First Impressions Revisited (Roberto Salazar)

I arrived in Canada on March 26, 1973. I was twenty-one years of age. I came in through the Pearson International Airport in Toronto. I stepped out of the airport building to look around. It was cold. It was really cold. The coat my brother had given me was not sufficient for the Canadian winter, even though it had a sheep skin lining in it. I was put up at a hotel called “Walker’s Inn right on Front St and University Ave. I quickly had to learn that when crossing the streets in Toronto it is not sufficient to look both ways, but you have to wait for the right light signal. In my preparation to come here I had memorized how to say “bread and butter and a glass of milk please”, I thought that at least I was not going to go hungry. I need to say that one of the things I learned from my mother and that I totally enjoy is the art of cooking. In fact I have been cooking since a very young age.. I think I was in first grade the first time I cooked something. I fried a piece of meat for my mother so that she could eat something before she went to work. She was pleased and proud that I did that. Today I still cook for people and the best thing about it is that so far, no one has die because of my cooking. What a fortunate guy I am.

I was advised to take English as a Second Language (ESL), but I declined because that was not what I had come here to do. Two weeks after my arrival I was working. Manpower, currently known as Service Canada helped me to get a job at a plastic factory in Scarborough. Many years later when I went to Centennial College, the campus was around the block from that factory. Life is funny that way. So there I was doing what I came to do, work. Everything was fine; I got my first pay cheque, paid my rent, bought my TTC tokens for the week, and groceries. I ended up with twenty dollars left. I thought, this is not going to work if I want to save money. So, I looked for another job at a hotel, The Sutton Place. I was a dishwasher. My thinking was that as long as I work near food. I won’t have to buy groceries, although, I did keep some food in my place. My cooking was not the best at the time. I landed in the hospital with a gallbladder attack. Back then they kept you in the hospital until they had checked you out completely, twice or so it seemed. I liked it at the St. Michaels’ Hospital, so upon being discharged, I went to the HR and got myself a job at the hospital in the housekeeping department.

There, my English skills took a leap forward. Someone had said to me that it was important to learn how to think in English. So everything I did around my job I said it to the best of my ability in English in my head. Six months after my arrival I was helping to interpret for people who had been here longer. Soon after that I started to work at a transformer factory. There I was the helper to an Englishman by the name of Dennis. I learned a lot from him, in fact, I am very thankful to have met him. He was encouraging and taught me a lot. However, it did not matter how good a job I did, he always said he could do better. That is the kind of attitude to have. I can do better.

Over the course of the years I have always gone to where the jobs are. I remember that we went to visit some friends in Guelph ON. We loved so much there that during my visit I went and got myself a job at wire factory. My oldest daughter was born there. Soon after she was born I was laid off from work. So I started to look for work again. That is how I ended up in Elliott Lake ON, working in the uranium mines. I did that for five years. I found out that I was not as tough as I thought I was. Although, I did manage to be the top bonus maker of the month once, that like all memories is something no one can take away. Another thing that I managed to do in the mines was to injure my back. That did not stop me though. I continued to work finding ways to make enough money to support my family regardless of my back problems. It was around this time that I started to become environmentally conscious. You see, my son was born in Elliott Lake. He was also born with jaundice. This is a skin pigment condition that turns the skin yellow. It is easily cured by intense exposure to light. at least that is how the condition was removed from my son. We did some research on the reasons for this condition and found that uranium radiation/Radom gas were some of the causes. Now the uranium in the Elliott Lake area is quite rich. So much so that all the houses have some kind of device to either remove the Radom gas from the basement or minimize exposure. These devices can be similar to a sump pump except that they remove gas instead of water or another common method of preventing the gas from coming through or at least decrease the rate of seepage was to fill the basement with sand. Anyway, once it was found out that my son’s condition might have been caused by the environment we were in the passion and the allure I felt for going underground everyday started to dwindle. You see there is something very attractive in the fact that once you go underground, you don’t know whether you are coming back up on your feet or your back or if you are coming back to the surface at all period. I guess I am a gambler after all.

We were camping in Wasaga beach. We were pregnant with our third child. At the end of the holiday as we were leaving the campground, we decided that instead of going back up to Elliott Lake. We would go back down to Guelph. So to Guelph we went. Within a week I had found a job. It was difficult to adjust to having to punch a time card again. The five years that I was working in the mines, I did not have to punch in a card. What we had to do at the mine was to hand in our time card to the shift supervisor at the beginning of the shift. The supervisor in turn would hand the time card back to you at the end of the shift. This way if there were any cards left in the supervisor’s time card rack it would be known that someone was still underground. Other things would follow, but I am going to leave that for another time. I lasted on that job for about three weeks. It was chaotic. There was no regard for safety, the job was not challenging. Yes, having worked in the mines changed me. I wanted to be challenged. I was not aware that the biggest challenge for me was yet to come. Within two weeks or so a friend helped me to secure employment with the same company that had laid me off before I went to Elliott Lake, although, it was under a different name. I stayed in that place for about ten years.

