Through the sunny afternoon of July 12, 1968, Lina Preyra and the eldest of her eight children, ranging in age from 2 to 15, were busy packing trunks. So they’d be out of the way, the younger ones had been sent off with a few rupees to buy cane-sugar drinks from the vendors near the Bombay house the family had rented for the months leading up to this day.
Lina, then 40, had arranged for a friend, the principal of a local Catholic girls’ school, to drive them all to the airport. By nightfall, the travellers were hurtling over the Indian Ocean en route to Paris.
Now adults living in Canada, Lina’s children recall the emotions that marked the journey: fear and awe inspired by that first plane trip; regret at leaving behind friends; and relief at having escaped their precarious situations — both domestic and political.
Following a night with London relatives, and the novelty of a hot bath, the Preyras embarked on the final leg of their exodus — a flight to Toronto’s Malton airport. Upon arrival, they were reunited with Cecil Preyra, Lina’s husband, a lawyer with an Indian railway company who had come ahead some weeks earlier to find work and line up a place for his large family to live.
“It was dark when we arrived” in Toronto, recounts Cecilia Preyra, a St. Thomas, Ont., goat farmer and retired psychology professor. At 12, she was the fourth of the couple’s children. She spent the journey trying to help Lina, who was very pregnant, and praying the plane wouldn’t crash. As the family drove to a downtown hotel, Cecilia’s first impressions of Toronto remain etched in her memory: the smooth roads, the absence of crowds, the fresh air.
“I remember,” she says, “how clean it was.”
It was July 14, and Toronto seemed like a world away from the tumultuous life they had left behind just 48 hours earlier.
Anyone who has met returning friends or relatives at Pearson airport’s international arrivals gate will have observed the emotionally charged scenes at the end of such journeys. Weary travellers emerge into the over-lit concourse, pushing carts laden with luggage, their faces marked by fatigue, excitement and apprehension. Some are greeted by joyful relatives while others orient themselves, scanning for ground transport or emissaries carrying signs.
Many are in the midst of an unforgettable day — the turning point on a life’s calendar that sharply divides what came before and what came after.
In a region where every other resident was born abroad and thousands more grew up with immigrant parents, such poignant experiences connect many communities, providing a point of commonality in a city defined by difference.
“This is the stuff of literally millions of immigration journeys to this country,” observes Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki. Immigration narratives are driven both by “push” and “pull” factors: forces at home that drove out individuals or families, as well as enticements in receiving countries. Research shows that immigrants, more than anything else, are motivated by a desire to provide better lives for their children, he adds.
Siemiatcyki also notes a paradox: while so many immigration tales have similar elements, each family’s experiences are distinct. “One never knows, when one gets on a boat or a plane, whether one has made the right decision.”
On the 50th anniversary of their arrival, the Preyra clan, including two more children born here, is no exception. While Cecil and Lina died in the 1980s, their 10 offspring Carmel, Claire, Leonard, Cecilia, Cathy, Jeffrey, Ron, Alan, Colin and Ian have succeeded in a range of professions: education, law, health care, media, politics.
Overcoming initial stares and stigma, the Preyras built families, businesses, homes and an ever-expanding circle of close friends. (Full disclosure: I count myself among the latter group, having first met Jeff, a television producer, at Carleton University’s journalism faculty in 1987.)
These days, such stories have added relevance. With mass flows of global migration, populist or nativist politicians from Donald Trump to former Tory MP Maxime Bernier have sought to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment to justify closing borders to migrants accused of being “illegal.”
Such headwinds serve as reminder of just how fraught these departures can be. Indeed, the Preyras’ journey from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Rexdale could only have occurred because of a curious alignment of post-independence politics in India and post-centennial politics in Canada. Their saga also pivots on an improbable confluence of actions taken by three individuals — a crusading Toronto Star journalist; a shy North York teenager; and a Connecticut father of eight who had become fixated on the needs of large American families.
Lina Mesquita and Cecil Preyra met at a Catholic church in Mumbai, and married on Oct. 28, 1951. Years later, Lina would tell her daughters that the best way to meet a suitable life partner was to look in the pews of a church.
Cecil was charismatic, dutiful and hard-working, the music-loving eldest son in a large family. Lina, for her part, was reserved, cerebral and athletic — a high school teacher and an avid reader.
“My dad was a terribly handsome fellow,” says Carmel, a retired high school principal and the oldest of the 10 siblings. Cecil, she adds, was smitten by Lina’s intellect, as well as the fact she could beat him at table tennis. “He was fascinated by this woman.”
“Fundamentally,” adds Cecilia, “they shared the same qualities.”
Lina’s family came from Goa, an Indian state colonized by the Portuguese in the late 15th century. Portuguese and later British missionaries sought to convert Hindu and Muslim Indians both through coercion and inducements, such as access to government jobs. The proselytizing provoked resentment and violent backlashes as early as the mid-19th century.
Both the Mesquitas, who were Goan, and the Preyras came from this background. As English speakers with western customs, the families enjoyed a mainly middle-class lifestyle with economic and professional privileges. After Indian independence, in 1947, state officials clamped down on Christian conversion campaigns, according to Chad Bauman, a religious studies scholar who has written about Hindu-Christian conflict. Indian Catholics increasingly found themselves targeted by Hindu nationalists, facing discrimination and blocked careers.
Cecil and Lina’s first son, Leonard — a former political scientist and Nova Scotia cabinet minister who was 13 when they left — says his parents’ social circles included Hindus and Muslims. Still, he recalls how the nationalist demonstrations near their home generated a growing sense of unease.
Away from these broader currents, Lina’s family had never been happy that she married into the Preyra clan, who had, as Leonard puts it, a “rough and tumble” reputation in Dadar, the district in Mumbai where they owned a small compound.
The land had been in the Preyra family for years, but they had sold most of the street frontage to a Jain congregation that built a large temple there. By the 1960s, all that remained was a 1,200 sq.-ft, one-floor house with no running water and an outhouse. Accessible via a narrow alleyway, the five-room dwelling was known as “Caroline Villa,” after one of Cecil’s grandmothers.
Around 1960, Cecil took Lina and their growing brood to live at Caroline Villa. His own father widowed, Cecil felt an obligation to move back into the family home and look after his younger brothers, three of whom suffered from drug and alcohol addictions. “He thought he might be able to get them straightened out,” Carmel says.
Yet in that overcrowded house, tempers often flared when Cecil’s brothers would return late at night, inebriated and violent. “I never felt safe in that house when they were around,” says Jeff, who was 7 when they left for Canada. Those uncles, he adds, “frequently threatened to kill” Cecil. Other siblings recall incidents when police were summoned.
On many occasions, Lina and her children huddled in the one 12-by-12 room they all shared, barring both sets of doors while Cecil’s brothers raged and fought in the home’s main room, sometimes wielding knives. One became fixated on Jeff. “He believed I could see into his soul,” Jeff says. “Whenever he was around, I had to run and hide.”
Some of the Preyras speculate that Cecil’s brothers had turned to drugs and alcohol because of anti-Catholic discrimination. “My uncles couldn’t move up anywhere because all the jobs were being given to Hindus,” says Carmel.
Whatever the cause, the domestic chaos they created was becoming untenable. “I remember the last year as being extremely scary,” says Leonard. “My dad was pretty frustrated by the situation. But he had a strong sense of duty, not just to his family but also to us.”
In the early 1960s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was preoccupied with family planning. India’s population was surging toward 500 million, and people were starving. In the 1950s, government demographers and other experts had sought ways to persuade Indians to have fewer children. Gandhi, through a series of “five-year plans,” upped the ante, setting ambitious economic growth targets accompanied by strategies to slow population growth.
The government established family-planning campaigns featuring education, contraceptives and access to thousands of new clinics offering free sterilization. While 1.5 million people underwent sterilization by the end of 1966, these measures barely dented the birth rate. By 1966, Gandhi’s government began looking at coercive measures, including forced sterilization for all men with three or more children. As Dr. Sripati Chandrasekhar, the health minister, told the New York Times in late July 1967, “a drastic situation requires a drastic response.”
The threat of sterilization didn’t sit well with Cecil and Lina, who both felt having a large family was a matter of religious freedom, Cecilia says. Cecil’s bosses pushed him to promote contraceptives and sterilization to his division’s employees, who faced the threat of sanction if they didn’t comply. When he refused to co-operate, Carmel says, he was harassed and had his work duties curtailed.
On the other side of the world, during this same period, large families had become a preoccupation of a very different sort.
In a modest clapboard house in Norwalk, Conn., Stanley and Eleanor Borner were raising eight children. One night in the early 1960s, on a Boy Scout camping trip with his sons, Stanley began chatting with a few other fathers about the demands — financial, emotional, logistical — of bringing up so many kids.
As he would earnestly confide to a reporter in November 1963, “I wasn’t sure if I was being a good father. If I let myself be warm and affectionate towards one child, would another feel neglected? If I disciplined one child, would he feel rejected? Did I have enough affection to go around?”
