By Samuel Getachew
The Historica-Dominion Institute has a “mission to help all Canadians come to know the fascinating stories that make our country unique”. In past years, it has hosted programs such as Heritage Minutes, the Heritage Fairs and The Canadian Encyclopedia to fulfill that ambitious public service. Last month, at the central library in Ottawa, it hosted a well-attended event to mark Asian Heritage Month in Canada. The topic focused on the children of first-generation Asian-Canadian immigrants. Sunny Uppal was one of the speakers at this important event along with Ontario Conservative MP Michael Chong.
Uppal reflects with Generation Next on his experience as a public servant, his first generation – South Asian – immigrant experience as well as gives advice for South Asians who may want to emulate such a fulfilling Canadian (immigrant) journey.
You have achieved much at such a young age. The TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Outstanding Community Leadership as well as the attainment of your graduate degree from Ivy League Columbia comes to mind. Share with us your academic journey so far?
During my senior year of High School (at Milliken Mills High School in Markham, Ontario), I was quite involved in numerous leadership activities. It was during this time that I was awarded the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Outstanding Community Leadership. It was a pivotal moment for me, as it demonstrated that a significant institution within the country felt I was deserving of an award given to only 20 students a year across Canada.
Moreover, not only did the scholarship value academic excellence, but specifically looked for young Canadians who were committed to giving back to their communities in an innovative and effective manner. I started my post-secondary education at The University of Western Ontario, where I obtained my Honours Bachelors of Science degree in Biology. During my years at Western, I developed a real interest in environmental studies – largely due to the fact that the subject incorporated a significant amount of science, however, also had a political and diplomatic component with respect to globally managing the issue(s).
I pursued my Master’s Degree at Columbia University, where my focus was on environmental health policy. The school provided a fantastic opportunity to learn about key environmental issues that affect human health from a policy perspective. Furthermore, I took advantage of being at a University with numerous graduate programs, and ended up enrolling in classes ranging from toxicology to the study of climate change and public health. Furthermore, having the chance to study in New York City and living at the International House (a historic residence for international graduate students in New York) broadened my experience, as it allowed for me to meet many interesting individuals pursuing incredibly diverse career paths.
You have had an interesting immigrant’s journey to Canada that is perhaps not unique in a multicultural country such as Canasda.
My family’s immigration journey begins with my grandparents, who left India in the early 1970′s and arrived in Toronto. Their story was not uncommon in the sense that they had to work incredibly hard and make significant sacrifices to establish themselves in Canada. My father spent most of his formative years growing up in Toronto, and married my mother through an arranged marriage (not uncommon in India) in 1983.
My brother and I were both born in Toronto, but grew up in a joint family with both my parents and grandparents. It was a full house, but also a home that struck a great balance between both Canadian and Indian traditions. I always look back at this time with a great deal of appreciation as both my parents and grandparents worked incredibly hard to ensure that I was given the opportunities they never had – namely the pursuit of a higher education and the opportunity to have a career that I was passionate about.
Share with us your experience with the United Nations Economic Commission (for Europe’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution)
I began my career with the United Nations as an intern at their office in Geneva, Switzerland. I specifically worked for the UN Economic Commission for Europe (a regional commission under the Economic and Social Council). Within this commission, my specific area of work focused on the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.
After my internship concluded, I was provided the opportunity to work as an International Consultant for the same group. My role focused on capacity building, specifically assisting the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia in developing the policy, technical and legislative tools to implement and ratify the Convention. This opportunity provided me with a great deal of experiences including extensive travel to the region and the chance to learn about new cultures. However, most importantly, it truly taught me that providing assistance in an effective manner can generate a significant difference with respect to any area of work – including the environment.
You once told the Globe and Mail how you “always carry Canadian values of global outreach and capacity-building”. Explain
Growing up in Canada, I increasingly became aware of the important role this country has played in the international landscape with respect to assisting those countries and people that are less fortunate than us. However, the opportunity to work internationally and focus on environmental capacity building efforts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia really put these Canadian values into action. There were numerous occasions where officials from these regions would express their positive opinion and views on Canada, and all that we stand for.
Their comments always focused on the fact that we as a country, and as a people, are known to help and generously offer our skills and expertise wherever we can. Furthermore, in my current role with the Canadian government, I get the opportunity to work with other countries on environmental issues ranging from building strategic policies to international negotiations, and I’m proud to say that we continue to be a constructive and effective partner in international dialogues.
You were one of two recent speakers in Ottawa on the occasion of South Asian Month. Your presentation focused on your experience as a first generation immigrant. Why do you think such an event is important?
I had the opportunity to speak in celebration of Asian Heritage Month in Ottawa this past May. The event was organized by the Historica-Dominion Institute’s Passages to Canada program. This particular engagement focused on the stories of children of first-generation Asian-Canadian immigrants (such as myself). I felt it was important to participate as sharing our stories and experiences allows for other Canadians to gain further insight into the sacrifices and challenges our parents and grandparents faced, and how in turn, that has influenced our values and goals in this country.
Also, it was a great opportunity to reflect on my own life thus far and take stock of all the challenges and positive experiences my family and I have experienced in Canada, and how their decision to leave everything and immigrate to Canada was the best decision they ever made.
If you have any advice for young South Asians who may want to emulate such an experience – what would that be?
My interaction with the South Asian community in Canada continues to be a great source of pride. Many have and continue to accomplish fantastic things in all aspects of life. For young South Asian Canadians, I wish to convey that they should pursue their areas of interest. As the global economy increasingly becomes competitive, the generations to come will face a great amount of challenges with respect to succeeding.
As such, being passionate about your career is crucial to your success — you truly should strive to be in a position where you are excited to go to work every morning. Beyond this, I would also advise them to never forget the shoulders they stand on.