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How An Act Of Kindness Changed My Immigrant Family's Story Forever

05/23/2017 04:16 EDT | Updated 05/23/2017 05:16 EDT

There are certain seminal moments in a life's arc that stand out. These defining moments or turning points alter a life's course profoundly. Like dominoes, every act, every event falls into place from that starting point. As I look back on my 80 years, one such moment stands out.

As a child of peasant Ukrainian immigrants, I spoke only Ukrainian until I entered school at Duke of York Public School in Toronto. I lived in hotel rooms in the Riviera Hotel that my father ran. The Riviera, at King and Sherbourne, was a renowned whore house, beer parlour and hangout for the infamous Mickey McDonald gang. The equally infamous Judge Rob who ruled over liquor laws in "Toronto the Good" gave my dad a temporary licence for six months, to be made permanent if he cleared out the prostitution and gang life in the hotel.

vintage bartender black and white

(Stock photo: Jim Heimann Collection via Getty Images)

I have vivid memories of watching my dad through the banister railings as he single-handedly struggled to uphold the closing laws, ordering the gang to leave at the legal closing time. When they wouldn't leave, he locked the doors. I remember him shouting, "You no leave when I ask you, now you wait til police let you out!" Judge Robb granted him a permanent licence.

Every day, sharp at noon, my dad opened the beer parlour doors to let in the dozens of Christie's Biscuits workers from the factory across the street. They swarmed in, covered in flour, carrying their lunch pails and eager for a refreshing draft beer with lunch. Amidst this crowd, a distinguished looking daily customer stood out. He wore a black coat with a velvet lapel and a Homburg hat. Every day he ordered a beer, read his newspaper, then left without saying a word to anyone.

That unknown distinguished gentleman, with a single angry phone call, changed my life irrevocably.

One day, in his heavy, broken-English accent, my dad asked this gentleman if he knew of a good school -- no, the best school in Canada -- a place where he could send his three sons. Mildly annoyed at having his daily reading ritual disturbed, the gentleman replied, "Upper Canada College, right here in Toronto. It is the best school in Canada."

"Where is this school, sir ?" my dad asked.

"Lonsdale Road," he replied, and returned to his paper.

At sea over how to apply to such a school, my dad conferred with his Ukrainian lawyer and submitted an application for my brother. His application was denied.

Months later, in June, uncharacteristically lowering his paper, the gentleman inquired casually, "By the way Mr. Diakiw, did you ever apply to have your son attend UCC?"

upper canada college toronto

The statue of Sir John Colborne, who founded Upper Canada College in 1829. (Photo: Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

My father explained he was denied acceptance. He asked my dad if he could see the letter. My dad rummaged through his pile of papers in his four-by-six office and showed it to him.

It read, in part, "We regret to inform you we are unable to accept your son. We do not feel he would fit in well here." The gentleman asked my father if he was still interested in sending his boys to the school. When my father gushed with an enthusiastic "Yes!" the man asked my dad if he could keep the letter for a few days.

"Of course," my dad replied.

The effect was immediate. One hour later the headmaster of Upper Canada College arrived at the Riviera Hotel as my dad was serving beer to the biscuit factory workers and informed him that an opening had just become available and that the college would be delighted to admit his son in September. The distinguished gentleman turned out to be a governor of UCC and enjoyed his private stroll along King Street daily from his law office at Bay Street. All three of my father's boys would go on to graduate from UCC.

vintage photo father son school

(Stock photo: Three Lions via Getty Images)

That unknown distinguished gentleman, with a single angry phone call, changed my life irrevocably. It was my seminal moment. It altered my lifelong friendships, my life partner and my career. Yet despite the many advantages of the schooling I obtained, there was a price to pay. The enormous gulf between my immigrant Ukrainian home life and the culture of the school, then, had a profound effect.

I bristled at the anti-immigrant, racist atmosphere.

I was indoctrinated into Church of England, English culture and, for a time, I became ashamed of my family and home culture. All my masters were English born and raised; the school had never had a Canadian headmaster til decades later. I sang Church of England hymns and prayers daily for five years and marched in the school battalion for Prince Philip on his regular visits, affirming our connection directly to the throne. The school was modeled on Eton and I was trained to be a proper English gentleman. I have bristled at those years ever since.

Despite my negative feelings about the institution, my lifelong friends were classmates there. One of them introduced me to my wife and we still socialize and holiday together. Reflecting back I realize why I bristled at the anti-immigrant, racist atmosphere. I resented the inherent premise of the superiority of the white "English way" that permeated the culture of the school back then. ("We are the salt of the earth, so give ear to us.")

It is not surprising that those five years at UCC lie at the heart of my lifelong commitment to multiculturalism, social justice and equity. It preoccupied me as a teacher and school superintendent. It is why I taught courses at York University on social justice, and equity issues in schools and communities for the last 20 years of my career.

It took one phone call to alter the arc of my personal history... a seminal moment.

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