HarminderMagon is CUPE’s National Anti-Racism Co-ordinator. However, that’s not his only identity. Passionate about cuisines and cooking, he hosts a cooking page on Face book called ‘Desi Guys Should learn how to cook’. Generation Next was recently in conversation with this dynamic professional and foodie.
HarminderMagon can claim to have immigration in his genes. Much before he was born, his grandfather’s strong will to travel took him to Nairobi, Kenya in the early 1900s. “By 1926,” Magon tells us, “he was well established as one of the prominent businessmen in the country and raised a large family.”
Among the strongest of Magon’s childhood influences was cuisine, again shaped by his grandfather, exacting, when it came to preparing food. “After a hard day’s work in the family business, my grandfather and dad demanded perfection in their evening meals,” he recalls. It was left to his mother and aunts to meet this challenge. The challenge also lay in blending the native tastes of East Africa with the European cuisine of the day, without sacrificing the unique spices and sauces of the Punjab. His mother, having been born and raised in Bangkok brought her own share of Thai cuisine to the table.
The world knows Kenya for its wildlife reserves and safaris, but as Magon informs, its cuisine is no less exciting. Says Magon, “Dishes such as Ugali, NyamaChoma, Mandazi, Kuku Paka, SmakinaBiazi, Mishkaki, Lobster Thermidore, Scallops smothered with mango and ginger glaze and Oysters from Mombasa have influenced Indian and European cooking in East Africa.”
As he turns his memory switch to his childhood, Magon remembers how the different strands of the South Asian community lived in harmony and unity. “We hardly ever differentiated ourselves being from different parts of the globe and were one big happy family – The Asian Family. We shared each other’s’ festivities, food, customs and traditions. I think we were true Desis in spirit and soul and always stood united,” he says.
Education was to be the first source of migration for Magon as he travelled to the country of his roots, India, for post-secondary education. His love for food acquired another dimension here, as he got to experience the culinary traditions of different parts of India. He returned to Kenya enriched with the new Indian culinary techniques and ideas. But his stay this time was short-lived because of the unstable political situation in Canada. That and the same kindling that had stirred his grandfather to switch continents brought Magon to Canada in 1966.
His first job was in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in central Canada was with Federated CO-OP (UFCW) as a junior architectural technician. After six months, he moved to WesteelRosco (USWA) as a structural design technician. Soon after joining this company, Magongot an opportunity to join City of Saskatoon (CUPE) in 1967 as a Planning Technician. While working for the City, he took planning courses through the Planning Institute of Chicago and design courses through the University of Alberta in Edmonton and worked his way to become a Subdivision Design Planner.
Moving to Canada was a huge culture shock for Magon. “The bitter cold winters in the prairies and when it came to food, hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, pizza and chopsuey and egg rolls were the foods for my survival. There was hardly any restaurant in those days that offered any of the foods that I grew up on. Soon I got sick of the burgers and started to cook my meals using the skills I learnt in Kenya and India,” he recalls.
This lack became would turn into a strength for Magon as he began improvising with ingredients available at hand. With this newly-acquired skill, he hosted a cook show on TV called “Cook with Mag” in the 1980s. The show ran successfully for nine years. He also taught Oriental cooking classes in Saskatoon for a few years at the community college.
After spending 23 years as a Long Range Subdivision Design Planner with the City of Saskatoon, Magon moved to Ottawa, Ontario in 1990 to change his career path. He joined CUPE’s National Office as their education senior officer writing courses for their Education Department and was soon appointed to their first ever National Anti-Racism Co-ordinator’s position for Canada’s largest union. He has held his current position for the last 21 years.
Through all these changes and moves, the one thing that remained constant was his culinary passion. Now, after coming to Ottawa, it reached a new high, thanks to his introduction to French cuisine and other European influences.
In his professional capacity, Magon has an insider’s understanding of Canada’s rapidly changing demographics. He points out, “Our population is aging, our birthrate is declining and with about 25% of the population retiring, the impact on our workforce will be significant and the question that needs to be addressed is that who will fill the vacancies in the wake of retiring baby boomers?” The answer he feels is that the new workers would come from the following three sources:
1. Immigration: The vast majority of immigrants are people of color and they are a principal source of our labour growth.
2. Aboriginal communities: Aboriginal peoples are the nation’s youngest and fastest growing human resource – growing at twice the rate as the rest of the population.
3. Young Canadians: (Gen X and Gen Y) 20% of 7 million Gen Xers are racialized persons and 1 in every 3 Gen Y is racialized. The fastest growing young cohort is Aboriginal.
According to Magon, a significant proportion of the changing demographics will come from groups who face systemic inequality in employment and face the glass ceiling thus the top ranks of corporate Canada are not representative of the country’s diverse population.
Maintaining this train of thought he continues, “Women still earn less than men in every sector of the economy and are still concentrated in ‘traditional’ jobs and in part time and temporary work. Women are more likely to have a university degree and are less likely to have senior management jobs.”
Magon also draws attention to the fact that unemployment amongst the racialized people is 8.6% vs. the national average of 6.2%. They earn 81% of what the rest of Canadians earn and are more likely to work in precarious temporary, part-time employment and you will see them concentrated in lower paying service, retail and manufacturing jobs.
“With the changing demographics it is crucial to raise awareness about under-representation of certain groups in Canadian workplaces and promote thinking on the impact of changing demographics and ever increasing diversity. Finally continue to build a stronger understanding of employment equity and representative workforce strategies,” he says.
Promoting and implementing Employment Equity Plans in the absence of legislation has been Magon’sstrongest pursuits, which he carries out across the country within CUPE that has over 600,000 members from coast to coast.
Even as he works on building representative workforces, however, he never loses sight of his other passion—cooking. As our conversation draws to a close, he says, “I am just finishing my first cookbook – ‘My Epicurean Journey’.”