immigrants were often given the cold shoulder and told to stay put in shoddy social ghettos. It’s only in 1976 that The Immigration Act brush away discriminating policies.

Thankfully for the country, it was these very immigrants who valiantly grew the country’s population and the economy with it, letting no ethnic clothing get in the way of national progress.

The Greater Toronto Area is now said to harbour over 5.15 million residents with immigrants from as many as 169 different cultural origins.

And yet, what is glaring is the absence of the original inhabitants of this beautiful, “liberal” nation. In my entire first year in the GTA, I barely came across any Inuit people.

Somehow, somewhere, in this vast multicultural mosaic, the striking Native American Indians, the original inhabitants of this land, have got lost.

Where were they?

Million Dollar Question

Chap 12A castle on The Thousand Islands

It’s been seven months here in Toronto and I’m often asked if I have settled in well. That’s a million dollar question no doubt. But I stay clueless about the answer.

Is there a month or moment when you are supposed to “settle in well?” Or a time in the day when I should declare “here, I now feel settled”? Does that momentary elation get negated if I feel unsettled a few minutes later?

Isn’t settling in more of a journey, rather than the destination itself?

All I can say is that on good days, I do feel faint ripples of national pride figure-skating through my soul.

It manifests more during the Sochi Winter Olympics screenings on telly. Each time Canada races ahead, we jump to our feet bringing out ice wine. It matters little that we are blissfully oblivious about winter sports and supremely ignorant about the local champions.

The ripples multiply into waves of patriotism when local news brings up familiar faces and places.  There’s a sense of self complacency when we don’t confuse Edmonton (the capital of Alberta) with Eglinton (a street in Toronto/Mississauga) anymore. I am aware that Hogtown is not a colony of pigs but a nickname for Toronto (bet you didn’t know that, eh!)

But my national pride soared to new heights when I came across this million dollar report.

Canada has one of the world’s largest millionaire residents.

Nearly half of these are new immigrants or first generation Canadians.

What’s more, two-thirds of these worship-worthy people are self-made business barons! Very few inherited their wealth!

Nothing can be more inspiring to a newcomer than this.

Certainly we are settling in, well and truly, to a life in sharp contrast to the one we had back in Asia. However long you live in Asia, there is something unsettling about the continent that never leaves you with a dull moment.

Passionate politics keeps life on its toes. Furious strikes fire up people. Frenzy, fun, festivals, celebrations, pollution, traffic jams, maid hassles, driver’s absence, all take turns to keep the excitement and economy alive.

News channels buzz with a million reasons to keep viewership high. High viewership leads to bustling businesses and millions of dollars pouring in to make the rich richer and keep the poor in place.

Even beyond the human race, the frenzy continues. Nature works with an intensity that this part of the world can seldom match. Fiery summers scorch the earth. Monsoons hurl down thunderstorms, lightning and raging rain. Wildlife keeps up the pace with bigger, bolder, fiercer creatures. Tigers, lions, elephants…the jungles are alive with snarling predators!

Contrarily, Canada is gentler, quieter, more soul-settling. The loudest noise in most neighbourhoods is the rustling of leaves.

People go about their daily chores with a stony face or friendly cheer. It’s rare to see fellow humans cursing out loud, bringing out their fist, or throttling each other over a difference of opinion.

Toronto is pristine, peaceful and ethereally beautiful, much like the lake that it sits around.

Yes, we witnessed some of the harshest winters on this planet. But even a snowstorm has the grace of a lady.  The sky blushes pink as if in apology, sprinkling down flurries that soundlessly coat the earth in a veil of white.

Much of winter is dreary and uneventful.  We had a white Christmas, a white New Year’s Day, a white Chinese New Year, a white Valentine’s Day, a white Family Day, and with the way it’s going, looks like we’re on for a white Holi too (Indian spring festival).

Canadian creatures of the wild remain in sync with very few threatening to wipe out mankind. Friendly black squirrels, gentle Humber Bay butterflies, and peaceful doves co-exist politely. Coyotes, racoons and skunks can be cruel, but even these look more like stuffed toys than life-threatening beasts.

Recently city life did get a tad wilder when Rob Ford, the delinquent mayor of Toronto, and Justin Bieber, Canada’s errant export to the USA, made a desperate attempt to keep the country in the news with their antics.

You have to hand it to them. They valiantly salvaged the city from some of its mundane serenity and elevated it to global fame. We sat with bated breath as news channels from the farthest corners flashed the name of Toronto in some context, finally!

‘Fordism’, became a new word defining antics in an inebriated stage.

Not one to lag behind, Bieber followed suit, driving not just his fans but also the police force crazy after him.

However, such cases are few and far between. Toronto and its people remain some of the most courteous, gracious and of course, silently richest in the world.

It’s easy to see why the city tops in immigration listings and takes the trophy for the most multicultural, attracting immigrants in droves from both developing and developed nations.

Unlike Quebec which is known to be more discerning (especially after the controversial ban on selected religious clothing for public servants), Toronto celebrates goodwill. The best thing about Canada in general is that good health, good food and good education combined with safety, security and stability is not restricted to the rich. Once you are PR holder, the government goes out of its way to look after you.

No one goes hungry this country. No one goes uneducated. No one is medically deprived. What remains a stumbling block is a decent job.

But as the Chinese say, where there is crisis, there is opportunity. This is the reason why new immigrants create their own jobs here, often minting millions in the process.

Canada is a money-magnet for the enterprising with a total of about 422,000 millionaires.

The Toronto Star says that over a quarter of these, about 118,000, live in Toronto alone placing it among the world’s top, well ahead of Chicago, Houston and Moscow. In the multimillionaire category, Toronto beats Geneva, Shanghai and Los Angeles hollow. However, there are only five billionaires here. (Blame it on the taxes!)

It’s common to see business barons moving around in private jets here. Luxury boats litter Lake Ontario. In North York that falls under the GTA magnificent mansions line up Bridle Path also known as “Millionaire’s Row’! This is the most affluent neighbourhood of Canada with an average household income of over $600,000.

Others live in opulent castles ingeniously built on The Thousand Islands – a 50 mile archipelago of 1865 islands near Kingston, adjoining Toronto and New York.

It’s hard to believe that some of these little pieces of land dramatically dotted across the lake were sold for as little as $5 each in the mid 1800’s.  

Today, they double up as spare homes for the rich and famous. After Toronto, Quebec is next in line with over 19 per cent of Canada’s millionaires!

What’s more interesting is that a large percentage of these millionaires are single and eligible. According to the Huffington Post, even in this category, Toronto tops with the most eligible millionaires (2,327), followed by Calgary (1,210), Ottawa (988), Montreal (734), and Edmonton (621)!

Which brings us to yet another million dollar question – how did they fill their bank vaults?

It is commonly believed that the money spinning sectors in this country lie in finance, mining, entrepreneurship, technology, software programming, and real estate investment among others.

As the economy woke up, so did luxury homes, condos and a whole new lifestyle with it. Wealthy investors from the Middle East, China, India, USA and Europe have been flocking to the GTA, Vancouver and Montreal to buy homes for work, vacations, renting or selling.  As the city downtown run out of space, the suburbs have opened their doors with housing options that are fast appreciating by the day.

The reason for this sudden growth spurt is the country’s policies that allow not just residents to invest but also make it easy for non-residents to buy property. Now you know why Toronto tops the charts as one of the world’s most favoured destinations to live in, year after year. 

Huh? You think it’s not as bustling as other parts of the world? The winters suck? It’s a pain to get a professional foothold here? True, these are million dollar questions too.

But hey, think of the thousands of “Richie Rich’s” sitting in their castles, cruising in their luxury boats, many of them single and eligible.

Doesn’t that suddenly make Toronto a million times more exciting?

Down in North America

Down in North America

Chapter 11

No, I wasn’t high on Tequila when I drafted out that title. The world hasn’t tilted either. Although with the mercury dipping down to -40 deg C with wind chill in Southern Ontario recently, my sensibility has certainly frozen!

Getting down to the title, let me explain. I have always had a weakness for lamb. Travelling to Europe made me crave for lamb more than ever, especially the tender, young ones.

Stop salivating non-vegetarians! We’re not talking meatballs, kebabs or lamb chops here (however good that sounds!). We’re talking lamb’s wool!

I’ve grown up in New Delhi where winters meant fog, mist, ground frost and cold, damp homes weakly warmed by measly room heaters that often generated more noise than heat.

It was our big, bulky woolen outfits that came to our rescue. A great deal of care was spent in selecting the right wool. Pure wool sweaters, Pashmina shawls and fleece blankets thawed our frozen limbs, both inside our homes and out.

