Kanta Naik was born on December 14, 1951, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe- her parents originally hailing from the state of Gujrat, India. She grew up alongside her three sisters and two brothers. She had a very unique childhood in Zimbabwe, which was known as Southern Rhodesia at the time, under British rule. She recalls that the country was largely divided into three different streams- the Europeans, the mixed race/Asians, and the African people. The group that an individual belonged to dictated everything, from their schooling, to future employment opportunities.
Her father first immigrated to Zimbabwe from India to work for a South Asian individual who had recently opened a spice shop in Zimbabwe. This individual came to Zimbabwe to work in the sugar canes.
Kanta describes growing up in Zimbabwe to be interesting as she belonged to a small Indian community where the majority of people were African. However, the whole region was ruled by a small minority of European people, as Southern Rhodesia was a colony of Britain. She grew up in a region with a fair bit of racial tension, although she recalls that she did not feel it as she was growing up. She describes her surroundings as a ‘lovely, close-knit community,’ where they would all gather to celebrate cultural celebrations and weddings. They would also gather and have Gujarati schooling in the afternoon. There were only around fifty Indian families in the country.
The Southern Rhodesian school system was also divided into three streams- the Europeans, the mixed race/Asians, and the African people. Each stream varied in a variety of ways, with the Europeans having the most funding in their system- nearly eighty percent of the funding went to the European descent students. However, the educational system throughout the tiers modelled the British system, with the medium being English.
Kanta recalls an eye-opening experience during her time in high school. When she was in the twelfth grade she saw firsthand the discrimination that happened in Southern Rhodesia. Kanta was the head girl of her large high school during the year when the Bulawayo Junior Council was formed. This council would take two students from each of the high schools and have them participate. Kanta and a boy named John Marshal were chosen from their school to participate. However, this created a big complication because Kanta and John were not permitted to use the facilities at the city hall. As such, they had to relocate to another place. She also recalls that for sports, they would always play on their school grounds because if they played on a European school’s school grounds, they would not be permitted to use the washrooms.
This particular school system largely impacted Kanta’s future career choices. Upon completing high school she had only had three options to choose from- either she could be a nurse at a mixed/Asian hospital, be a secretary for a mixed/Asian businessman, or she could work as a teacher for a mixed/Asian school. She ended up working as a teacher, particularly because she did not like the sight of blood- ruling out the possibility of becoming a nurse and she was unable to type, which ruled out the possibility of becoming a secretary.
Kanta attended a teaching college which was affiliated to the University of Rhodesia, Harare. The three-year programme was from Birmingham, England, meaning that they trained just like an individual in Britain would have. Upon completion of the course there was a return of service in teaching because the government provided funding for schooling to those who received it.
Kanta continued to reside in Zimbabwe until her marriage at the age of 24. Her marriage brought her over to the neighbouring country of Zambia, where her husband was born and raised. They had met through mutual friends; particularly because her soon-to-be brother-in-law was married to a girl from Zimbabwe. She established her life in Zambia, raising two small children and working in the educational field as a teacher.
Life as a woman in Zambia was unique for Kanta. Although she married into an Indian family where there were clear roles she was expected to play, her mother-in-law was a very good role model to her. She was an advanced thinker who was a feminist back then. For example, although Kanta had a driver’s license, she never thought she would drive in Zambia due to the poor road conditions, but it was her mother-in-law who was humorous and encouraged her to drive, saying ‘I’ll push and you drive.’
However, the future in Zambia appeared bleak, for a variety of reasons. For example, although Zambia gained independence in 1964, times were still very difficult- particularly economically. Individuals did not have work experience for certain jobs as they had been placed in a certain stream based on their race for their whole lives. Furthermore, Zambia relied heavily on copper as a source of funding. As the copper prices dropped it became a problem for the country. Kanta recalls having large bars placed around the exterior of her home for security purposes. Soon, Kanta and her husband, Ashok became uncertain about the future of their children. To Kanta, the three most important aspects of life are health, safety and education, which were heavily shaped their decision to move to Canada.
Initially, Kanta’s credentials were not recognized in Canada. The BC College of Teachers identified some gaps in her training and so she had to take a couple of additional courses for preparation. Kanta had received an international education in Spain- a university in the US offered satellite courses in Spain specifically for sub-Saharan African teachers so they could teach at the US embassy. Kanta went through this program which took three summers as well as attending six weeks of classes in Spain.
So, she packed up her bags, and Kanta, her two young children (aged fourteen and ten) and her husband headed over to Canada where they landed on August 6, 1992. She remembers the move from country to country being a big day as her entire family was very excited. Kanta was specifically struck by the beauty of the country and how clean everything seemed. Back in Zambia and Zimbabwe, things were very dusty due to the sand. She also remembered the people being friendly and the way that everything functioned systematically and efficiently in Canada.
