S.U.C.C.E.S.S Forum: Interview with CFO of BC Liquor, Roger Bissoondatt
S.U.C.C.E.S.S held a forum on February 22, 2017 which discussed racial discrimination and immigration. Before the forum took place, Schema Magazine interviewed respected immigrants who were featured in a short documentary that premiered at S.U.C.C.E.S.S.
Roger Bissoondatt is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB). He immigrated from Trinidad to Canada with his family when he was in his teens. This is his story.
Hilary Leung: Why and when did you choose Canada [as your home]?
Roger: Well, my parents chose Canada because I was living with them and they chose to come to Canada because they saw it as an opportunity. I had two uncles who were already living here. So they encouraged my parents to move to Canada. [My parents] saw it as a better opportunity for not only themselves but also for the kids.
In terms of myself, initially I was a bit apprehensive because at that age--early teens--I had a lot of friends and coming to a strange country would have been different but the interesting thing about it, is that we came to Vancouver, which is probably the furthest part away in Canada from where we going from because we were moving from the southern Caribbean: Trinidad. And we were moving from almost the other side of the world. But in school, we had already studied Canada and once I knew that I was coming to Canada, I started focusing on Canadian geography and my perception of Canada was fishing, the lumbering, the Rocky Mountains--those were the sort of things that we studied in geography. It was something to look forward to.
[I didn't] really know what to expect in terms of the life here. While it was my parents' decision and it was a great opportunity for us but at the time, I was apprehensive because of the age that I was at. [I didn't know] the place, the climate. It was a huge change for us.
H: Did what you see match your expectations since you studied Canada?
R: It was different. It was a lot bigger than I expected. The one thing that really surprised me was the Rocky Mountains. Coming to Vancouver I thought the Rocky Mountains were located in Vancouver initially, only to find the Rocky Mountains are a thousand kilometres away and not in Vancouver, itself. So that was a big surprise because you never really heard about the coastal mountains or even the smaller mountain ranges--the only thing I heard about was the Rocky Mountains so that was a big thing.
The other part of it was, coming from an island, fishing is very dominant down there: anywhere you go on the island, there is fishing. One of the things we had to study was that salmon fishing was a huge industry so I remember joking with my friends that coming here, I would probably be exposed to salmon fishing and everything that goes with it. Lumbering was something completely new in terms of industry itself. The railways here would run straight across Canada. Interestingly enough, coming to Canada, I could've actually mapped out all the railroads across Canada and which cities they went to and one of the things that surprised me was, when I started high school here, was that majority of students couldn't do that.
H: You said that this was mainly your parents' decision in coming to Canada so at what moment did you feel like you were in the right place?
R: When we first moved here, in the evenings I would go for walks and we lived close to Queen Elizabeth Park at the time. I would go to Queen Elizabeth Park and I was always impressed with it--I always thought it was a nice place. I felt isolated and it was an interesting place to be. I think the time that I really felt that Canada was a place for me, it was two times: Expo86 and before that, when the Pope visited Vancouver in 1984. When the Pope visited in Vancouver, I belonged to an organization and we were asked to usher the Pope to BC Place. And I remember being there with the anthem and everything, I thought to myself "This is the place I'd like to be." I really felt as though I belonged.
H: What did you hope for when you came to Canada?
R: I hoped to move on to university and leading towards a professional degree. That was my ambition. And coming to Canada, it changed my perspective. If I stayed in the Caribbean, I would've followed the same path as most of my classmates and finished high school and moved on to university. The way the education system was down there, I would've been in something that had to do with science or mathematics.
Coming to Canada, it opened my eyes to different opportunities. And I think, here, the education system is different, the opportunities much vary so it really opened my eyes to the different avenues I could go. Although I started off with science and I finished my undergrad in science and eventually moved to accounting basically because of the opportunities I had. If I had stayed in the Caribbean, I would've not been exposed to those things.
H: What is your vision for Canada and how are you contributing to it?
R: I see Canada as being a better place to live and to helping others. Canada is a young country compared to a lot of the other [countries]. We depend very heavily on people migrating to Canada and we definitely put a lot of efforts into immigration: our economy would grow. I think it's the base for the future development of Canada, certainly from the human resource side. My vision for it, is really recognizing what people bring to the country. My vision is merely for us to embrace and capitalize on diversity more and really look at it from the point of view of connectivity and helping the country rather than not being similar to what the country is.
H: Did you experience any racism or any racial discrimination?
R: Over the years, I have. I think it stems from people not really understanding your background--not necessarily understanding who you are. If someone met me, they would think I'm from India. I would usually get "Are you from India?" I would say "No." They would very rarely ask me if I'm from Trinidad. Sometimes, someone who recognizes the accent I have would ask if I'm from the Caribbean. But what I think people don't recognize is that even though you may look the same, you don't necessarily have the same cultural background. I think one of the big misunderstandings that I saw, certainly from when I came to Canada, was the whole issue on religion. People didn't really understand what different religions were.
I remember sitting in the cafeteria in college and a guy across from me said "You're Hindu." And I looked at him and said "What?"
He said "You're a Hindu." and I said "What do you mean I'm a Hindu?"
He said "I'm looking at you and I know you're a Hindu." so I asked him "Do you know what a Hindu is?"
And he said "It's somebody who looks like you."
And I told him that Hinduism is a religion, it's not a race. And I told him that as a matter of fact, I'm a Roman Catholic. And he said "No, no, you're a Hindu."
I said "No, no, no. Hinduism is a religion. I have an East Indian background that I'm from the Caribbean. And my religion is Roman Catholic."
Then he goes "You shouldn't go telling people that you're Roman Catholic."
And that was one of the big surprises that I was faced with: for some reason, religion is not something I think people were proud of and never really talked [about].
We lived in a neighbourhood and there were a couple of neighbours who were really friendly to us and the first exposure we had to racism was not directly with myself but with my sister. She was out playing in the streets. The kids were all 8-12 years old. And one day she came home crying. And we wanted to know why she was crying and she said "Michelle's mom told Michelle she can't play with [me] because she can't play with [me] because [I'm] too dark."
But over the years, I've had comments from people who say "I don't think you can understand this." And I go "Why?"
"You're not from here."
And usually I say "Try me."
And most of the time, I would understand the issue they were talking about.
It is a little bit better. I think also with my position, I think people respected me a little bit more but there's generally a feeling that those people with [different] skin tones cannot hold a leadership role. And I think that's one of those things we need to overcome. We are overcoming it and we are seeing more and more people holding those positions but I think it's still a barrier.
H: Since it's the 150th anniversary for Canada, do you have a birthday wish for the country?
R: My [wish] for Canada is to have it remain a peaceful place to live--greater acceptance. I think we still need some work there but I think we can certainly work towards that. The whole issue on inclusiveness and acceptance of diversity, I think it's something that we should continue to work towards. I've seen improvements over the years but I really think Canada will be much better if we really embrace that diversity.
I'm not saying to go overboard and every single thing needs to be diversity but certainly acceptance of it and giving that opportunity to others. And welcoming people is a big thing. One of the things I would like to say is: I don't want to see a divided Canada. I believe that even a few years ago, when I visited Quebec, I was very impressed with the diversity of that culture and if we can bring all of that together. And having travelled all across Canada, there is definitely a diversity of it and we really need to leverage that to make this country a better place.
For more information about the forum, visit the S.U.C.C.E.S.S page.