New Canadian Media

Arts & Culture

Friday, 19 May 2017 08:46

A Memoir from Tanzania to Calgary

Written by

By Florence Hwang

In Mansoor Ladha’s new book, Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West, he contrasts life in Africa to Canada, and how a person’s skin colour can make a difference. He writes about his journey from Zanzibar, Tanzania to Canada and the adjustments he had to make along the way. He hopes his book helps people deal with the problems and issues that immigrants encounter. He also hopes these problems and issues can be avoided.

“Employers have to be reasonable and fair in hiring immigrants and not demanding Canadian experience as a prerequisite,” says Ladha, who is a freelance journalist.

“It was amazing that employers demanded Canadian experience from South Asians from East Africa because here was a community which was educated, westernized, spoke English well and believed in western values,” he added.

The book spans from Ladha’s childhood to adulthood. He was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, brought up in Lindi, southern Tanzania and worked in Dar es Salaam as a copy and features editor of The Standard, the largest circulating English daily in the capital city. He says his experiences have made him a better person and better equipped to tackle problems.

“I have gone through problems of discrimination, displacement, acceptance and search for a home. With hard work and with the grace of God, I have been able to surmount these,” he says.

He now considers Canada his home and is quite comfortable living here as there are less political tensions that are prevalent in Africa, which is still undergoing political maturity and economic uncertainties.

He left Tanzania in 1972 when Ugandan president Idi Amin expelled Africans of Indian descent, which caused a massive exodus from the region. At that time, Ladha was living in Nairobi when he decided to leave and come to Canada.

 His book is available on amazon.ca

Republished with permission from The Asian Pacific Post 

By Laska Paré in Toronto

Trunk Tales: Leaving home … finding home is an exhibit that recently opened in Toronto. Through a variety of heirlooms — trunks, clothes, photos and letters—stories of Ukrainians immigrating to Canada are told.

My great-grandmother, Sophia Lysy, was part of the second wave (1918-1939) of Ukrainian immigrants to reach Canada. In 1926 at the tender age of 16, she left her home in Tyahliv, Ukraine, to live with her Aunt and Uncle in Point Pelee, Canada. Upon leaving Europe, Sophia had been provided with a return passage to Tyahliv. However, struck by the poor conditions of the farming community where her family had settled, she cashed in her return ticket to help her Aunt and Uncle purchase a better farm. And so, Canada became her new home.

Though I’ve heard the stories from my family many times over, it wasn’t until recently when I gazed at my Babsia’s encased obrus (embroidered Ukrainian tablecloth) and read dozens of other narratives from immigrants displayed in the room, did I feel a sense of guilt about my life in Canada.

The Canadian Perks

As a third-generation Canadian, it’s taken years of foreign travel for me to recognize the value of my citizenship. The fact that I can proudly sew our nation’s flag on my backpack knowing it will only be of benefit, and perhaps a bonus, during my international travels says a lot about our country.

I understand why my Babsia sacrificed everything to come to Canada, and why immigrants continue to do so today.

 

Being a Canadian has allowed me to by-pass many extensive processes or requirements for documentation and has omitted me from being seen or questioned as a threat. So yes, there’s no question I’m grateful for my citizenship and the specialized treatment that comes with the nation’s brand.

Gratitude vs Guilt

Gratitude, and being grateful for my national identity, is simple. The only specification is to enjoy the daily ease of one’s life and where appropriate, acknowledge the advantages that come with the citizenship when brought up in discussion.

After travelling, living and working abroad, the real challenge I’m learning is coming home and resuming the patterns of life without feeling a sense of guilt. Once a person has bared witness to real adversity, struggle and strife in the world, it’s easy to come back to Canada and feel grateful about our lifestyle; but it can be difficult to move on without feeling a sense of guilt and shame for enjoying the comfort, support and calm of our nation.

Coming to Terms

I understand why my Babsia sacrificed everything to come to Canada, and why immigrants continue to do so today. Even though she came with the intention to have and—eventually—give a better life to her family, I can only imagine the guilt she must have felt every time she wrote a letter to her loved one’s back in Ukraine; knowing it wasn’t the same, or even remotely close.

My great-grandmother would want nothing more than for me to be happy and enjoy the freedoms we have in Canada, especially because of the sacrifices she unknowingly made on my behalf. Part of me is still learning not to judge myself or criticize others when they claim to have a problem or issue, knowing they may be trivial on the grand scope. Even though our rights and freedoms are evolving, particularly freedom of speech, I still believe Canada is rich in opportunity, comfort and luxury, and that is something we need to step back, embrace and be grateful for more often.

A copywriter for a communications agency in Toronto, when not contemplating ideas around identity or working on her children’s book series, you will find Laska outside seeking adventure. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017 20:30

To Understand a Culture, Read the Women

Written by

by Tazeen Inam in Brampton

Canadian woman authors believe that our society tends to equate femininity with a sense of flawlessness. Women have to be impossibly perfect in so many different ways that it’s just another way of imposing oppression on them.

