Arts & Culture

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto 

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz owes his early literary education to the two local librarians who nurtured his love for reading.   

The all-too-familiar story of unsupportive Dominican immigrant parents equating success with being a doctor applied to him, too, he said. 

Diaz attended public school in a poor community in New Jersey, staffed by overworked teachers with little guidance to spare. He struck an unlikely friendship with two local librarians, though, who handpicked books that they thought he would enjoy.  

“I didn’t receive the traditional mentorship,” Diaz said, addressing a diverse crowd at Mind the Gap: Crossing Imaginary Lines at the Toronto Reference Library. 

Paying it forward 

As part of Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue 2016 series, Diaz engaged in a lively discussion with Sri Lankan-American novelist and fiction writer Sunil Yapa about a writer’s relationship with readers and family, the notion of privilege, and their own upbringing. 

“I did have very close relationships with my librarians, who introduced me to the things that mattered most,” he said. “They meant the world to me.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”[/quote]

Indebted to the librarians who broadened his outlook, Diaz said he decided years ago to pay-it-forward by helping to create space for other writers of colour in his work as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and through activism.  

“There were folks who had even less than I did. I found myself wanting to be helpful because part of me was dreaming of that for myself,” he said. “You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”  

Resolving conflict in writing 

Family was a natural point of conversation between Yapa and Diaz, who each had their own anxieties about being seen as different. 

For Yapa, it was his dad’s inability to accurately pronounce the expression, “Hunky dory,” which describes something that is satisfactory. Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.  

That much of his work revolves around family, as Yapa notes, is not lost on Diaz. 

“Families are an evergreen subject,” he said. “We are attracted to the machinations of family because this is the vernacular we speak best.”  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.[/quote]

In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight, nerdy boy obsessed with science fiction, Diaz mined the familial conflict in his own family by exploring the fraught relationship between mother and daughter in his characters.  

“I had to first imagine not only my sister’s deep problematic relationship with my mother, but I actually had to figure out how they might figure out a way to gain compassion for each other,” he said.  

He added that it was largely a way for him to reconcile his own relationship with his sisters, who had borne the brunt of their mother’s excessive discipline, which he escaped because he was a boy.  

His sisters were punished for coming home at ungodly hours, while he wasn’t. Even as he witnessed this, he said he didn't grasp how it had affected their relationships until he realized he had failed to sympathize with them.   

“It was important to me to maintain the innocence of my privilege,” he said. “People always insist on their innocence when they’re guilty.”  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers.”[/quote]

A family of readers 

Still broaching the concept of family, Yapa asked whether Diaz was forced to create his own literary family in the absence of one that supported his pursuit of writing. Diaz said unlike most writers, his “natural community” is other readers. 

This is partly because he considers himself a reader before a writer, and partly because he said an author’s most important audience is readers, not other writers. 

“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers,” he said.  

As a writer, he writes with readers in mind – people who he said are an author’s fiercest defenders and who embrace a book despite its flaws. 

Diaz later fielded questions from the audience – fans and writers alike – wrestling with issues of identity and writing from the margins.  

One woman asked how he contends with the “pressure to get it right” on behalf of his community and other minorities, to which he bluntly responded: “Why torment yourself with this idea that there’s this enormous group of people who need you to get it right? . . . Our work is not going to sing less, it’s not going to right injustice.”  

For writers hoping to use their work to gain their parents’ acceptance, he had this to say: “Know that perhaps it can’t do anything there, but that there may be another young person wrestling with the same question who awaits you. That’s perhaps the family you may save . . . Because I was saved by artists who had never imagined themselves saving me.”


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by Maria Assaf in Oxford, England

Imagine being a child bride in pre-revolutionary Iran – suffering abuse on a daily basis, being forced into a joyless marriage and having children at the age of 13. There is no law or organization that can protect you, as the entire affair is perfectly legal.

Now, imagine having a beautiful husband and children, a mother and father, and then losing them all in a genocide.

What hope could remain in a human heart after enduring such calamities?

Could an intense desire to right the wrongs or change the world bring back life to a suffering soul?

In Amity, author Nasreen Pejvack makes her reader wrestle with such questions, page after page, as she recounts both the painful and happy memories that form the lives of her two main characters: Ragusa, a survivor of the Yugoslav ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, who is on the verge of taking her own life, and her unknowing rescuer, Payvand, who is an Iranian activist with a tragic life story of her own.

