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Our Journey to Canada

Meet Tahmena Bokhari, a proud Canadian of Pakistani heritage. Tahmena is a subject-matter expert in Leadership, Change Management, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility, Anti-Racism, Human Rights, & Mental Health, with 20+ years of experience leading EDI across organizations. She holds numerous degrees, including (but not limited to) a Master of Social Work from the University of Toronto and a Negotiation and Leadership certificate from Harvard Law School. Tahmena is passionate about diversity, equity, inclusion, and gender equity. While reflecting on her family’s immigration story, this is what she had to say:

I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I am the eldest child of immigrants from Pakistan. My dad was born in India Pre-Partition, and my dad’s paternal grandfather was killed during the violence of the Partition. My grandma was an educator and the founding member of a girls’ school post-Partition. She believed that if a new nation was going to be created, it had to be with the women side-by-side with the men. My grandma was a young mother when she crossed the violent and bloody border of Partition with her kids, including my father (who was a baby at that time), and without my grandfather, who was on the other side waiting with a truck. He was in the Indian army. Together they raised six children. My dad migrated to Canada as an educated young adult, where he met my mother and where I was born. My grandparents joined us a few years later.

My grandma once told me one of the biggest privileges in life was to be the best version of yourself, irrespective of how society defines you. To ultimately define yourself for yourself! “Society," she said, “is always going through its own reckoning, in every place and in every time."

From the day my brother was born, I would forever be called ‘Baji’, a term meaning big sister. My sister was born a year after that. As my mother worked full-time and my father worked two full-time jobs, during my childhood, I became a second mother, a support to my parents, a housekeeper, a family planner, an interpreter, and a parent advocate on parent-teacher nights. I learned this was unusual, especially in comparison, to my white counterparts whose parents were not immigrants.

As children of immigrant parents, particularly as eldest daughters, we often become the bridge between our families and the new host community, carrying the years of stories, the joys, and the traumas with us, literally within us. Generational trauma is real, emotional, and physiological and passed down from generation to generation (even across continents and migrations). Colonization was a process I was well aware of even before I went to school. Since my grandma was an educator, I learned about the history of Pakistan, how it was founded, and the history of the entire South Asian subcontinent by the time I was five years old.

I couldn’t believe that the other kids in my class, nor my teachers in the Ontario public system, had never heard of Partition – one of the largest forced migrations in history. People at that time, in the Greater Toronto Area (when I was one of a handful of racialized classroom students), did not understand my faith, multiple cultures, languages, or my family history, nor did they fully appreciate how I functioned within two separate paradigms simultaneously – one at school and one at home – and had to do both smoothly. There was no contingency plan if glitches occurred in either of these worlds. I learned to be fiercely independent. I paved the way for many other young women like me, who were the eldest like me, brown like me, multi-lingual and multi-cultural like me, Muslim like me, Canadian of Pakistani descent like me --- to carve out a unique identity.

Many may call us 3rd culture kids – a unique new culture that gets formed by the children of the parents of one culture while living in another culture. In addition to feeling misunderstood, and at times experiencing exclusion from the broader Canadian community, some members of the South Asian community who were not born in Canada called us CBCD. This acronym means Canadian-born Confused Desi. Desi is a term South Asians use to describe each other, which means that we are of the same land and has a positive connotation. Being thought of as confused, however, was not seen as a positive.

Today, I help workplaces and educational institutions become more inclusive and equitable. I share my story as it is the story of many out there. Statistics Canada estimates that by 2041, a significant percentage of our population will be kids like me, the Canadian-born children of immigrants. South Asians became Canada's largest visible minority group, as per the 2016 Census.

The visible minority became the majority in the City of Toronto as of the 2016 Census, representing 51.5%. Canada’s immigration contributes to 80% of the population growth, and it is expected that Canada will have to depend 100% on immigration for population growth by 2030. These figures mean yet newer ways of understanding what it means to be Canadian. Additionally, it signifies, as my grandmother once told me, that we have a new opportunity to define ourselves for ourselves.


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