Commentary By: Omer Aziz in Toronto
News that Omar Khadr would receive an official apology from the Canadian government along with a $10.5 million settlement of his civil suit elicited the predictable outcry from the Canadian media. Journalists and commentators questioned the wisdom of the decision and the amount of the settlement, and the narrative that has now taken form is of a convicted terrorist winning a taxpayer-funded lottery at the behest of a naïve prime minister.
The press has not simply questioned the wisdom of the apology and settlement—it has ignored or obscured the relevant facts that made an apology and settlement necessary in the first place. Opinion writers and pundits seem entirely uninterested in what, exactly, Khadr endured during his detention at Guantanamo Bay, and who he became afterwards.
Omar Khadr was fifteen years old in July 2002 when he allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. soldiers, killing Sgt. Christopher Speer. I say “allegedly threw” because the precise facts of what took place that day in the firefight have never been conclusively established: From 2002 to 2008, the official U.S. government story was that Khadr was the sole survivor in the compound after it had been bombarded and shot at—by inference, only Khadr could have thrown the grenade. In 2008, however, a report from the only witness to the firefight was inadvertently released to reporters. In it, the witness claimed that there were two men in the compound. The official government theory was weakened further when it was revealed that Lt. Col. Randy Watt, who had led the American battalion, wrote a report after the firefight describing how the grenade-thrower had been killed in battle. The report was later “updated” to state that the grenade-thrower was shot, not killed.
In normal circumstances, the factual inaccuracies would have been resolved at trial, except that the military commissions under which Khadr was tried were ridden with procedural and prosecutorial errors and deceptions. Khadr was interrogated without his lawyers present, and in the initial phase of the tribunal, could not even see the evidence against him. This was by design. The Bush administration had deliberately created a legal black hole: They argued that prisoners could be held in Guantanamo indefinitely, without charges, without the right to contest their detention, without even the right to know why they were there. The United States Supreme Court eventually found the first military commissions of the Bush administration to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions. As Muneer Ahmad, Omar Khadr’s first lawyer and now a professor at Yale Law School, wrote in 2008:
“The [U.S] government had sought to remove Omar and the other prisoners from the ambit of law, and in doing so, from the world. They chose Guantanamo because it was remote, then cloaked it in darkness, refusing to disclose the names or identities of those there, refusing access to the outside world. Legal erasure enabled physical erasure.”
Of the 780 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001, 731 were eventually released without charges—often after a decade of incarceration.
The Canadian press has forgotten all of this, or perhaps they remember it but do not think it relevant. What about torture? At fifteen, Khadr was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where a bag was placed over his head. He was ordered to stand for hours. Dogs leapt at his chest.
At Guantanamo, and still a teenager, Khadr urinated on himself. The guards poured pine oil on him and dragged the shackled boy through his own piss, using him as a human mop. Khadr was sixteen when Canadian security officials interviewed him at Guantanamo, and then illegally turned over the intelligence to the Pentagon. “Promise me you’ll protect me from the Americans,” the boy said to the representatives of his government. And then he showed them his scars. He cried for his mother. He was beaten, choked, deprived of light, deprived of sleep, forced into harmful stress positions. Guantanamo guards threatened to deport him to Arab countries like Syria where, they claimed, he would be raped by other men. All of this was done to a Canadian teenager, with the Canadian government’s full support.
Under duress, Khadr eventually pled guilty. He agreed to the facts as presented by the Military Commission because he and his lawyers concluded that fighting an unjust system without due process or adequate protections for the accused was an unwinnable battle. Khadr can therefore be called a “convicted terrorist,” but not asking how that “conviction” came about is irresponsible at best, unethical at worst.
So this was the context of the $10.5 million settlement: A child soldier who allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. forces (or didn’t), who was held for thirteen years in an offshore detention center, who was repeatedly abused and tortured with his government’s assistance, whose Charter rights were violated, whose entire youth was spent in chains. Khadr asked for an apology and restitution. He has been treated as though none of this happened, as though he was just a spoiled child who should feel lucky he’s still not in gitmo. The press seems to think that reparations for Khadr’s maltreatment are a bonus that he does not deserve. But this is not about bonuses or windfalls. It is about this country’s past sins, and the moral necessity of acknowledging and atoning for those sins. That’s what enlightened, self-professed democracies do.
