Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan joined the Citizens’ Forum last November at the invitation of Chairman Keith Spicer and took early retirement from the Citizen after 25 years of service. At the time of his retirement, he was a member of the editorial board.
It’s early morning and the express bus to downtown is speeding along the Queensway. From my seat I see the Ottawa Citizen building. My former colleagues are already at work. I catch a glimpse of what used to be my office. A flood of memories swirls through my mind.
Last year was one of anniversaries and change for me. Twenty-six years ago, I married the world’s nicest girl. Twenty-six years ago, I came to the world’s finest country. Twenty-six years ago, I joined the Ottawa Citizen.
My introduction to Canada was heart-warming. When I decided to move to Canada from Pakistan, I wrote to several papers. Almost all the replies were positive.
After arriving in Ottawa on Nov. 29, 1965, I went to the Ottawa Citizen. The editor of the day, Christopher Young, consulted the managing editor, Bill MacPherson. Their decision: They had no vacancy, but would hire me anyway. Could I start tomorrow? I joined on Dec. 3.
Now I smile as I recall my first visit to Canada. It was 1958. As a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I was invited to Port Huron to give a speech. After my speech I was asked if I’d like to visit Canada. ”Sure,” I responded, and they took me to Sarnia. We had a cup of tea, said goodbye to Canada and returned to Michigan.
After completing my studies in the U.S., I went back to Pakistan and had a satisfying professional life _ working for five years alongside the editor in the Morning News, an English-language daily.
Then the Pakistan government formed the National Press Trust in 1965 and took over control of Morning News. The idea was flawless _ why should the newspapers be owned by rich landlords or business magnates who’d use them for their own purposes? Why shouldn’t they be owned by the people through their government and serve the people’s best interests?
But splendid ideas don’t always work out in real life. The government took over the paper and began tampering with the news, the staff and the editorial policy. I decided to move.
But why go to Canada, which I didn’t know, rather than the U.S., where I had studied and had professional contacts? The answer lies in the Canadians I had met in Karachi.
I thought of Raymond Robert, a second secretary at the Canadian high commission. A young French Canadian, he had a heart attack but had the time to write his will. He decreed that his cook in Karachi be sent by the Canadian government for a pilgrimage in Mecca with the expenses to be paid by Robert’s estate.
I had very good American friends, too. But I thought it best to raise my family in a clean, serene place unpolluted by crime, racism and other vices. Professionally, I wouldn’t go as far in Canada as in the U.S. but Canada would be best for the family.
Looking back, I have no regrets. I gave my job at the Citizen one hundred per cent. Visible minorities, merely to survive, have to work harder. Since I don’t drink or dance and thus was handicapped socially, this had to be made up by the quality, and quantity, of my work.
When I selected letters to the editor, I developed new insights into the problems, aspirations and thinking of the common people. I read every letter and published as many as I could. In this complex, often cruel world, voiceless people should be encouraged to speak out and reach out to others.
Canada and the world have changed greatly since I came here. In 1965, our prime minister was Lester B. Pearson; John Diefenbaker was leader of the Opposition. Don Reid was our mayor, John Robarts our premier, Russ Jackson the Rough Rider quarterback. The Rough Riders used to go to Grey Cups then, and even won occasionally.
We bought our first house in 1966 for around $24,500, a single home in Beacon Hill North. The Citizen building was ran between Queen and Sparks Streets, near O’Connor, in downtown Ottawa. The Ottawa Journal used to compete with us vigorously. I remember someone at school asked my son, Azfar, ”So your father is a journalist.” ”No,” he replied, in indignation, ”he is not a Journalist. He is a Citizenist.”
Ottawa was a rather small city those days. There was no transitway, no Bayshore or St. Laurent shopping centre, no National Arts Centre.
What existed were friendly, warm people _ many of whom were at the Citizen. But the most rewarding part of my 25 years in Canada has been my family life, thanks in part to living in a friendly, clean place like Ottawa.
My wife, to keep busy, started working as a psychoeducational consultant. Not content with that, she did her B.A. all over again, and then her M.A. Now she is pursuing her doctorate. My mother became lonely after my father’s passing. But her grandchildren dote on her and I teach her English in the evenings. She is quite a learned person, in her own language, but learning English has given her a new incentive, something to look forward to each day and to enjoy.
As for our children, we have always been very close. We try to teach them our cherished values _ integrity, hard work, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood, justice, love of knowledge, respect for others, care for the weak and the needy.
They teach us the complexities of today’s technology and the benefits of growing up in Ottawa, with people from diverse cultures and different backgrounds. Their common sense reminds us every day that we have much to learn from youth, if we’d only listen. At our house, there is no generation gap. We are all close friends and comforts to each other.
To the extent that I am dwelling only on the positive aspects of my link with the Citizen, and Canada, this article may be somewhat misleading. But I have always taken a positive approach in life. It’s not that I am unrealistic. But I feel that we should not only complain about what may go wrong in life but also appreciate the blessings that the Creator bestows on us every day.
In the bus going to downtown, I gave my seat to a girl who had been standing. When she left, I took my seat again. The person sitting next to me said he used to give his seat to women also when he first came from England. But very few thanked him for that, or for opening the door for them, and he gave up. I asked him: ”Do you live your life according to the standards you have chosen, or are your standards hostage to other people’s behavior? In other words, who decides how you behave _ you or other people?”
But now, in the bus and elsewhere, my thoughts are not so much on the past as on the present and the future. At my former boss Keith Spicer’s invitation, I joined the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future late last November.
When he hired me, he made two statements that describe the job perfectly. First he said: ”The people across the country are disillusioned and need to be heard and need to talk to each other. We need healing in this country. The country needs that.”
When I accepted, he laughed and said: ”You are crazy, and so am I.”
When I first joined the Forum I thought the chances of its success were no more than 20 per cent. Now I think our chances are 70 or perhaps 80 per cent. Why? Because the people, after expressing extreme skepticism and their distrust of Prime Minister Mulroney, Chairman Spicer, the commissioners and the Forum itself, are now speaking their minds, because they love their country and want it to survive and to flourish.
The Forum office is a microcosm of the real Canada. We have people from all walks of life, regions and cultures. What unites us is our love for Canada and our being Canadian. So everyone, starting with Keith Spicer, puts in impossible hours and experiences, every day, hope and despair, frustration and exhilaration, confusion and clarity, and plods on ahead.
However, the clock keeps ticking. Very shortly the Forum will complete its task and then disband. Its staff members will say goodbye to each other and go their separate ways. But Canada will not be the same again; nor will the people who worked in the Forum. They will remember for all of their lives these hectic months together, when Canada called and they responded without hesitation _ no matter what the results.
The only problem is that my mother’s English lessons are suffering because I often work long hours and on weekends. ”What kind of a job is this,” she asks me. ”Are you avoiding me?”
My wife Mishat, and my daughter Sadaf, sometimes teach her English when she has missed classes for two or three days. But for my mother this is not the same as my teaching her. For a mother, there is no substitute for attention from her son.