“I really want to show about my characters that it’s not a bad thing to fail, it’s not a bad thing to make mistakes,” says Sarah Raughley, author of the "Fate of Flames".

Raughley longed to work with characters who have the courage to pick themselves up when they fall, in contrast with setting up ideals for women that are very difficult to live up to.

Striking a balance between strength and frailty 

Her characters are not everyday superheroes. Four teenage girls are the only people who can save the world from the massive beasts who are terrorizing the world. One girl stands for each element: fire, wind, air, and water.

“But they don’t have those masks on their faces, everyone knows who they are," Raughley explains.

Her characters are criticized for being too whiny and annoying because they make mistakes, they fight too much, they are weak and make many mistakes.  

“So I was thinking that what are the expectations for women? Especially since these are teen girls, they haven’t figure out themselves, let alone having to carry this huge destiny to fight giant monsters,” she added.  

At the Festival of Literary Diversity, in Brampton, ON, the panel of “Wonder Women” featured authors of young adult literature. They spoke about the protagonists from their stories, stressing that strength is not the same as perfection. But rather that it is in the courage to rise up from devastation and defy all odds by reaching your destination.

Shoilee Khan, the panel moderator, opened the discussion introducing the protagonists of the selected books as women of the present, who everyone aspires to be or would like to befriend.  

“They are fierce, they are stoic, but they are tender and they have this enigmatic aura of cool about them,” she says.

She said that there is a dichotomy of softness and strength exhibited by the characters, that can be translated into real life situations women face everyday.  

“They rise up against obstacles not with complete fearlessness but with a magnetic combination of illation and frailty, first for themselves and then through that self-respect, serve their communities in profound and integral ways,” Khan added.

Seeking protection with intimacy 

The panel then discussed a character with an arsenal of dangerous and desirable skills: Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liar: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.

Thom is a writer, performer and psychotherapist. 

Thom’s unnamed protagonist is a martial arts expert who runs away from her abusive parents’ house. Raised in a city called "Gloom", she escapes to the glamorous and dangerous "City of Smoke and Lights" where she is forced into oppressive factory work governed by a racist system of castes. However she is able to find herself as a trans-Asian femme and finds a community with other trans-femmes. 

Thom suggested that for transgenders there is something about femininity that’s degrading all the time, that they are weak and hyper-sensitive. But her book starts with this really intense physical strength as opposed to a trans-woman that is helpless and constantly subjected to violence. 

The protagonist loves using her strength, power and speed, until she encounters Kimaya. A mother figure whose nurturing personality is unable to mask her fierce power, Kimaya serves as a mentor figure that helps her realize that there are different kinds of strength. 

She discovers a desire for safety and a longing for closeness but struggles to have intimacy that is also safe. 

“That’s the journey that my character takes and I found out in my life too,” says Thom. 

"Manning up"

Another panelist, M-E Girard in her debut novel, sought a balance in her character when she puts them together with a combination of femininity and masculinity. 

M-E Girard is a YA fiction writer and a proud feminist, her debut novel is "GIRL MANS UP". Her lesbian character, Pen, wrestles with the external pressures societal norms bestow upon her when she exhibits both masculine and feminine qualities.

Although she is a strong protagonist and her choice of clothing and friends makes her imperfect and independent, all Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. Pen realizes that respect and loyalty are hollow words, and in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to "man up".

“My character is tender in some ways and she is also fierce and strong in her own way. Some of it [is] modeled after her masculine ideal and some of it is modeled [after] her feminine ideal. So it’s kind of a big mess,” says Girard. 

Celebrating Canada's 150th anniversary this year, founder and creative director of FOLD, Jael Richardson, says that she was inspired by the famous indigenous writer, Lee Maracle’s quote “if you want to understand the heart of the culture, read the women”. Richardson observed that at every session or panel, the audience was touched by something they weren’t expecting to hear.

“They are always surprised by the wealth of stories, writers and ideas they encounter, and it’s really powerful because that’s when real change happens,” she added.

The second annual FOLD festival was held from May 4 - 7 and hopes to bring change by highlighting the voices of women authors who offer a different perspective.

In partnership with Apathy is Boring, New Canadian Media will be posting first-person accounts from the 150 Years Young Project, a campaign that highlights the positive impact youth are making throughout their communities.

Stephane Mukunzi, PACE Magazine

“It all comes back to the idea of bringing communities together. The spoken word collectives, the singers, the artists, the painters… they are all present in Ottawa. We just don’t have centralized spaces where people can go to see Ottawa artists and critical thinkers. And that’s what we are trying to achieve with PACE”.