Kanta’s brother-in-law had already settled in Canada earlier for similar reasons. As such, he sponsored Kanta’s family to come to Canada where they stayed with him for three weeks in Coquitlam. After that, her family moved over to Port Coquitlam, where they resided in a small apartment waiting to see where their careers would take them. When Kanta was able to get a job with the Abbotsford School District as a teacher they all moved to Abbotsford, BC.
She recalls experiencing culture shock even though she didn’t think she would be due to her past experience working as a teacher for students whose guardians worked at an American Embassy. In the end, the little things made the biggest difference to her. For example, the Canadian freeways had many lanes whereas the roads back in her home country were often composed of two lanes. The speed limit was also much higher in Canada. The first time they went to a supermarket- Overwaitea- her family was so overwhelmed by the selection that they had to leave the store and come back with their sister-in-law. Although her children missed their friends, they adjusted quickly and seamlessly, partially due to their young age.
Kanta started working as a teacher at Bakerview Elementary in Abbotsford and felt as though she was fortunate to obtain this job. It was at a time when there were several lay-offs. Due to her specialty training with English Second Language (ESL) however, she was able to obtain a job. Later on, she was able to be promoted to vice-principal and principal positions at a variety of different schools.
Meanwhile, her husband, Ashok was not as fortunate. He was unable to find a job in his original field of business, so he shifted around a variety of different jobs over the course of his working career. Initially, he found it difficult to get a job. Although there would be many job postings, when he would show up to interview, the employer would tell him that the job was full. This made Ashok wonder if it had something to do with the colour of the skin, although Kanta recalls that it could have been due to the recession taking place at the time as well.
Kanta recalls interacting with First Nations people through her line of work and being very appreciative of the cultural aspect and the philosophical aspect, including their respect for earth and the environment. She enjoys all her associations with them and the way that they have a lot to offer.
She feels lucky to have felt respected and valued for her line of work with the Abbotsford School District, and does not recall facing any racism or discrimination. She felt at par with her colleagues and is happy to have belonged to an organization with a lovely group of people who are open to diversity. She is very proud of the Abbotsford School District and hopes to support them in any way possible, particularly because she values them greatly as an organization.
Some members of her family including her sister and two brothers continue to live in Zimbabwe where the country is currently facing some difficult times. For example, they often experience enormous power cuts. Her sister, who lives in Harare, has to wake up in the middle of the night when the power comes on to cook food. The local currency has become greatly devalued. Kanta has visited her home country a few times and recalls it as being lovely, particularly because it was the place where she was born and raised in.
Kanta has travelled extensively throughout BC, from ferry trips across the province as well as driving up and down. Whenever she has company that visits from overseas, she enjoys taking them on road trips, particularly to go see the Rocky Mountains.
Currently, she is very proud of her children, who both attended university. Her daughter, Roshni, ran a jewelry business for a number of years and is currently working on raising her two children. Her son, Shamir, works in the IT industry.
Outside of work, Kanta has participated in a book club for 23 years, which first began as a group of teacher friends. Even now, there are still around seven of the original members. They meet about once a month where they read a new book, as well as do a variety of activities, ranging from hiking, travelling, and road trips. As part of Kanta’s retirement trip, the group travelled throughout India. They started in Karnataka and went up to Gujurat, heading through Rajasthan and all the way up to the Taj Majal and back. Kanta feels as though the best way to visit countries is through road trips.
Through her visits to India she was surprised to find that she feels as though she is at home. Even though she had never been there, she felt an interesting pull towards India, which she had not expected to find. Being back in Gujrat where her parents were born, and where people spoke the local language made her feel a sense of belonging.
Kanta feels as though much has changed in Canada since she first arrived. She feels as though there is a greater awareness of the contributions of newcomers. She currently works with an organization that helps settle newcomer families to Abbotsford and is involved in planning events to make Abbotsford a more inclusive place. Nowadays, she has been retired from the school district since 2017. She spends a lot of time with family. This includes staying busy with three grandchildren and a new baby grandson, who is currently four months old. Part of her work with the settlement group has her working on a committee called the Abbotsford Local Immigration Partnership Council, which is where people still go to talk about the needs of newcomers and how the local community can respond appropriately to these needs. She enjoys looking at the exhibits at the Reach, as well as attending a program called ‘The Three C’s’, which stands for coffee, cookies, and culture. Here, a group of individuals gather for an hour program on a topic of interest.
Kanta hopes to send the message to the youth that they can do anything that they put their mind to, and that ‘if you can’t help something, at least do no harm.’ Although youth should have personal goals that they should try and achieve, life is so much more than that.