The more the mercury dipped, the thicker our sweaters swelled up till we ended up looking like the sheep themselves. There was no concept of slim fit, lightweight, insulated fabrics to keep you warm.

In the coldest winters, we were gagged behind a ridiculous invention called the ‘monkey cap’ – a woolen cap squashed over your face, thankfully sparing the eyes, literally leaving you looking like a monkey. They came in a range of natural hues from the colour of dried cow dung to fresh elephant droppings.

In all fairness, the ridiculously branded cap worked well to keep out the chill. It’s another matter that it also effectively kept out oxygen, kept in carbon dioxide, kept us from eating and words from sprouting out.

Needless to say, the monkey cap was the first thing to be abolished from my closet once I entered my teens and learnt to declare my human rights.

It was bad enough going through winters being mistaken for a sheep or monkey. It was worse spending it frozen to stone, when you didn’t dress to look like one.

As I grew older and worked on ways to look desperately human through hail storms and fogs, a visit to London opened up my world. That’s where my love affair with lamb’s wool began. Soft, lightweight and delightfully warm, lamb’s wool vests were my ultimate fashion statement. I felt less like a sheep and more like a swan, flying through winters on a high.

Much later on a trip to New Zealand, I upgraded my wardrobe with the prized Merino wool. It was delightful to discover fabric that could keep me snug on the freezing Fox Glacier without adding further pounds to my curry-fed waist line.

Earlier in the 70’s and 80’s, Mink fur was in high fashion but you barely see those today.  I guess the poor creatures are extinct by now, judging by the way Hollywood ran after them then.

My love for winters made us visit our family and friends in Delhi every Christmas holiday from the Far East. We left for Canada from Bangkok via Delhi last year, so I could pack in my treasured lamb’s wool sweaters and immigrated happily to Toronto, comfortable in the knowledge that I was well prepared to brave the brutal Arctic chill.

Winter in Canada didn’t wait for December to knock. Mid-November the mercury plunged down to -3 in Ontario, sending shivers down our spine. To my horror, my glorious lamb’s wool collection did little to keep out the chill. We rushed to the stores to stock up on more but failed to find woolens then.

The malls had leather jackets, parkas, water proof coats, thermals and padded polyester overcoats etc. but not a single sufficiently warm woolen vest. What seemed popular was down instead – duck feather and goose cluster filled jackets.

Only when we invested in the best Canadian goose down coats did we realize the power that lies in wispy feathers.These feathers can decide your fate and future in Canada. If you are comfortably clothed, you can survive and stay on. If not, you’re doomed!

The mightiest feathers are in fact the lightest that come from the soft, wispy bits under the wings and belly of the geese. The larger the goose, the colder the climate they come from and denser the cluster. This is the reason why Canadian geese score hands down over others.

So why is wool not as effective in Canada? Wool works well till the temperatures hover around zero. Once the Arctic winds breeze in, nothing keeps you snug like down.We found our answer once we started wearing our Canada Goose jackets.

Down is lightweight, insulates well and can last for years. Down parkas from premium Canadian Geese couldn’t be a wiser investment.

How do you spot the difference between goose down and duck? That’s easier said than done. It’s tempting to go for the inexpensive duck feather imports from Asia but those are better off as a spare. Invest in at least one down coat with the fill power (cluster of feathers) of 750 or above. A jacket with a  fill power of 500 is bulkier and heavier than higher fill powered ones.

If you don’t wish to feel like a Snowman, go for the highest fill power of about 800. They are light, look good and make you look good too. Nylon or polyester outer layers in down jackets are the most durable and provide better protection from wind and water.

Ducks can suffer from a bit of low self esteem because their feathers are priced lower than geese. This is not just because goose down is lighter, warmer and qualitatively better but also because the poor ducks are more widely available in the USA and Asia.

What is the difference between feathers and down? Everything! Down is 3-D with thousands of tiny fibres and no quill to separate them. Feathers are two-dimensional, have a thick, hard quill in the middle and are less dense. A combination of duck feather and down is more widely available, cheaper and nearly as effective if the percentage of down outweighs feather.

And how is down better than wool? Let’s put it this way. Apparently, it takes about 14 woolen blankets to provide the warmth of one down comforter. There ducks, I hope this makes you feel better!

