‘I’m moving to Canada’: the cops, pop stars and athletes who made good on the threat

From the female squash champion fleeing the Taliban, to the gay popstar who became a hit back in macho Brazil, its often Canadas newcomers who can tell its most dramatic stories

The cliched threat to move to Canada because of political unpleasantness in your own country entirely hypothetical unpleasantness, of course (cough trumpfaragelepen) often seems empty. Its like a stroppy kid saying hes going to run away from home, to which the standard parental response is: Be my guest.

For the British loyalists who fled the US revolution, however, or the tens of thousands of black slaves who travelled via the Underground Railroad, or the roughly same number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, Canada has long been a place of refuge.

Nor is emigrating to Canada just about escape. The countrys particular combination of social tolerance, relative gender equality, collaborative cultural spirit and 4.7 quadrillion trees have attracted global emigres for as long as Canada has been an independent nation. (One hundred and fifty years next 1 July, but you knew that.)

Equally cliche, perhaps, would be to suggest that each brings a story. But weve found a handful of genuinely remarkable ones. Chris Michael

The athlete

Maria Toorpakai, Pakistans top female squash player

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Nobody knew that I was a girl … Maria Toorpakai, who lived as a boy for more than a decade. Photograph: Lorne Bridgman for the Guardian

It doesnt take long to track Maria Toorpakai down in the Toronto financial district club where she now trains. Everyone nods to the squash courts where the 25-year-old has spent the morning.

It hasnt always been so easy to find her. In 2007, death threats from the Taliban forced her into hiding. Confined to her home in Pakistans Waziristan region for more than three years, she spent hours each day playing squash in her bedroom, turning the walls into a makeshift court.

Although she was only 16, much of her life had already been spent at war with the entrenched gender roles of her tribal region. Women are considered weak, not smart and [are] confined to four walls, says Toorpakai.

Her first attempt to challenge this idea came at the age of four when she burned all her dresses in the backyard and lopped off her hair with a pair of sewing scissors. She braced herself for her fathers reaction. Rather than him getting angry, he just laughed and said, Your name is Genghis Khan from now on.

For the next eight years she lived outwardly as a boy.

She developed a reputation as tough, challenging boys to fights. And it was when, aged 12, one of these fights landed her in hospital that her father looked to the local sports arena for an outlet for Toorpakais energy.

It was there that she fell in love with squash. I just liked the way the kids were playing, everybody was watching them, clapping and theyre jumping, diving, getting the ball the rackets are so beautiful.

There was a moment when, after years of living as a boy, it seemed as if the jig might be up. Signing up at a squash academy, her father was asked to produce Toorpakais birth certificate. He took a gamble, saying, This is my daughter, actually. The academy owner surprised them with his reaction: He said: Im so happy that finally a girl is playing sports here, and handed her a brand new racquet emblazoned with the name of Jonathon Power, then the worlds top-ranked squash player.

Toorpakai spent hours each day on the court. The only female player in the region, she attracted constant scrutiny. She endured leering and bullying, but focused instead on winning tournaments. She climbed to the top of the countrys junior national rankings in 2005 only two years after she first picked up a racquet.

But with success came unwanted attention, and thats when the death threats started. The Taliban was active in the region and she knew the threats couldnt be ignored: Some of my family and friends, they were kidnapped, some were killed.

She confined herself at home for safety, but did her best to keep training, pausing only to send emails around the world, offering her services as a coach in exchange for a place where she could train without fear.

One of her few replies came from Power, the man whose name was inscribed on her first racket. Retired and teaching squash in Toronto, he told her he had been to Pakistan and offered to help. It was unbelievable to know that someone like Jonathon Power was sending me a message. A world champion.

She landed in Toronto in March 2011. Power met her at the airport. Everyone just received me with so much love. Right away we started playing, figuring out my training schedule. Five years later, Toorpakai is Pakistans top-ranked female squash player.

Off court, Toorpakai now shares a home in Toronto with three friends and relishes a life of squash, cooking and the occasional movie. Out of the whole world, God chose Canada for me, she says. But while Canada is where Toopakai found the freedom to play, shes adamant its Pakistan she represents in competition. Squash one of her homelands most popular sports has become a medium through which she can push for change in how women are seen and treated. If I keep playing for Pakistan, then I can inspire many girls, she says. And they can believe in themselves.

Ashifa Kassam

The adventurer

Graeme Dargo, one of the last Bay Boys

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I had visions of fir trees … Scottish-born Graeme Dargo learned to grade furs and negotiate with trappers. Photograph: Lorne Bridgman for the Guardian

On a February morning in 1981, Graeme Dargo stood in the middle of a frozen lake in northern Saskatchewan watching a three-seater plane take off without him. A suitcase with all of the belongings hed brought with him from Scotland was all that stood between him and the wilderness.

He took off and Im going, Holy shit, what have I done? says Dargo. But this was part of the big adventure exactly what Id expected.

Though he didnt know it at the time, Dargo was in the last cohort of a centuries-old tradition: recruiting young Scots to staff the Arctic outposts of the Hudsons Bay Company. Dubbed Bay Boys, these experience-hungry men worked the backbone of stores that supplied Canadas most remote settlements.

Dargo had graduated at 16 in StAndrews the so-called home of golf and embarked on life as a butcher. Then at 21, just as he was growing dissatisfied with his job, he saw a newspaper advert for young people to work in a company of adventurers.

I had visions of fir trees and big lakes, and a very nomadic wilderness kind of life, says Dargo. Almost like a tourism ad for the Rockies.

The small plane actually deposited Dargo outside the Chipewyan-speaking community of La Loche, Saskatchewan, where despite never having previously seen a gun he took up hunting, fishing and trapping with his aboriginal co-workers.

At the time, Hudsons Bay still North Americas oldest company was the largest purchaser of furs in northern Canada. Dargo would pay a hunter-trapper an advance to cover ammunition, traps and supplies, and the man would return from a season of travelling with large sacks of furs. Dargo learned to grade the furs and negotiate a price.

The European fur ban changed all that. It was devastating to the local communities. Dargo recalls the day an old man entered the store, laden with bags of fur, and Dargo had to tell him they wouldnt buy it. He says, How can I pay my bill, then? How can I feed my family? Oh, it was awful. I felt really badly about that.

Meanwhile, he was doing everything he could to become more Canadian. Curling came naturally to him, and he took up ice hockey despite not knowing how to skate. After clinging to the boards for the first season, Dargo finally got the hang of it and scored a few goals.

All his efforts paid off in the Inuit hamlet of Kimmirut, when a judge brought him in front of the community and naturalised him as a Canadian citizen.

After nine years with the Hudsons Bay, Dargo joined the territorial government and embarked on a career that saw him become a deputy minister within just 10 years. Maybe this is a Scottish thing, but I took the words civil servant seriously, he says. Still, I was also an entrepreneur by nature. He now works with a gold mining company to help prepare indigenous people to share in the employment benefits of development on their land.

After 35 years in Canada, Dargo is a northern man, but Scotland still has a place in his heart. This week, Im on vacation pursuing a traditional Scottish activity on the land: chasing a little white ball, he says. Some things we dont lose.

Jessa Gamble

The pop star

Meg Remy, aka US Girls

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I grew up with guns, so it all felt familiar … Meg Remy

In the spring of 2010, Meg Remy now better known as the solo artist US Girls was living in Philadelphia and anxious for a change of scenery. In the barely post-recession climate, Remy could already see the seeds of Trumpism. I could feel it coming on, and I knew I wanted to go.

Something like fate intervened when she was invited to perform a gig in Halifax, Nova Scotia, though she nearly didnt go. Thank God I did, she says. I walked into the club and Max [Turnbull, the pop psych musician who performs as Slim Twig] was performing. For six months afterwards, they kept up a long-distance relationship. But we knew it was right and we didnt mess around.

That fall, she wrangled an artist residency at Gibraltar Point, on bucolic Toronto Island. It was amazing to be on this island where you could see the city, but you were removed from it. I was blown away that that place even existed. On Boxing Day she made Toronto her permanent home.

Beyond love, Remys decision to relocate north rests on the classic trifecta of Canadian qualities: gunlessness, healthcare and arts grants.

On guns: In Chicago, a pregnant 21-year-old woman was shot in the back of the head outside my front door, dying instantly in her pink velour track suit. And one time in Philly, I was at Kinkos making copies and some guy came in to fax something. When it came time to pay, he pulled a gun and was like, Im not paying. Then he walked out. It was for $1.70 or something. But I grew up with guns, so it all felt familiar.

On health care: I would meet people from Canada and be like, So you can go to the doctor? Oh my God, thats so civilised. When people in a society accept that, it comes with a whole lot of other stuff. Because that means that you fundamentally care about other people. It seeps into all other areas.

On grants: When I started getting interested in making videos, I got a Toronto Arts Council grant to make a short film. I had an idea, but didnt have the money. I submitted my proposal and got it, which was pretty amazing because I wasnt someone with a film career or anything. I was just a person with a good idea.

