With a focus on the South Asian community, the event provided a welcome opportunity for the Minister to update and inform media on new and ongoing initiatives being undertaken by the provincial government to better support and settle newcomers in the province of Ontario.
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By Dimitri Nasrallah
When Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature last week, the announcement was greeted with near-unanimous cheers from writers, academics and readers around the world.Writers and academics extolled the 82-year-old author as a deserving contemporary master of the short story, a form she’d used to compact time lines to new effect over the course of 14 collections. Meanwhile readers at home and abroad fell in love with her deeply felt portraits of small-town Southern Ontario life, its quiet women in particular. Most everyone, including the author herself, accepted the honour as recognition of Canadian writing on the world stage.
The vote of confidence is overdue, and not just because Canadian writing has at least several writers who could be worthy of contention for such a pinnacle achievement. Numerous Canadian writers with immigrant roots have quietly wondered if the attention is overdue because the Canadian identity extolled in Munro’s stories has fundamentally changed since the author began writing her stories. Her depiction of Canada, which sidesteps the many waves of immigration this country has undergone since she began publishing, is not one that many newer Canadians can relate to. In over four decades of fiction, the Canada that Munro writes about has remained stubbornly microscopic in its surroundings, locked up in the past, a country composed of small towns with few opportunities and their own codes of thinking.
Of course, a reader doesn’t have to share the same circumstances as a writer in order to find meaning and value in a story. If that were the case, we would never be compelled to read about Stalin’s prison camps in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, East-African sectarian tensions in VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, or the tangle of Colombian history in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude – all books by authors who’ve previously won of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Once we scratch past the decidedly limited surface of Munro’s fiction, it’s not difficult to see that her stories have much to offer newer Canadians whose knee-jerk reaction it may be write off small-town life.
To fully appreciate Munro, one must read her static miniatures as a conversation with the modern world, which they don’t so much ignore as juxtapose. Writing in an era of new recognition and evolution for women in society and within families, Munro’s protagonists drew attention as much for how far a woman’s reality could be from generation-defining ideals. From Del Jordan in 1971’s Lives of Girls and Women to Juliet Henderson in the 2004 Giller Prize-winning collection Runaway, Munro’s protagonists were always to be read on two levels: from within the trappings of rural Canada, inside the limited mindsets and possibilities such places allow; and from the more metropolitan outside, the contemporary and evolved Canada that provides a stark contrast to exactly how far the divide between urban and rural life can stretch in this country.
As Munro has aged, her best stories gained other dimensions beyond the immediately feminist readings ascribed to her earlier works. While still laser-focused in region, her later stories are more sparely written and impressionistic, belying more powerful symbolism and hard-won universal truths. These are the underpinnings of literature that the Nobel Prize has tended to reward – not the prose stylists or the deft landscape painters, but those writers who manage to wrestle something original and timeless of the human condition from the veneer of language and specificity of region.
Take for example, “Dimensions”, one of Munro’s most arresting later stories, from 2009’s Too Much Happiness. It is the story of Doree, a young chambermaid in an abusive relationship with a controlling, domineering husband, who one night murders their three children to prove a point about her disobedience. After years of suffocating under the pains inflicted on her, Doree begins to visit her husband in prison. Upon his release, they resume their lives together. That such horror unfolds in small-town Ontario doesn’t even begin to characterize the depths of the morality at play, for the questions here forgo region altogether and stretch well beyond the realm of feminist thought to genuinely disturb the reader into asking what kind of moral playbook would have Doree forgive the man who killed her children.
Now let’s take a step back and think about the ramifications of these types of events. Were such a scenario to play out in an immigrant family, issues of ethnicity, culture, and religion would go into overdrive and completely overshadow the more complex moral rupture that has taken place on an individual level. Indeed, Canada had several high-profile examples of exactly such cases in the time Munro published her story – Mississauga’s Muhammed Parvez murdered his daughter in 2007, while Montreal’s Mohammed Shafia murdered four female family members in 2009. In all cases, the public discussion quickly devolved away from personal responsibility and the ghastly dynamics that prolonged abuse creates within a family, veering instead into more easily containable cultural stereotypes. The perpetrators and victims alike ceased to be people and became instead talking points for the underbelly of multiculturalism.