This winter, with the invasion of brutal cold winds from the Arctic into Canada and USA, we thank our stars for helping us hunt out the best jackets. An investment in the right jackets is an investment in good health. If you have to live or visit Canada in winter, you can’t cut corners and compromise on your coat.

Even in the freezing rain and record breaking low temperatures, we stayed relatively warm on the road. The trick is to layer up to retain maximum heat without discomfort. It is also critical to cover the head, ears, neck, feet and hat with the necessary accessories. Dump the “monkey cap” and go for fashionable toques, hats, scarves, gloves and snow boots.

Tip: Winter is not the best time to update your FB timeline cover with flattering pictures of yourself, unless you get smart winter gear. Stay away from ‘selfies’, hide from hidden cameras and hibernate for as long as it takes with the squirrels till its over. Most importantly, stay away from polar bears. They may mistake you to be one of them.

Mommy nature has certainly put up an unrelenting show to impress first time snow-seekers like me this winter. We witnessed unheard of before spectacles such as “Polar Vortex”, Freezing Rain, Ice Storm, Frost Quakes and Freezing Fog in addition to regular snow, black ice (invisible layer of ice on roads), hail storm, snow storm and ground frost.

(My knowledge of winter lexicon has increased so much now I could easily set up shop as an Ice Consultant in Canada.)

Durability and a water-proof outer fabric are mandatory in such extreme conditions. Although we can’t thank the ducks, sheep and lambs enough for their contribution, unquestionably, there’s only one way to stay totally grinning outdoors when the mercury dips to sub-zero levels. Just say “geese!”

Even as I write this, parts of Canada have recorded temperature levels that are officially as cold as Mars. Winnipeg has hit -53 in certain areas, which is reportedly colder than the planet ‘that men come from’.

This certainly seems to be some kind of a sign. Perhaps it’s time to leave the animals alone.

How about Space Suits instead?

Ice Ice Baby:Freezing Rain in Toronto

The other day I witnessed magic in Toronto. It’s called “Freezing Rain”. Ever heard of it? Before I stepped into Canada, I hadn’t either. It’s brutally beautiful; severely spectacular. Notice the oxymoron? And I feel kind of responsible for the havoc it created. Well, that’s what my Facebook friends swear by! I have to plead guilty!


Freezing Rain in Mississauga – Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ray

Frigid Fantasies

I have to admit that I am born with a manufacturing defect. I dislike many things normal people like. Hot, sultry summers for one. While most sane people dream of sun and sand, my fantasies have wavered around cold, dark and rainy locations!

I have been sighing about snow for instance, ever since I can remember. Since I moved to Toronto, I have been praying feverishly to every divine power for oodles of snow. I did everything short of snow dance with the First Nations people, begging for frosty weeks to quench my fantasy.

I updated my social media sites with pleas for a good shower of snow over and over till the digital energy filtered out into the Milky Way and reached some divine power who conspired with the universe to make it come true. (Shamefaced now!)

Why? Well, I was mid way into my life and had never seen fresh snow, that’s why!

Blame it on all the Bollywood films I’ve grown up on – watching scantily clad nymphets gliding over snow, singing songs. They somehow make it seem that flurries are nothing but soft balls of cotton made of room temperature.

There’s more reason to my fantasy, let me explain. I grew up on Christmas cards that arrived every December from my dad’s British colleagues with graphics of cute kids merrily ice-skating before quaint snow clad cottages. (Pre-Millennial mortals, remember those?)

Snow flakes spell a combination of everything I celebrate – water, winter,  wonderland. Coming from a hot and humid country, the grass is always greener on the other side. When the divine forces came together to make my dream come true, it was more than what I bargained for.

First there were gentle flurries that gave me the first glimpse of a vanilla world.

Overnight our leather jackets gave way to goose-down and fur. I thanked the gods profusely, laughing at my Canadian friends on Facebook for wagging their fingers at me, ominously warning that I had no clue what I was asking for.

Throwing caution to the winds, I strolled through ankle deep snow clicking pictures till I nearly came down with the flu. That didn’t stop me. I took a flu shot and carried on. My honeymoon with snow was on. I basked in the ethereal beauty !

The universe seemed pleased to discover one grateful human and hurled down further blessings to entertain  me. Every day seemed a stage set for different dances of Arctic winter. One moment temperatures hit -16, partnered by piercing  -25 windchill. The next day would be a warmer +4 degrees celcius of sunshine.