Canada had another curious influence: the experimentalism of her earlier musical recordings gave way to overt nods to midcentury American pop classicism. US Girls began to embrace the sounds of Motown and girl groups, albeit refracted through a sensibility that brought to mind David Lynch, Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley.

A case of clarity through distance, perhaps. But this shift in her musical identity also fits with the argument made by John Murray Gibbon in his 1938 book Canadian Mosaic. Gibbon wrote about how nurturing cultural differences could be done in service of the federal whole thereby laying the conceptual groundwork for the future adoption of multiculturalism as government policy under Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. The idea contrasted with the much ballyhooed ideal of American assimilationism, the so-called melting pot so by this measure, in being more American in her music, Remy is paradoxically being more Canadian.

Her move to Canada has also opened her up to more collaborative ways of making music. Her sound today, she says, is the result of falling in with a like-minded crowd. They were so in line with my taste and so willing to help me, that it was just a weird freak thing. Now Im making a modest living off of music, and I owe that hugely to all the people Ive worked with in Toronto.

Her last record, Half Free, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polaris prize, and her next with Toronto collective the Cosmic Range is set for a 2017 release. Soon after that, if all goes to plan, the US Girl will officially become the most unlikely of things: a Canadian.

Daniel Vila

The police officer

Garry Woods, ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary

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Policing in Northern Ireland was more like being a solider … Garry Woods. Photograph: Colin Way for the Guardian

As the son of a police officer during the Troubles, Garry Woodss childhood in Belfast wasnt exactly carefree. He had certain privileges a good school, a nice home but with them came a life of constant vigilance.

I wasnt allowed to go near our car until my dad had checked it first, he says. I couldnt answer the front door. I couldnt tell anyone what my dad did for a job.

But when youve never known anything else, thats normal.

Thats one reason why, after university, he decided to follow in his fathers footsteps by joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Youd put on the uniform and be a target, he says. But I wasnt scared. It was exciting, in a perverse kind of way.

He served for 14 years. After the end of the Troubles, however, Northern Ireland didnt need as many police officers. Many were directed toward retraining and transfer programs, and one day Woods attended a seminar selling the dream of Canada.

Woods didnt fall for the promises, which included big jobs in major cities, but it did sow that seed of curiosity, he says. In 2003, he went on a holiday to Toronto, followed by a separate visit to Calgary – where he walked into police headquarters and asked for a job. I loved Calgary, still do, he says. I love the big sky. The sun was shining the entire 10 days I was here, and people were so friendly and helpful.

Woods was, in fact, part of a wave of immigrants hired in the early 2000s by the Calgary Police Service to help deal with the citys booming population. Calgary poached more than 120 officers from Britain, which was targeted for its common language and similar training.

Policing in Canada was a revelation. For a long time, Northern Ireland was the most dangerous country in the world to be a police officer. Policing there was more like being a soldier, he says. In some of the areas we went to calls with a minimum of eight police officers. We had soldiers backing us up on every call. Checking under my car for explosives, being armed 24/7, not telling anyone what I did for a living … My normal was a heightened state of alert.

On one of his first days with the Calgary Police Service, colleagues offered to drive him through the citys roughest neighbourhood. They drove and drove. Finally Woods asked when they were going to get there.

Weve already gone through it, they told me. And I thought, thats the worst theyve got? Thats not that bad at all.

Woods is now a constable on the diversity resource team, building relationships with Latin American and Caribbean cultural groups, and giving presentations to new immigrants like he once was – talking to them about Canadian law, driving, domestic violence, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other aspects of life in their new country. These are people who may have had negative experiences in their former country with the police, he says. Im here to show them that a police officer is just another person.

Shelley Boettcher

The advocate

Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan Kurdi

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Here, you have a voice, people will listen Tima Kurdi. Photograph: Tyler Stiem for the Guardian

When Tima Kurdi first arrived in Vancouver in 1992, a time in her life that now seems impossibly remote, she was confused: where were all the Canadian people?

She had moved from Syria to be with her new husband, and everywhere she looked around their apartment complex, at the printing press where she worked nights she saw immigrants like herself.

Her boss at the printing company was the first white Canadian she got to know. She said to me, Im going to teach you 10 words of English per night. Their friendship was a revelation: they shopped together, got to know one anothers family. I felt welcome. You can be yourself [here]. No one will impose You must be this kind of Canadian on you.

Such openness reminded Kurdi of Damascus, where her large, tight-knit Muslim family had belonged to the Syrian capitals multicultural middle class, and had lived side by side with Christians, Jews and Muslims from different sects. We knew their culture, they knew our culture everyone was different and it didnt matter. It was beautiful.

Even years later, when she was well-established as a hair stylist in the quiet suburb of Port Coquitlam and was raising a son He speaks English, Arabic and Kurdish: a good Canadian boy she still talked to her family in Syria nearly every day, and missed Damascuss lively social life.

It was on a visit back there in 2011 that Kurdi first saw news of the clashes between protesters and the Syrian government on TV. At first, she says, no one was taking it too seriously. When checkpoints sprang up around the city, Kurdi started to worry but she returned home to Canada as scheduled.

Then all of a sudden boom. My relatives started to witness terrible things.

The civil war broke out in earnest. Her brothers and sisters soon fled to Kobani, near the Turkish border, then to Turkey itself.

From Canada, Kurdi helped as best she could. She secured them places to live in Istanbul, away from the refugee camps, and subsidised their rents. In 2014 she visited, and was disturbed by what she saw. Her 13-year-old nephew, instead of going to school, was working 12-hour days at a garment factory. In Istanbul she went door to door collecting blankets and clothes her brothers and sisters were too proud, and too embarrassed, to ask for help from the local people.

On her return to Kurdi was determined to bring her family to Vancouver, but the Conservative government of Stephen Harper had set strict quotas on refugees.

So in 2015, she helped pay for smugglers to take her family across the water to Europe.

On 2 September, the inflatable boat they were travelling in capsized.

Kurdis three-year-old nephew Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib, and their mother, Rehanna, all drowned. Alans tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach a photograph that galvanised international opinion around the refugee crisis.

In Vancouver, a devastated Kurdi addressed reporters outside her home, pleading in a raw stream of consciousness for an end to the war. She barely looked at the cameras. I felt like I was on trial because I couldnt help them, Kurdi says.

But her brother Abdullah Alans father encouraged her to keep talking: Tima, maybe the picture of my boy is a wakeup call to the world. So I decided to speak up for all refugees.

Kurdi has since addressed the EU Parliament, met with UN officials and heads of state and delivered public talks. It hasnt been easy. The crisis, still with no end in sight, weighs heavily on her. She opened her own hair salon in Vancouver earlier this year, but admits shes no longer as passionate about her work as she used to be.

When it comes to her advocacy for migrants, Kurdi says that being from Canada has helped: Here, you have a voice, people will listen. She believes the country is rediscovering its heritage as a place of refuge, especially since the election of prime minister Justin Trudeau, who honoured his campaign promise to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees. But she still thinks the government could do more.

In Canada, we are showing the world. The majority of Canadians have opened their hearts to the refugees. Here, you are allowed to keep your culture and still be Canadian. It reminds me of the Syria I remember.

Tyler Stiem

The charity worker

Uriel Jelin, Jewish-Argentinian leadership trainer

Uriel
The door that opened the most warmly was Winnipeg … Uriel Jelin at the citys Jewish community centre. Photograph: Ian McCausland for the Guardian

As a middle-class professional living in Buenos Aires, Uriel Jelin, 39, felt he had to adapt to the levels of crime in Argentinas capital. We lived in a nice neighbourhood. And some nights we put the chair against the door.

In 2015, he and his wife, Cynthia Fidel, decided theyd had enough of the political instability and institutional decay in Argentina, which had not recovered fully from its 2001 economic crisis when it lurched into a new one.

So they left their coastal city of more than 3 million for the landlocked prairie city of Winnipeg, home to around 720,000 people.

On the first night in our apartment, we looked at the lock and said, This is a joke. This is not a real lock. And I was tempted to put the chair against the door, Jelin recalls.

People said to me, Where are you going? Winnipeg? Such a boring place. And I said Yes, thats what we want. We want a place where it isnt dangerous to go outside.

They arent alone. Over the past decade and a half, a steady exodus of professionals (Jelin and Fidel are administrators for charity organisation) have left Argentina.

Hundreds most of them Jewish chose to settle in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the first Canadian province to set up an immigration program of its own to run alongside the national system. About 15,000 people a year arrive under the provincial nominee programme.

The door that opened most warmly the most welcoming was Winnipeg, Jelin says. The local Jewish community was especially supportive, sensitive to a disturbing undercurrent of antisemitism that Jelin describes as pervasive within Argentinas police and armed forces.

So in February 2015, Jelin, a heavily pregnant Fidel and their daughter, Sofia, left 30C weather in Buenos Aires for overnight lows of -20C. For Jelin, the move renewed a pattern: his family had left Belarus for a more welcoming Argentina three decades previously.

