Real Community Conversations

Part One: Miltonians share their immigration stories

What it means to be Canadian

Photo by Stacey Newman

On January 27, American president Donald Trump issued an executive order—an immigration ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries. Rallies and protests took place around the world in response to the order. While creating uncertainty for travellers, the order has also ignited discussions in Canada around isolationism and immigration.

We are not immune to racism and discrimination in Canada. On January 29, a shooting in a Quebec City mosque left six dead and nineteen injured. As a people, Canadians largely responded by reiterating our commitment to diversity and multiculturalism. Vigils and services were held in municipalities across the country including Milton, as neighbours and friends offered their condolences and stood in solidarity against hate. As one of Canada’s fastest-growing and most diverse municipalities, Milton is home to many Canadian immigrants.

In this series, we bring you some of their stories.

Jeanne Robinson of Milton
Milton, Ontario – Jeanne Robinson holds a photograph taken of her and her siblings after landing in Canada by boat at Halifax in 1957.

Jeanne Robinson was given the name Tana at birth. Born into the Nedelkos family in a rural region of Greece near the Yugoslavian border, Robinson’s family experienced extreme poverty. Two of her siblings died in infancy due to malnutrition. Robinson’s older brother has told her that he remembers being hungry; there were days the family would not eat. Robinson’s father was a rural farm hand. Paid in kind, he would bring home food items for the family. It was a hard life for women in particular. “Our culture did not respect women,” says Robinson. Women lived with their husbands’ families, and they “kept their heads down and worked.” Robinson vividly remembers her mother’s instruction that women simply “had to endure.” In 1956, inspired by an uncle living in Canada, Robinson’s father left Greece for Canada to find work. One year later, Robinson, her siblings and their mother made the transoceanic voyage to Canada. They were dressed in new clothes bought with the last of the family’s money. They entered Canada via Halifax in 1957.

Robinson’s father registered Robinson and her brother in school. The school’s secretary refused to record their given names. The secretary told Robinson’s father that their names were “too ethnic” as were the earrings Robinson was wearing and the lunch of feta cheese and bread she and her brother had brought to school. It was then that Robinson became Jeanne. She recalls, on her way home from school as a child, being chased and being called a maggot—she didn’t know what a maggot was. “I was dark-skinned, I tanned easily and all I wanted was to be white.” Like most children and teenagers, she wanted to fit in. Growing up was difficult. Robinson talks about receiving a pair of shoes as a child. The shoes were shiny, black and had soles reinforced in metal. Robinson loved the sound of the shoes on the ground when she walked; she was so proud of how beautiful they were. Wearing the shoes to school, she was ridiculed and taunted for wearing what turned out to be secondhand tap shoes. She wouldn’t have known what tap shoes were. At the time having newer shoes at all seemed remarkable.

Jeanne Robinson’s father in the army, when he left Greece, and when he became a Canadian.

Surrounded by families of similar origins in Toronto, Robinson lived with one foot rooted in her family heritage and another in the life she imagined for herself—to be a mother, a teacher and to work. “I used to talk back to my dad. I am the oldest girl and I didn’t keep quiet. I wasn’t allowed to wear pants or to go swimming. My classmates could not be boys.” Robinson laughs as she describes sneaking out. She would swim, she wore red lipstick and she would do “all the things that she could do as a girl living in Canada.” Robinson talks about growing up in what was very much an in-between world. Her parents had moved the family to Canada for a different and better life, yet Robinson describes a sense of frustration she often felt because of their resistance to change.

The Nedelkos family leaving for Canada. Seen here at a train station in Greece, saying goodbye to their relatives.

“We never had Christmas. We looked out the window at Christmas and at first, we didn’t know what it was. People threw out old presents on Boxing Day, we would go and get them and Dad would fix them. We had poor friends on the street in the same boat. The other kids on the street were kind and our neighbours helped us.” According to her parents, girls weren’t to attend school beyond grade 10. Robinson chose to get married at 17. “I got married to get out of the house. I wanted to go to school so badly, to work with kids with disabilities, maybe as a teacher. I wanted to get married so I could wear a bathing suit.” Robinson and her husband were told they could not have children; they adopted twin boys. Her husband was abusive. In 1981, Robinson left him and she became a single mom. Robinson endured misfortune as she was taught to do.

Robinson put herself through school. It took years, but she became a teacher and she worked with children with special needs. She remarried and had her daughter with her second husband, who passed away suddenly in his fifties. She once again endured.

The lessons learned, the hardships, the joys, and the achievements: Robinson spent ten years on the road as a motivational speaker, she spoke to women’s groups in shelters, in schools, to Boy Scout troops and their leaders, and to the Halton Teachers Association. She was the president of a union, and she did a lot of marching—for fairness, equality, for her rights, and the rights of all people. “I thought I had marched enough. Obviously, I haven’t….”

Robinson says that her parents softened as they aged—her father passed away at the age of 73 years and her mother at 83 years. Robinson moved to Milton in 1984. She was remarried again and today she and her husband are very proud grandparents. Robinson has 35 people in her immediate family. She and her husband host family dinners and the nieces and nephews gather around; they want to hear the old stories.

Jeanne Robinson’s mother at age 16 or 17, with her brother and cousin.
Arriving in Halifax, 1957
Jeanne Robinson looks at a framed picture of her family’s arrival in Halifax in 1957.

The immigration experience has shaped every aspect of her life; Robinson is imbued with a solid sense of self and a profound appreciation for diversity. Her husband is of First Nations descent and she says “he would tell you sad stories about the residential schools with his mom and growing up around social ills.” She acknowledges the parallels between being “washed of her ethnicity” when she registered in school in the 1950s and what residential school survivors endured. She raised her children to seek opportunities which broadened their horizons. She has two daughters-in-law, one is from Vietnam and the other is from China. Her son-in-law is of Trinidadian heritage. Like so many immigrants, Robinson is fluent in a number of languages. She speaks Yugoslavian, Greek-Macedonian, ASL, and English.

Gone are the days where any little girl should be told: “Take those earrings out of your ears and you’re not eating feta cheese at school.” The tap shoes? Robinson removed them that day as a child and she walked home in her socks.

Robinson is a Canadian. What does she think about Trump’s ban on immigration? “I’m sickened by the hate mongering. He [Trump] is talking about us. He is talking about my mother and father.” Robinson says, “We have a long way to go but we have achieved a lot as a society. We are all one; we support diversity in our town here in Milton.”


Look for part two in our series on immigration stories from Milton next week.