As a twenty-three year-old videographer and photographer, Stephane Mukunzi was fed up with receiving the same old rejection letter after submitting work. After realizing there was no community of young artists in Ottawa’s art scene, Stephane decided to create one himself. He gathered together a group of young creatives and they developed PACE Magazine, a place where young artists and critically minded people could express themselves. Inspired by London’s DIY magazine culture, Mukunzi and his team wanted to maintain the classic element of print media while combining it with innovation and online presence. PACE aims to dismantle the hierarchical nature of art and ensure the representation of indigenous artists, black artists, artists of colour, women artists, immigrant artists, and anyone who may have turned away by the fine arts community.

The PACE team decided to give voice to those who haven’t had a chance to speak to Ottawa, and within the first year of launching, it is clear they have found voices that Ottawa is eager to hear. The magazine has published two print editions, created a website for creative content, and held two successful launch events that featured local photography, spoken word, and art pieces. After this continued foray into Ottawa culture, Stephane fully rejects the idea of Ottawa as a boring city and believes that the many creative scenes, are there to fill cultural needs if you are ready to integrate yourself into them. Looking for that first step? Check out the latest issue of PACE at http://www.pacemagazine.ca/

Khoebe Magsaysay, Artist/Filmmaker/Animator

“It’s really important to embrace and accept your disappointments and failures because they make a strong foundation for your future endeavours.”

Filipino-born Khoebe Magsaysay immigrated to Ontario when she was ten years old. After high school, she enrolled in the Honours Bachelor of Animation program at Sheridan College, and began a time of huge personal growth. At university, she learned to persevere through challenging times, cultivate her talent, and refine her skills as a filmmaker, animator, and artist.

Khoebe landed an internship in New York City for the summer between years three and four of her undergrad at Gameloft, a notable gaming company. Following her internship, Khoebe produced a short film, and the process of making it was very stressful and complex. The film, titled “NIHIL”, is about Adina, a character who is the epitome of perfection. Through a series of events, she comes to question her reality. The success of the film won Khoebe the Via Rail Award for Best Canadian Student Film at the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF), which is considered one of the most prestigious international animation film festivals in the world. Khoebe has continued to excel in her field, working in Toronto at ToonBox Entertainment.


The 150 Years Young Project: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, Apathy is Boring is teaming up with community organizers and city ambassadors to recognize positive contributions by youth. Follow the hashtag #150yy for more!

In partnership with Apathy is Boring, New Canadian Media will be posting first-person accounts from the 150 Years Young Project, a campaign that highlights the positive impact youth are making throughout their communities.

Komal Minhas, Owner of Ko-Media and Co-Founder of Dream, Girl

“Entrepreneurship builds a huge amount of resilience, capacity, emotional intelligence, and growth. My advice to young entrepreneurs is to take your time and build a strong group of people around you who can help you down your path- and remember to keep an intentionality to the hustle.”

As a successful young female entrepreneur who is the co-founder of widely viewed documentary Dream, Girl and the owner of her own media company, KoMedia, you may be surprised to learn that Komal Minhas got her start in Grand Prairie, Alberta. This rural city played an integral role in Komal’s story, as she was raised there by parents who immigrated from India. She grew up watching her parents face the many trials and triumphs of new immigrants and was inspired by their entrepreneurial spirit as they created a home for themselves. She also grew up witnessing the effects that patriarchal culture can have on women, and particularly young women and women of colour. She was always taught to dream big and she took this belief with her across the country as she started on a new path in Ottawa to pursue her dream of empowering women and girls.

After completing a degree in Journalism from Carleton University and graduate studies in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo, Komal fell in love with telling stories through video and documentary and gained an understanding of how business can have a positive impact when led by intentional and thoughtful leaders. Thus came the creation of KoMedia, which aims to create systemic change in how females are treated and does by undertaking projects that tell the complex and empowering stories of women and girls from around the world. Soon after, she connected with fellow entrepreneur Erin Bagwell, who had the innovative idea of creating a documentary that showcases the stories of female entrepreneurs, giving a voice to this underrepresented segment. Komal became a co-founder of the project, helping to create the documentary from pre-production, to production stages in New York City, to premiering across the world. The film has had many successes, from a sold-out public premiere at the Paris Theatre in NYC to a premiere hosted by Sophie Gregoire Trudeau in Ottawa. Komal is currently working out of Ottawa, a city that she continues to call her home-base despite having worked in many thriving cities around the world. 

Christo Bilukidi, Entrepreneur, OCH Ambassador, and Former NFL Player

“I just want to show youth that you are not limited to anything in this world because of your upbringing, your circumstances, or your environment. You can do anything you set your mind to. A lot of people might tell you this, but I believe this because I have lived it, and that’s why I am an OCH Ambassador”.