Borner had set up a support group, Parents of Large Families. Early meetings attracted curious and mainly middle-class parents. Newspaper coverage followed. A 1963 feature titled “Kids, Kids, Kids” noted there were 2.1 million families in the U.S. with five or more children. The story, which first ran in a newspaper in Bridgeport, Conn., was widely syndicated, appearing in newspapers in Texas, California and Arizona.
The coverage attracted thousands of members; many, though not all, were Catholic. Borner, who had asked federal officials about supports, even received a note from Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general who with his wife Ethel had 11 children.
“Your idea of developing mutual answers to mutual problems in such an organization sounds like both good sense and good fellowship,” he wrote.
In mid-June of 1965, word of POLF’s activities reached Sidney Katz, a Toronto Star reporter. An activist journalist in the mould of June Callwood, Katz brought an interest in hot-button social issues, such as gay rights and racism.
On June 12, 1965, Katz penned a piece in the Star about POLF and Borner’s efforts to create bulk-buying groups for large families. But he also wrote an accompanying column, inveighing against couples opting to have more than two children. “Serious social irresponsibility,” he opined, citing the global population explosion.
In the next few years, POLF generated more media attention and found audiences beyond North America. I came across one Associated Press story about the group in the Sydney Morning Herald, in Australia.
Back in Mumbai, at some point, Lina Preyra became one of the thousands of people around the world who learned about Borner’s work, likely in Reader’s Digest, to which she subscribed.
In July 1967, with talk of forced sterilization cresting and the domestic chaos at Caroline Villa boiling over, Lina wrote to Borner, asking his group to help her family leave India.
Borner replied with a letter full of concern. “Our hearts go out to you,” he began. While his group didn’t have the money or clout to assist the Preyras directly, Borner wrote that he’d sent Lina’s letter to the Toronto Star, which had covered POLF’s work two years earlier. Her missive ended up on Katz’s desk.
By then, Katz had a regular help column entitled, “What Should I Do?” Readers sent in dilemmas, and Katz ferreted out answers on topics ranging from marriage conventions to big-city living. In one article, he fielded a question from a recent Indian immigrant who wanted to know if she could wear a sari to work.
The headline on Katz’s Aug. 10, 1967, column read: “How can an Indian family of ten come to Canada?” He quoted a letter he’d received from Lina, talking about India’s coercive sterilization policy and the hostility facing families like the Preyras. Noting her children’s dim prospects, Lina said she and her husband were prepared to do whatever it took to leave.
“You will perhaps consider me presumptuous but a drowning person will clutch at any straw,” she wrote. “Can you help us to emigrate, as a family, to Canada?” Katz didn’t disappoint, and used the rest of the column to give Lina precise instructions on whom to contact to get the process moving.
One of the Star readers who saw Katz’s column was 15-year-old Donald Drutz, who lived with his divorced mother and brother in a walk-up on Bathurst St., near Eglinton. It was the summer of 1967, and the young man was paying close attention to social issues, including the civil rights work of the Freedom Riders in the U.S. South.
While he couldn’t go to Alabama to protest segregation, he thought he could assist the Preyras. Without consulting his mother, Donald (who later changed his name to Mark) contacted Katz and asked for Lina’s address. “Reading their human interest story just sort of clicked for me,” he says. “I thought, ‘here’s my way to help somebody.’ ”
A few weeks after posting his letter, Carmel, then also 15, replied.
Mark Drutz, retired from a position as a Vancouver college administrator, doesn’t recall the exact sequence of events, but at some point he revealed his correspondence with Carmel to his mother, Evelyn. She agreed to sponsor the Preyras.
To this day, he can’t account for her decision: after all, she was single, with two teenage sons and no money. What’s more, Mark says, she was “wary of strangers.” Still, he adds, Evelyn’s parents were Jewish immigrants who came to Toronto in the 1910s. He recalls her as socially progressive.
Over the coming year, Mark and Carmel exchanged about 20 to 30 letters. “I must have been a weather nut,” he chuckles. “Carmel reminded me there was a lot in the letters about weather.” In the background, Evelyn had taken the necessary bureaucratic steps to set herself up as a sponsor for Cecil.
That they could even contemplate such a move reflected very recent changes in Canada’s immigration policies. A set of reforms that began in 1962 under Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker and concluded in 1967 under Liberal Pierre Trudeau repealed explicitly racist immigration restrictions dating back to 1908, and the “Continuous Journey Regulation,” a measure designed to keep out Asian migrants. William Lyon Mackenzie King, the architect of Canada’s policy, felt immigrants should not alter “the character of our population.”
Under Trudeau’s centennial year policy, prospective immigrants were to be judged according to a point system, not their race or country of origin. Those colour-blind rules opened the doors to developing-world families, including the Preyras.
