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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
by Lucy Slavianska
Victoria Bechkalo, a social worker from Ukraine, and Aleksandr Aksenov, a bank analyst from Russia, had only five guests at their Toronto wedding — the groom’s brother, his wife and children, and a family friend. Since their home countries were at war with each other, dividing their friends, and their parents couldn’t make it to Toronto due to visa issues, Bechkalo and Aksenov couldn’t plan a big wedding.
Still, they say their ceremony at Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral was the happiest moment of their lives, because what mattered to them was not the number of guests, a drive in a limo, or a lavish reception, but the decision to create their family in peaceful, tolerant Canada and their ability to do this by blending traditions from their respective homelands with those from their new home.
One of these traditions is affordability.
There is a long history of church weddings in eastern European communities, not just because of the opulent atmosphere — the candles, richly decorated altars, clerical vestments, murals, and iconography — but because the churches make a point of keeping costs down.
Many churches, for instance, charge more than $1,000 for wedding ceremonies (the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto charges $1,500 for a wedding, and the Anglican St. Clement Church charges $1,725), but eastern European churches tend to have much lower fees. Some, like the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church and St. Mary’s Polish Roman Catholic Church, charge between $100 and $500, but if a couple cannot afford to pay, even those charges may be waived. Others don’t charge for weddings at all, though couples often make a donation.
Elena and Joseph Peccoreli chose to marry in the same Russian Orthodox cathedral as Bechkalo and Aksenov. Before the ceremony, Elena bought a small icon and her wedding ring from the cathedral’s shop. “These things are cheap [there] and everybody can afford them,” she says. “I chose a white gold ring that was brought to Canada from a Russian monastery. But in general, the crosses and the rings don’t have to be golden. The idea is that nobody should be stopped from getting married because of money.”
Aliaksei Androsik, originally from Russia, and Julia Gorbunova, from Belarus, had been wanting to get married for more than a decade. “We met when I was 13 and she was 14 years old,” Androsik says. “At that time we were both attending school in Poland, and she told me to wait till we grew up. We lived in different countries for years, keeping in touch over the internet, and we finally decided that she [would] come to me to Canada.” They married in a small Belorussian church in Toronto, with 40 guests in attendance. After the ceremony, there was a party in the church hall with cake and vodka, and then the couple hosted a barbecue at home.
This is very much in keeping with cultural beliefs shared throughout eastern Europe. Salaries are significantly lower there than in western countries, so frugality is generally valued. Eastern European priests here presume that young couples, and especially new immigrants, might not have much by way of savings. There is also a widespread belief that couples should use their money for more practical purposes, such as buying a home or providing for future children. Priests emphasize that saving is righteous, and they discourage couples from going into debt over a day of celebrations.
Archpriest Vasily Kolega, from Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral (which doesn't charge for weddings), considers the overspending that's so common unwise: “In Canada, we see a lot of couples who use up their savings or borrow money and spend a lot on big weddings, and then spend years paying [it] back.”
By contrast, he says, couples like Bechkalo and Aksenov (whom he married in the summer of 2016) have a different perspective when it comes to celebrating their wedding. “Such couples who come to us believe that the wedding ceremony is much more significant than a big wedding party or than going to Mexico or somewhere else to spend money. They start their family life. They declare their love for each other, take their vows very seriously, and believe this more important than the material sides of the weddings.”
Lucy Slavianska is a Toronto-based journalist and editor who has lived and worked in Canada, Japan, Bulgaria, Venezuela, and the Netherlands.
This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.
by Renée Sylvestre-Williams
When Toronto-based lawyer Anjli Patel and her husband, Parambir Keila, were planning their Sikh wedding ceremony, they wanted to keep it simple and have it downtown. But they didn't look specifically for a South Asian planner familiar with their cultures.
“We found our wedding planner through a listing on Wedluxe.com,” says Patel. It wasn't necessarily the norm for Patel to have a planner. She says traditionally South Asian weddings were organized by families and, in some cases, the entire village. But since her 2012 wedding, she says having a planner instead of relying on family has become more accepted in South Asian communities.
“There are South Asian wedding planners, like Sapna [Weddings], but we went with our planner [Melissa Haggerty from Spectacular Spectacular], even though ours was their first South Asian wedding, because we wanted to get married in a downtown venue, and our planner had a lot of experience planning events in downtown venues.” Spectacular Spectacular has planned a few South Asian weddings each year since.
