Our Story

Newmarket Law Firm

I came to Canada fleeing from Guyana as a young girl with my parents. Guyana is in South America and borders on Venezuela to the west and Brazil to the south. It was December 29, 1980. It was the depths of winter.

We were fleeing the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham (20 February 1923 – 6 August 1985) who was the first Prime Minister of Guyana, from 1964 to 1980. He also served as its second President from 1980 to 1985.

As the dictatorship tightened its grip on civil liberties, people who disagreed with the political regime and people with means still found ways to leave—a “brain drain.” This notwithstanding, people who were educated in strategic industries and sectors as well as the government were not allowed to leave.

My dad was one of those high-level government employees who was not allowed to leave. We had a government-provided chauffeur and he was likely reporting to someone higher up about our comings and goings. We knew our phones were tapped and that the government was listening to our conversations. No question, we were being monitored. I went to one of the top private schools in Guyana, along with one of the prime minister’s daughters.

One way that the government controlled those who may have had ideas of leaving was by imposing currency restrictions. Although we had money, we could not take large sums out of the bank without arousing suspicion.

My mother worked as a secretary for CARICOM, a group of 20 developing countries in the Caribbean. This meant she could travel internationally within other Caribbean countries as part of her work. Every time she travelled, she would take money and open bank accounts in various countries. You cannot escape without money.

It was a time when people could not speak against the government of Guyana, even jokingly. If you spoke out, you just kind of disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. And people quickly figured out that it was a bad idea to ask “whatever happened to so-and-so?” People understood that their family, friends, neighbours, and acquaintances were abducted in the middle of the night.

The other thing we understood was that the people who were first abducted died a violent and painful death. We heard rumours and proof of torture. One favourite means of torture was ants. The body is smeared with honey and ants are set loose. The ants like to eat the honey but also inflict painful stings. It is well documented that the Bullet Ant, native to the Amazon, is the largest of all ant species and has a sting that is 30 times more painful than a bee’s—and it lasts 12 hours. It comes in waves and people drift in and out of consciousness.

There were also reports of people being tortured with lit cigarettes being put to their genitals. And also common beatings as well as deprivation of food and water. It is impossible to know how many people were killed because the government didn’t acknowledge these killings or the abductions.

There were also reports of people being tortured with lit cigarettes being put to their genitals. And also common beatings as well as deprivation of food and water. It is impossible to know how many people were killed because the government didn’t acknowledge these killings or the abductions.

My father wanted to leave, to give me and my brother a better life. He knew we could not stay in Guyana. We could not give any outward signs that we were leaving, like selling our house or other property. We left it all behind.

As well, it was a risk for all of us—my parents and my other two siblings—to travel together. So, we came up with a story that we were going on vacation to Barbados. We all had return tickets.

I was particularly stressed during the flight because I told my best friend that we were leaving. We weren’t supposed to tell anyone! What would have happened if we had been caught? If we were turned back, it would have been all my fault. I felt so guilty about this, for years.

Once we reached Barbados, we bought tickets to Toronto. My aunt, who was already living in Toronto, met us at the airport with an armful of old coats. We only had summer clothes and it was snowing. And all five of us lived in a 1-bedroom apartment in my grandmother’s house for six months.

Then, my dad could not find a job because he had no Canadian experience. It was my mother who supported all of us by taking a secretarial position. My mother put food on the table.

I learned that the Rule of Law was so, so important to a country and its citizens. I came from a country where the law was abused and used to oppress others. It turns out that democracies are fragile. Citizens must be vigilant and involved.

Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” He had an excellent point, I think.

We can all do something to correct injustice in the world. That’s why I wanted to become a lawyer, to give a voice to people who didn’t have one. I wanted to help people who could not help themselves.

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