From Serbia to the Sault and the Hard Places in Between

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You never forget your first ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa. You might be on your way to Thunder Bay or the western provinces, or maybe you’re out for a bit of adventure but whatever the reason, that 230 kilometer stretch of Highway 17 is breathtaking. Mike Braykovich is from Yugoslavia, he has seen Switzerland and much of Europe but in his opinion the beauty of Northern Ontario is unparalleled.

Mike and his wife, Irene, were in the Sault a few years ago when they took a drive up the North highway. “We were riding to Wawa for the first time and my mouth dropped. I will never forget. We were listening to Wagner, travelling down the highway, the hills, the cliffs, the lakes and the scenery,” recalled Mike, dropping his voice when he added, “My goodness gracious. And then you discover all the things around this beauty –the pictographs, a moose standing proudly in a swamp. It is the most picturesque, beautiful nature that anyone can imagine.”

The laid-back speed of the Northern lifestyle and the bucolic Northern culture also appealed to Mike who until three years ago was working in southern Ontario. “It’s not a huge cultural gap but you can sense it when you come here. But I can tell you, culturally people are more welcoming, honest, down-to-earth and fun. They want to know you. And I love that.”

As a child growing up in socialist Yugoslavia, Mike took an interest in the stories written by German author, Karl May, who penned fanciful novels of First Nations people in North America. The little boy became enamored with the First Nations culture that must have seemed so exotic and he never imagined that one day he would not only visit the lands and lakes of North America’s indigenous people, but also serve them in his professional life.

Young Mike had a few life experiences ahead before that happened.

*****

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia formed after World War II and was composed of six socialist republics: Slovenia; Croatia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; Macedonia; and Serbia -from which Mike hailed. In 1963 Josip Broz Tito had been declared Prime Minister for life. The foundation of the socialist state began to unravel following the death of Tito in 1980. In the late 1980’s the Yugoslavian government began to push back against communism, injustice and the political elite, and Serbia and Slovenia began to publicly protest. The federation would fall in 1991 but Mike would not witness his country’s emancipation from socialism firsthand.

Mike Braykovich, Yugoslavia Military Academy.

In 1986 Mike was a young man in Yugoslavia studying business administration and training to become an officer at the Military Academy. He was at the end of his studies when the academy informed him that he would not be permitted to graduate.

“I was advised that I would not be able to graduate because of my political disagreement with the system, with communism. I did not have much of a future in Yugoslavia because of that political disagreement. I was prevented from getting a good job, from having freedom. I was punished for my political belief,” revealed Mike.

“I had no choice but to leave the country.”

Mike arrived in London England broke, nowhere to go, knowing no one and armed only with high school English. He hung on to his airplane ticket stub and hung out at Heathrow airport trying to figure what to do as he pretended to be waiting for a plane. He spent a few nights sleeping at the airport until security began to catch on.

“Eventually they started looking at me and rather then get caught and deported, I left.”

Without any options, Mike took to the streets and the young man survived by his wits. “It was very hard. It was a struggle. But I was young, I was healthy, I was strong, I was smart- I would say, and I stayed out of trouble.”

Mike had been sleeping on the streets for close to a month when he met a man that offered him solace and friendship. Mike was laying out his cardboard for the night though he wouldn’t sleep. On the streets, sleep was some state between awake and drifting. This was how Mike’s rescuer discovered him.

“An Egyptian gentleman, Khaled Ibraham, found me on the street. He was Muslim and it was during the time of Ramadan. And during Ramadan they have to do one good deed. And his good deed is to help me get off the streets.”

Mike was skeptical at first, not sure if he could trust this stranger. Khaled was determined to help Mike and therefore patient. He showed pictures of his two sons and his wife to Mike, they chatted and Mike learned a bit about the man who was so intent to help him. Eventually Mike, exhausted for not having slept or eaten for so long and surely fraught with worry and loneliness, surrendered to Khaled’s invitation.

“I was hungry. I just followed him. And he prepared a very nice meal. The guy’s a chef. He was a fantastic cook.”

Khaled invited Mike to live with him and he helped Mike secure a dishwashing job at the restaurant where he cooked.

“I started paying my share of the rent. We became very good friends. And he watched me go further. I started working in the Irish pub near Piccadilly Circus in London.  Then I was a bartender, then a bar supervisor.”

Both men would eventually leave England and Mike is saddened that he has lost touch with Khaled. Mike believes Khaled has returned to Egypt and has tried to find him over the years but has been unsuccessful.