That choice, and that distribution of knowledge, wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago, when Vicki Singh was planning her wedding. She was inspired to start her own wedding planning business after trying to find suppliers who could cater to the South Asian market.
As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. With the Canadian wedding industry worth $5 billion and catering to an average of 160,000 couples annually (according to a survey in Weddingbells magazine), the industry has evolved beyond the white dress. And while it's easy for many people to find a planner who understands their wishes in their countries of origin, it can be difficult to find planners in Canada who fully appreciate clients’ varied needs and cultural sensitivities.
“This year will be our 15th anniversary [of the business],” says Singh, who has published two books on the subject, Cultural Weddings and The South Asian Wedding Planner. “This issue kept coming up. Finding suppliers who wanted and could cater to Indian weddings was a challenge. Instagram wasn’t as prevalent, so there were fewer ways to find out about new services and ideas. We were counting a lot on word of mouth to find people to do video, makeup — and the referrals weren’t always of the best quality.”
“We helped plan a Sikh wedding last year where the photographer had never done this kind of wedding before,” Singh explains, describing one typical example. “She was adamant she knew what to do, but there are certain things you need to know beforehand that she never got to: in a Sikh wedding you remove your shoes, cover your head, et cetera, during the ceremony. She came to the venue not knowing any of that.”
Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, says couples who've wanted a diverse wedding have been chronically underserved by the industry, but that is changing. “Diversity has always been a key factor in Canadian weddings, and with more and more couples wanting to incorporate their cultures into their celebration, there has definitely been a shift in the wedding marketplace … Offerings are more multicultural today than ever before, and it is now not as difficult to find a wedding planner specializing in specific cultural celebrations.” She also said that wedding shows — often the place where couples find vendors and suppliers — are becoming more varied, offering services specific to different cultural backgrounds.
Danielle Andrews, co-founder of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada, has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I don’t know that multicultural weddings themselves have necessarily increased,” she says. “What I’m seeing is more wedding coordinators getting involved. We’re seeing a shift towards having a wedding coordinator handling the [culturally specific] details — and not necessarily always a wedding coordinator of the couple’s culture.”
What has changed, in other words, is that wedding coordinators are educating themselves about different cultures. They might have training in (and until recently, cultural familiarity with) western wedding mores, but now they’re expanding their expertise and range of services.
Andrews says they’re seeing more weddings that blend eastern and western traditions — “more western-style weddings with the Chinese tea ceremony included," for instance. "It’s not heavy on customs, but it’s definitely incorporating customs.” Couples are picking and choosing which customs they want incorporated into their wedding.
Patel and Keila chose not to include extravagant Sikh or Hindu traditions into their wedding, which often include a week of events leading up to the ceremony. Instead, she and her husband kept the wedding small, celebrating at the Art Gallery of Ontario with 150 people, and even skipping the cake. She says working with Haggerty might have sounded risky, but it worked out: “We had a South Asian officiant and we all met a number of times to review the ceremony in detail. We had many design meetings where we discussed the big-picture look and feel and details as well. Having said that, our vision was never beyond her comprehension because we have the same aesthetic sensibility. We were always on the same page.”
Singh, the one who started her own wedding planning business, may have had trouble finding suppliers who could help plan weddings, but now, people can get her books everywhere. “We have brides who get our books at the Bay or Bed Bath and Beyond. And [then they] will have their nieces use it — a progression of people.”
Renee Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Quartz.
This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.
By R. Paul Dhillon in Surrey
Last week turned out to be an unplanned Asian cinema watching binge, watching four Asian films – three Chinese and one Korean.
I love Asian films as some of them have action and special effects that are better than Hollywood even if they sometimes lack in the story-plot, but over all they are spectacular visual feasts.
First up was the Super hit special-effects laden Journey To The West - Demons Attack, an action packed road movie with four characters - a Monk, powerful monkey king, a pig man and a devilish looking beast. It had out of this world fights and action even if the story was a bit off.
Next up was Korean cop buddy picture Confidential Assignment with a terrific pairing of top Korean actors who play two very different North and South Korean cops, forcefully teamed to catch a rogue North Korean general who took off with valuable US currency printing plates. It was a fun ride of comedy and action and beautifully crafted with a tight story and characters easily identifiable and likeable.
Jackie Chan's Kung Fu Yoga, a silly action adventure with top of the line production design and chop-socky action which only Jackie can execute. Even at his 60 plus age, Jackie can kick ass like a young stud. Kung Fu Yoga also features Indian characters and storyline about lost treasures from the ancient civilisations of Indo-Chinese descents.
It features the beautiful Disha Patani playing an Indian Princess and Bollywood villain Sonu Sood as you guessed it as a villain seeking to inherit or steal the riches found by Jackie and his archaeological team. Not a lot of meaningful story-plot but a lot of fun and crazy action featuring car stunts, animals and of course the classic hand to hand Kung Fu speciality of the one and only Jackie Chan.
The fourth film in my Asian cinema foray was The Great Wall, which opened in North America recently after making more than $250 million in China and overseas. The film featuring Hollywood star Matt Damon and top Chinese stars is masterfully crafted by ace Chinese filmmaker Zhang Zimou. The alien sci-fi drama is an action film with good performances and dazzling special effects. For me it had the beautiful mix of western and Chinese big tent pole action film elements with a tight story and dramatic elements that lift it above average action sci-fi films.
The Great Wall was the best among the four Asian films I saw in my Asian Cinema Week and I'm glad it came at the end of my viewing odyssey as it will remain with me for a while.
R. Paul Dhillon is an award-winning journalist and editor of the South Asian LINK Newspaper and founder-publisher of Desibuzzbc. Dhillon is also a prominent filmmaker with feature film credits, including the latest The Fusion Generation.
by Tanya Mok in Toronto
OVER 300 movie-goers attended the recent world premiere of ‘My First 150 Days in Canada’, a documentary that strikes to the core of the Canadian immigrant experience.
The film screened at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as part of TVO’s year-long programming dedicated to Canada’s 150th anniversary. It follows single mother Melona Banico and her family during their first 150 days together in Canada, after immigrating from the Philippines. It offers an emotional glimpse into the life of a matriarch struggling to provide for her family in a new country while coping with her own disappointments and expectations.
“All immigrants can relate to the story of the family one way or another,” says the documentary director and writer, Diana Dai. “We all experience loneliness, language problems, difficulty finding jobs.”
Coming to terms
‘My First 150 Days in Canada’ is particularly touching because it focuses on the spectrum of hardships new immigrants must face, from the external struggles like unemployment and cold climates to the emotional, more complex impacts of realigning with a new society under less than favourable circumstances.
The documentary begins nearly a year ago with a tearful reunion at Pearson Airport as the Banico family is reunited for the first time, but it’s bittersweet: Melona has toiled for nearly 10 years, sometimes working three jobs simultaneously, in order to sponsor her son Jade, 24, her daughters, Judelyn, 26, and Jeah, 14, and her grandson, Clyde, 10, to come to Canada.
The separation, though, has been too long. She’s become a stranger to her children, having missed out on their most formative years. Suddenly, the family of five is thrust together into a single apartment with one goal: to save enough money for a better future.
Dai, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, says she could relate to the Banico family as an immigrant herself. As a Chinese-born immigrant who first moved to England and then Canada, Dai has spent years documenting issues facing Chinese people and their diaspora community in Toronto.
“You have to work harder than local people, that’s a fact,” she says. “It’s important for local Canadians to know how we live, what we’ve been through ... I want them to understand their hopes and expectations.”
The first few months
But Dai says the documentary also has a message for new immigrants as well. “I want them to know the first few months is hard.”
Capturing the Banico family’s ups and downs was a tough process. The family was cooperative at first but, overtime, became less and less willing to share their vulnerable moments. Financial expectations had caused a rift between Melona and her children, especially with Jade and Judelyn, who were too old to go to school but lacked the experience for non-minimum wage jobs.
They also had mouths to feed back home: Jade’s one-year-old daughter and Clyde’s father still lived in the Philippines, and Jeah was facing health problems. Melona was fired from her job and the bills were ever-looming.
Sometimes, the family would ignore Dai’s calls and scheduling shoots became difficult. It was only when Dai shared her own experiences as a new immigrant from China that the Banico family became less resistant to sharing their own.
“That’s the one reason why we trust each other, because I can feel that frustration. I understand their difficulties,” the director says. “Very few [documentaries] touch the conflicts among [new immigrant] family members because people don’t want to talk about it ... I’m very lucky that they allowed me to enter their world.”
For many in Canada, that world is a reality not so different from their own. From first snowfalls to being made fun of in school or for eating too much rice for lunch, ‘My First 150 Days in Canada’ is not just a story of Filipino immigrants, but the story of families across the world trying to make a better life for themselves in a new country.
Ending in optimism
Though the Banico family seemed to face a seemingly endless list of obstacles in Canada, an undercurrent of love and Melona’s determination for a better future for her family carried them through the first five months towards an optimistic ending in the film.
After the screening, the Banico family and Dai were invited onstage to a question and answer session with TVO’s Nam Kiwanuka, host of The Agenda In The Summer, where audience members had more words of support and gratitude for the family than questions.
Though the Banico family’s journey has just begun, Melona had words to impart to the many immigrants who have recently arrived in Canada, just as her family did nearly a year ago.
“My advice is try to be strong and put your family first,” she says. “Fight for the challenges that might be encountered in life. Later on, once everything’s settles down, they’re going to get better.”
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Commentary by George Abraham in Ottawa
IN the summer of 2015, a roomful of Ottawa folks got together at the National Arts Centre, eager to gain insights into the question, “What Stories Swing Votes?” The next federal election – the one that eventually ended Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decade in power – were just around the corner, and up on the stage at this Canadian Journalism Foundation event were some of Canada’s best political pundits – Susan Delacourt, Frank Graves, Adam Radwanski, David Herle and Tom Clark.
I don’t recall much of what was said, except one particular expression Radwanski used. It has stayed with me ever since. He spoke of a “subterranean campaign” that would be waged in immigrant communities across Canada – presumably in foreign languages and in a vernacular that would be very different from appeals to the rest of Canada. He was predicting a different playbook in select ridings – a playbook that Radwanski assumed would be beyond his understanding.
Looking back, I suspect he was right: there indeed was a playbook that enabled the Liberals to win immigrant-rich ridings. It is widely believed that part of the Liberals’ victory in October 2015 came from immigrant communities switching their votes away from the Conservatives. The Liberals won the so-called “ethnic vote.”
However, Radwanski’s choice of expression has intrigued me ever since. The respected columnist writes for the Globe and Mail – a paper that I have consistently read ever since I set foot in Canada in 2002.
I know the paper to be resourceful, financially well-endowed and world class. As a reader, I see that it invests in its journalists, giving them generous travel budgets to report at great length from hotspots on every continent, but also giving its columnists lots of latitude. It is a great Canadian institution.
And so I was fascinated by the concept that a campaign could be “subterranean” when it dealt with massive, well-established communities, served by hundreds of ethnic media publications. Why did the Globe not already have a cadre of journalistic talent that would have helped it cover these “subterranean” communities just as it did all the other ridings in Canada? Why not use translators, when necessary, to make inroads into these sorts of communities?
Radwanski’s telling observation begged a larger question: Why is our journalism not as multicultural as the rest of society?
In the period since the October 2015 election, I have reframed my question to ask, Why are our journalists not as representative as our federal cabinet?
I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Prime Minister-Elect Justin Trudeau shared with the head of his transition team, Peter Harder, his thoughts on how he wanted to go about selecting cabinet ministers. Together they produced a masterpiece of Canadian diversity. How did they get it so right, without really inviting a backlash from those who have got so used to a monochromatic hegemony in all the levers of power?
More than one year on, I still have trouble reconciling to the fact that a turbaned Sikh immigrant is Canada’s Defence Minister.
I am not the first journalist in Canada to shine a light on the lack of diversity in Canadian journalism. A few years after I set up New Canadian Media, I had the honour of meeting John Miller, a former chair of Ryerson’s journalism school, somebody who made it his life’s mission to make newsrooms more representative, more reflective of their readership and viewership. Miller has researched the issue and written extensively on the topic, to little avail.
There are still spaces in Canada that media don’t understand and have made barely an effort to try to understand. The less charitable side of me thinks they’d simply label these spaces as “ghettos” and be done with them. I suspect there are newsroom managers who argue that these newcomer enclaves don’t see themselves as Canadian.
It is incumbent on our media to do better: our journalism must enable all Canadians to feel equally included.
Given that one in five Canadians born in another country and an equal number are the children of first-generation Canadians, the “immigrant” ethos is writ large. We’ve been adding 1 million new Canadians every four years. And, generally speaking, their ethnic profile tends to be different from that of earlier settlers – for the last three decades, the majority of our newcomers have come from Asia, nations such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Canada is changing right before our eyes.
In 2012, I took a tentative step toward blending my experience as a journalist in Asia into the Canadian milieu. By then, I was convinced that most newcomers and their children share a sense of dislocation, having moved to North America from regions that are racially and socio-politically very different from the origins of earlier arrivals. They have different mores, a different worldview and a different “lived experience.” They consume news differently and view the world through a different lens.
Interestingly, Canada has had a robust ethnic media sector for a very long time. Visit any grocery store in the suburbs outside the major cities and you will encounter scores of publications stacked in neat piles. A local radio station will play music from “back home,” and the newspapers will say very little about happenings in Canada.
This anecdote may be apocryphal, but a respected ethnic journalist recently told me about a Vancouver radio station that launches its broadcast with the words, “Good morning, Vancouver! The weather in Chandigarh is …”
Each of these publications covers a particular immigrant community, in a specific geographic region, often in a foreign language. Most ethnic media continue to be narrowly focused on issues concerning their communities.
They are staffed mainly by the hundreds of journalists who arrived in Canada wanting to continue in their profession, but find it hard to gain a foothold. About 200 of them have worked with New Canadian Media or participated in our training sessions. They possess experience and language skills that could perhaps help the mainstream media demystify their communities, but nobody has quite figured out a way to marry their talents with the current needs of newsrooms.
I would be the first to admit that not all journalists are created equal. Having lived in five countries, I know first hand that every nation has its own ways of doing journalism. I also know that ethnic and “mainstream” could not be further apart in their professional standards. It would be the rare ethnic journalist who has had the luxury of paying for a journalism degree in Canada.
Working for multicultural media is very different from working for, say, the Globe. The reporters often double up as advertising salespeople. Ethnic publishers roll from one financial crisis to another; scores of them go under every year, while others sprout in their place. The line between editorial and advertising is blurred.
These publications, though, remain a vibrant part of Canada’s media ecosystem and play a critical role in informing and welcoming new immigrants. They fulfill a vital democratic function – albeit an insufficient one.
We in the media need to do a better job of speaking for Canadians and being a mirror to society. This is a cliché, but readers, viewers and listeners want to see and hear themselves reflected in our newsrooms. They want to hear foreign-sounding accents and even a mangled English or French sentence once in a while.
Journalism is about reflecting the lives and times of all Canadians – in all their diversity, colour and socio-political complexity. Newcomers invariably do not fit into the preconceived notions of today’s mainstream media editors.
That’s why it is very important for newsroom managers to specifically empower journalists in our newsrooms from diverse backgrounds to speak up, not to be cowed by those who perhaps unwittingly crowd out more timid voices and offbeat perspectives. In short, let’s privilege diversity, rather than conformity.
As we imagine a new media landscape for future generations, I suggest a “third way” that enables Canada to become the first nation in the world to marry ethnic and mainstream – a true reflection of our unique demographics. Let’s recognize that our highly corporatized media organizations have lost touch and are excluding large segments of our population by continuing to hire candidates who could not possibly do justice to the worldviews or lived experiences of many communities, including immigrants.
I realize it will take more than a generation to achieve in the media what Trudeau has done with his cabinet. It will take more than resolve and window dressing. In the meanwhile, let’s find ways for the two media silos to work together, discover common ground, and, in the process, improve the coverage of communities that feel left out.
This commentary was first published in Policy Options and part of a special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.
Commentary by Mayank Bhatt in Toronto
I published my debut novel, Belief, in Canada last year. It’s the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.
Just when everything seems to be falling into place after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, the family discovers their son’s apparent involvement in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours, who put them in touch with a police officer known to them.
The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.
The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story. It deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants.
This is an important issue because in their desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make it clear that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same.
In writing my novel, I set out with a simple objective – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.
The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with society at large, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.
From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction?
I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalisation and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate.
I’d still want to believe that it would still represent an enormous crisis from the parents’ point of view. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is “only” dealing with a drug problem, rather than being radicalised as a terrorist.
The other challenge I dealt with while writing the novel was that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil?
I was born in a Hindu family. However, but for my grandmother, nobody really practised the religion regularly or ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai).
Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed first-hand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered.
And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.
Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.
Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here).
Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be Aboriginal; his defence is that he feels like one, even if he may not be one genetically.
Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and suggested that I abandon the “misadventure”. I was, of course, not going to do that, mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience.
I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.
I have done so in Belief and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.
Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House. Read our review here - Novel Explores Road to Radicalization
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit