Montreal·Personal Essay

Immigrating to Montreal from Douala put my privilege in perspective

The average Montrealer does not have a butler, a driver nor a three-floor house with a wide garden and a gate guarded by a security guard. But the average Montrealer does have access to decent health care, education, a social safety net.

The universal rights enjoyed here come at a high price in the Global South

First arriving in Canada at age 11, Joanna thought life in Cameroon was so much better. But her perspective soon shifted. (Submitted by Joanna Kanga)

Privilege is a heavily discussed concept lately. The term has been used to emphasize each other's version of "luck." Privilege can be associated to class, ethnicity, gender or sex, and it is experienced by anyone who has the opportunity to escape any form of injustice or misery via a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

But privilege can also be very relative. For some, it is simply sleeping on a comfortable bed, for others it can mean being granted refugee status among a long line of candidates.

In my case, the privilege was financial. I'm an immigrant and I believe every immigrant experiences a form of privilege over those in their home country, because immigration is a luxury.

I was born and raised in Douala, a city in Cameroon in Central Africa. When i first arrived in Montreal at the age of 11, I remember being impressed by the clean and wide streets, but very disappointed by the fact that I did not have a driver anymore. It was a different lifestyle; I had been accustomed to butlers, nannies, drivers and dinners at large tables. Now, I had to take public transportation (a sign of poverty in my city), wash my own clothes, make my own breakfast at a smaller table. I realized this was normal; most people were doing it. I remember thinking, Douala was so much better.

Growing up in Douala, Cameroon, Joanna enjoyed many material luxuries. But she came to Canada when she needed medical treatment. Submitted by Joanna Kanga (Submitted by Joanna Kanga)

Unlike my brother and sisters, who arrived in Montreal after high school to study, I came at an early age for surgery due to severe scoliosis. While it is a treatable and common disorder, the operation could not be performed safely in Cameroon. Mild scoliosis does not typically cause problems, but more severe cases, like mine, can affect breathing and movement above the psychological distress caused by the physical deformation of your body.

Thanks to the financial situation of my parents, I was able to receive the best health care and education in the world. That made me realize the fanciest conditions were not found in my home full of butlers and extravagant dinners, but abroad were even those without butlers could simply live longer. I did not think Douala was "so much better" anymore.

In Development as Freedom, Indian economist Amartya Sen argues that the unfreedom of poverty places limits on human capability and choices, constraining well-being. According to Sen, poverty is not just based on income, it is associated with political, social and economic unfreedoms also known as living standards.

It was difficult to consider myself poor in Douala. I lived comfortably, attended the best academic institutions, had the latest gadgets and travelled abroad. My parents' level of income was high enough to afford commodities that could improve our living standards, but not structurally change them. A different structure meant moving to a different country.

Escaping the social and political insecurity in Cameroon made me realize my privilege in relation to those living in my home country. However, I also realized that my purchasing power, as powerful as it was in Cameroon, was not so powerful here. My currency was a barrier in the North.

The financial privilege that catapulted me to Montreal was incomparable to the privilege held by those not benefiting from the same material standards I was accustomed to. The average Montrealer does not have a butler, a driver nor a three-floor house with a wide garden and a gate guarded by a security guard. But the average Montrealer does have access to decent health care, education, a social safety net.

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that it is my right as a human being to have access to these things, but such access depended on where I was born.

For those born a bit further south, those "rights" are only available to those who can afford them. Even from our point of relative privilege, my parents had to sacrifice a lot to afford my health care and education abroad. Those sacrifices opened my eyes to the level of poverty in my home country.

My financial privilege saved me, but it is incomparable to the one held by Global North countries. Global North countries have the right to hope, immigrants from the Global South have to afford the hope.

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About the Author

Joanna Kanga is a student at McGill University completing her bachelor of arts in political science with a double minor in economics and international development. She is a panellist on the CBC Montreal's Let's Go and the outreach and event coordinator of the book club Black Girls Gather.