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A Canadian Life Committed To Justice

09/26/2012 12:17 EDT | Updated 11/26/2012 05:12 EST

Long before Mark Persaud became the Queen's Golden Jubilee medal winning activist, the noted Toronto lawyer spent many trying days as a new immigrant on the streets of Toronto, homeless.

He opens up on the early days as an immigrant, his law career, why he is a patriotic Canadian and the reason why he is committed to peace and justice in Canada and abroad via the Canadian International Peace Project.

Mark , You have had a storied Canadian life. Tell us about your journey so far.

I was a student activist involved in opposing the government at the time in my country of origin. Like thousands of others, I fled the civil and political unrest after the assassination of the leader of the political party I supported. The regime was also targeting all its political opponents. I came to Canada to seek safety. The plan was to stay in Canada and eventually join my family in the United States. We were awaiting American visas to immigrate there but I was at risk, so my family sent me to Canada. The regime in my country of origin only permitted us to leave with $200 (CDN$80.59).

How was it being an immigrant to Canada?

My immigration status in Canada did not allow me to work or receive any form of social assistance so I ended up homeless on the streets of Toronto. I spent many a winter night travelling on the TTC or in coffee shops to keep warm.

Eventually, I swallowed my pride and went to the Scott Mission in Toronto to get some a winter jacket to keep warm after someone told me to go there. At the Scott Mission I met Eileen Browne who took a personal interest in me and eventually found me a place to live. She became a second mother to me and I credit her for literally saving my life.

Once I had shelter, I decided to volunteer with various organizations as I was not permitted to work. I focused on assisting new comers to Canada because of my personal harsh experiences.

Tell us about the organization you started to assist refugees?

I started an organization to assist refugees which was supported and funded by the United Church of Canada. We provided counselling and settlement services to refugees from around the world. It was the first organization of its kind and I was barely out of my teenage years and running this important organization.

We established a transition home for new refugee claimants to Canada so that they would not end up living on the streets like I did. They would live with us while we assisted them with settlement services. I also volunteered with other organizations during this time including with Amnesty International and as a executive member of the Toronto Refugee Affairs Council.

Why law?

My personal experiences and my work with refugees cemented my interest in law. I determined that I wanted to be an advocate for those that are powerless and vulnerable. I was inspired by some of the female lawyers who worked with refugees. Today, I love being a lawyer and adjunct law professor and am delighted that I made this choice. I strongly recommend law as a career to university students many of whom I have mentored over the years. Even if a traditional law career is not desired or pursued, the education and training allows you to develop very valuable skills that are transferable to other vocations.

You have been involved in many worthwhile causes in the past. Share with us your experience.

As an idealist, though more of a practical idealist in recent years, I have devoted an enormous amount of time to creating, advising and volunteering with numerous organizations. I have had the privilege of working with many diverse communities over the years and as a result I am uniquely equipped and experienced to engage in novel and groundbreaking initiatives because of the relationships and trust that I have earned. These initiatives have been at both the domestic and international level such as unprecedented bridge building projects between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Canada and bringing together diverse Canadian communities to work on a novel project in Afghanistan.

You have also been involved in politics for a long time.

I have devoted many years to politics. I was twice elected to the national executive of a national political party. I have chaired political campaigns at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. I have advised senior politicians. However, I have become very disillusioned with the state of Canadian politics. The deficit of good leadership among our politicians is obvious.

I am now more interested in the emergence of a new generation of principled and talented civic and political leaders especially from diverse communities to replace the current old style destructive politics that permeates our diverse communities and Canada in general. This will require a Herculean effort on the part of Canadians of all political stripes if we are to emerge from the current morass.

I am always willing to commit to this as a patriotic Canadian who loves his country and is deeply concerned about its future.