By: Sam Minassie in Toronto
Curtis Carmichael has set out to do what many could only dream of. Following in the footsteps of Canadian legends like Terry Fox, the young Toronto native will travel across the country to fund-raise. Riding his bicycle across 30 legs, the 3,300 km he will cover from Vancouver to Halifax is a tall task by any measure.
Knowing he needed to create a platform, he looked for a unique way to spark a nationwide conversation. After careful deliberation with a local non-profit, Urban Promise, they decided on a 5-week tour that would see him stopping in 50 different cities.
Carmichael himself grew up in Toronto Community Housing and has been a resident for over 20 years. It didn’t take long for him to notice some of the unique disadvantages that stemmed from stereotypes and associated stigmas.
“You are treated differently your whole life by teachers, police, employers, etc. You are told you are not as capable of being as successful as others who are not a minority or from a government housing area,” he says. “You watch the news and only see that government housing communities are viewed as dangerous, unsafe, and full of ‘Thugs’ and ‘bad people’.”
Media coverage that focuses more heavily on the negative aspects of the area, often overlooks many of the vibrant community building initiatives that take place. And with a resident majority that does not fall within the scope that is so widely portrayed, the resulting prejudices create additional hurdles that can be difficult to overcome.
“There is gun violence and drugs in some of these kinds of areas but there is much more to these communities than what is seen on the news,” Carmichael explains. “ [But] often not in the news is the joy and life that exists within people in these areas, the great successes of individuals and the strength in vibrant faith communities.”
Urban Promise Toronto creates a support structure similar to an extended family for youth between the ages of 5-25. The Christian organization holds after-school programs, summer camps, life groups and other engaging activities. They help many children from single parent and immigrant households who may not always have access to the same resources as other Canadians.
Youth are developed into leaders and encouraged to give back to their communities. Urban Promise is proud to say that a number of today’s counselors began as program participants within their adolescence. These individuals have grown to accept mentorship roles that allow them to impart their experiences on younger generations.
The product of Guyanese immigrants, Carmichael, has been a member since he was 8. From a young age, he developed a personal relationship with Camp Counselor, Julius Naredo, who he says was a “father-like figure” that helped mold him into the man he is today.
“The major thing Urban Promise did for me was give me an opportunity to develop as a leader and give back to my community,” he points out.
For Carmichael, the list of awards and accomplishments only continues to grow. The former high school valedictorian is now a Queen’s University graduate and Russ Jackson Award recipient. He is currently working as a classroom assistant and is on his way to a teaching diploma. Humble as always, he attributes a lot of his own success to the impact Urban Promise has had on his life. He hopes that others will see him as an example of the potential so many children possess.
The “Ride for Promise” campaign aims to spread awareness on the positive initiatives that are being put in place for youth in marginalized communities. He is looking to inspire change by challenging many of the biases associated with government housing. An initial goal has been set at $150,000 and donations will be accepted on the Urban Promise site.
by Sam Minassie (@SamMinassie) in Mississauga, Ontario
“It’s just the truth, it’s one of my favourite plays.”
“I look forward to seeing more from the writer and what he does in the future.”
Those were just a few of the sentiments heard from audience members leaving the showing of Secrets of a Black Boy at the Maja Prentice Theatre in Mississauga, ON Tuesday night.
Six years after its initial debut, Darren Anthony’s hard-hitting comedic drama was still met by positive feedback from the crowd that gathered to watch the first show of a tour that will eventually move on to major American cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The play touches on a number of controversial themes that exist within the black community, but are rarely discussed within the public sphere. No topic is off limits as the drama portrays the everyday struggles of what it is like to be a black man within society today.
“We don’t really discuss the hard-hitting issues, issues like suicide, transgender, sexuality,” explains Anthony. “… I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless, [for] my peers, as well as the youth that I work with.”
The plot follows five black men as they reveal intimate accounts of events that have taken place within their lives over one last game of dominoes at their local recreational centre – right before it is scheduled to be torn down. Each of the characters represents a man at a different point in his life, who is going through problems that he has never been able to share with his peers.
Anthony says that this fear of opening up to one another served as a huge motivator behind his desire to be the one to start a dialogue on a lot of the issues covered.
“I find as a black man, we’ve conditioned ourselves to be strong as nails, not have any emotions or talk about our issues and those qualities are very problematic,” he says, adding, “I want to make sure that men seeing this realize that they can articulate their feelings and they can be vulnerable.”
Breaking Out of Society’s 'Sanctions'
The play gives viewers an in-depth look into the mind of a black man through a series of soliloquies, in which characters are able to share their innermost feelings. The pent-up emotion explodes from within the actors on stage as they reveal a side of them that is rarely, if ever, seen.
This was something that clearly resonated with several audience members including Lavelle Adams Grey, a post-secondary student who made the trip from Brampton to see the production.
“[The aspect that] I could relate to most, [would have to have been] trying to adapt to what society makes out of us as being a black man,” says Grey. “Trying to come up on your own and society putting sanctions on what you can do and trying to break out of that.”
The tension built up during the play’s dramatic scenes eventually eased through comedic interludes that provided a laugh without straying too far from the topics at hand. Edgy one-liners like, “If there wasn’t a black man around, a cop wouldn’t have a job,” kept the mood light during some very pressing discussions.
First-time viewer, Jeleesa Walker, commended the actors and Darren on this, stating, “They connected with the audience and not every movie or play that you see connects with the audience like that. They incorporate the crowd so that keeps your attention and keeps you happy.”
More Storytellers Needed
While Anthony indicates he had several motivators, he credits his older sister, Trey Anthony, as one of his biggest inspirations.
Trey, also a successful playwright, is most notably known as the mastermind behind the award-winning, da Kink in My Hair, which focuses on the difficulties black women must face and has since been remade into a television series. She was the one who initially challenged her brother to write about a lot of these issues from a black male’s perspective – something rarely seen within media outlets. Anthony’s continued appreciation for his sister’s support was put on full display during an emotional embrace following the conclusion of the play.
Moving forward, Anthony says that in order for more realistic portrayals of black men to become prevalent within the media, more individuals from within these communities must step up as storytellers.
“I find that when it comes to urban stories, there’s a lot of people who are telling our stories, but they don’t come off as being authentic,” Anthony says. “And I wanted to make sure that I was that individual, being in social work and being a storyteller for so many years, I have some credibility and I know what I am talking about, I’m on the front lines.”
Stage Photo By: Sam Minassie
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by Sam Minassie (@samminassie) in Toronto
The government is restricting access to public documents and next to nothing is being done about it.
This was the recurring theme during the “Flying Blind” conference hosted by The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) at Ryerson University on Friday.
Earlier this week, the CJFE put out its Review of Free Expression in Canada report, which features articles, statistics and analyses from experts in law, journalism, advocacy and academia in order to inform on and evaluate government and institutions for their impact on freedom of expression.
James L. Turk who is a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University explained that the issue of government transparency is a matter of protecting our democratic system and that silence only gives officials more power.
“Democracy is dependent on an informed public, but an informed public is potentially detrimental to a government,” he said.
At the conference, the Information Commissioner of Canada, Suzanne Legault, joined prominent members of the media and other advocates of increased information accessibility for an open discussion regarding their personal experiences with, as well as expert opinions on, the subject.
The list of panellists included Munir Sheikh, former statistician of Canada and current executive fellow at the University of Calgary, Rob Cribb, an investigative journalist for the Toronto Star, Jennifer Ditchburn, senior parliamentary correspondent for the Canadian Press, Laura Tribe, national and digital programs lead for the CJFE, executive director of CJFE, Tom Henheffer and many more.
Introductions highlighting the many achievements of the speakers were followed by individual testimonies detailing how the lack of legal support has allowed the government to hide many of its budgetary spending from the public and has also resulted in a decline in investigative journalism.
The increase in the government’s unwillingness to produce documents has also promptly led to a general mistrust between members of the media and government officials.
“There is almost an obligation now to give time for a response, which deters journalists from reaching out to political offices,” explained Ditchburn. “Government communication should now be called government marketing.”
She continued on saying that the government now has its own team of media correspondents that is given more access to political figures.
“Why is this a non-issue? I am tired of having these discussions and then going home with no change. As we sit here having this discussion, that person right outside,” said Cribb, pointing at a man walking by the window, “has no idea of what is going on.”
“You need a public that cares and rises up. Everyone who knows has a responsibility [to raise awareness]. Governments need to know that people care about the issue,” added Tribe.
Turk stated that this kind of denial of information access inhibits the job performance of reporters, making a comparison to construction workers. “These are fundamental tools needed for journalism. What if I took the shovels from the workers outside and told them to dig?”
“This is a total information shut down . . .” said Henheffer. “The government wants to shut down access to information. The problem is weak laws that allow a government to do whatever they want in terms of accessing information.”
Although all of the panellists reiterated that public awareness was the key to increasing the dissemination of information, everyone was shocked when Tribe revealed that of the 102 country that qualified for the 2010 survey of freedom of information laws, Canada ranked just 58th.
This ranking put Canada behind many developing states such as Sierra Leone, Mexico, Azerbaijan, and even Ethiopia, which has been notorious for jailing journalists.
At another point in the discussion, Brown revealed that while investigating for an article, the threat of a libel case is extremely effective in dissuading the news outlet from publishing a story due to court costs.
As an example he described a situation that he went through with an article he had written on Jian Ghomeshi, who has now been charged with several counts of sexual assault. Although everything that Brown had wrote in the article was factual, the Toronto Star refused to publish the story after being threatened, until Ghomeshi himself made the information public through a Facebook post four months later.
Steps Moving Forward
Peter Jacobsen, a media lawyer, explained that journalists must be trained on how to approach sources that wish to remain anonymous because complete confidentiality can never be promised. He went on to say that if called to testify during a libel case, upon refusal to reveal a source’s identity, a journalist could be charged with contempt of court.
Jacobsen stated that the only way to combat these civil suits, until laws are changed, is for the media to band together so that court costs are kept to a minimal. Henheffer added that forming a media coalition for this exact purpose would definitely be a priority for the CJFE in the future.
The Information Commissioner of Canada, Legault concluded by stating: “The federal government states that they are the most transparent in history because they have responded to the most [access to information] requests . . . people need to continue to speak out, if people give up [the fight] there will [only] be [further] erosion . . . talking to your MP will help. Send e-mails, tweets. Go in person (to your local MP’s office).”
Photo: From left to right: Moderator, Carolyn Jarvis, 16x9’s Chief Correspondent, Global News; Peter Jacobsen, media lawyer and founding partner, Bersenas Jacobsen Chouest Thomson Blackburn LLP; Jesse Brown, freelance journalist and media critic; Ivan Semaniuk, science reporter, The Globe and Mail. // Photo Credit: Tom Henheffer
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit