When my parents immigrated to Canada in the early 50s, they were determined that we would become ‘good’ Canadians and that meant accepting Canadian culture and practices, no matter how different they were than their previous experiences (given they were Holocaust survivors, that was a good thing). Regardless of their personal history, and the importance of certain religious or cultural practices in their lives, they clearly understood that the onus was on them to acclimatize to their new reality.
To my father, that meant finding out which sports were popular in Canada and learning to appreciate them. Coming from Europe where soccer had been pretty well the only game in town, he knew nothing about the sport he was told was practically a religion in Canada, namely hockey, so he set out to educate himself by watching Hockey Night in Canada every week. Initially, he didn’t see what the fuss was about but then he saw the Chicago Blackhawks playing the Montreal Canadiens one Saturday night and he noticed this very skilful centre for Chicago named Stan Mikita. He watched Mr. Mikita being interviewed between periods and learned that he was born in Czechoslovakia and had immigrated to Canada at the age of 8 when the Russians invaded his home country. And here he was, just a decade or so later, a respected and adored star in the National Hockey League.
My father could hardly contain his excitement because to him, this was proof that being a ‘greener’ right off the boat was no obstacle to success in his newly-adopted county. From that day onwards, he was nuts about hockey and the world’s greatest fan of Stan Mikita and the Chicago Blackhawks. To my father’s eternal disappointment, I became a Montreal Canadiens fan due to peer pressure from my classmates in school, and when Montreal played Chicago, my father and I would be glued to the TV, exchanging insults and critiques. When Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 1961, I saw real tears in my father’s eyes, and when Stan Mikita hoisted the Stanley Cup, my father was so elated I was afraid he was going to have a stroke.
Sadly, my father passed away before Chicago would win another championship but he remained a Blackhawks fan until the day he died. I thought about my father and his hockey passion a few weeks ago when Stan Mikita passed away. I wondered if Mr. Mikita ever knew how much his success impacted eastern European immigrants like my father who saw in Mr. Mikita a kindred spirit and a symbol of the New World’s openness and acceptance (I would like Mr. Mikita’s family to know how much their father meant to people far removed from the hockey rink, and hopefully, they will see this story).
The story of Stan Mikita and my father neatly encapsulated the North American immigrant reality in the 1950s. Whatever their origins, whatever their beliefs or affiliations, immigrants like my parents wanted more than anything else to be accepted as simply Canadians or Americans, not Hungarian-Canadians or Italian-Americans or any other dual identity. They learned the language (or languages in the case of Quebec), they abided disagreeable dictates (such as our having to sing Christian hymns at the start of each school day), they even learned to whine about the weather just like every other Canadian. It never occurred to them to complain if the way things were done in Canada was dramatically different than what they were used to in the old country. They were simply grateful to be able to begin a new life in a country that didn’t penalize them for the wrong geographical origins or religion or beliefs.
Falling birth rates, an aging population, labor shortages; all of these present-day phenomena dictate the need to maintain a healthy flow of immigrants. But as much as the country benefits from immigration, the newcomers must also be grateful for all the opportunities and generosity they enjoy in their new homelands. This is a lesson that was clearly understood by my parents and one can only hope that the more recent generations of immigrants have also absorbed that important reality.
There may be some less-than-perfect political or social situations with which immigrants must contend, and hockey might not become the passion for newcomers that it was for my father, but people coming here should know and acknowledge that there is so much about Canada and the US to admire, respect and embrace.