There was snow in all colours, shapes and sizes.

White snow, black snow, pink snow, black ice, ground frost, flurries, freezing rain, sleet, ice pellets, hail and of course snowstorms to name a few! As long as you were indoors, it was all beautiful. 

Fortunately, every nook and corner is centrally heated. Back in Delhi, there is no concept of central heating despite temperatures bordering between +2 to +10 degrees celcius. Washing dishes and clothes can be quite a task especially for lower income families with little warm water at their disposal.

Here in Canada, one is not exposed to the bitter cold till you are out in the streets. The flurries increased, and so did my ecstasy.While news channels groaned about the weather, I celebrated every snow flake that came my way, craving for more.

Then one day, without warning, the skies came crashing down with bolts freezing rain. I had never heard of an ice storm or freezing rain before then. There were like sharp needles of rain slicing through the chilly winds, turning to ice like magic, as soon as they touched the freezing cold surfaces. Trees groaned with the weight of crystalline ice, snapped and crashed into electric poles, roads and roofs.

What is Freezing Rain?

In simple words, when rain falls through thin layers of cold temperatures at or below 0 degrees Celcius (32 deg F), it freezes into ice on contact with the colder surface.

It’s not as pretty as it looks, let me warn you! A quarter of an inch of ice can add 500 pounds to branches, bringing them down with the excess weight, causing power outages that are hard to fix. How do you scrape off cms thick snow from  electric wires without the risk of short-circuit?

My enlightenment on the subject came from an escapade that I won’t forget in a hurry.


Iced crab apples anyone? 

Powerless in Toronto

It was in the winter of 2013. I was engrossed in yet another inane American TV reality show well past midnight when suddenly the lights went out. Expecting the generators to spring into action (hey, this is a first world country, right?) I continued staring at the blank TV screen for several minutes more when it suddenly dawned on me that the power was not coming back for a while. It was an outage. I peered out of the window. Much of the city had blacked out.

What came as a shock was that there was no water either. The pumps couldn’t operate without power. Somehow, we weren’t ready for that. In our part of the world, we are more prepared for this so we store water in buckets.

It was then that the perils of a First World nation that is helplessly dependent on electricity for the slightest, dawned on us. Back home in India, we could carry on with our daily ablutions without electricity. Ironically, the more impoverished you are, living close to nature, the more you remain unaffected.

You could cook on gas stoves or better still, coal-stacked clay ovens; wash yourself from buckets stored with water; handwash clothes and dishes without  without much ado. At worst, you simply steered clear of the bathroom till your bladder burst.

Here in Canada, life came to a grinding halt. Our home was on the 30th floor; not a drop of water trickled down the fancy taps. The old, rented apartment did not come with a generator. We were done! How would we manage the night?

It turned out to be a power outage of a scale we could never imagine in a place like Toronto. The next morning, we remained powerless (in every way). We found out much later that over 400,000 homes in the GTA had blacked out that night from the freezing rain.  Some families fled to unaffected suburbs. Others were stranded for a good few days. State-of-the-art electric stoves were useless without a working plugpoint. There was not a drop of water in high-rise homes.  

Outside, an invisible coat of black ice had settled on the roads. One hasty step could land you with a broken bone. Inside, we stood frozen, unable to figure out how long this would take or where we should go.

We had no flashlight handy. Our cell phones were running out of charge. Despite all the snow, ice, frost and the massive Lake Ontario frozen before us, there was not one drop of water to drink.We had to get out quick before the situation got worse.

It was a tough task  climbing down 30 flights of stairs in pitch dark. But with the dim light of our cell phones, the four of us managed.As we stumbled down the stairs to put up the night with friends in Mississauga, a thought crossed my mind.

Ironic how humans create distinctions like “First World” and “Third World”. But it takes seconds for Mother Nature to equalize all.

WEA Eastern Canada Storm 20131222

Toronto Ice Storm – The Canadian Press

New to Canada? Click HERE to prepare yourself for a winter power outage. According to Red Cross, a whopping 41% Canadians have been out of electricity for well over a day. Check out the video below to know more. Follow my blog “Oh Canada!” for tips to live and work successfully here. Join my Facebook Page  for my stories and yours.

SIN in Canada

V sign

Are you a new immigrant struggling for a job in Canada? Here’s a tip. Colour your CV with Canadian experience!

What? You’re from Mongolia and have no prior Canadian experience?

