Navin Kotak has called Quesnel home for 40 years, however on the day he arrived, Nov. 6, 1972, Navin and his three sisters couldn’t have been farther from the life they had always known in Uganda.
Ordered to leave their country of birth, thousands of non-African residents lived under threat of death as they scrambled to find countries that would accept them.
Navin can still remember executions carried out in the school yard where he was a science teacher.
With his job gone and his family at grave risk, Navin, 23, the oldest son, hurriedly applied to emigrate somewhere. Canada accepted him and three of his sisters, but he refused to leave until the fate of his parents and three younger siblings was decided.
“My dad came to Uganda in 1937, it was his home, he had a business, he didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation,” Navin said.
So his son appealed to the Red Cross and finally saw that part of his family safely at the airport and ready to board a plane for Austria (he didn’t receive confirmation of their safe flight until many weeks later.)
Now he had just days to get himself and three sisters on the last plane leaving Uganda for Canada. Canadian officials escorted the bus from Kampala to the airport.
“We were running out of time,” he said.
Ugandan despot Idi Amin had set the deadline of mid-November for fleeing the country and after that non- Africans could expect the worst.
“Leaving Uganda was urgent,” Navin said.
“Even without my parents it was better than staying where we were in Kampala. As an educated man, I was a threat to Amin and would have been killed.”
Which, in many ways was ironic, as Navin had worked very hard for the degree he received in February 1972 and was lucky to find work the next month.
By August, Amin ordered every naturalized Ugandan out.
Navin, his three sisters and about 4,000 other immigrants from Uganda were accepted into Canada, granted immediate landed immigrant status and settled in various cities and towns across the country.
Navin chose Quesnel, not because he knew the town, not for it’s size, but the Manpower employee sold him on the opportunities a forestry town offered.
With winter clothing, a ticket to Quesnel via Vancouver and a penny in his pocket, Navin and his three sisters arrived in town Nov. 7, 1972 and set up life in room 11 at the Sylvan Hotel.
A staff member of the Manpower office in Quesnel had met them at the plane, settled them in the hotel and arranged to meet them for breakfast the next morning at the New Nugget restaurant where they would receive their first weekly instalment of $21 each for food and personal items.
Nov. 8 dawned with a blanket of snow on the ground, the first these four had ever seen.
Although finding a job proved easier than Navin expected, the culture shock (no language barrier as all four spoke excellent English) and need to make enough money to support two sisters in school saw Navin trying out several before one proved just right.
His first job was at Early Bird Lumber on Two Mile Flat where he only lasted one day.
Having learned all about bicycle repair from his father, Navin then secured a job assembling bicycles at a shop on the corner of Carson and Front Street. He could do 10 bikes a day.
“At $2 a bike and only two days a week it wasn’t enough to keep my family clothed and fed,” he said.
Several days in a row, Navin walked to the plywood plant trying to be the first in line for a job. A sympathetic gentleman truck driver, offered him a ride which he gladly accepted. His effort didn’t net him any work.
Meanwhile, Navin secured a job as a substitute teacher a couple of days a week, but again not enough to meet his family’s needs.
Upon hearing of a job at the recently opened Cariboo Pulp and Paper plant, Navin immediately put in his application and this time was granted an interview.
That went well and he was told to report to work the next morning.
“I had no lunch and only water and a coffee, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said with a big grin.
On Dec. 6, Navin and a few other new employees began cutting and throwing ice off the roof of the plant.
The temperature was –30C, a far cry from the +45C weather he’d left behind in Uganda, just a month earlier.
Navin worked from Dec. 6 – 23, 12-hour shifts without a day off.
This year, Dec. 6 is also his 40th anniversary with Cariboo Pulp where he has a perfect attendance record with no lost time to accidents or sick days.
A visitor to their hotel room about two weeks before Christmas would change their lives forever. Although a stranger to the Kotak family, this good Samaritan had been searching for the new arrivals and finally found them at the Sylvan Hotel.
Marion Nielsen, a kind-hearted resident, invited the Kotak family to Christmas dinner. It was a simple invitation but all four were sincerely touched.
“They treated us like family, but we were complete strangers,” Navin said, still marvelling at their hospitality.
“We spent the whole Christmas weekend with the Nielsen family.”
He said until she died, the Kotak siblings called Marion mom and to this day they greet her children as brothers and sisters.
“Marion and Vagn Nielsen were our guardian angels,” he said.
When Marion died, Navin was honoured to be named a pall-bearer.
“She was my first friend and a life-long friend,” he said.
By early December, Navin heard from his parents – they were safe and making the move to Holland.
The family secured an apartment on the westside in Cottonwood Court and thanks to the kindness of Wally Iwanciwski, Navin had a ride to work every day for the next two years, until he passed his drivers test and bought his first vehicle.
Navin worked at Cariboo Pulp and Paper for four years in the production department (machine room) before he finally understood about internal job opportunities. It was with the help of his neighbour Al LeBlanc, then president of the local union, who spoke to management on Navin’s behalf, urging them to given him a chance in the machine room, that he began to move up the ladder. Within two years (1978), this highly motivated employee had moved up five levels in his department, a position he still enjoys today.
His sisters were getting on with their lives, leaving Quesnel to pursue careers and family. Navin’s beloved mother died of cancer in Holland in 1981, the same year Terry Fox succumbed to his disease. The Terry Fox Run is still a cause Navin whole-heartedly embraces.
His father and brother emigrated to Quesnel in 1983. Navin is proud to say his sisters, brother, son and daughter all attended Correlieu High School. One of his sisters was in the first graduating class from the newly built Correlieu high school in 1974.
Navin is immensely grateful to everyone in Quesnel who made him and his family feel so welcome. From those first difficult days in 1972, Navin has established himself as a active participant in the community. He married, has two children and a life to be proud of in his adopted country.
“I also want to thank Cariboo Pulp for providing a
good life for my family and my co-workers for putting
up with me,” he said with a smile.
This Ugandan-born Sikh is also very grateful to the Quesnel Sikh community who welcomed his family
and provided seed money to help them establish in Quesnel.
However, Navin would also like to extend a very special thank you to all the people who didn’t put their trust in his abilities and worthiness.
“They helped me to become stronger and more determined to prove them wrong and prove to myself I will be successful,” he said.
Navin’s is very proud of his siblings who have all, either as volunteers or in their professional careers, chosen to give back to their respective communities through dedicated service.
And now the next generation is also choosing a service career – Navin’s daughter is working on her masters in social work, specializing in working with youth.