From Russia with love Part 1: Canada 101
"For three days I didn’t have anything to eat. I had no money and no food. I needed to make some money so I worked construction"
By Robert Koci
From Russia with Love is the story of Sept/Oct 2019 cover contractor Andrei Sosnovsky’s journey from a law degree in Belarus to contracting success in Canada. In Part 1, Sosnovsky comes to Canada via Timmins, ON in 1996 to discover a country very different from what was expected.
You were a trained lawyer in Belarus. Why would you leave for something completely unknown?
I left Belarus because I was young and it was a chance to promote this Russian martial arts called Sambo that I was involved in since I was 11 years old. And I thought money grew on trees in Canada. I never intended to stay. I was going to stay long enough to become a millionaire and see the world. And it was interesting, you know? I thought, why not?
What was your introduction to Canada?
I came on a one-year work visa in 1996 to teach martial arts in Timmins, Ontario. I lived at the Windsor Hotel in Timmins where I worked as a bouncer on the weekends in exchange for a tiny room on the second floor. I had 70 martial arts students to start but after a month I had only 15. They told me much later that I lost those students because I was too hard on them. My training was too difficult. I didn’t know any better. I trained the way I trained all my life but in Canada it was a little different. They don’t want to get hurt. Some people don’t even want to sweat. It affected my salary until for three days I didn’t have anything to eat. I had no money and no food. I needed to make some money so I worked construction and I really, really liked it. I never really worked with my hands in the past. As a lawyer in Belarus I never worked with a hammer or a drill. I liked it a lot!
What was your experience encountering Canadian culture for the first time?
Total shock. I was speechless. In Timmins there was more snow that year than you had in the last 60 years. It was minus 52C that winter. And did you know that Timmins is in the Guinness Book of Records for the most liquor establishments per capita? It’s a mining town and they make lots of money and there is nothing to do there but drink. And being a bouncer there I have seen a few interesting things and been in quite a few situations and I was shocked. It was a cultural shock. For instance, I was not used to seeing drunk women screaming and yelling and cursing their men and hitting them and behaving obnoxious. I had never seen anything like that. In our culture, women were the gentler side. You could see men like that and even worse, but not women! And I could tell you other stories. I did not intend to stay at all. I thought this place is crazy, everyone is crazy. Everybody drinks. When I was passing through the tables a drunk woman would grab my ass and say “nice ass.” I was so mad and angry, coming from Russian culture. It was insulting.
But looking back now, I am grateful, too, because I had a lot of good stuff from that experience. I trained Indian kids at a reserve. I had many discussions with a chief of the tribe. I was invited to a sweat lodge, something that white people generally don’t get invited to. The experience I had was something I think very, very few people have—even native Canadians—with native peoples. There was a lot of good stuff and interesting stuff and stuff that taught me a lot. It was tough but I don’t regret it one bit.
How come you didn’t just go back to Belarus?
A lot of people ask me this question. I couldn’t go back home. What was I going to tell to my friends? They would ask, “Andre, why did you come back?” What was I going to tell them? Because it’s too tough? Because I couldn’t make money there? Because I didn’t like it there? It felt like I would have been like a dog with my tail between my legs. A beat-up dog. I couldn’t stand the thought of that. That’s why I decided that I would come back to Belarus but only when it was my choice. I would come back as a winner, not as a loser. And I decided to stick it out and earn money and achieve something and then I will come back so I would not be ashamed.
Next time, Part 2: Learning the wrong trade