When I’m out and about in Vancouver, be it at a party, shopping or sheltering rainy hours away at a coffee shop, people often ask me, “Where are you from?” Perhaps it’s based on statistics; so many people pass the Rocky Mountains and call this city home, but the questioners come across as genuinely perplexed. One guesser of nationalities insists, “Your giant curly hair – you must be Irish, right?” Another player suggests, “You’re so artsy – have you spent any time in Montreal?” and “Don’t you have a sister in Newfoundland – you look exactly like a close friend of mine.” If I had not lived my whole life in Greater Vancouver, it would seem as though I’m a composite of the greater part of the Northern Hemisphere. In a way, everyone stands correct. I would not be the person I am if I had not grown up in Vancouver. Allow me to explain.
My mom’s side of the family came from across Europe. The first to British Columbia were the Welsh members: tempted to break free from Britain’s classism, they settled in the 1800s just outside Prince George, breeding apples in an orchard that still stands by a creek. The Italians came next: Great Uncle Primo and Great Grandad were miners who drilled holes in the side of mountains for the newly-formed Canadian Pacific Railway. Great Grandad met Great Grandma in a town so remote it has its own postal code today. Petite, quiet and all the way from Poland, Great Grandma couldn’t speak a word of English or Italian. While Great Grandad and Great Grandma were getting to know each other, the Irish side of my roots were sailing on a passage over the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland. Sadly, Great-Great Grandmother never saw Canada, as she died on the ship, leaving her seven children orphaned to the State. Irish Great-Grandma was “placed” in service until she married, much like an Anne of Green Gables story, except the view out her window was not of rolling hills, but of the sugar refinery, just off Powell Street in East Vancouver.
When everyone from northern British Columbia had trickled down to Vancouver, the last family members, from my dad’s side, were emigrating from Europe, at that time on the cusp of the Second World War. Great Grandfather was a writer for a local paper and criticized the Nazi uprising in his homeland in an editorial. No one really talks about how much trouble he got into for saying what he felt, but the last photo of them as a family is them leaving for a steamer ship in the dead of winter with Great Grandmother seven months pregnant with my grandfather. I can’t quite imagine their shock when they arrived from a bustling, modern, European city to middle-of-nowhere Saskatchewan, but I’m sure the isolation and hardship was nothing compared to the fate that awaited them as political prisoners in one of Hitler’s death camps.
Fast forward about 30 years, and both families had settled in Vancouver – on the same street, four doors down from each other. My mom and dad met as high school sophomores, and I came along about 10 years later. So for everyone who has thought I am Irish, Welsh, British, Italian, German or Polish, you were right. If the Gold Rush had never happened and if war had been stayed in Europe, my families would never have touched North American soil and met each other. I might still exist in some form, but nowhere near the unique mix I am today, which is a truly Vancouver recipe. My roots may not have started in Vancouver, but I am definitely of Vancouver.