The saga of Omar Khadr, however, has never been about law or even policy. It’s been about how we see the crimes of people who do not look like us, and are therefore treated as conditional citizens. Radio host Charles Adler said Khadr was “technically a Canadian”—as if citizenship was subject to technical whims. Margaret Wente opined that “If there is a victim here, people feel, it’s not Mr. Khadr.” John Ivison wrote that “Khadr’s reputation is now tinged with the grubbiness of what many will consider unjust gain.” Who are the “people” and the “many” that Wente and Ivison are ventriloquizing here? They are the Canadian public, who along with the press, do not yet have the moral imagination to countenance that maybe—just maybe—Khadr was also a victim here.
A basic empathy gap has always existed between Canada and Khadr. The minute the label “terrorist” is slapped onto someone—regardless of their age, their circumstances, or even the facts—we begin thinking with the blood. We rush to violate our most sacred principles at the first whiff of anger. Our memories of others’ crimes are always long and detailed, while our own faults are extinguished with the legitimizing elixir of moral superiority. It might feel good to denounce Omar Khadr. It might be cathartic to condemn him as a confessed terrorist. But the rights of citizenship are not abrogated because a citizen has committed a crime. They are not abrogated because the government thinks you have no place in society. Those rights exist to protect all of us, especially the vulnerable.
Omar Khadr spent much of his youth being abused in an unlawful penal colony. He could have come out of this harrowing experience a bitter and spiteful man, hateful of the country who supported his torturers, and vindictive towards the citizens who applauded that decision. Instead, Khadr has conducted himself with the utmost dignity. “My past,” he recently said, “I’m not excusing it. I’m not denying it. We all do things we wish we could change. All I can do right now is focus on the present and do my best to become a productive member of society, a good person, a good human being . . . I want to finish my nursing program. I want to work as a nurse somewhere it’s needed. I want to be able to use my languages and my ability as a nurse to relieve people from pain.”
After everything that’s happened to him, Khadr is prepared to accept the ills of his past. Perhaps Canada might do the same for its own recent history.
Republished in partnership with The Walrus.
Originally published under headline: "Omar Khadr and the Shame of the Canadian Press".
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 in Toronto
"The World in Ten Blocks" is a two part documentary that offers viewers an in-depth look at one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto. Bloorcourt is home to a wide range of immigrants from across the world, which is inherently reflected in the small businesses that line its busy streets. Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal originally moved into the community back in 2011 while studying Documentary Media at Ryerson University. Inspired by residents' stories of resilience, they created a linear film, as well as a virtual tour that allows users to interact with shop owners. New Canadian Media conducted an interview with the two filmmakers via email.
Q: What were the biggest influences behind your decision to study Documentary Media?
A: Documentary has been a long-standing interest of ours going back to high school in the early 2000s, where we made our first short doc for a school project. As our interests in social justice, politics, and environmental issues evolved and deepened, documentary film increasingly emerged as the ideal form to bring together our varied skills and passions, including creative writing, journalism, videography, and photography. Moving into documentary work in the online sphere has only broadened these syncretic possibilities.
Q: The interactive tour provides a very unique experience, where did the inspiration for this idea come from?
A: As the children of immigrants, many of the themes explored in the project have long been close to our hearts. "The World in Ten Blocks" actually began as our joint thesis work in the Documentary Media MFA program at Ryerson University in Toronto, for which we originally moved to the city. The documentary is set in the community where we both lived when we started the project, and having gotten to know a few of the immigrant small business owners in the neighbourhood and heard their incredible stories, the idea for the project started to percolate. After producing a 34 min linear film, we began working in earnest on the interactive experience after graduation in mid-2013.
Two of the main underlying motives with this project are to share the diversity of the neighbourhood and to honour the immigration experiences of some of its small business owners. After experiencing projects like Hollow, Welcome to Pine Point, and others, we decided that an interactive documentary would be be the most compelling way to situate those stories in an engaging, user-driven exploration of the geography and history of the neighbourhood.
