From immigrant to MP: Three politicians reflect on their citizenship experience

Jennifer Ditchburn / The Canadian Press
June 29, 2014 10:13 AM

Jose Nunez-Melo, NDP MP for Laval, is shown outside the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday June 10, 2014. Canada Day often holds a special meaning for people who emigrated to the country — sometimes under difficult circumstances — and MPs are no exception. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - Canada Day often holds a special meaning for people who emigrated to the country — sometimes under difficult circumstances — and MPs are no exception.

Currently, there are 40 members of Parliament who were born elsewhere, in places such as Ivory Coast, Poland and India. The Canadian Press spoke to three of them about the experience of coming to Canada and becoming a citizen.

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Corneliu Chisu, Conservative MP for Pickering-Scarborough East

You've heard of the rugged Dos Equis beer guy, "The Most Interesting Man in the World?" MP Corneliu Chisu could easily be in the running for Most Interesting Man in the Commons.

Born in Transylvania, son of anti-Nazi freedom fighter. Member of the Romanian national fencing team as a student. Former Italian diplomat. Former honorary Moldovan diplomat. Served in Afghanistan for the Canadian Forces. And on it goes.

Initially, Chisu and his wife had wanted to leave behind Romania's brutal Ceausescu regime and settle in Italy, but it was the late 1970s, a time when the Red Brigades were terrorizing Rome.

Canada, they thought, offered the couple and their toddler daughter a better chance.

"I came to Canada in 1982 and actually it changed my life ... the system, the people were very nice, everything was very warm," Chisu recalls. "That was the first time that I felt that I was somehow home."

He quickly landed a job with the Italian trade commission in Toronto, but decided he wanted to beef up his engineering credentials with a master's degree. Within a decade he had become vice-president of Professional Engineers Ontario — and a Canadian citizen.

"Obviously, right away what you're thinking about is how do you give back to a country that is so nice to you, that is receiving you so well and given you a lot of opportunities that you didn't have in eastern Europe and western Europe?"

The answer for Chisu was the Canadian Forces. He enlisted in the army reserves in 1990, and a decade later joined the regular forces as an engineer. He served in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then in Afghanistan in 2007 building a hospital. Chisu is the only MP in the Commons that has been part of a combat mission.

Chisu returned from Afghanistan and became interested in politics. In 2011, he defeated a longtime Liberal incumbent in his first kick at the can.

"This demonstrates that you can be elected, you have all the possibilities in Canada to develop your full potential," says the unassuming 65-year-old.

"For that, I'm very, very happy."

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Jose Nunez-Melo, NDP MP for Laval

Nunez-Melo is one of only a handful of Hispanic Canadians who have sat in the House of Commons. The 57-year-old hails from a country many Canadians know well, and whose emigres carry considerable weight in American domestic politics — the Dominican Republic.

It was love that motivated Nunez-Melo's move away from the Caribbean. He met his wife while he was working in his country's tourism industry as a marketing graduate. In 1990, the couple moved to the Montreal area.

"I will tell you frankly that the first years were not really quite easy," said Nunez-Melo. "I came at the end of summer, and maybe that wasn't a good idea because I got to know about the whole line of beers from Canada."

As he dealt with the shock of his first winter in Canada, Nunez-Melo set about learning his third language — French.

"I did it quickly, I went to school, I learned by myself," he said. "I completed all the (high school) courses that are required for French as a second language in one year."

With the language under his belt, Nunez-Melo tackled getting a recognized degree. He went to Montreal's Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales for a management degree, and diploma in transportation logistics from McGill University.

Soon, he was working for the Department of National Defence as a civilian, and then for Quebec's revenue department.

Nunez-Melo is celebrating his 20th anniversary of citizenship this year. He beams as he recounts his election in 2011, and being feted by the Dominican community in Canada.

"They were happy, they were proud to say that for the first time they had a Dominican representative in the House of Commons."

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Emmanuel Dubourg, Liberal MP for the riding of Bourassa

Emmanuel Dubourg carries his late mother's ring wherever he goes, to remind him of the sacrifices she made to ensure his success. Dubourg, 55, emigrated to Montreal in 1974 from Haiti.

"When my father died, I was three months old, and my mother with seven kids never remarried," says Dubourg.

"At the time, none of the kids worked. She, with her sewing machine, allowed all the kids to go to school. She had to leave school to allow us to go to school."

Dubourg's three elder brothers were the first in the family to make the move to Montreal, while he studied in a Quebec-managed school in Haiti. He later followed with his mother and three sisters, and settled into the same riding he now represents.

"That December, there was a party at school and I didn't want to wear my coat because I had a nice jacket and went out to that party," he recalls.

"When I came back I had caught pneumonia, and my mother was there to take care of me with Haitian rum, Vicks ... it was something else."

Dubourg became something of an academic overachiever. He got an accounting degree from Montreal's Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM), and then went on to get his MBA, and his certification as both a management and general accountant.

He landed a position within Quebec's revenue department, and also taught accounting at different schools in the province. In 2007, he was elected to Quebec's national assembly and six years later decided to try his luck in a federal byelection.

Dubourg, 55, said his citizenship ceremony in the early 1980s didn't mark him as much as the congratulatory certificate he received from the MP at the time, the late Carlo Rossi. He's held on to it all these years, and hung it on the wall of his constituency office.

"When people get their citizenship now, instead of sending them a certificate I invite them to my office and have a little reception and show them my certificate and say, 'You see what's possible here in Canada. Look, 40 years later, it's me that's signing the letter."'


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