Paradox of the West

Amity shows that there are moments in some peoples’ lives in which hope does not materialize from suffering. There are times when the soul has been so utterly shattered, that the mere suggestion of finding meaning within its pain is insulting.

Pejvack presents a panorama of a Western world – with its affluence and the seeming peace of its clean streets – which hides many truths and stories of refugees or others who have fled conflict and reached what seems like a safe haven.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport.[/quote]

As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport or British citizenship. The marks that their pasts have left on their souls will accompany them forever, like a shadow surrounding the most trivial moments of their lives.

Yes, many of them have been saved; the lucky few have even re-married in their new countries and found jobs and successful careers. But who can take away the pain of the memories, the tears, and the nightmares that keep survivors trapped in their minds as if in a prison of their pasts?

Pejvack’s book is heartfelt throughout. It is honest and direct and her phrases are simple, clear, and concise.

For those readers who are fortunate not to have suffered the misfortunes of war, oppression and tragedy, this book will provide insight into the lives of the millions of people worldwide who are experiencing similar fates as Ragusa and Payvand.

Understanding each other, and the world

Amity is a testament of sympathy with victims and the experience of sharing an understanding of tragedy and pain; of expressing empathy towards those who feel that no one could possibly understand the depths of their suffering. 

This book grabs the audience’s attention rapidly, with its strong life stories and its vibrant political, economic and historical debates, made intentionally easy to read.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.[/quote]

The writer’s political debates illustrate the evils that have plagued Iran and the nations that formed the former Yugoslavia, creating strong sentiments between two women who shared impassionate days and brought joy to each other in their pain.

The book succeeds at making the audience care about global politics and the way it creates wars that lead to the kinds of crises that have made these two protagonists suffer so much in their lives.

As Payvand tries to pull Ragusa back to life by telling her stories, this book also grabs the reader’s attention and curiosity from the beginning by making us want to learn more about the fascinating characters Pejvack describes in each chapter.

For those interested in the histories of the places where conflict has struck recently, this book embarks on detailed accounts of Iran’s recent past, explaining how the country came to be what it is now.

Pejvack’s explanations are nuanced and politically knowledgeable. Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]… Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.[/quote]

Call to action                        

Each of Pejvack’s characters is an activist in her own right.

Ragusa, a Croat, married a Serb – something inconceivable during tense times in which Croatian and Serbian populations were at war.

Payvand, an Iranian revolutionary, had to see her comrades die and experience the disappointment of witnessing the onset of what she calls an ignorant revolution.

From the portrait of violence Pejvack presents comes a call for revolution. Formerly a writer and poet for an underground activist publication in Iran, Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.

The call for unity regardless of nationality and other differences is one of the most beautiful premises this book proposes. This work is a must-read for inspired young citizens of the world, as Pejvack appeals to those who are trying to make a difference and are in need of some accessible guidance on how to contribute positively to the world.

Maria Assaf is a Colombian-Canadian freelance reporter who writes for Latin American, Filipino and other immigrant publications in Canada, including New Canadian Media. She completed her bachelor's degree in journalism at Ryerson University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in development and emergency practice at Oxford Brookes University, where she is researching refugee freedom of expression.


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by Elvira Truglia in Montreal

Kim Thuy’s fourth novel continues the author’s style of recalling her own journey to Canada and crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries.

“I don’t mind at all being considered as migrant literature, Asian literature, Canadian literature, or Quebec literature,” says the award-winning author, who just published Vi. “It depends on the person who’s reading it and what the person sees in it.”

Vi tells the story of a woman, Vi, who returns to Vietnam after growing up in Canada. Vi is on a journey to discover the vastness of life, or 'vie' in French. At the same time, in Vietnamese, vi means microscopically small.

“Like we say in Vietnamese, [with] every single step that we make, we come back with a basket of knowledge,” says Thuy. “To me, Vi is about learning to become a person, to become a human.”

Although “the family situation of Vi is not me, the vision of Vi is a lot like I see life,” says Thuy. The character Vi studies translation and then law, much like Thuy who has reinvented herself throughout her life – first as an interpreter, then a lawyer and restaurateur, and now an author.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“To me, Vi is about learning to become a person, to become a human.”[/quote]

Life provides a springboard

In her 2009 novel, Ru, the author traces a young woman's trek from her home in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War, to a Malaysian refugee camp, and then to Quebec where she struggles to adapt.  With a plot line based on her own life chronology, Thuy writes what she knows. She says this is the only writing process that works for her.