“But he is always in my heart. I would hope that he is doing just as well because he was a very good man. Many of the things in my life I owe to him. He helped me in what was probably my darkest hour.”

During the times when many people might have given up, Mike persevered, having faith that he was on a good path. “I did feel that something good was going to come. I feel that from the beginning. I believe coming to Western democracy –USA, Canada or Great Britain, is the way to go. I never feel that I made a mistake. And then I got lucky to come to the best country in the world which is without question Canada. So I’m blessed, and I thank God every day.”

*****

He might have come for the job at his Uncle’s successful supper club in Windsor, Ontario but Mike stayed for the love of his life –his wife, Irene. Mike, a culture adventurist of sorts, had been perusing an annual cultural celebration in Windsor.

“All the cultural clubs came together for this event. And I love learning about their culture’s achievements, watching their traditions and dancing and I love ethnic food. I ended up in a Slovenian cultural club. There was a dance. I met her there. I thought she was beautiful and fell in love. And I told her that same day that I’m going to marry her. And she laughed and laughed and laughed.” Mike folds his arms and looks off with a huge smile on his face as he remembers and adds, “And I laugh now when I think about that.”

Irene was a first-born Canadian and both of her parents were from Slovenia. It is an important detail that added to the depth of her relationship with Mike. Irene was very in touch with her culture and could understand the hardship that Yugoslavia’s politics had created for her husband.

“She had that additional dimension to her which I appreciated and loved. She could understand how I would feel in a new country. She was kind and was very helpful –and interesting and fun.”

(left to right) Aleksander, Mike and Irene.

Mike and Irene have one son, Aleksandar. “He is a very intelligent young man who thinks his Dad is the best. He loves his father. He tells me so many times that I’m his hero, I’m his role model which makes me so happy.” Mike is a touch emotional when he talks about his family and smiles the entire time. “I’m so happy that he was born and growing up, in Canada. I tell him how lucky he is. And I’m so proud of him and love to see the man he is becoming.”

Mike has worked in the hospitality and tourism industry in Ontario for 22 years. He began advancing in his career, moving from one management position to another. His last position in southern Ontario was as the Director of Food and Beverage at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto.

Three years ago there was an opportunity for Mike to move to Sault Ste. Marie and become the General Manager at Quattro Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie- and that’s what he did.

“I could run the whole operation which is something that I really wanted to do so I could do everything that I’ve dreamt about. I found a group of owners that were eager to work with me who had a similar way and similar ideas.”

Mike has observed, and likely to the pleasure of many Northerners who would agree with him, that people in Northern Ontario possess a way of life and a culture that is uniquely different from the southern end of the province.

Wearing his business hat for a moment, Mike notes that this difference plays nicely into the hospitality and tourism industry.

Of the Quattro staff he remarked, “From the very beginning I notice that they are very good at establishing a warm connection with the guest. The people here take pride in what they do, they take more ownership over their hotel and their place of business. I find they are actually more hospitable, more welcoming when it comes to guests. For the first time in my career I hear from my employees on the frontline saying things such as ‘they are our guests’, ‘this is our home’, and they mean it. It’s not a corporate line that is fed through head office. And the moment you start rehearsing your service, and rehearsing what you say and how you approach a customer you lose intimate connection and warmth.”

Over the short-time he has been at Quattro, Mike has encouraged his staff to make the ‘executive’ decisions when it comes to the best service for customers. It is his belief, that employees who are empowered to do what is best for the customer without fear of reprisal from management, enjoy their employment and the customer benefits.

“We have great communication,” remarked Mike of the management team and frontline. “And there is this genuine need to make the customer happy and welcome. It’s become part of our internal culture. I love the team I work with. It’s really how I genuinely feel. You need to treat your employees the same way you treat your guests.”

Mike has maintained a trifecta of beliefs throughout his professional career. “Trust, integrity and culture –once that is achieved and it’s not phony, you can provide excellent service. I was able to experience that for real in Sault Ste. Marie.”

But for Mike, business is not business. Business is people. And though Mike excels in business, in the hospitality and tourism industry, his real passion always shines through. Mike has found a genuine way to implement a successful business model that shapes around his love of different cultures and his compassion for the human condition.

As a little boy growing up in Serbia, Mike was captivated by the indigenous culture in North America.

“My childhood dream to engage with indigenous people and to see their culture in real came true by coming to this city and running this hotel,” Mike shared with a distant look in his eyes.

Mike disclosed that the largest cultural contingent served by Quattro Hotel is the indigenous community. Representation of First Nations guests at the hotel is so significant that Mike organized a comprehensive cultural training session with his team.

“We felt that people simply need to understand the culture and needs of our main customer. We promote ourselves as an indigenous destination hotel. But to provide excellent service everyone from the room attendant to front desk to porter to managers need to understand that culture. Like any other culture, they carry specific uniqueness and you understanding that better will make indigenous guests feel more welcome.”

Mike is not unaware that some people may suspect catering to Quattro’s largest cultural clientele is just a good business gimmick but for Mike, who cannot contain his warm and kind nature, is quick to set the record straight.

Mike Braykovich, pictured next to a Two Row Wampum belt he has displayed in the entrance of Quattro Hotel. It is a symbolic record of the first agreement in 1613 between Europeans and American Indian Nations on Turtle Island. The agreement outlines a mutual, three-part commitment to friendship, peace between peoples and living parallel forever.

“Many people think we do this simply for business reasons and that is simply not the case. And I’m going to tell you why- you can always offer lower rates, let them smudge –and there,” he says slapping his hands. “You’re done. But to actually establish some type of understanding and connection, to actually have a relationship with indigenous groups, you need to do more than that. It is not always about the business. We do this because politically, culturally we believe in the cause. I believe in that cause, my managers believe in that cause. And the owners support that cause.”

As a white European man, he does not juxtapose his life experiences alongside the atrocities First Nations have suffered but his own hardships early on, and growing up in a complex political system has provided Mike with clarity and great sensitivity to recognize centuries of systemic criminal behaviour and social misperceptions that the indigenous community has endured. He has spent time visiting different reserves, speaking with Chiefs and the First Nations community, wanting to understand their life, challenges and perspectives.

“We do these things because it is right to do. The residential schools…” Mike does not complete his sentence. “These are people that are caring and proud of their culture and they want simply to not lose that. And we must help them in that.”

Towards the end of 2016, Quattro Hotel entertained a very large indigenous conference. The event was successful and Mike was moved by the connection he shared with his guests, with people.

“When they had a tent here, I was invited to go into the tent where they do the smudging and they communicate with their ancestors. I was invited to join them. What an honour to join them there, and to actually be welcomed. That is genuine understanding and a certain level of love for each other. I enjoy that tremendously.”

*****

Mike, as a newcomer and one originally from a far-away land, is a great advocate of Northern Ontario’s treasures. Sometimes it takes someone with fresh eyes to help us see what we have.

“I believe for all of us, whenever we have the opportunity to meet people outside of Northern Ontario that we need to be ambassadors of Northern Ontario. We need to speak to people and educate them about all the great things this place has to offer.”

Mike Braykovich. General Manager, Quattro Hotel. Northern Ontario enthusiast.

These words, from a man who is expert in his field, and can relate his first intimate encounter with Algoma’s landscape and the north shore of Lake Superior to the potential for the tourism and hospitality industry in the region, are twofold significant.

“I know as a City, for tourism we have so much to offer. But for whatever reason we are not use to our capacity, to what we are capable of. Look at us –we have great hotels, we have great service, a great City, great people, great nature. We’re in a great location, we have very good logistics and very good infrastructure. What’s lacking? I think that people just don’t know about it. We need to get that message sent to the rest of Canada, to the rest of the U.S., to the rest of the world so they can see what opportunities are here.”

Mike and Irene, who have tolerated a long distance relationship between Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor as Mike settled into his new position, love the Sault and the region so much that they are closing down their home in southern Ontario. “We are happy. She can see how happy I am in this environment. Her visits here allow her to experience a small portion about why I like it here so much, and how much I like people here. When I was in Toronto she said she would never move there. But to come to Sault –absolutely.”

The road that has led Mike to his Northern home has had some unexpected twists and turns, ups and downs, wash-outs and bridges, and dotted with all of life’s milestones. He has formed relationships with unforgettable people and he has witnessed up-close some of the most spectacular sights a man can behold. And in the loneliest of times, when things seemed hopeless, Mike kept going. He is humble but make no mistake, like a glacier, there is more to this man than meets the eye.

“There is always so many little stories in between but in this journey there are a few things that are important to me.” Mike slides his desk chair backwards and leans forward.

“Number one- learning to survive. Number two- learning to depend on good people and to help good people. Number three- is to actually appreciate opportunities in life because once you have them you need to take full advantage of them and you need to give back as much as you can take. It’s really as simple as that. You need to treat people with respect too, but these components, I’m telling you now, has been my mantra from the moment I ended up on the street, all alone, hungry.”

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