A PATHFINDER’S STORY
Grant’s Desi Achiever
Kanta Arora, ENTREPRENEUR, COMMUNITY LEADER
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Kanta Arora has many firsts to her credit. She was the first Indian woman appointed to Ontario Social Assistance Review Board (SARB) in 1985. She launched the first Hindi talk show in Canada. She is the founder of several community organizations that have been recognized for their stellar work.
Arora launched cultural hubs at school boards that organized activity days and heritage days. They would take saris, bindis and ethnic clothes and help children play dress up. They took traditional treats to school on Eid and Diwali, etc., and introduced students to flavours from across the world.
She worked with politicians and social workers on issues that affect women. She visited hospitals and shelters for battered women and helped change the ways organizations met their dietary and cultural needs.
She arranged a series of personal hygiene programs for new immigrant parents and students. “When funds are limited one may have only a limited set of outfits to wear. I used to talk to parents and tell them not to cook just before sending their kids to school, to hang their jackets inside out to help air them – otherwise they are taking fish and garlic with them and will likely get teased for being smelly. I have also told those looking for jobs to wash their shirt the night before appearing for an interview because when you sit in a closed room, body odour can become a problem. These were small things but not being aware of them can have big consequences.”
She was also the first to withdraw from SARB. “But then I hadn’t applied to be on the board, either,” she shares with a smile.
It happened thus. In the days of turmoil following the bombing of the Air India flight, Arora was busy working with families of victims, mobilizing support, organizing prayer meetings, etc. Someone told her that there had been an announcement on the radio about her being nominated to the board for her knowledge of and work in the community. “They had sent me a letter, but there was so much going on, I hadn’t opened my mail in days!”
While serving on the board she saw how different cultural norms were open to misinterpretation. People on social assistance who received monetary help from family or friends were liable to lose a portion of the subsidy they received. “I spoke on their behalf, explained how family networks worked, but while on the board, I had to enforce the board’s policies. I felt I would be able to help these people more from the outside.”
Arora has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a wide spectrum of causes. This would include over $750,000 for preventable blindness and diabetes locally and globally and over $25,000 for the CIBC Breast Cancer Walk. She has rallied support for the Indigenous communities in Canada and helped raise funds for victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the earthquake in Nepal, Ethiopia Relief fund, CNIB and Princess Margaret Foundation, the Red Cross and the United Way to name just a few on a long list.
She knocked on doors to a mixed reception. For some causes, people gave generously, for others, some held back. If you want us to donate for a temple or a gurdwara, sure, but why do we need to collect for the Indigenous community, they get grants, she recalls some saying.
“But when I take up a cause, I give it my all,” she says. “I shared my strengths, but I also learned from others. To be a leader, you have to be ready to learn. People must believe in you. By god’s grace and with help from my husband who never let me give up, I pulled it off each time. I guess it is something within me that drives me. My role model was my father who used to say to contribute wherever there is a need. Ralph Emerson’s quote, ‘Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,’ speaks to me. The day we present cheques to the organizations and groups we have raised funds for and see the joy in their eyes, the hugs they give, that is what keeps me going.”
The strong advocate for women’s, seniors’ and children’s rights describes working with victims of rape and domestic violence as heartbreaking. “Once I witnessed a victim of abuse struggling to describe her situation in English and I took an oath to represent her.”
That led to her translating for others and agencies and lawyers began approaching her to translate for their clients. At the suggestion of one of her lawyer friends, Arora launched Arco International Languages to provide interpretation and translation services. She began with 10 or 15 translators, offering translation services mainly in Hindi and Punjabi. Today they have 500 translators on their rolls providing professional interpretation, translation and training for new interpreters in over 100 languages to public, medical and social service organizations across Ontario.
Uncommon languages not many are familiar with include Amharic, Edo, Twi, Obo and many dialects. Arora points out an interesting fact. “Punjabi from India is different from Punjabi in Pakistan, just as Bangla from India differs from the one from Bangladesh. And fine nuances, minute changes in meaning can make or break a case. We take our responsibility very seriously.”
The Aroras’ son Rajesh works with his parents in their businesses.
Helping newcomers today, she recalls her own days as a newcomer. Her brother, who was already in Canada, invited Arora and her husband Om to visit.
“He suggested we apply for immigration first and then come. If we liked it, we’d stay, if not, we could always go back, my brother said. So we did and those days getting immigration was remarkably easy. We were here within months!”
They came to Canada in 1969 and Arora says she recognized on their first day here that she had to make a space for herself. “I could have let my culture go in the process of assimilation, but I chose to learn Canadian ways and share mine. It wasn’t easy – there was no diversity as we know it back then. When I walked down the street in my saris, I felt every eye was following me. I had been vice president of a prestigious university in Agra, but my English accent was different. I didn’t let that get in the way. I attended functions as a vegetarian and went on the dance floor in my saris! At first, people didn’t know what to make of me, but I also received lots of compliments.
“My husband Om was an engineer in the Indian Railways and we left behind a cushy life. I had maids, a gardener, a social circle... I was involved in social work in India, too. After the India-China war, we met every train with tea and snacks for people who were being forced to relocate. Here, I felt we were reduced to zero and had to start from scratch.
“We came with our fancy Indian clothes – I bought my first winter coat on the layover in London! There was no one to guide me on what to wear to work. Winter came at the end of September and with it, my first snowfall. I didn’t know how to turn on an oven. I had never carried an umbrella and here I had to carry bags of groceries, I had to wash dishes, I had to wash toilets!
“I called home crying that this was not the life I had signed up for! My husband said we’d study, gain some international experience and see how we felt.
“He did his PEng, things got better, and years went by. We became self-reliant, independent, and we developed a strong love for Canada and here we are, so many decades later.
“No matter where they come from, new immigrants, specially women, face barriers and many challenges. I tell them not to lose their identity. And I tell them to volunteer. I know it was easier for me because my husband was building senior citizens’ homes across Ontario and we had a decent income, allowing me the freedom to volunteer, but everyone can do it at some level.
“Be honest about how much time you can devote, but do something, anything.
“Volunteering helps one learn where the shoe pinches. Without knowing the pain, you can’t help.
“Canada is now my home. I learnt a lot. I have been offered nominations by all three political parties, both provincially and federally, but I am not interested.
“I feel proud that I made a difference at all levels on my own terms.”