”I stick with women . . . because I think women are so extraordinary and many of us are misunderstood or underestimated,” says Thuy. “Vietnamese women are often considered submissive or obedient or kind and attentive,” she adds. “I wanted to show that . . . social codes sometimes mislead our interpretation of the person.”

Thuy says paintings of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese women portrayed, “with a little tiny dot of red for the mouth,” act as a cultural metaphor.

“Women are not supposed to speak if they want to be elegant and dignified women . . . so that’s why they are very often misunderstood.“

A story that resonates

In many ways, Thuy speaks for those unable to tell their own stories.

“She was one of the boat people,” says Jenny Lam, referring to her mother and the Vietnamese refugees who fled to Canada after the Vietnam War. Lam says that while literature is not her thing, she does read Kim Thuy and even attended a recent launch for Vi featuring Thuy in Montreal.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Thuy says paintings of Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese women portrayed, “with a little tiny dot of red for the mouth,” act as a cultural metaphor.[/quote]

Reading Thuy’s novels is like reading her mom’s story, she says.

Sabrina Cordy says she also seeks to feel connected through Thuy’s “spontaneous” writing. Adopted by Belgian parents, the 24-year-old of Korean descent now lives in Montreal and says Thuy’s writing “reminds me of my culture.”

Thuy says she is “touched” that so many Asian Canadians read her novels and attended the launch of Vi, and notes that many of them are young women.

“Most parents don’t talk about their experiences,” she says. She adds that Ru “triggered a conversation between the parents and the children about that episode in their life.”

Accessing immigrants’ stories 

A best seller in Quebec and in France, her first novel, Ru, has sold more than 235,000 copies abroad and has been translated in 25 languages.

The popularity of her books is partly due to their poetic and accessible style, or what Francois Godin of Quebec publisher Libre Expression calls her ability to “create literary bridges.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Thuy’s books are educational about the immigration story.”[/quote]

“I like the images, the simplicity, the human element of her writing,” says Catherine Emond, who has read all of Thuy’s books, adding that as a “dyed-in-the-wool Quebecois [a Quebecer of French Canadian descent], Thuy’s books are educational about the immigration story.”

In 2015, the English translation of Ru won CBC Canada Reads as the Book to Break All Barriers thanks to Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival, who championed the book.

“A lot of Canadians have grown tired of being nice to newcomers. That’s the barrier that we’re trying to break and Ru reminded me why migrants matter,” Bailey said in 2015.

Ru did that with a deep and moving beauty. It’s a hopeful book. It invites compassion and draws a wide circle of readers in.”

Reflecting on the competition, Thuy says she is happy she won, but wasn’t out to break barriers when she wrote Ru.

“When we arrived here, people welcomed us with open arms . . . And if I wrote Ru, it was to thank all these people who have given me access to everything,” says Thuy. “In Ru, it’s about how life is perfect after all, even though it is hard and there are so many challenges, it is still perfect in the end.”

Thuy says life is beautiful because it is difficult.

“You cannot have one without the other,” she says. “You cannot appreciate white without knowing black.”


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by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

Canada is not the land of fairy tales. It is a land of opportunities, welcoming those who are daring and rebound from their suffering – people like Carmen Aguirre, a “revolutionary Cinderella,” whose dreams of being a theatre actor were shattered and rebuffed. 

Her journey from a five-year-old refugee to an award-winning actor and playwright is depicted in her memoir, Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution, with immense audacity and the flavour of fervor. 

Young Aguirre escaped the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, which led to the death of President Salvador Allende, and moved to Canada as a refugee with her family. 

“Political violence was a concept that I got; senseless violence left me with nothing to excuse him with,” she writes, referring to the man who raped her when she was a teenager in Vancouver, B.C. 

“I had no idea that having machine guns pointed at me at the age of five would in some ways pale in comparison with the up-close-and-personal, full-frontal assault of a rape, with having the coldest human I’d ever come across put a pistol to my temple with a steady hand and whisper, ‘Don’t move, or I’ll shoot,’ in a mechanical voice.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I didn’t know one doesn’t get over childhood rape, one simply learns how to integrate it.”[/quote]

Facing her trauma 

Aguirre was 13, and her concept of love was not more than “abstract ideas.” She never thought about the “nuts and bolts” of the situation. She describes her physical pain as so excruciating that she believed the man raping her was using a knife. 

“I didn’t know one doesn’t get over childhood rape, one simply learns how to integrate it,” Aguirre writes. Her fear was so traumatic, that it hijacked her future love life and profession. 

Many times, in a haunting style, she describes how John Horace Oughton, known as the “Paper Bag Rapist,” hid his identity and covered his victims’ faces. Oughton called the young Aguirre a “hooker” because she wore a white wraparound skirt and called the rape “making love.”  

Yet Mexican Hooker #1 is not depressing at all. It encourages life and the ability to rise beyond the reality of pain and oppression. 

The book exposes an awesome experience of a human spirit that marvels at different forms of decadence and viciousness.  

A warrior to her core, Aguirre went back to school the day after the rape, despite the fact that the serial rapist was still at-large. Her father urged her to stay home and rest, but Aguirre writes that she did not believe she was sick. 

She never wrote to her mother, then in Chile, about the rape until 16 years after the incident. That was the first time she shed tears over the loss of her innocence. 

Oughton was caught in 1985 after sexually assaulting nearly 200 victims. Aguirre attended his parole hearings with other victims and developed a “new-found sisterhood” with the other women. 

In a direct conversation with the serial rapist, she told him that he taught her “compassion.”  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The book exposes an awesome experience of a human spirit that marvels at different forms of decadence and viciousness.[/quote]

Finding her spotlight 

“[I]n this country, white was certainly a colour, and it held all power.” 

Aguirre writes about being caught off-guard by racism early in her acting career in Canada and the United States. 

“First of all, I had never heard the word Latino until I got to San Francisco, which was looking to me more and more like the thorns of a rose rather than the petally part.” 

At theatre school in Vancouver, Aguirre was one of the only people of colour in her program, while “mainstream Canadian theatre presented overwhelmingly white, middle-class stories.”

Casts were typically white and roles open to actors like Aguirre were often racist, such as the role of Mexican hooker or Puerto Rican maid. 

“You don’t have what it takes to be an actor,” she was told. “We’re letting you go.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“After the show, immigrant Canadians from every corner of the globe waited to tell me in broken voices, how much they identified with the character and her story.”[/quote]

Aguirre transitioned to playwriting, but realized that transforming a personal story into a universal experience could only happen after healing. Ultimately, she found refuge as a workshop facilitator with Theatre of the Oppressed, where she works with marginalized groups to create interactive and empowering theatre. 

All her years of training and acting classes since the age of eight eventually paid off in the form of her play Chile Con Carne, a hailed success. The play is a dark comedy about the trials and tribulations of an eight-year-old Chilean refugee living in Canada in the '70s. 

“After the show, immigrant Canadians from every corner of the globe waited to tell me in broken voices, how much they identified with the character and her story.” 

Aguirre is now a Vancouver-based actor, playwright, and two-time memoirist. Her first memoir, Something Fierce, tells of her experiences in the Chilean resistance and won CBC’s Canada Reads in 2012. She has written or co-written 25 plays - three of which, Blue Box, The Trigger and Refugee Hotel have also been published as books.

Tazeen Inam is passionate about both print and electronic media. She has a master's degree in mass communications, has worked as a senior producer and editorial head at Pakistani news channels and has contributed to BBC Radio Urdu in London, England. Inam is presently pursuing a course in digital media studies at Sheridan College.


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by Vicky Tobianah in Toronto 

Making distant readers empathize with historical events they have not experienced is a challenging feat.

Mohamed M. Keshavjee grapples with getting individuals to feel the pain of the global collective and experience events that they have not been touched by in his latest book Into That Heaven of Freedom: The Impact of Apartheid on an Indian Family’s Diasporic History. 

Keshavjee, a second-generation South African of Indian origin, not only takes readers through his own family history, but also through the history of Indians living in Africa over the course of a hundred years. 

The title comes from Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Where the Mind is Free:” 

“Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” 

The poem is part of Tagore’s Nobel prize-winning poetry collection, Gitanjali. The book also has a forward written by Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela and is the longest serving human rights prisoner alive today. 

Path to self-discovery 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history.[/quote]

Keshavjee describes the political struggle against apartheid, beginning with his roots – his family’s establishment in 1894 in Marabastad, a settlement in Pretoria, South Africa. He then describes Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against racism during the beginning of apartheid. Keshavjee’s family continues its journey to Kenya and eventually relocates in Canada. 

While Keshavjee writes with authority and knowledge, lurking behind every page is also the realization that he is discovering his own role in this narrative and not merely uncovering the role of his family in history. It is as much self-realization as it is storytelling. We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history. 

At the onset of the book, Keshavjee states: “If I have started a conversation amongst my readers about their own antecedents and their personal recollections, I shall be happy.”

However, as I continued reading his memoir, I began to suspect that the most important conversation Keshavjee would have as a result of this storytelling is with himself, about who he really is as he grapples with finding out who he was not in the country of his birth, and who he was in the country of his ancestors. 

It is by watching his journey that a reader can hope to embark on the same one through their family’s history. 

Recording history 

Where readers might get lost is in the minute details – names of brothers, cousins’ shops, and small communities, each explained in heavy detail throughout, which sometimes feels as if one is reading a classroom history book – ironic for Keshavjee who writes that as a child, he looked forward to the time when he would no longer have to attend school. 

Each new chapter brings with it new characters who are all part of Keshavjee’s history. While the story could have been told without some of those details, it is again evidence of the author's desire to record the names, dates and places of those that came before him, struggled before he did, and persevered to allow him to find his own place, too. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”[/quote]

 

Childhood impressions 

Although the book is very much a journey, it hints at the times in Keshavjee’s life when he did start to locate his place in the world. It’s the 1950s when Keshavjee starts to like school and impresses his teachers with his creativity and talent.

In the childhood stories he writes, “Autobiography of a Penny” and “Autobiography of an Old Shoe,” Keshavjee imagines himself as the coin or shoe and the many places it might have been placed, the people who might have touched it, and the home it ended up in. 

These stories, although only mentioned over the course of a few lines in this almost 300-page book, foreshadow this memoir, as Keshavjee once again describes the life he has and underneath the surface, the life he might have had, had he been born in a different country, to a different race, with a different skin colour.  

Today, Keshavjee is a graduate of Queen’s University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, among several other academic achievements. He was called to the bar at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He also practised law in the United Kingdom and Kenya, and served in the Secretariat of His Highness the Aga Khan. 

His success is apparent as the memoir winds down and Keshavjee seems to find his answers.

“I am no longer a refugee in search of a homeland,” he writes.  Perhaps that is not just because he has found a physical home, but a metaphorical one too in this book. As he notes, “I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”

Vicky Tobianah is an experienced writer, editor and content strategist. She has a bachelor of arts, honours from McGill University in political science and English literature. She is passionate about the future of digital media. Find her work at: www.vickytobianah.com


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by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

When Elizabeth Philibert arrived in Montreal as an émigré in 1979, she immediately felt the city would be her closest connection to Haiti. 

The city’s circle of activists quickly embraced Philibert, who had risked her life on the front lines of Haiti’s anti-Duvalier movement. The movement began in opposition to self-declared "President-for-life" Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and continued against the oppressive regime of his successor and son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. 

Most Canadians may not have heard of Philibert and other Haitian Canadians who, through their collective efforts, influenced Quebec’s cultural and political traditions.

In A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians and the Remaking of Quebec, historian Sean Mills chronicles how the Haitian community, while relegated to the margins, actively challenged the status quo while also finding common ground within it. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]While Quebec was gripped in its fight for sovereignty, Haitians in the province wielded what resources they had to insert themselves into the political debate.[/quote]

Haitians in the Quiet Revolution

Philibert joined the wave of Haitian immigrants who settled in Quebec in the 1960s and 1980s, drawn by shared linguistic and religious ties. She arrived at a time when members of Montreal’s Haitian community were claiming a stake in Quebec’s political future, and Canada’s international affairs.

While Quebec was gripped in its fight for sovereignty, Haitians in the province wielded what resources they had to insert themselves into the political debate. 

“The importance of Haitians was well known among many Haitians, of course, but it wasn’t part of mainstream understandings of the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath,” says Mills, referring to a period in the 1960s during which the province saw the secularization and expansion of the welfare state in sectors such as health care and education. “I was struck by the involvement of Haitians in the waves of political and cultural activism in the 1960s and 1970s, and I wanted to learn more about these developments.”

Mills’ curiosity led him to delve into the written work of the Haitian diaspora and their oral histories, as told by those who had fled the violence under the two Duvalier regimes. He illuminates the ways Haitians sought to elevate their status in Quebec.

Through their vast literary publications, activism and media appeals they set out to upend a political system intent on shutting them out. 