Too bad! Without prior Canadian experience, you shouldn’t have set foot in Canada.

What? That doesn’t make sense to you?

Too bad! It makes perfect sense to the workforce in Canada.

Knock on any door for a job interview and the line up of questions may have you hunting for a psychiatrist – if not for yourself then certainly for the person who is interviewing you.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been in this country for two months or two minutes. The incisive truth is that without “Canadian experience”, job opportunities shut on you.

You may have well been a CEO in an International organization in an impressive city or garlanded with scholarships in distinguished universities, it makes no difference! Most foreign qualifications are declared null and void when you arrive in Canada.

Now you know why resourceful immigrants start off by setting up their own business. It works better to be self employed than look for employment.

The other option is to go for ‘survival jobs’ till you get the right break. We met corporate executives who flipped burgers for a living in their struggle here, doctors who swept homes till they got their Canadian medical degree, engineers who drove cabs and once bumped into an old friend from Asia who turned into ‘Tweety Bird’ to entertain kids till he found a more significant job title.

We know of several others whose situation got the better of them and they fled back to the countries they came from.

Darwin was right. It’s all about survival of the fittest. And fitness does not end with 6 pack abs. It is about sharpening your 6 senses, most especially intuition, to make it here.

Canadian immigration websites have an ingenious way of making you believe that job hunting is as easy as fishing in an aquarium!

They bait day-dreamers with a compelling string of job vacancies. You apply, imagining yourself picking daises in your new landscaped home, zipping around in a Lexus for holidays to the Blue Mountains.

If you are hopelessly gullible, you may expect a red carpet rolled out for you right at the aircraft leading straight into the arms of an ecstatic employer.

What you don’t expect is months of unemployment, days of disappointment and endless unexpected challenges.

Ironically, things that are easy back in Asia can be quite a challenge here. Coming from a country of a billion people, we are used to cheap and freely available labour. Here, if you haven’t figured out how to assemble a closet, fix drain pipes or figure out house wiring, be prepared to go broke or have sleepless nights.

It is only when you’ve stopped believing you were born for a life of aristocracy that things start falling into place.

Back to the job hunt, here’s the truth. It’s easier to find work when you come armed with Permanent Residency status. A PR card qualifies you for the magic word – SIN.

Now stop jumping to naughty conclusions and let me explain what SIN means.

SIN is Social Insurance Number – a nine digit number that allow Permanent Residents to work in Canada and enjoy the generous government incentives and benefits. The SIN card is so important that we were warned to guard it with our lives.

However, SIN or no SIN, till you are armed with sufficient Canadian experience, you’ll be shown the door. Recently I read somewhere that Canadian law has finally declared this practice discriminatory.

Unfortunately, it seems no one else has read this piece of news apart from me!

Foreign work experience is still blatantly disregarded. Canadian experience remains a criterion to find desk space. Ironic that the country that flings it doors open to new immigrants, dissuades them to work once they are in, forcing many to turn back.

The question is why is Canadian Experience such a big deal?

C’mon Canada, most of us are well versed in at least one of your national languages; a good chunk of your citizens are immigrants from our countries; you have a history that starts from yesterday; and culturally nothing much beyond Poutine and Maple Syrup so it really doesn’t take much time to get familiar. Aren’t you taking ‘Canadian Experience’ a tad too seriously?

To be fair to employers, it is a hard task rejecting hundreds of new immigrants looking for work every day. Since the last 22 years, Canada has embraced a phenomenal 250,000 new immigrants each year.

Whether this was done to genuinely provide assistance or garner votes from the increasing number of new immigrants, it is commendable that Canada’s intake is the highest per capita in the world.

Earlier, from 1969 to 1979, immigrants were mostly sourced through UK and Europe. The policy changed when Pierre Trudeau and his Liberals were elected and they opened their door to developing countries.

Canada’s multi-culture policy is based on the fact that there are no founding people in this country. Diversity is the essence and a world-wide campaign helped get immigrants in. Later entrepreneurs were courted to come in for $ 150,000 to bring in much needed funds. It was evident that this was politically profitable as well.

With mass migration, mayhem increased to such an extent that SIN numbers became freely available. There were cases where swindlers had more than one SIN card to claim unemployment welfare. In another case, a resident collected over 50 SIN numbers.

To prove a point about the inefficiency of the system, a Toronto lawyer once applied for a SIN number for his dog. To his shock, he got one.

Coming back to the controversial “Canadian Experience” in these times, perhaps it’s just a polite way to filter candidates without hurting sentiments.

Which comes back to the question – how do we work around this barrier?

After weeks of aimless research we finally found a key. Try your luck through the big “V” – Volunteering.

Volunteering is a word we seldom hear in Asia. Back in India, volunteering meant a badge granting us free entry to events, strut around feeling important, with free snacks at the end.

Here, volunteering goes beyond free food tasting. The Canadian society is centred on volunteering. From children to the aged, every citizen and resident is encouraged to lend a hand to humanity. Fund raising, environmental awareness programmes, wildlife and health care assistance are the norm in schools, community centres and corporations. There is a range of short term, long term, part-time and full time choices.

Volunteering can be both social and professional. If you are lucky, you can find mentors to take you in and train you, till you find your footing and get absorbed eventually.

For a new immigrant, volunteering is an effective way to make friends and blend into the social fabric.

Apart from valuable karmic points for a place in heaven, volunteering allows you strategic brownie points on your CV as well.

Once I opened my mind to the idea, destiny took a new turn. When a volunteering opportunity came my way, I jumped in. The hands on learning experience connected me with the local market and helped me work independently shortly thereafter.

The trick is to be flexible, keep the spirit unbreakable and goal unshakeable. Slowly, the fog lifted and some semblance of normalcy returned after a long time.

While volunteering worked for me, it may not always have a happy ending for all.

Volunteering can also spell exploitation. There’s a fine line between the two. Newspapers frequently report employers taking advantage of volunteers. Students and new immigrants are hired to work without pay for long periods to save costs. That is against Canadian law.

Other than that, volunteering helps you be the change that you seek in your new life. It was good to hold the reigns after a long time.

We had finally entered the workforce, done up our apartment and settled our kids in schools. We could differentiate between east and west in the subway, travel in a bus without ending up in some strange part of town and fix a few things around the house.

It was mid September. Fall was setting in, bringing new colours into our lives. The nip in the air made the leaves deepen to brilliant shades of red.

I stopped counting the stars through sleepless nights and thanked them instead. The festive season was round the corner. We had good reason to celebrate.

Just as we were beginning to appreciate the privileges of our SIN and PR cards in this scenic country, we got a frantic call from my daughter who is studying in Montreal.

She had lost her wallet with everything in it –money and several important cards!


Say Cheese!

Chapter 8

canadian fast food 1

Quick, answer this question! Have you ever heard of a Canadian restaurant anywhere in the world? I rest my case.

We have searched high and low for local Canadian cuisine here but to no avail.

Most people don’t have a clue to what Canadian food is all about. Back in Asia, Canadian food stalls in International School Fairs always looked a bit starved, standing behind a tray full of sad sandwiches, sadder salads and tarts! The full tray usually stayed that way right till the end of the fair.

Ironic that in a country one seldom goes hungry in, there is no cuisine to talk about. While those brimming over with hungry people exhibit the most interesting cuisine. The most popular restaurants here in Toronto seem to be Indian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Afghan, Lebanese, Turkish and Iranian. At the Islington subway station bakery, the hottest selling item is the Ja Patty – a Jamaican snack.

Even USA, a country built by immigrants and Canada’s bordering neighbour, has a stronger national food identity.

True, the food culture is still evolving with the inflow of new immigrants, none of who want to label their ventures ‘Canadian Cuisine’ yet.

Even the original natives of Canada, the First Nation people, couldn’t do much to market their Muktuk (whale skin and blubber munchies) or fermented rodent delights as well as their Mohawk hairstyles and face paint. The British and French remained busy bent over their own plates.

Despite that, Canadians in general seem cheerful. It doesn’t take them much to smile at strangers. It’s common to have the guy sitting next to you in the bus break into a friendly grin and spout verbal jazz on the weather at the very mention of “good morning”! It’s easy to see why. They say “cheese” all the time.

Sounds cheesy I agree, but it’s true! The nation is obsessed with this man-made version of milk. Canadians love feasting on cheese, serving cheese, churning out cheese and taking you around cheese factories. The word ‘cholesterol’ doesn’t seem to have made its way to this part of the world yet! Every second TV commercial worships some kind of cheese, cream or chocolate, very often a combination of all three.