Throughout this time I was enduring a fight within myself. Sort of like ‘I know I can do better, but this is all I deserve”. I started to question my behaviour and how I interacted with others. The truth is I was able to be a very nasty, unpleasant person, who always worked hard in order to be left alone. Kind of just tell me what you want me to do and leave me alone. I was fortunate to have always worked in a unionized shop. So I was protected. My work never caused any problems on the contrary I often got praised for my work. It was my attitude that was not liked. I remember when I was in third and fourth grade, the school I was in had a reward system as follow: at the end of the year they would pick the best student over all. Twice I was nominated for the best student and twice I fail to secure the first place. My teacher told me that if I were to behave better I would probably get the first place. You see I was always doing something other than paying attention in class. Usually, I would be reading books that were not appropriate for my age. I remember one book in particular. The story of this book was based in Canada’s north and that people walked a lot in the story. I was often going to what I now call “la, la” land. You know, when you just stared into space, sort of like you are here, but you are not, or talking or drawing, on the rare occasions when I actually paid attention to what the teacher was saying I would be so focused on the teacher that I would not even blink, and a frown would form in my forehead. That way of paying attention got me into a lot of trouble later on in life, especially with people who were not so sure of themselves. I did that for so long and so often that I scowled even without thinking. Now when I am paying attention I open my eyes wide, although, I catch myself frowning from time to time.

It was in my early thirties that I started to change. One thing that has been pervasive throughout my life is the love for reading. In fact, when I have been bored, I used to go a bookstore and browse. I would wait until a book speaks to me, perusal it and buy it if the book captivated me. That is how I found a book called “Healing the child within”. I was taken by the title. And then Bang! The greatest challenge of my life was in front of me. What does it mean a child within? I am a grown man, I am not a child. But I read the book. I did the exercises and that initiated me into a path of self-reflection, self-analysis, self-discovery and self-love. So, I started to feed the “I can do better” side of my inner struggle. I changed my attitude. I read more books in self-help. I studied the bible for a while in an attempt to find peace. There is a lot of good advise in that book. I often argue that if humans were to follow the teachings in there the world would be a better place for sure. That goes for all the religious groups. They all talk about love, but they all have a very funny way to show that love. Anyway, I found that looking outside myself was not helping to find the peace that I was seeking. Then, I started to train in Karate Do (the way of the empty hand). Through this way of living I recovered my self-esteem, my attitude continued to change. No longer I was saying I can do better, I was then saying I can do anything I want. Today, I still say so.

In 1989 I decided that I wanted to visit my native Chile to reconnect with my family of origin. I wanted to do it my way though. So I took my family on a sojourn and I drove down. I wanted three months to do it. My employer denied me a leave of absence. So I told them to keep their job and I left. We made it all the way to Panama. There is an eighty miles stretch of jungle and swamp called the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. There are no roads in that area at all. So in order to cross from Panama to Colombia you have to rent a boat. They wanted way too much money to take us across. So we went back to Costa Rica. We left the van in Costa Rica and took a plane for the rest or the trip to Chile and then back to Canada. That was a definite turning point.

Upon returning to Canada, I had no job and a family to maintain. This time it was harder to get a job. A few months later I was able to secure employment with a company in Cambridge. The job required travelling, so for a year I was working in different parts of Canada, Spain and the U.S.A. I was an International Installation Technician. Everywhere I went I was in charge of a crew. Being away from the family proved to be too painful, a friend of mine helped me secure employment at his working place. So, again I took advantage of a holiday time and I quit the technician job. I went back into a factory. I did not like. I was suffering for the first time in my life I questioned the job that I was doing against my ability to be in charge of a crew. It felt like I had stepped backward. It was not what I wanted. My stress level was through the roof. My back started to act up something fierce. And to top it off and because I would not stop working on account of my back, I re-injured myself. It was a tough time. I was off work again. Right there and then I bowed that I would not work in a factory again. Mind you, working in a factory provided for me and my family for a long time, but now I had a different frame of mind, I did not think I could do better, I knew I could.

Fortunately and working with my doctor and the WSIB doctor I was approved for retraining. So I went through an extensive process. I attended college for two years and became a social service worker. After graduation, it took me four years to secure the position I continue to have. Now I am sixty years old. I have spent most of my life in my adopted home country of Canada. Like everything else, most times I feel welcome, some others, although less and less I feel that I don’t belong, but I am not going anywhere. This is home.

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