By Ray Ramalho
I have vague memories of my early years in Guyana. Born at the height of the Second World War, though, I remember food being scarce, particularly flour. Fast forward to the mid-1980s and flour is in abundance at the Pizza Pizza store in Brampton, Ont., my family runs. Although I’m now retired, I’m proof a newcomer to Canada can be their own boss, thanks to plenty of determination, a good work ethic and the support of a strong team.
Growing up in Guyana
The eldest of six children, I was born in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, an English-speaking colony located on the Atlantic Ocean coast of South America at the mouth of the Demerara River. My family tree stretches across the ocean, though, to the Portuguese island of Madeira in the north Atlantic where all four of my grandparents were born.
My father was the manager in a family-owned rum distillery. When I was about eight years old, the company transferred him to Berbice, a region southeast of Georgetown, to open its distribution centre in New Amsterdam. Two years later, our family moved back to the capital.
Education was important to my parents, which is why they enrolled me in Saint Stanislaus College in 1952, a Jesuit-run, all-boys prep school located in Georgetown. The only language taught in schools at the time was English. Looking back now, I think I lost out on my Portuguese heritage by not learning to speak the language. I remember my grandparents speaking Portuguese at family dinners and my siblings and I not being able to understand them.
I enjoyed school, but when my father died in 1958 of a heart attack, I became the breadwinner of the family. I was only 15 years old at the time, but had to grow up really fast, entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of my mother and five siblings. Fortunately, I was able to get a job as a clerk at the same rum distillery where my father had worked. The support and kindness we were shown during this difficult time was immeasurable. I was determined to make my father proud and over the next few years, I worked my way up, first in sales and then distribution. By the time I left Guyana for Canada in 1972, I was the company’s assistant secretary accountant.
At 19 years of age, I met my wife, Joan, and we married two years later. At the time, Georgetown was a fairly small city, and although our families did not know one another personally, it turned out our mothers’ stayed in neighbouring rooms at the hospital where Joan and I were both born, though a day apart. We like to say we started life out together. It was pretty much love at first sight. Although we were both dating other people when we met, we soon left those relationships behind. By 1964, we were husband and wife.
The first few years were a little tough. Back then, married women were expected to be stay-at-home moms, looking after the household and raising children. Although I had a steady job, it was difficult to make enough to support our growing family, which by 1969 included our daughters, Sandra and Sharon, and our son, Stephen. My father-in-law, who was in the restaurant business and owned an ice cream factory, helped us immensely.
My mother and all five of my siblings immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s and my first trip abroad came on the occasion of my brother’s wedding in 1971. I didn’t really consider following in their footsteps at first, but with the political climate in Guyana becoming difficult due to racial tensions following its independence from Britain in 1966, Joan and I decided to leave our home and join the family in Toronto. We were among the thousands of Guyanese who left the country in a mass exodus to places like Canada, the U.S., England and Australia.
Arriving in Canada in 1972, I set out to find a job as quickly as possible and secured an apartment in Toronto’s east end. Joan and the kids stayed behind while she sold our house and tied up loose ends. When they arrived a few months later, I was working for Seaway/Midwest Ltd., a public warehousing company that was a subsidiary of Molson. Landing that job wasn’t easy. As a newcomer to the country, I had many doors slammed in my face, so to speak, as I didn’t have any work experience in Canada. It was also quite frustrating, as I couldn’t give an employer what they wanted until someone actually hired me. A family friend was able to recommend me to Seaway, which was located on Kipling Avenue in Toronto’s west end. (Coincidentally, Seaway is across the street from Pizza Pizza’s head office in Etobicoke.)
Our children were still young at the time, and my wife and I decided she would be a stay-at-home mom, using the savings we brought with us from Guyana to subsidize my income.
In 1974, I was transferred to a new warehouse location in north Etobicoke. It was around this time I began thinking about moving to Bramalea, Ont., a community north of Mississauga. My wife didn’t take to Bramalea when I first drove her out there, though. I can still recall her saying she was not interested in ‘living in the country,’ which I suppose is what Bramalea was back then. But just a few years later, she changed her mind after touring a brand new townhouse. I had just been promoted to supervisor, so things were going well for us. The long commute every day was also getting to me.