Canada is very open to newcomers. You receive a lot of help, he says, citing free government-provided English lessons and assistance from both Argentinian and Jewish community organisations. There are a lot of mechanisms to help you integrate.

The couple now have a Winnipeg-born son, Eliel, to join Sofia, and Fidel jokes that the family practically lives at Winnipegs Jewish community centre, where Spanish, Russian and Hebrew can be heard in the halls.

It was very easy for us to sympathise and make friends with other newcomers, mostly Israelis. Same age. More or less same social profile. Small kids. Also Jewish. Also migrants.

Finding work was not as easy. Jelins first job, at a call centre, didnt get off to a smooth start: The first month was terrible, for me and for the people on the other side of the phone. They suffered a lot, I suffered a lot. But it was very good for my English,,he says. The value of the experience was a lot more than the money.

Fidel eventually found work at the Jewish National Fund Office, and Jelin is now employed by the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute, a non-profit organisation that provides leadership training to Manitobas sizable indigenous community, with whom he says he feels an affinity as a Latin-American. For now, money in Winnipeg is bit tighter than it was in Buenos Aires.

But coming here was about something else. Its about not putting the chair against the door.

Bartley Kives

The counsellor

Vania Jimenez, founder of La Maison Bleue

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My inner earth is Canada Vania Jimenez. Photograph: Guillaume Simoneau for the Guardian

In 1967, forty years after she first arrived in Montreal from Cairo, Vania Jimenezs life would already have seemed like the quintessential immigrant success story. She had a thriving practice in family medicine and obstetrics, as well as seven Canadian-born children. She taught at McGill University, her alma mater. But for Jimenez something was still missing.

I was delivering babies for women, and then I would lose touch immediately, she says. There was no follow-up. Sensing that many of her patients, especially lower-income women or immigrants, would benefit from additional help or counseling, this gave Jimenez cause for concern. I could see they were getting nothing. One day I came home agonising about this, and my daughter said, Well, do something about it.

In 2007 Jimenez and her daughter, Amelie Sigouin, founded La Maison Bleue, a house that offers medical services and counselling for pregnant women in need both before and after they give birth. The house, bought and renovated through charitable donations and government funding, celebrates its tenth anniversary next year. It now serves as a model for other service providers in low-income Montreal neighbourhoods.

When I first wanted to become a doctor, it was because I had seen an image of Albert Schweitzer with an infant. Many of the women we are helping here are poor, some are refugees, some are dealing with conjugal violence or drug abuse. Were helping them and their children to improve their lives. This has always been my dream, to do what practicing medicine is really supposed to do.

Jimenezs own childhood in Egypt had been idyllic. Her father, the son of an Armenian immigrant, ran a profitable flour mill. But after the Suez Crisis ended in 1956, a spirit of pan-Arab nationalism took hold. We definitely felt that things had changed. There was growing mistrust of Jews, and people who spoke English or French. We were Armenian immigrants, and Christian. We were never persecuted. But suddenly, we were the Other.

Her decision to move to Canada, and attend McGills medical school, was a simple one. It was either that or Australia, she recalls. In the sixties, they were the only two countries that were welcoming to immigrants. She knew little else about the country, but her imagination told me that Canada was a place full of snow and ears and noses on the ground that had fallen off after being frozen.

Today Jimenez is also an accomplished writer, with four novels under her belt. They often involve stories of woman-physician protagonists who interact with patients from other cultures. She is now at work on her fifth book, a memoir looking back at the time when she first left Cairo for Canada, which has meant poring over lots of old letters to her mother and a friend as part of her research.

They tell of a time when Jimenez was shocked to see young people kissing in public, often quite passionately. This is something I wouldnt see in Cairo, she says. The Quebecois accent also confused her. At one point I wrote about taking the bus, and hearing people speak another language. I told my mother they must be speaking Greek. It turned out they were speaking French, but with a thick Quebec accent.

The province has changed a lot since she first arrived: Quebec now has much more self assurance, she says, it is in far less of a fragile place. The need to protect its language and culture in the vast sea of Anglo North America, has in the past bred its own currents of ethnic nationalism something that didnt always make newcomers feel welcome. Now, she says, there is less extremism, more acceptance. There is a sense we negotiate those differences, rather than try to mesh them into one. If we were all the same colour, we wouldnt have a rainbow anymore.

And while she wasnt initially drawn to Canada for any larger reasons, she says being here now makes sense: I couldnt see myself doing the things Im doing anywhere else. My inner earth is Canada.

Matt Hays

The singer

Bruno Capinan, musician

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/dec/14/im-moving-to-canada-the-cops-pop-stars-and-athletes-who-made-good-on-the-threat

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