In Mumbai, Lina and Cecil absorbed the news from Canada and made the decision to leave. As their children all say, it must have been a wrenching choice for Cecil, because he felt a strong obligation to look after his troubled siblings.
Yet Lina insisted, warning that a similarly bleak future awaited their own children if they didn’t extricate themselves. As Cecilia says, “My mother understood that in order to make a life for ourselves, we had to get away from that house.”
What helped, adds Claire Preyra, a Mississauga psychotherapist and the second-eldest of the siblings, is that some of their parents’ acquaintances had already left for places like Australia and North America, among them two of Lina’s friends, who had settled in Quebec. “They wanted us to come to Montreal to be with them.”
In the spring of 1968, Cecil cashed in his company pension and other savings to buy plane tickets and finance the transition. He would fly to Canada on his own to get established. To avoid the vengeance of Cecil’s brothers, Lina and the children moved from Caroline Villa to a friend’s house while they waited to join him.
When Cecil arrived in Toronto, he moved in with the Drutzes, sharing a bedroom with Mark, who describes himself then as an awkward teen who could scarcely muster a reply to the formal Indian man who had become his roommate.
Mark recalls that his mother was nervous about how long he would be living with them. She also asked Cecil point blank how he planned to support so many children. “The conversation she often had with Cecil was, `How are you going to provide for this big family?’ And he would say, `Mrs. Drutz, God will provide.’ She was always so scornful of that.”
Within a month or so, Cecil found a job in the juvenile courts, using his legal skills. He had met a few other Indian families in a Catholic church where he began attending services. In preparation for his family’s arrival, he arranged for them to stay at the Anndore Hotel, on Charles St. near Yonge.
A few days after they landed, Mark came to the Anndore for his first nervous meeting with Carmel and her siblings. Lina, Mark and the older Preyra children walked up Yonge St. to the hippie scene unfolding in Yorkville during the summer of 1968. Carmel remembers the “mind-blowing” counter-cultural vibe vividly. “For the older kids,” adds Leonard, “it was exciting. But for my parents, it was pretty scary (and) antithetical to what they believed.”
That clash — between socially conservative immigrant parents and offspring eager to absorb the ways of a new country — is a drama that continues to play out in countless newcomer households.
In most ways, the balance of the Preyras’ tale is filled with familiar and oft-repeated elements: a series of moves to what became the family home in Rexdale; the parents’ struggle to find suitable work and their enormous sacrifices; their children’s embrace of the liberal enticements of Canadian society; the acclimatization to everything from winter to foreign customs to road hockey; and the family’s determination to succeed educationally, socially and professionally.
Sidney Katz continued to write about the Preyras’ progress and maintained a lifelong friendship with the family.
Fifty years later, the Preyras all say that the improbable story that began with Lina’s letter to Stanley Borner turned out exceedingly well. Leonard, however, stresses that their experiences don’t differ markedly from the countless immigrant families that risked all to make a new start in a foreign land.
Canada’s 1978 immigration bill
In the mid-1960s, only a trickle of South Asians settled in Canada each year, and the bulk of those were Sikhs or Punjabis. After 1967, the numbers began to rise, with annual East Indian immigration reaching the 23,000 range by 1974, according to a 1978 study in Canadian Public Policy.
In Toronto and Vancouver, those increases prompted a xenophobic backlash, with a spike in attacks dubbed “Paki-bashing.” As that 1978 study notes, East Indians “bore the brunt of the racist animosity” aimed at Third World newcomers.
In 1967, 80 per cent of immigrants to Canada came from Europe. By 1974, that figure had fallen to 40 per cent. The Trudeau government knew it had to address the unrest. Immigration officials closed a loophole permitting newcomers to apply for landed immigrant status while visiting Canada. Ottawa, notes Myer Siemiatycki of Ryerson University, also released a “green paper” and set up a joint Senate-House of Commons task force to travel the country, collecting feedback.
Dozens of East Indian organizations and individuals made deputations to the task force, marking one of the first instances of a newcomer community mobilizing politically. (Chinese-Canadian groups had also pushed for the repeal of the Exclusion Act, a 1920s law that blocked family reunification.)
The 1978 study says these lobbying efforts fell on deaf ears. Nonetheless, the task force members realized they had to defuse an evidently volatile situation.
Siemiatycki points out that the result — a law passed four decades ago this year — established three formal categories of newcomers (economic, family, and refugees) and the use of annual target immigration levels, all of which remain pillars of Canadian policy. The initial target was about 100,000 people. Canada today accepts about 300,000 newcomers a year, equivalent to 1 per cent of the population.