Q: There seemed to be a lot of thought and hard work that went into the project with Robinder even learning how to code, what would each of you say were the biggest challenges of the project and why?
Making the documentary is just one part of the process; finding an audience is a huge challenge in its own right, and often even the best-funded work falls very flat in this area. As independent producers working in the still relatively unknown realm of interactive doc, we felt that a "media partner" with an established audience who could promote and distribute the project would be a huge hand up for us. Looking at the Canadian media landscape, The Globe and Mail seemed the best fit, especially because we wanted to reach audiences not just in Toronto but across the country. As emerging creators without much of a track record, we were fortunate that the folks at The Globe were willing to give us a chance, especially given the lack of precedent for a partnership like ours (i.e. it's the first major interactive documentary they've hosted). While they didn't fund the project, we see a lot of potential for independent creators and media organizations, big and small, to partner in the delivery of in-depth documentary content that goes far beyond the scope of traditional news coverage.
Q: There are small mentions of the negative effects large corporations have on small businesses, most evident with “Wire’s Variety” which was closed by the time the documentary was released. In your opinion, what can the city do to support Bloorcourt’s independent businesses?
A: From our perspective, some of the most serious structural challenges for independent small businesses in Bloorcourt and throughout Toronto are problems that the city could go a long way toward addressing. Most notable is the lack of commercial rent control, combined with the ability of landlords to decline to renew leases entirely at their own discretion. The city has the capacity to address both of these concerns, and failing to do so will have serious consequences for our communities.
As real estate prices rise, there's often nothing that prevents a landlord from dramatically increasing the rent from one lease cycle to the next. This is a very real threat for all of the city's small businesses who rent and do not own the properties where they operate. Without some measure of rent control for commercial leases—which, keep in mind, is found in some jurisdictions—runaway commercial rents will lead to increasing numbers of downtown Toronto storefronts taken up by corporate chains, destroying the diverse character of neighbourhoods like Bloorcourt.
Unlike with residential tenancy, a commercial landlord can simply refuse to renew a lease at their discretion, despite the considerable investment that a tenant may have made to improve the space, building a customer base, etc. Just this past weekend (May 27th), one of the participant businesses in the project, Courense Bakery, closed suddenly when their landlord refused to renew their lease (apparently because they intend to sell the building). This is a big blow not only for the owners and staff, but for the neighbourhood as a whole, whose successive generations have patronized that bakery for some 35 years.
In addition, we also found out this week that participant business Pam's Roti will be forced to relocate (for the third time), as her landlord is refusing to renew her lease, ostensibly because he intends to install a Subway franchise in the same space. Pam and her husband have invested tens of thousands of dollars in improvements and renovations to the space, and it remains to be seen whether the landlord will compensate them. This touches on a third major issue, which is that very often small businesses lack strong legal counsel when it comes to designing the terms of their lease. Furthermore, it's not uncommon for a tenant to be too intimidated to pursue damages in court, given the generally more substantial financial resources of the landlord. The city could contribute to addressing these power dynamics by providing an ombudsman or legal advisor to review leases, a collection of resources/guides, or other types of legal support for small businesses.
Q: What is the most important lesson you took away from this experience and why?
A: Working on "The World in Ten Blocks" over the last five years has been a profound and life-changing experience for both of us, and we've learned lessons about a great many things along the way. We learned early on that things which seem stable can change very rapidly. For example, the closure of Wire's Variety took us by surprise—we were out of town for a few weeks and returned to a business shuttered after 33 years—and putting Wire's story together was far more difficult because of that. The overarching lesson for us as documentary filmmakers has been to never take for granted the ability to come back and film another day.
Q: What are some other upcoming projects people should look out for?
A: A new project that we're about a year and a half into focuses on a police abuse incident and its legal aftermath. It's set in Calgary, which is where we're from originally. The vision is for a serialized multimedia web piece that will be more reportage and a less immersive experience than Ten Blocks, although there's something of a through-line content-wise as the victim is a young immigrant. Our concept is to offer various levels of engagement: short videos that cover the main beat of a given instalment, with more expansive materials (documents, audio-visuals, etc.) for those that want to dive deeper. In some ways, the project feels like an obvious direction for us as we've long been interested in exploring the shortcomings of our civic institutions, and feel that narrowing in on this particular story will shed light on some of the profound dysfunction of a law enforcement and legal system that lacks fundamental safeguards to prevent the abuse of power.
We also just launched the last installment of League of Exotique Dancers Interactive, the interactive companion piece to the feature doc of the same name that opened Hot Docs 2016. This project presented a different challenge in that we were hired hands who were handed an existing body of material to work with (video, personal archives, score, etc.) and asked to come up with something compelling... which we think we did!
Also, in terms of the future of The World in Ten Blocks, the project has been invited to the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, which is exciting because it has long been a goal for us to share the diversity and relatively high degree of inclusivity that we enjoy here in Toronto with audiences in Europe. The project will continue to be exhibited at a number of local events, galleries, and festivals, including a six-week installation as part of Making Peace (a multi-year international traveling exhibition) that will be up until the end of June.
One thing that has always been very important to us is to have the project seen and used in schools. To that end, we're really excited to have embarked on an ambitious outreach and knowledge mobilization program that focuses on junior and senior high school students, and utilizes the project to explore diversity, foster inclusivity, and engender appreciation for the historical contribution of immigrant communities to Toronto. We have some stellar collaborators on board who will take the helm to produce an educational guide for use in the classroom, and develop educator- and community-oriented workshops and presentations. We've even had a number of educators get in touch who have already started using the project in their classrooms going back to soon after the launch at the end of 2016, which is very exciting!
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.
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.
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 Sean Howard in Toronto
There is next to no public space in St James Town. The most densely populated community in all of Canada has no public land. So when Poonam Sharma and Community Matters wanted to create an art installation, they had to gain approval from the owner of the towers. No easy feat. But they persisted, first with a small trial project and then with another until, some years later, they have a number of art projects across the properties we call St James Town.
Poonam Sharma is hard to say no to. She has devoted her life and art to engaging local communities through the folk art and rich traditions that are to be found amongst Toronto’s highly diverse immigrant communities. For one of her latest installations, The Mosaic Project, she teamed up with the St James Town based organization Community Matters. Seven artists worked together to create an intricate mural on an exposed stairwell in St James Town.
Poonam designed the mural to represent eight different traditional folk arts, uniting them into one mural while keeping each distinct. She chose the eight, mostly South Asian folk arts, as they best represented the cultural heritages that make up the St James Town community. Having seven artists was a critical part of Poonam’s approach. It was about getting people in the community to be witness to the art and the artists.
Pressure on Folk Artists
Poonam sees many pressures on folk artists. Folk art is often a private or family endeavor kept behind closed doors. She wanted to bust through this and show that folk art is something to cherish and be proud of.
One of the artists was quite uncertain about participating and not used to working in public, let alone showing her art to the wider community. Poonam told her to just come for one day and see how she felt.
She came and stayed for all 25 days. She cried when the project was complete as she had nothing to work on now. Poonam grows animated as she recalls telling her collaborator, “Why not!? Apply for stuff!”
Poonam was not the only one to get excited. So many in the community expressed interest and even support for the art and artists involved. It forged new relationships and created something that the community now cherishes. Poonam takes this as a great example of the many benefits of projects like these.
It took over 25 days to complete the mural. At the beginning, people gathered on their balconies to watch. As the days progressed many came down to approach the artists or look at a side they couldn’t see from their apartment. One elderly couple even watched over the piece at night from a nearby balcony, calling out to the artists each morning as they resumed their work.
Poonam calls herself a contemporary folk artist. Her love of traditional arts has led her to learn much about the many disciplines of ancient folk arts, but she wants to use these skills in a new way – to bridge issues and bring communities together. It was a joy to spend some time with her and also to see some of her other pieces hidden around the densely packed towers lifting up into the sky on all sides of us.
Neighbourhood of Nations
One of the daunting things about St James Town is how to enter the place if you don’t live there. Most of the points of entry are private driveways clearly marked for resident use only.
