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From Bombay to Canada

 When Cecil Preyra stepped off the plane and onto the Toronto tarmac 41 years ago, "the clouds were black and the floodgates of heaven were opened," he wrote in his leather-bound diary. "I took this as a harbinger, telling me to be prepared for hard days."

Preyra had just arrived from Dadar, India, a suburb of Mumbai, having cashed in his pension and savings, in hopes of carving out a space for himself, his wife and his eight children, whom he felt were becoming less and less welcome in his home country. A good chunk of his cash was used up on the plane ticket. And there were hard days - that summer in 1968. By the time his wife and children came over a few weeks later, Preyra still hadn't found a job, having been turned down 75 times.

The family was poor, and Preyra was embarrassed by the help he was receiving. But if there is a Canadian dream, the Preyra family has lived it. They began their journey to the country with a letter to the Star, and periodically over the last 40 years, the paper has checked in with them. What it has found is a family brimming with success and eager to give back. Now the eldest son, Leonard, is among those expected to be named to the cabinet of Nova Scotia's first NDP government, reports The Toronto Star. First elected in 2006 in the volatile riding of Halifax Citadel-Sable Island, he captured 50 per cent of the vote last week in the party's historic election win.

"I'm not into losing. That's probably the common thread I have with my brothers and sisters," the 54-year-old father of two said. "If we participate, we do it with all our hearts and every ounce of energy we have in our bodies." He is widely seen as an extremely hardworking politician. "He's got the academic smarts and he's got the character that you really want in an ideal politician," said Alexandra Dobrowolsky, who replaced Leonard as chair of the political science department at St. Mary's University in Halifax. "He's not just in it for the glory."

Leonard, who graduated with a PhD in political science from Queen's University, said he has always been a social democrat and activist, and got his first taste of human rights work toiling for a royal commission looking into illegal activities of the RCMP. There were 10 Preyra kids in all, two of whom were born here. Among them there are three PhDs, a medical doctor, a producer, lawyers, a schoolteacher and principal and the producer of the internationally popular TV show, Style by Jury.

A few of them were in Halifax in the run-up to the election, knocking on doors, handing out flyers, including younger siblings Jeff and Cecilia. "For us, family is a very important concept," said Jeff, 48, who owns the Toronto production company Planetworks Inc.

"Not everything is perfect, but it's something we're very conscious of." Cecilia, a psychologist, said she and her siblings still "support and annoy each other. And we still like each other. I think my mother would be most impressed with that."

She said their parents always taught them that, regardless of what you accomplish publicly, "you have to remain a person of integrity. That came home to me on the streets of Halifax. All these people saying they don't typically vote NDP, but Len is such a nice guy!" An unexpected pairing, the Preyras and Canada. In August 1967, Cecil's wife, Lina, wrote a letter that was published in the Star by columnist Sidney Katz, who died in 2007. Lina explained that a population explosion in India had led to measures, including cutting off benefits, to stop large families. "Mass sterilization is the order of the day," she wrote.

"People look in horror at our eight children – children we had by choice. ... We would like our children to grow up someplace where they will be looked upon as treasures and gifts of God." The family was also part of a Catholic minority at a time of rising Hindu nationalism in India. AToronto family, the Drutzes, read the letter and helped bring Cecil to Toronto. The welfare and labor inspector stayed with the Drutz family when he first arrived. His wife and children followed, and at first were crammed into a hotel near Yorkville.

Life was difficult. They bought day-old groceries. They wore second-hand clothes. Leonard's winter jacket was six sizes too big. The parents were told their qualifications were worthless here.

But they got a lot of help from people. A Catholic priest got them furniture, kitchenware. At Christmas there were gift hampers. Jeff remembers his parents took it all on their shoulders, never making them feel poor. He thought the hampers were given to them by mistake. Eventually, Cecil found work in the transport ministry, Lina as a teacher after re-qualifying. And it didn't take long to enmesh themselves in Canadian life. Leonard and the other boys loved sports, especially hockey.

The kids experienced discrimination, got roughed up in the neighborhood at times. A counselor once told Cecilia she ought to drive a bus. A teacher once gave Leonard an "F," not believing he wrote the essay by himself, Jeff recalls.

But the children all found success.

By the looks of things, Cecil and Lina, who died in 1984 and 1988, respectively, have spun a legacy of promise that will endure and branch out for generations. There are already 16 grandchildren.

"It's hard to believe it's been that long," Leonard said. "It's good for us and our family to reflect on where we came from. Even though we are all very successful, we still have an obligation to serve."

[ BY ANDREW CHUNG ]

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