Growing up in Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) and coming from a single-parent immigrant household, Christo Bilukidi was taught the values of hard work and perseverance. These came in handy when he found himself playing football for the first time in the twelfth grade and having a natural affinity for the sport, beginning a journey that he never imagined himself undertaking. By pushing himself through trainings, try-outs, and SAT tests, Christo earned a full-ride scholarship to play football at Georgia State University. Soon after, he was drafted into the NFL and played for the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Baltimore Ravens. 

After five seasons in the NFL, Christo decided to take his retirement and follow a different passion: entrepreneurship. He is now a co-owner of a successful tailored suit business, Idlewood, and uses his free time for volunteerism. Christo decided to return to Ottawa, where he felt a strong sense of community in his home city and wanted the chance to give back. He is an OCH Ambassador, using his experiences growing up and in the sporting community to be a positive role model to youth. He cites that he will take part in as many community outreach opportunities as he can get his hands on, and is often engaging in public speaking at high schools or community centres in OCH neighbourhoods. On top of this, Christo is working on organizing a football camp for youth that he hopes will feature current NFL players and local Ottawa players to help empower young people through athleticism. He believes that sports are a great tool for youth empowerment, as they teach discipline, hard work, and motivation.


The 150 Years Young Project: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, Apathy is Boring is teaming up with community organizers and city ambassadors to recognize positive contributions by youth. Follow the hashtag #150yy for more!

In partnership with Apathy is Boring, New Canadian Media will be posting first-person accounts from the 150 Years Young Project, a campaign that highlights the positive impact youth are making throughout their communities.

Mathura Mahendren, Toronto for Everyone

“I thought I was going to move away from the city, but something keeps drawing me back in. There’s a change for the better coming, and I want to be a part of that.”

Mathura has seen and had opportunities to learn about the strength of community-driven growth. While she proactively takes on roles and responsibilities that allow her to be the proverbial “fly on the wall”, the work she has done, and continues to do for community development, is difficult to dismiss for its impact. Over the past few years, Mathura was given the opportunity to work on Global Health initiatives in Malawi and The Gambia towards implementing sustainable and community-developed innovations in health promotion and education.

As someone who struggles with dichotomies and, instead, operates primarily within the grey-spaces, Mathura stresses the importance of embedded learning experiences in Global Health initiatives. She discusses this concern in the face of work being done with the intention of establishing a “one-size-fits-all” solution to Global Health problems. Her opportunities, she explains, have helped her appreciate the nuances and complexities of individual narratives and how they fit together towards large scale concerns.

Today, Mathura is working actively with the Toronto for Everyone initiative to jumpstart the city towards a more inclusive community that all can feel a part of. Spearheaded by the Centre for Social Innovation, the initiative organized a farewell event at the end of February to honour Honest Ed’s legacy as being an establishment of inherent inclusivity.

Salima Visram, Soular Backpack

“I believe that every human requires food, water, education, access to healthcare, and economic empowerment. I hope that Soular is able to become the catalyst for individuals and communities to develop these essentials for themselves.”

Salima was raised in Kenya and came to Canada for her university education at McGill where she studied International Development and Business. She founded Soular in 2014 after learning that kids were using kerosene to power the lights they used to study with in the evening. Kerosene, when exposed to in large quantities, increases the risk of cancer and several other health problems. These issues also lead to poor performance in school, with many kids unable to move on to secondary education.

Knowing this, and brainstorming several interventions, Salima presented the Soular Backpack – a backpack with solar panels, a battery, and now a lamp that is charged over the course of the day for students to use in the evenings. Her initial Kickstarter campaign was able to fundraise $50,000 towards making this project a reality and get the first 2,500 backpacks on the ground in Kenya. She is hoping that, by the end of May 2017, Soular is able to provide 4,000 kids across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda with backpacks.

Salima believes that it is important to consider financial sustainability for not-for-profit organizations so that they are able continue working towards their mission independently. She is, therefore, using a one-for-one model to pair buyers from established economies to support the users in East Africa. Salima hopes that Soular is able to expand its impact to the rest of Africa and establish itself towards supporting the education of these students.


The 150 Years Young Project: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, Apathy is Boring is teaming up with community organizers and city ambassadors to recognize positive contributions by youth. Follow the hashtag #150yy for more!

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

A graphic novel that creates awareness about sexual abuse among immigrant and refugee women has upped its print order barely a month after its launch in Ontario. The overwhelming demand has come from far beyond just refugee and immigrant-settlement groups. 

"We have requests from outside of the province, from other parts of the country as well as internationally," says Krittika Ghosh, senior coordinator of women sexual violence at Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI).

This demand is a clear indication that there is a dire need to help such women who are new to the country due to the scarcity of their resources. Smaller friend circles coupled with language barriers and limited education result in suffering in seclusion. 

Statistics tell that one in three women in Canada encounters sexual abuse or violence in one way or another.

"They range from people asking for one copy for a library, to some agencies asking for 500 copies in each language. So it's really unique."

Breaking down barriers

Titled "Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women's Resilience", the unique novel that is written by and for immigrant and refugee women looks to break down barriers that hinder the reporting of abuse. 

The project is a joint venture between the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Le Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones (MOFIF).

The novel, launched on March 2, illustrates four stories of newcomer women – victims of domestic abuse, workplace abuse, and date rape. The book helps create a narrative around this deeply sensitive topic and enables victims to empower themselves to shine a light on this often unreported crime. 

Unlike other story formats, the graphic novel was written with input gathered through workshops conducted with 40 immigrant or refugee women, who shared their stories and worked with illustrator Coco Guzman.

First-person accounts

"Each story is the outcome of a four-day workshop of newcomer or refugee women and many cases were survivors of sexual and intimate kind of violence," says Ghosh.

It helps people realize that there is no need to suffer in silence as help is available. 

It also challenges stereotypes of survivors and to show that they are resilient and capable of organizing to end violence themselves. 

Explaining the choice of format, Ghosh says, "We wanted it to be in a format that would be more available and accessible and something that people would want to read."

Growing demand

Professionals and groups beyond social workers, teachers, public libraries, immigrant and refugee welcome groups and the police are reaching out for the book.

The book is available free of cost and is not meant for sale.

The novel is available in 11 languages, including French and English.

OCASI and MOFIF had 7,000 copies in English, 3,000 in French and 1,000 in nine other languages including Arabic, Tamil, Chinese, Punjabi and Somali, in the first print run. The plan is to also have the stories available online.

OCASI website has an online form, where the book can be ordered. So far, it has received around 80 orders from different individuals and settlement agencies.

"They range from people asking for one copy for a library, to some agencies asking for 500 copies in each language. So it's really unique," according to Ghosh.

Fear of blame

The novel highlights that fear of blame, along with possibilities of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination never stopped these real-life characters from acting with courage and resilience. 

Intervention brings positive twists to these live stories. 

Kose's story revolves around deceit and marital rape accompanied by threats of deportation. Magali's story is based on workplace sexual abuse, whereas, Amal's story portrays student-teacher sexual harassment and Manuela's story is an illustration of date rape. 

In all of the stories there is a caring individual, whether it be a friend or relative, who intervenes with educational information. This portrays how people can counter violence against women by beginning conversations and taking action within their communities. 

Tuesday, 04 April 2017 14:35

Feeling Like a Stranger at Home

Written by

Commentary by Laska Paré in Toronto

“If you were born in Canada, you won!” was the catchphrase that came to mind during my flight's turbulent descent into Toronto airport. The next thing I knew, flight EK 241 was making harsh contact with the runway, followed by the pilot’s announcement: “Welcome to Toronto Pearson International Airport.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Am I really here? After twenty-nine months, am I finally back?

I stood up slowly, as you do after a 14-hour flight and let out a big sigh of relief.

I was back in Canada, my home and native land.

As I trudged through the airport, I considered how elated my grandma would be. During my time away, she always made it a point to end our calls by reminding me that people around the world were dying to get into Canada, hoping to create stable opportunities for themselves and their families.

And there I was, instead, gallivanting to every developing Asian country I could locate on a map. 

The birthright lottery

Having won the birthright lottery, that is, a Canadian passport, I've always felt as if it was my duty and responsibility to understand the value of my citizenship. My grandma was right – people risk their lives for a chance to have a decent life in Canada.

But, I've also always wanted to know more about the struggle of newcomers and perhaps gain a better understanding of how immigrants and dual citizens identify once they are in Canada. Do they identify as strangers? Does Canada ever truly feel like their home?

Two and a half years have passed since I set foot on Canadian soil. For some, that seems like a lifetime to go without seeing family, friends, or a house pet.

But after living across Asia and witnessing the sacrifices people make to provide for their family – seeing their spouses and children on a short holiday once a year, if that, for example – my absence and sacrifice seem very brief and insignificant.  

Defining Strangers at Home

A "stranger" is an individual who does not belong as her position in a group is determined by the fact that she has not belonged to it from the beginning. A "home" may be understood to be a place where individuals experience a sense of security and are comfortable in familiar surroundings.

Therefore, feeling like a stranger suggests that an individual does not identify with the people around him, and consequently, does not belong or does not feel accepted in the place that he identifies as home.

As I took my place in the "citizen" queue in the customs hall, I couldn’t help but feel as if something was wrong.

By now, I knew bits of several languages, had become accustomed to eating rice with my hands, greeted people by saying “Namaste” and mastered the skill of washing my hair upside-down in a bucket. My norms, customs and mannerisms would come across as abnormal to the rest of my native, Canadian comrades. For the first time, I felt like a stranger at home.

Understanding the Other

The customs officer signaled that it was okay for me to approach the counter. He flipped through my passport – pages now filled with stamps and visas – and without a question about my two-and-a-half-year absence, waved me through with a jaunty, “Welcome home.”

I looked back at the long line of anxious visitors, hands filled with papers and documents. Not only had I travelled all over Asia without struggle, but I was able to come “home” after an extended trip and not be questioned about my absence.

It was in that moment that I understood why all the sacrifice and risk was worth the chance in Canada.

Now settled in Toronto, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for my citizenship.

While I’m still adjusting to life in the city, there’s no question I’ve gained a better understanding of how new immigrants and dual citizens may feel upon their arrival in Canada, as I now identify with countries and ethnic groups not part of my country of origin.

After so much sacrifice in the hopes for a better life, the ambiguity around identity and desire to identify with one’s new “home” must be difficult for new residents. Building a new life is one thing; however, reconstructing one’s sense of belonging to a nation must require time. 

As I greeted my uncle in the arrivals hall and looked around at the room filled with diverse faces, I realized that to identify as a stranger is to empathize with all Canadians – because diversity has built our land.

An experienced mentor to women in business and the youth, Laska has an unshakeable passion for writing. Inspired by helping people realize their human potential, when not coaching a client or sitting at her computer creating engaging content, you will find her outside seeking adventure.

Sunday, 12 March 2017 14:59

Turning the BIG Day Into A Getaway

Written by

by Tanya Mok

Autumn is arguably the most beautiful season in Toronto, but even clear skies and above-average temperatures weren’t enough to keep Samantha Beniprashad-Maharaj and her husband Ryan Maharaj from leaving the country to get married this past October.

Before he had even proposed in June 2015, Ryan, 33, and Samantha, 30, had decided they wanted to have a destination wedding. Samantha says they wanted to cut on costs and, more importantly, “eliminate stress and chaos.” A year-and-a-half of planning later, they flew to Jamaica and were married at an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay.

As a Guyanese-Canadian couple, Samantha, a human resources representative, and Ryan, a loss prevention investigator, are just one of many young couples from Canada’s ethnic communities opting for a destination wedding instead of a local one.

Getting married abroad has become an attractive option for those who’d rather turn their special day into a vacation while getting more for their money. Unlike their parents’ generation, these couples care less about guest count and more about turning their special day into a big getaway. Vacation resorts now make it easier and more cost-effective than ever for couples to have a destination wedding, pleasing young and old alike by accommodating cultural wedding traditions abroad. Tara Soloway, co-founder of Toronto-based agency Luxe Destination Weddings, says the number of requests for cultural marriage ceremonies abroad have increased over the past two years.

Of all the weddings her agency now manages, Soloway says, 25 to 30 per cent require traditional cultural elements and she predicts that number will keep growing. “[Couples are] looking to have fun rather than a stressful traditional-type wedding.”

Samantha and Ryan were both aware of how demanding a traditional Guyanese wedding could be. Five years ago, Samantha’s older sister had both her Hindu and Christian ceremonies in Toronto with 300 and 500 guests at each, respectively. The total cost of her wedding was around $80,000.

In comparison, Samantha and Ryan’s wedding in mid-October cost $25,000, nearly $6,000 less than the national average, according to this bridal industry survey. That number includes the couple’s travel expenses, their seven-day stay in Jamaica, off-site excursions, both Hindu and Christian ceremonies, wedding regalia, decorations and pre-marriage festivities held in Toronto.

While most brides demand they be able to inspect their wedding venues firsthand before the big day, Samantha didn’t mind waiting until landing in Jamaica to see her resort in person. She had already scoped out all the details of her wedding online from the comfort of her home: pictures and videos of the cocktail party and wedding cake, for example, were just a click away.

It was the flight that Samantha felt the most apprehensive about. She worried that some of the suitcases might go missing — the one with the decorations, maybe, or the dresses. With 65 of her guests and their baggage on board, the plane was bound to get hectic.

“That was the highest point of anxiety for me but once we got there and we got settled everything was very, very smooth,” she says.

The flight ended up being hitch-free and cost-free as well: Samantha and Ryan had scored a deal where every seventh guest’s stay at the resort was on the house, so the couple’s flight and stay were free.

Amanda Punit, who is Guyanese-Canadian, was symbolically wed to her husband of Trinidadian descent, Thabo Kathirgamanathan, on a weeklong trip to Punta Cana in August 2015. The couple held their traditional Guyanese and Sri Lankan ceremonies at home in Toronto prior to the vacation but Amanda, 29, says she also wanted to plan something “smaller and more intimate.”

The couple’s Punta Cana wedding cost around $27,000 and was held at a venue off their all-inclusive resort. Unlike Samantha, Amanda was nervous about not seeing the locale before the reception. “You don’t know what to expect, you haven’t met anyone in person, you just see pictures and you hope that it all turns out the way it looks,” she says. But thanks to a group booking discount Amanda also scored significant savings: nearly all of her 95 guests booked through the same travel agency, Red Tag, and she was able to bring the cost of each all-inclusive stay down to $1360 from around $1700. 

Resorts and airlines often offer discounts like this to lure in couples and the high volume of guests they bring. Vacation countries are also seeing a boost in their economy: local vendors that cater to the wedding industry are benefiting from this increase in travel weddings. Destinations like Jamaica do well because of relaxed residency requirements, even having a page on their consulate website promoting the ease of hotel marriages.

“A lot of these countries want people to come down and get married because it’s great for tourism,” says Soloway.

Kara Mahbubani and her husband Arun opened their restaurant Mystic India six years ago in Ironshore, a suburb along the coast just east of Montego Bay. The couple caters authentic Indian cuisine to weddings on and off nearby resorts, also providing Hindu weddings with traditional props like Dandia sticks, used for Gujarati dances, and the Havan Kund, a fire pit.

According to Kara, Mystic India has seen a “significant increase in sales.”

“Destination weddings have become such a trend since the past three or four years,” she says. Her restaurant now caters two to four weddings a month, up from one wedding every three to four months in 2012.

Food and garments aside, there was one aspect of Samantha and Ryan’s wedding that didn’t stick to conventional Hindu wedding guidelines: the guest count. Of the 250 people that were invited, 72 adults and eight children celebrated with them in Montego Bay, a tiny number compared to most Hindu weddings where guest counts can surge into the hundreds.

The reason: guests must pay sizeably larger bills for destination weddings than they would a local one.

While there are no Canadian estimates, this 2015 American Express report says that guests in the U.S. spent an average of U.S. $673 (or Cdn $821 in 2015) per wedding; Samantha and Ryan’s attendees paid $1,534 (Cdn) per person for the seven-day trip.

That price can put a heavy cap on the number of guests able to afford a destination wedding, which can be problematic since some ethnic communities prefer more guests than less. On top of long travel times and big bills for guests, it's just another reason for families to advise against destination weddings.

Soloway says she’s witnessed pushback from parents who had envisioned a more traditional marriage for their kids. “We see it all the time…sometimes it’s more of a personal struggle that a mother or father can face,” she says. Samantha’s mother Rawattie Beniprashad had some reservations. “In Guyana destination weddings are very uncommon and would be considered a luxurious and different way to get married,” she says. However, the fact that Samantha’s out-of-town wedding actually cut on costs was a big plus, and Beniprashad says that for many guests it was more than a wedding, it was a family holiday.

Since marriages in Guyana are usually home affairs, Samantha honoured the Hindu maticore and mehendi traditions at her parent’s place in Toronto before flying to Jamaica. During these ceremonies, the bride is dyed and purified at home and the women dance outside to the lively beat of traditional tassa drums, an essential component of Guyanese weddings. But Samantha didn’t get to have the tassa drums, having opted for a simplified version because Toronto’s weather was “on and off”.

Beniprashad was worried that the rest of her daughter’s wedding in Montego Bay would mean more cuts to those wedding traditions. “One of the major concerns I had was that if the resort would be able to deliver on all of the Hindu customs that we wanted to include in her ceremony.”

It's a common worry, and many wedding agencies catering to ethnic communities use parents’ peace-of-mind as a selling point for their businesses. Blue Petal Destination Weddings is a Vancouver-based agency that specializes in Hindi, Sikh and Muslim destination weddings in Mexico, and their website lists 'keeping your family happy' as the first major feature of their service.

Pam Gosal, president of Blue Petal Destination Weddings, says that parents should express explicitly to planners what they expect, especially in a country where English isn’t the first language. “Communication is a very important aspect of this,” she says. “You don’t want your wires crossed.”

Soloway says that many large destination resorts have had to evolve over the last two years to become more accessible to couples of different ethnic backgrounds and their families. Some resorts keep a roster of cultural wedding-friendly vendors while others offer to help couples find local officiants like rabbis or pandits for their ceremonies, Many now have chefs onsite that can accommodate more traditional and demanding feasts. Kosher meals, for example, are now available at select resorts that previously didn’t offer them before due to the tremendous effort it takes to transform a Caribbean kitchen into a kosher one.

“It’s great because that allows for more people to attend the wedding, especially the older family members who are a bit more skeptical,” says Soloway. “It’s been happening slowly over time but now everybody’s kind of catching up … and even moving into the future we’re going to be seeing more and more of it.”

According to Samantha, their Hindu ceremony in Jamaica had all the accoutrements of an authentic Guyanese wedding. The ceremony included a pandit that the couple flew out from Toronto, fresh-water coconuts for guests and a buffet of South Asian fare, all-included. “The resort did an amazing job at helping us keep with the traditions,” she says.

As for Samantha’s mother, her worries were appeased, saying that her daughter’s wedding was “everything we imagined it to be.” Destination weddings can be a meeting of cultures —  that of the newlyweds’ and of the country they’re visiting. While the destination may seem unfamiliar, the fusion of customs is something members of ethnic communities are familiar with living in a country as diverse as Canada.

“The location and simplicity of my daughter’s wedding was definitely different ... [but] the core traditions and rituals have not changed,” says Beniprashad. “To us Canadians, it’s a lot of fun.”


Tanya is a content creator and journalist reporting on diasporic culture and communities in Toronto.

Saturday, 11 March 2017 15:34

When Bigger is Better

Written by

by Tazeen Inam

For 21-year-old Mahnoor Baig, who grew up in Mississauga, the guest list for her wedding came as a shock. It included many people she had never met before, and numbered in the hundreds. But her parents insisted they wanted to invite people from every corner of the world to their only daughter’s celebration.

Though younger Pakistanis tend to be more modest in their approach, older generations see weddings as an once-in-a-lifetime affair, to be celebrated extravagantly. Industry insiders say that community members compete to outdo each other in a bid to wow attendees, designing events to be remembered and discussed long after the couple has returned from their honeymoon.

What followed were intense negotiations between parents and daughter. “The final list had only 5 per cent [of guests] that I had not met before,” Baig says. Her husband, Farhan Khan, a physician, is also not very fond of crowded weddings, but understood why so many were invited. “It’s a social gathering that reunites people who’ve been separated for a long time. It was a new experience for me, and in the end, I didn’t mind it as I met lot of people from both sides.” 

They wound up hosting 350 guests at their reception at the Burlington Convention Centre, with some coming in from other parts of Canada, Pakistan, the U.S., and the U.K.

Compared to the average cost of a Canadian wedding — $30,717, including honeymoon — Pakistani celebrations can run between $50,000 and $200,000, according to Roxy Zapala, founder and creative director of Art of Celebrations, who has been planning weddings for 15 years.

For Baig's parents and others like them, a month-long celebration is a small investment to mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment, much like making a down payment on a house. Days are spent shopping, finalizing vendors, and dropping off invitations, while on the weekends close family and friends are invited for tea or dinner. They play the dholki — a large-skinned drum that is struck with a metal spoon — sing traditional songs extolling the bride and groom, apply henna, exchange gifts, and plan for the big day. 

Shahnaz Shah, an obstetrician and gynecologist who immigrated to Canada from the U.K. in 2000, blew her son Rehan away with a grand reception held at Toronto's Casa Loma.  “I knew that my mother [was] going to do something extra for me," Rehan says, "but I never expected it to be this grand.”

“We had bhangra [music], belly dancers, a dance floor, and piano playing too. It was a combination with exquisite decor, to keep my guests occupied with fun-filled activities," Shah recalls. "People are still talking about how well it was organized.”

Other than lavish food and entertainment, the bridal dress (typically red) and jewellry consume a lot of the budget. Yellow or white gold is embedded with diamonds, pearls, or precious stones, and usually customized to match the wedding outfit. Special dresses for the immediate family, outfits for the groom, and an exchange of presents between the families add to the costs.

Competition to provide these services is intense. “There were only a few shops in the Toronto area when I started business 20 years ago," says Erum Ahmed, owner of Erum’s Creations, and a dress designer who caters primarily to the Pakistani immigrant community. "Now there are more than 50 good designer outlets selling traditional, customized bridal dresses.”

Makeup and hairstyling add to the budget as well. Makeup artists such as Aneela Gardezi, who has many years of experience working with Pakistani-Canadian families, says completing a bride's look in the traditional style can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $1,500. “Pakistani makeup is famous for its heaviness," she explains, "so those who opt for total transformation of complexion and features need extra material.”

Baig went for a natural look that suited her pastel outfit. But she had to pay extra for her hijab and dupatta (veil). “Everyone is not an expert on setting bridal hijab," she says. "I called someone at the makeup studio to do the job for me, and obviously I had to pay her extra.” 

All this preparation needs to be documented too. This can include drone cinematography to provide a 360-degree aerial view of the wedding, which can run between $1,500 and $4,500 per shoot, according to Zapala.

Khawaja tried it out at her choreographed Burlington Convention Centre event. “It’s like creating virtual reality for us and for those who missed parts of the wedding. The drone costs us a bit more, but it lent a new perspective and thrilled my guests.”

It's just the latest trend as a community attempts to meld tradition with modernity in a new land.


Tazeen Inam is a freelance journalist with New Canadian Media and Muslim Link based in Mississauga, Ontario.

This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.

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