At one of these private entrances is another large mural titled “Neighborhood of Nations.” It was created by Poonam Sharma, Catherine Tammaro and Michael Cavanaugh and tells the story of early Irish Immigrants, Native American culture and the current journey of immigrants arriving to Toronto.
Poonam yearns to see more art on every shared surface in St James Town that tells the story of this diverse and vibrant, but underserved, immigrant community.
This piece is part of a larger series called the "Intercity Project". Sean Howard describes it as a publication "for all the in-between spaces of Toronto — those communities lost to or ignored by politicians, developers and even city planners." He started by speaking to artists in these neighbourhoods, but is open to other voices as well. Find more of his work at medium.com/intercity-toronto.
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.
Commentary by Hamlin Grange in Toronto
While working as a television journalist with Canada's public broadcaster, CBC, in Toronto, I produced a documentary series on how new immigrants were settling in Canada. It was part of an effort by the CBC to celebrate Pier 21, the point of entry for up to one million immigrants to Canada from 1928 to 1971. Pier 21 was often called the "Gateway to Canada." Today it is a national historic site and museum.
For the series, TV cameras followed a man and his wife on their journey from Shanghai to Canada, and in their early weeks of settlement in Toronto. They had worked as electrical engineers in power plants in China. Now, like all new immigrants, they were starting over.
We were there when they moved into their one-bedroom apartment above a convenience store. We were there when they went to the local job placement office to search for jobs and to update and print off their resumes. And we there when they bumped up against the stark reality of discrimination.
I knew him by his real name, which was, of course, Chinese. His accented English was quite good because he studied English in China. We talked frequently during those weeks, exchanging phone calls to catch up on his efforts to find a job.
Then one day I got a message that “Andrew” had called. I didn’t recognize the name. Once I called back, I recognized his voice right away. He was the same person I’d been talking to all those weeks, except his new name was Andrew. I asked him why he had changed his name. He said that acquaintances in Toronto’s Chinese community had advised him to change his Chinese name to a “Canadian name” if he wanted to get a job. That’s what Chinese immigrants have to do, he was told. Once he changed his name, his phone began to ring.
I recalled that story as I read a Toronto Star story about a new study by University of Toronto researchers. According to the study, 40 per cent of non-white job seekers are “whitening” their resumes in order to get called for job interviews. Names such as the Chinese “Lei” become “Luke”.
That’s not the only change applicants are making to their resumes in their effort to ‘whiten’ their profiles.
Only 10 per cent of African-Canadians who included experience with African-Canadian organizations were invited to interviews, but that rate jumped to 25.5 per cent when they deleted that experience from their resumes.
I can certainly relate to this. When I was recruited by the CBC in the late 80’s, a manager on the hiring panel asked me if I could be “objective” covering the black community because he noticed I had indicated on my resume that I had volunteered with a few black community organizations.
I told him I could be objective and that because of my involvement in that community I had unique access to a community other reporters did not have. I also pointed out that my resume also included my volunteer work with the YMCA and that I am certain I would be able to objectively cover stories about the Y. I got the job.
Sonia Kang, the lead author of “Whitened Resumes, Race and Self-Representation in the Labour Market” says the findings show that job applicants from racial minority groups are fighting back against discrimination.
In our practice at DiversiPro, we have heard these stories over and over. They are not new. We have been told of immigrants changing their names, their accents and their experience to be more acceptable to other Canadians.
We’ve also heard from immigrants from former British or French colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere whose European names have disguised their race or ethnicities until they turn up for a job interview – only to find the welcome mat withdrawn.
In the current political climate in the United States, and to a lesser degree even in Canada, many individuals are cautious about how they identify themselves. In a time of "travel bans" and screening for "Canadian values", it's no surprise some new immigrants may decide to minimize their differences in order to be accepted.
The encouraging news is that new immigrants and people from racial minority backgrounds are finding ways to adapt and work around a system that is not often based on merit but how well a hiring manager believes a job candidate will “fit” into the organization.
I have no doubt that such short-sightedness has deprived companies of competent, hardworking individuals who could have contributed to the bottom line.
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.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit