By Samuel Getachew
I spent many a winter nights traveling on the TTC or in coffee shops to keep warm.
After my testimony a few years ago before a Senate Committee, the Department of Justice undertook to get over 600 of its senior lawyers to take mandatory anti-racism education. That’s a good start.
The deficit of good leadership among our politicians is obvious.
Mark Persaud has had a storied Canadian life so far. The noted lawyer and social activist have been involved in many worthwhile causes in Canada and abroad. Generation Next caught up with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal winning citizen as he reflects on his immigration to Canada, his many activism work in the community and the many challenges he has faced in the past.
Mark – You have had a storied Canadian life. Tell us about your journey so far?
I was a student activist involved in opposing the government at the time in my country of origin. Like thousands of others, I fled the civil and political unrest after the assassination of the leader of the political party I supported. The regime was also targetting all its political opponents. I came toCanadato seek safety. The plan was to stay inCanadaand eventually join my family in theUnited States. We were awaiting American visas to immigrate there but I was at risk so my family sent me toCanada. The regime in my country of origin only permitted us to leave with $200 ( Can $80.59).
How was it like being an immigrant to Canada?
My immigration status inCanadadid not allow me to work or receive any form of social assistance so I ended up homeless on the streets ofToronto. I spent many a winter nights traveling on the TTC or in coffee shops to keep warm.
Eventually, I swallowed my pride and went to the Scott Mission in Toronto to get a winter jacket to keep warm after someone told me to go there. At the Scott Mission I met Eileen Browne who took a personal interest in me and eventually found me a place to live. She became a second mother to me and I credit her for literally saving my life.
Once I had shelter, I decided to volunteer with various organizations as I was not permitted to work. I focused on assisting new comers toCanadabecause of my personal harsh experiences.
Tell us about the organization you started to assist refugees?
I started an organization to assist refugees which was supported and funded by the United Church of Canada. We provided counseling and settlement services to refugees from around the world. It was the first organization of its kind and I was barely out of my teenage years and running this important organization.
We established a transition home for new refugee claimants toCanadaso that they would not end up living on the streets like I did. They would live with us while we assisted them with settlement services. I also volunteered with other organizations during this time including with Amnesty International and as an executive member of the Toronto Refugee Affairs Council.
You are now a noted Lawyer and you have made serious racism charges against the Department of Justice in the past. Tell us about that?
I went on to study at York University, Harvard University and Osgoode Hall Law School where I received both my LL.B. and LL.M. law degrees. I worked as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice where I had to deal with institutionalized racism and discrimination.
Foolishly, perhaps, I decided to expose and fight against it and I paid a heavy personal and professional price. Standing up for the right things could be costly as I found out. It took a great toll on my personal and family life and affected my health. But it was the right thing to do and on reflection I am happy I did the right thing. After my testimony a few years ago before a Senate Committee, the Department of Justice undertook to get over 600 of its senior lawyers to take mandatory anti-racism education. That’s a good start.
While we are blessed to be living in a wonderful country, the reality is, as recognized by our highest courts and numerous studies, discrimination and racism is a reality for many minorities. A lot of it is subtle, insidious and systemic as opposed to being overt. Our human rights legislation and procedures lack teeth to adequately protect minorities. Other countries including the United States are way ahead of us in offering meaningful remedies against discrimination and violation of civil liberties. We should all commit to changing this regrettable fact so that future generations are better protected.
My personal experiences and my work with refugees cemented my interest in law. I determined that I wanted to be an advocate for those that are powerless and vulnerable. I was inspired by some of the female lawyers who worked with refugees. Today, I love being a lawyer and adjunct law professor and am delighted that I made this choice. I strongly recommend law as a career to university students many of whom I have mentored over the years. Even if a traditional law career is not desired or pursued, the education and training allows you to develop very valuable skills that are transferable to other vocations.
You have been involved in many worthwhile causes in the past. Share with us your experience
As an idealist, though more of a practical idealist in recent years, I have devoted an enormous amount of time to creating, advising and volunteering with numerous organizations. I have had the privilege of working with many diverse communities over the years and as a result I am uniquely equipped and experienced to engage in novel and groundbreaking initiatives because of the relationships and trust that I have earned. These initiatives have been at both the domestic and international level such as unprecedented bridge building projects between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Canada and bringing together diverse Canadian communities to work on a novel project in Afghanistan.
You have also been involved in policies for a long time?
I have devoted many years to politics. I was twice elected to the national executive of a national political party. I have chaired political campaigns at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. I have advised senior politicians. However, I have become very disillusioned with the state of Canadian politics. The deficit of good leadership among our politicians is obvious.
I am now more interested in the emergence of a new generation of principled and talented civic and political leaders especially from diverse communities to replace the current old style destructive politics that permeates our diverse communities and Canada in general. This will require a herculean effort on the part of Canadians of all political stripes if we are to emerge from the current morass.
I am always willing to commit to this as a patriotic Canadian who loves his country and is deeply concerned about its future.