Crime or punishment
Munro’s story gives us no such easy answers. We are given no clear reason for crime or forgiveness, which adds to its horror because all we have to contend with in a crime’s aftermath is irrational human behavior. “Dimensions” urges us to recognize that such terrible crimes can only be committed by fanatically wrong-headed and ego-maniacal husbands, who themselves can only be supported by the deeply troubled Dorees of the world, who vindicate their abuses by putting up with it. Culture and religion have nothing to do with it beyond coincidence and easy context. Some men are ill and others aren’t; some women stay for the abuse, and others don’t.
But the more contemporary flipside to this reading of Munro’s conclusion is that, especially with immigrants, we look for the closest convenient answer even if it isn’t the right one. In order to distance ourselves from the horrors of such crimes, we ascribe them not to troubled individuals and the peculiar family dynamics they breed, but to the cultural upbringing that’s easier to explain. We push away entire communities, because it’s easier to do. This is what goes for a universal truth in Munro’s world. Her seemingly placid landscape paintings have the power to absorb the fundamental irrationality of the ever-changing world outside them.
All of which is to say, her Nobel is well-deserved for this author’s remarkably consistent body of work, which spans more than four decades. Though Canada’s identity may have moved beyond the small towns of Munro’s imaginations, those towns and their protagonists are simply the surface to a much more inclusive and morally complex terrain underneath. Immigration, one could say, is only a surface too. I know many immigrants who feel this way. What’s important is our ability to assess and discuss the central conflicts underlying this era of immigration, lessons Munro’s artful fiction broaches.
It’s inevitable that, eventually, Canada will get another Nobel laureate, and given the current diversity of our national literature, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that writer had immigrated here. Both Indian-born novelist Rohinton Mistry and the Kenyan-born, Tanzanian-raised writer M.G. Vassanji are deep into acclaimed careers that may well put them in the Nobel’s sights. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje has produced a body of poetry and fiction that, when taken together, is unparalleled internationally.
Dimitri Nasrallah is the author of two novels. His most recent, Niko (2011), was awarded Quebec’s Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He covers books regularly for the Toronto Star, and teaches with the English Department at Montreal’s Concordia University.
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An Ontario hospital is using the controversy surrounding Quebec’s values charter to their advantage. Lakeridge Hospital — in Oshawa, Ontario — will be running a new recruitment ad (pictured above) in Montreal with the slogan: “We don’t care what’s on your head…we care what’s in it.” “We thought, given the controversy that’s going on in […]
As part of Ontario’s Immigration Strategy, the Minister’s Employers Table is partnering with business leaders to assist the province in identifying labour market needs.
by Ranjit Bhaskar
Strict requirements for newcomers to meet “Canadian experience” norms are discriminatory and can only be used in rare circumstances, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has said.
Setting out its new policy Monday on removing the barrier, the OHRC found that many newcomers turn to unpaid work such as volunteering, internships or low-skilled “survival jobs” to meet the requirement for Canadian experience.
“Ontario attracts highly-skilled immigrants from all over the world but if they have to meet a requirement for Canadian experience, they are in a very difficult position – they can’t get a job without Canadian experience and they can’t get experience without a job,” Barbara Hall, OHRC Chief Commissioner, said at the launch of the new policy. “In most cases, that is discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.”
Several prominent community voices at the launch said there was no common understanding of this unusual “self-invented” barrier found only in Canada as the concept of “American” or “European” experience did not exist.
‘Overt label for covert discomfort’
Tracing down the origin of the concept in Canada, Prof. Izumi Sakamoto, University of Toronto, said it first surfaced in 1973 in a letter sent to the Globe and Mail by an aggrieved woman.
