Secret Life of Canada

Meet Madhu Verma, child refugee turned newcomer advocate

Changed from her experience of displacement in childhood, Madhu Verma became an effective advocate on behalf of new Canadians in New Brunswick.
Madhu Verma didn't find the community she longed to be a part of in Canada, so she helped create it. (The New Brunswick Multicultural Council)
Listen to the full episode3:35

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on. 

Many Canadians may not have heard of Madhu Verma but her almost fifty years of social activism has greatly shaped the current landscape of Fredericton, N.B. and Canada's East Coast. 

Here are five things we learned about the multi-award winning advocate's life. 

1) She was born on the cusp of unrest 

Verma was born in Haripur, Hazara — now in Pakistan — in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Her father, a doctor and a member of the city council, was devoted to social justice. Sadly, in 1940 he was murdered because of his activist work and his death forever altered her family's life.

By 1947, after gaining its independence from Britain, India divided into two new states, India and Pakistan. It was a chaotic and tumultuous time. When violence descended into her town, Verma's mother, grandparents and extended family were forced to flee.

Her mother stitched pockets on to her salwar to hold gold jewlery and money. Along with some suitcases, they were the only possessions they were able to take with them.

Policemen in Calcutta use tear gas bombs during communal riots in the city. The riots lasted five days. At least 2,000 people were killed and over 4,000 injured. (Keystone/Getty Images)

2) She became a child refugee

The India-Pakistan partition displaced millions of people and created a refugee crisis. It remains one of the world's largest forced migrations. Divisions between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were heightened and it is estimated that up to two million people died in the conflict. 

With little access to food and housing, Verma's family struggled to survive. Arriving in Deoband, India they encountered discrimination because of their faith and language. As Verma remembers, "we were unfamiliar faces in a community that was not ready to accept us."

This experience would go on to greatly shape her and drive her future work. 

A nurse is seen with two child victims of communal violence in Amritsar, Punjab, during the Partition of British India, March 1947. Fighting took place between the city's Muslim population (around 50 percent), anxious for Amritsar to be incorporated into Pakistan, and the other, Sikh and Hindu half of the inhabitants, who supported incorporation with India. (Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

3) The discrimination continued in Canada

By the 1960s, Verma was married. In 1963, her husband joined the Physics Department at the University of New Brunswick. 

When the couple moved to Fredericton they were met with racism and an unwelcoming community. They were denied the right to buy land and build a house. As a woman of colour whose English was not strong, Verma felt isolated and alone. At this time in New Brunswick there were very few South Asian immigrants and people of colour. 

A view of Fredericton, N.B, in 1960. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

4) She created the support she craved

To fight against the isolation, Verma decided to help international students at the University of New Brunswick.

Verma saw how newly arrived immigrant students also struggled to find housing and resources and she began attending student events to find a way to support these new arrivals. She would greet new students and help them acclimatize to the city and even help them find summer employment.

As the years passed, her influence grew and Verma eventually founded the Asian Heritage Society of New Brunswick — an organization that aimed to welcome new and established Asian Canadians. 

She is also one of the founding members of  the Multicultural Association of Fredericton.

Her work with refugees and new immigrants led to the implementation of an official New Brunswick multicultural and human rights education policy.

Her work has been recognized with several honours. She is the recipient of the New Brunswick Human Rights Award, the Canadian Governor General's 125th Anniversary Commemorative Award and the Queen's Jubilee Medal — Gold as well as Diamond.

She also received the National Citation for the Citizenship award and was a delegate at the UN's World Conference Against Racism in 2001.

Graduate nurses from Asia, attending McGill University under the Colombo Plan and the World Health Organization, discuss medical conditions in their own countries. (Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Information Division)

5) Her early experiences still influence her today

Verma's work is still rooted in her early experiences. In a piece she penned for McMaster University she wrote:

"Whenever I see refugee mothers walking with their children, I remember my childhood. When I see old people dragging one foot to other, I think of my grandparents. When I see teenagers walking with their heads down, I think of my brothers. There is going to be a long struggle for the new refugees to get settled in the new country. They must be prepared to face racism and xenophobia. My advice to new refugees would be to never give up hope for a better future. My mother who married at the age of 11, widowed in the late 20s and had a second grade education, but managed to build up a better future for us — you all can do the same." 

Verma has build on her experience to advocate for other newcomers. She has seen great success in her endeavors. (The New Brunswick Multicultural Council)


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