It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday in September of 2008. I should be sitting behind a worn wooden desk, trying to stay awake in my Grade 8 social studies class, worrying about whatever 13-year-olds worry about. Instead, I’m sitting at the far end of a glossy new conference table in a downtown Calgary boardroom, my flamingo pink notebook opened in front of me.
Across from me are three white men in stiff suits of varying earth-tones, going over their neat pile of highlighted spreadsheets. To my left is my father in his faded work jeans, his fingers intertwined on the table in front of him — which was now fogged under the warmth of his anxiety — pretending to clear his throat.
I don’t remember much about what this particular meeting was about, but do I remember why I was there, so completely out of my element. My father, a white-passing Arab man with a not-so-white-passing accent, had told the men in stiff suits that he lost his voice and that I, his daughter and assistant, would speak for him.
What followed was an hour of my father whispering raspy Arabic into my ear while I “translated” and replied to the men. At one point, one of them laughed as he watched me whisper a translation of what he had just said back to my father, and asked whether he had lost his hearing, too. When we finally got back to our car that morning, I naively asked my father why he pretended he couldn’t speak, and he replied sheepishly, in his once-assertive voice: “Because they’ll think I’m dumb if they hear me.”
Since then, I have been in a lot of meetings like that, and as I got older, I became the voice behind my father’s small business. I sent the emails, wrote the letters and filled out the forms. And whenever my father would meet these ever-important business people in person, I’d watch as the confusion flashed across their faces, wondering how this man’s broken English became so fluent through a screen.
My father is a proud, confident man. As a Jordanian, I think it’s in his blood. He is loud and assertive, and incredibly smart when sailing in the familiarity of our ancestors’ tongue. But there are a few times that I haven’t recognized him as the effervescent man that he usually is, moments sprinkled throughout my adolescence and adult life where he becomes quiet, reserved and complacent. These moments are usually in one of these boardrooms, as he tries to articulate his Arabic thoughts through an English mouth, and is usually met with blank stares and frustration.
To own and operate a small business in Canada is no small feat, whether your English skills are strong or not. And trying to grow that business is even harder, especially with stereotypes and systemic oppression working against you.
Both my mother and father have been Canadian citizens for over two decades. And since beginning their lives together in this country, they have held cleaning jobs, worked in restaurants and even sold blankets in outdoor markets. They did and have continued to do anything necessary to keep our family fed and safe, as is the case with many parents of first-generation Canadians.
And so when my father decided to start his first business, it was to build something that my brother and I could inherit once we got old enough — a safety blanket. Instead, it has proven to be a struggle to survive among larger Canadian corporations with educated white men often at the helm. But unlike some other business owners, my father was struggling to survive in a system that also talked down to him, belittled him, questioned his intelligence and treated him like a second-class citizen.
And while the often-publicized immigrant success stories exist, my father’s experience is the reality for so many Canadians. As many as 22.3 per cent of Canadians belong to a visible minority, according to Canada’s 2016 Census. And as of 2015, small business employers (SMEs) made up 97.9 per cent of the total number of Albertan businesses, and 97.9 per cent in the whole of Canada, according to research conducted by the Government of Canada.
Someone is running these businesses, and they’re not all professional white people. The government of Canada found in a 2005 study that visible minority entrepreneurs are entering the SME marketplace faster than anyone else.
So whether it’s out of necessity or a desire to make it in this country, there are millions of people just like my father all around Canada, struggling to grow their business in the looming shadow of white Canadian intolerance and xenophobia. And as more people immigrate in pursuit of a better life for future generations, that intolerance and xenophobia can either be addressed and worked on, or left to fester and grow.
Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories — join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at email@example.com.