Winter 2004
Milne in Toronto

by Anthony Milne

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2 JAN 04.

GOD, I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I didn’t know what it was going to be like at all. But not like this: silent, cold and dark as death: in a house in the heart of Toronto, on a street with grotesque black trees with leafless branches ending in twisted witches’ fingers. 

On Christmas Day I was alone, just come up from the South, where the rains had given way to bright sun and warm jumbie breezes were rushing down the valley from the Caribbean Sea. Real Christmas weather, Mrs Mayyou said, squeezing her cocoa bracelets. There was sorrel and pastels, ginger beer, and marinating garlic pork I forgot to beg a taste before leaving. 

Now this, in a self-consciously bilingual city where the dry Presbyterian ethic prevails: beer stores closed,  homes silent. Three hundred miles to the east was Catholic francophone Montreal where purveyors of alcohol and Christmas cheer were thriving. 

I left Trinidad on Air Canada the day after the official start of winter. We were to arrive at Lester Pearson airport in Toronto in the evening after a direct five-hour flight. We got there after midnight, even with watches turned back an hour, after a baffling three-and-a-half-hour delay on the ground at Piarco. With the delay I had time to hesitate: did I understand what I was doing? Where I was going? 

At first we thought the postponed departure had to do with cleaning the aircraft’s cabin. Then a “technical fault,” baffling and unnerving, something to do with the cockpit compass or with the aircraft’s main computer. Eventually the French-Canadian captain came up to the departure lounge to confirm the problem was the main computer, though the back-up computer was still  functioning. He and his co-pilot had been working intensely on the problem. He had called Air Canada’s headquarters in Montreal to find out his options.
It would take a day or two to fly in a part from Winnipeg which would put things right. There was need for a change of crew, and regulations about fuel and weight. The aircraft could be flown to Miami minus baggage or passengers.... And so on. 

Half an hour later we were suddenly ordered to board the plane. We would fly direct to Toronto. The captain would explain en route. He did, hours afterwards. I didn’t quite make out what he said, except perhaps that the main computer had come alive again. 

Vashti, a Trinidad-Canadian I met onboard, had promised to give me a drive downtown, but between Immigration and Customs I lost her. So I made the twenty-minute trip in a taxi driven by a Pakistani immigrant, John, who liked his homeland but needed the job here. Then the children, at school or already working, had assimilated and didn’t want to go back. It became a familiar story. 

The next few days I spent in shock, slowly getting my bearings in the short, extremely cold days, never higher than ten degrees centigrade in the bursts of sunshine. There was rain sometimes, but no snow. 

I bought my first “tokens” and took the subway, watched the news, glanced at the newspapers. I saw that half the people on the streets and in the shops were immigrants with accents, a high proportion of them Koreans and others from the Far East. Quite unexpected were the vagrants: young people wrapped up against the cold, begging on the streets, tattered older people who looked homeless or ill. This in a country that has been described as the most highly developed in the world.

Big in the news was the discovery at a slaughterhouse in Washington state of an animal with  mad cow disease, barely able to stand as it approached the knife, that had allegedly been shipped in from Canada—province of Alberta to be exact. A border war of new import-export regulations threatened. 

There were stories of several “landed immigrants,” some of them long-time residents of Canada, not able to re-enter the country because they did not have the new permanent-resident cards. The deadline for having these was December 31. Thousands were still being processed. 

Meanwhile, the Canadian dollar has been showing a remarkable increase in value. On December 30th it jumped 1.3 percent, increasing to US77.26 cents, a ten-year high against the US dollar. The Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail declared in a front-page lead on December 31st that the Canadian dollar could increase in value to US80 to 82 cents in the months ahead. The principal reasons for the rise of the “looney,” as the dollar is called here? The falling value of US currency, rising interest rates in Canada--which pleases bond investors--and rising commodity prices, since the Canadian dollar is a leading "commodity currency."

Even more exciting is the prospect of a general election here in April or May,  now that the Liberals  have a new leader and Prime Minister in Paul Martin, former Finance Minister, who replaced Jean Chretien. 

The shortest day of the year is past, but the fearful Canadian winter has just begun. Lord, for the Roti Palace on Bathurst Street and Bob the postman from San Fernando!