Cheese plays hide and seek everywhere. In soups, over fries, tucked in fruit pancakes, spinach crepes, creamy desserts, leafy appetizers and main courses! It is grated, grilled, melted, baked, creamed, sliced, garnished, powdered and matured in a variety of textures and flavours to keep interest alive.

Did you know that Canada is the largest consumer of Macaroni and Cheese in the world? The Canadian Cheese Directory lists at least 1050 varieties of cheese.

It’s also only in Canada that I heard about cheese-smugglers too. The devious crime happened last year when authorities busted a smuggling racket run by three cheesy men.

Cheese-smuggling? Mamma mozzarella! But really, you have to blame the Canadian government for this dark deed.

Authorities allow only a teeny tiny C$ 20 worth of duty free dairy products into the country! Expectedly, cheese is priced high, valued even more highly and allow interesting career opportunities to crooks who valiantly attempt to help out restaurants by supplying stolen stock from the US.

Sometimes things get even cheesier! Canada holds a Cheese Grand Prix every year since 1998. This year, over 225 varieties of cheese were entered. Only the finest cheeses churned out from Canadian cow’s milk are eligible for this competition. (Sorry buffaloes, goats and sheep! You need to find another country to elevate your efforts.)

This year’s Grand Prix winning cheese was the soft creamy Ricotta that blazed the charts of history by being the first fresh cheese from Ontario to win the award, snatching the title from more revered matured ones.

However, the cheese that has caused the most tongues to wag is the lesser valued, curdled one on the Poutine. No culinary invention has caused as much controversy as the Poutine either.

About a century after Basketball was invented in this country, Canada soared once again on the map with the advent of the Poutine!

1950 was a majestic year indeed. The year marked the reinvention of the potato. It gave the country something to celebrate in future Food Festivals and find sponsors to market at least one edible item from the country.

The story started in the suburbs of Quebec, about an hour from Montreal. An ingenious customer asked for his French fries to be topped with curdled cheese in a take-out bag much to the anguish of the restaurant manager. Fernand LaChance of Warwick was horrified. He protested about the mess it would make but consented nevertheless.

The restaurant eventually shut shop but the messy concoction lived on, taking on a new look and taste as it went along. By the late 1970’s, Poutine, as it was now called, made its way to New York and New Jersey where it was sold with beef gravy and melted cheddar to drunken pub hoppers.

Fortunately, cholesterol had not yet catapulted to villainous stardom in the 70s. The Poutine continued to rule, withstanding further destruction. Italians slapped Marinara sauce on the crispy edges; others went ballistic with bottled barbecue flavours, Allemande topping or chicken gravy. Hungry consumers looking for quick, cheap substitues lapped it all up, although fine diners turned up their noses at the commoner’s food. Over the years, the Poutine became popular with children who took it to the top of the food charts.

No one was more aghast about the potato going places than the local French-Canadians who prided themselves on their gourmet cuisine.

In 1991, Quebec politician Robert Bourassa declined to give his take on a pertinent Poutine-related question on CBC camera. Many other leaders followed suit with a non-committal stance, embarrassed to be even associated with this version of the potato.

Interestingly, ‘Poutine’ that translates to “fries with cheese and gravy” is said to be derived from the English word ‘pudding’. Today, Poutine has been refined and modified into several mouth-melting combinations. Some restaurants in Montreal serve up to twenty five varieties of the Quebec style Poutine alone which is essentially potato fries topped with cold, mostly Mozzarella cheese curds now, drizzled with a hot brown chicken, veal or turkey gravy. The trick is to gently warm the cheese without melting. The temperature is crucial to this concoction, without which the potato fries just disintegrate into a soggy mush.

Canadian cuisine now remains defined by this accidental take-out. Poutine has been elevated to Canada’s national food status.

My kids rapidly switched loyalty from regular French fries to Poutine within a few weeks here. At the Mississauga Square One Mall, the lines at the Food Court often stretch longer for Poutine than American and Asian fast food. Having said that, let me add that Poutine is not the end of Canadian cuisine!

The country offers a sumptuous range of grilled, baked and smoked fish such as the Salmon, Snapper and Cod, fantastic seafood fare and a wide variety of ground, grilled, pulled, baked and smoked meat out of which the Canadian bacon remains coveted.

Did I hear someone say what’s for vegetarians? Hey, c’mon, don’t be so fussy.

Didn’t we talk about 1050 varieties of Canadian cheese here?