“The term Canadian Experience has become a euphemism to convey lack of trust in a newcomer job applicant. It is an overt label for covert discomfort among employers,” said Sakamoto, the principal investigator of the Beyond Canadian Experience Project. “We are all implicated if we don’t challenge the concept and strive to use the new policy to make Canada a more inclusive place.”
A recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study found that local employers value Canadian work experience over international work experience. In a 2003 report, Statistics Canada identified a lack of Canadian experience as the most common barrier for newcomers looking for meaningful employment. The report said the barrier continued to exist two years after their arrival.
“We welcome this new policy,” said Bill Thomas, Chief Executive Officer and Senior Partner, KPMG. His professional services company partnered with the OHRC in putting out the policy. “Businesses that invest in newcomers benefit from the skills and rich experience they have to offer and in return, become more competitive in today’s global economy,” Mr. Thomas said.
The new policy sets out the OHRC’s position that employers and regulatory bodies need to ask about all of a job applicant’s previous work – where they got their experience does not matter. The policy also tells employers and regulatory bodies how to develop practices, policies and programs that do not result in discrimination.
“Newcomers now have the law behind them to fight discrimination based on the work experience norm,” said Errol Mendes, an OHRC commissioner. The OHRC will be collecting employment data to detect patterns, Mr. Mendes said. “Data combined with public inquiries and complaints will hopefully help remove this subtle barrier”.
Depressing experiences and statistics
Last fall, the OHRC consulted newcomers to Canada in the last 10 years about their experiences looking for jobs in Ontario since their arrival. Responses to the OHRC’s survey show that many newcomers turn to unpaid work or “survival jobs” – low-skill work outside of their field of expertise – to meet the requirement for Canadian experience.
Two of the survey respondents wrote:
“It took me a very long time to find a job and the one that I finally got was due to my many, many months of continuous hard work and long hours as a volunteer. The work I do now has nothing to do with what I went to college for. It was sad, depressing and a financially-draining struggle for me.”
“The main reason that they cited [in support of their decision not to hire me] is lack of Canadian experience. I have all the qualifications and over 12 years of experience in a multi-cultural and fast-paced work environment, and I feel that I have good communication skills too. I have even offered to work without wages for a few weeks so that they can judge me and my work. I have started getting frustrated and am planning to go back. They say they need skilled workers but don’t recognize your overseas experience.”
These sample reactions echo what a British Columbia human rights tribunal observed: “It cannot be in anyone’s interest to continue to accept into this country some of the best and brightest individuals from around the world, and to then make it virtually impossible for them to use the skills that they bring with them.”
Statistics Canada reported that between 1991 and 2006, “the proportion of immigrants with a university degree in jobs with low educational requirements (such as clerks, truck drivers, salespersons, cashiers, and taxi drivers) increased.” The numbers pointed out that even after being in Canada for 15 years, “immigrants with a university degree are still more likely than the native-born to be in low-skilled jobs.”
Ratna Omidvar, Maytree Foundation President, said the Canadian experience requirement is being used as a proxy for mitigating risk “by our risk-averse and rules-based society.” The OHRC document is a “way for moving the conversation and create further appetite for evidence-based policy,” Ms. Omidvar said.
The OHRC policy states that newcomers, employers and Canadian society at large suffer untold losses when people are not able to work to their full capacity. “And, if Canada is seen as a place where it is impossible to find a good job, a job in your field, or where, as an engineer or a Ph.D. graduate you are likely to end up driving a taxi, it will no longer be a desirable destination for many of the world’s most skilled immigrants. They will simply choose to go elsewhere.”
Another cause for major concern pointed out by an audience member at the policy launch was the “bastard child” of Canadian experience: employers asking job agencies to supply them with free labour from the pool of desperate job seekers keen to gain the elusive experience. “They do not absorb these workers at the end of the usual three-month period. Instead, they ask for another fresh batch of free labour to perpetuate this cycle of exploitation,” the member pointed out and urged the need to tighten the concept of internship. – New Canadian Media
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit