Lessons I quickly learned arriving in rural Canada in 1974

As the small town’s only immigrant, I was an outsider who had ‘stolen’ a rare good job

Patrick McKenna: ‘I didn’t know there was no cinema, no pub, and no ethnic community apart from the Chinese family that ran a restaurant at the very end of the main street... I was instantly a “person of interest”.’

Patrick McKenna: ‘I didn’t know there was no cinema, no pub, and no ethnic community apart from the Chinese family that ran a restaurant at the very end of the main street... I was instantly a “person of interest”.’

 

On vacation in Canada in October 1974 I had, by some personal initiative and much luck, finagled myself a job in a small town in rural Ontario. The Canadian consulate in Belfast fast tracked my visa and one bright, Saturday morning in January 1975, Mum and Dad drove with me to Aldergrove airport. Three different flights took me to London, then Montreal, and finally, London, Ontario. An hour or so on the highway and I arrived exhausted, cold and jet lagged at the motel where my employer had reserved me a room.

I knew nothing about the little town where I would work and live. Truth be told, I hadn’t even had much of a look at it. The factory where I was interviewed was outside the town. When the interview wound up at 5pm, evening was drawing on. This was mid-October, after all. Then, one of the managers invited me to his home for supper and by the time I left the town was in darkness and I had to run to catch the first of three buses back to Montreal.

So, I didn’t learn that the town’s population was only 5,000, the average age of its residents was about 60 years, there was no cinema, no pub, and no ethnic community apart from the Chinese family that ran a restaurant at the very end of the main street. This was the small town where I arrived, on my owney-oo, in the middle of winter, to start a new life.

As you can imagine, there wasn’t a great deal that happens in this little town and so, when I showed up, as the first immigrant in a century (I kid you not) and an outsider who had “stolen” one of the town’s rare good jobs, I was instantly a “person of interest”. Of course, I knew nothing about my special status, nor about small town ways, but I was about to learn.

On Sunday at lunchtime I walked to the diner on the main street. The 20 minute walk left me frozen solid, or so it seemed to me. I sat at a table and ordered a burger and fries. The waitress, a lady of a certain age, took my order in icy silence. After five minutes she left the plate in front of me and walked away without a word.

Seeing I had no knife I caught her attention, beckoned her over and asked for one, politely of course. This time, her look left me in no doubt that I had done or said something wrong. What my transgression was, I had no clue. Then, as I ate my burger and fries with my knife and fork, I couldn’t help noticing the funny looks from customers at nearby tables. I had to wonder, “What’s going on here?”

After my meal I paid my bill and left quickly. The atmosphere in the diner wasn’t conducive to lingering over coffee and a slice of pie. I really can’t remember if I left a tip or not. I headed back to the motel room and, traumatised by the cold, decided to stay there. I spent the afternoon and evening with only CBC television for company.

The following day I started my job in the factory. My boss, Gerry, showed me around, introducing me as we went along. As in the diner on Saturday, I couldn’t help noticing that most people weren’t very friendly. Later that day over coffee, I asked Gerry as tactfully as I could about this.

He hesitated for a while and then he said, “Yeah, you got off on the wrong foot with Marge.” (“Who’s Marge?” I wondered. Then it hit me; Marge was the waitress in the diner!) “Some of her nephews work in production. By now, they’ve told everyone how you hogged a table for four, at a busy Sunday lunchtime, instead taking a place at the counter; you asked for a knife with your burger and fries, and then you didn’t leave Marge a tip. Let’s say you’ve stepped on some toes.”

On Tuesday I asked Gerry to drop me at the diner. Inside I perched on a stool at the counter. As Marge passed by I turned around and said “I’m sorry, when I rushed out on Sunday I forgot to leave you this,” and passed her a two dollar bill. She sniffed, but the corners of her mouth softened, just a little bit. When my burger and fries were placed in front of me, I used my fingers like everybody else. As I got up to go I made sure everyone saw me leave a tip.

The next day at work, I enjoyed some friendly nods and greetings: “G’day buddy, howsit’goin’?” I nodded, “Yeah, just fine, and yourself?” I’d just learned how, in a small town, news travels fast, very fast.

That night in my motel room, just before I went to sleep, I thought to myself, “I’ve only been here for a few days and I’ve learned so much already. I have a feeling I have a lot more learning ahead of me.” Indeed, I kept learning about life in my little town until I learned it was time to move on. Soon after, by a stroke of luck, along came a job offer that pulled me through the looking glass into Montreal.

I arrived in the Francophone city of 3 million, which was multicultural and multiethnic, with a shiny new language law and upcoming separation referendum. Montréal could not have been more different from my little town. It may at times seem disorganised, even chaotic, but always human and warm. It was, and still is, “my kinda town”. Even after 37 years, I’m still here, and still learning about my beloved, adopted city.

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