A Place in the Sun revisits history with a new perspective, and succeeds in delivering a nuanced portrait of their lives during a critical juncture in Quebec’s history. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“By entering the political sphere and rupturing its traditional composition, they opened a new space for themselves.”[/quote]

Challenging paternalism 

The first contingent of Haitian exiles came in the 1960s. Most were francophone elites who integrated well into society. The second wave of migrants in the 1970s, representing a poorer class who spoke Creole, faced far more discrimination. 

That they had markedly different experiences speaks to Quebec’s complex perception of Haiti, Mills writes.

Haiti had long held symbolic significance to Quebec, especially in the 1940s as it sought to establish cultural linkages through its Catholic missionary work. Although they were bound by a shared language and colonial legacy, the missionary cause set them on unequal footing. 

It was a relationship defined in familial terms, albeit a paternalistic one, in which Haitians were ridiculed for their religious belief in voodoo and regarded as “childlike” and “devoid of complex thoughts.” 

Mills argues, convincingly, that confined as many were to exploitative occupations in the taxi industry or domestic service, Haitian immigrants refused to be reduced to stereotypes. Instead, they cast themselves as political beings capable of exerting pressure on the government to confront its policies and in some cases, to adopt their cause. 

“They had to fight to find a place for themselves in a political sphere that did not see them as legitimate interlocutors,” Mills writes. “By entering the political sphere and rupturing its traditional composition, they opened a new space for themselves.” 

Culture of activism

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For the Haitian diaspora, Quebec became a proxy battlefield through which they could undermine support for the Duvalier regimes.[/quote]

It helped that Haitians were attuned enough to know that language can be a potent bargaining chip in Quebec. 

One critical test was the “crisis of 1,500” in 1974, when Haitians mobilized support from diverse groups to quash the deportation of non-status migrants.

They appealed both to the “conscience of the population” and used language strategically to position themselves as “ideal francophone immigrants for modern Quebec.” René Lévesque, as Parti Québécois premier, ultimately endorsed their cause on humanitarian grounds, but also for demographic considerations. 

For the Haitian diaspora, Quebec became a proxy battlefield through which they could undermine support for the Duvalier regimes. They compelled Canada to confront its policy of distributing foreign aid to a dictatorship, which had driven many to flee and was ultimately the root of the migrant crisis. 

These efforts weakened the federal government’s claim that they were merely “economic migrants” as opposed to political refugees. It also served as a rallying cry of solidarity between Quebecers and Haitians, both vying for self-determination. 

Although they’ve made significant strides in improving their conditions, the “asymmetrical relationship” between Quebec and Haiti persists, writes Mills. To this day, many of the organizations Haitian immigrants founded remain an enduring force in integrating new arrivals. 

“[I’m] continually impressed by the incredible vitality of the Haitian community,” says Mills. “It’s certainly a world that is very alive and vibrant to this day.” 

Beatrice Paez is a freelance journalist based in Toronto whose work spans from writing about international development issues to the arts and culture. She also writes a public art column for the Torontoist and co-founded The Origami, an online magazine about Asian Canadians in Toronto.


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by Maria Ikonen in Gatineau 

A new feature documentary might have you thinking twice when buying tomatoes and greenhouse products next time you visit the grocery store.

Migrant Dreams” explores how migrant women agricultural workers struggle within Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Canadian employers use the TFWP when “qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available” for certain occupations.

Canada has welcomed millions of temporary foreign workers since the program began in 1973 under the name of the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program (NIEAP). This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which places approximately 17,000 seasonal workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean States in Canada every summer.

Both programs have become an important source of labour for the agricultural industry in particular. An article on Guatemalans employed for low-waged work in Canada states that every year, migrant workers entering through the program fill more than 80,000 positions.  

Employers who hire temporary foreign workers have responsibilities to meet, but director Min Sook Lee, a multiple award winning Canadian filmmaker, shows us the dark underbelly of the program. 

Investigating the conditions of the TFWP

Lee, an assistant professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, describes “Migrant Dreams” as a discussion about universal principals. “When I visited this farm, I thought it looked a lot more like a refugee camp than the safe living conditions that you would expect in Canada.” 

Migrant advocates often cite issues like unpaid overtime pay or serious violations of health and safety standards. Because these workers are afraid of being deported, many don’t speak up about poor working conditions.

For Evelyn Encalada, a founding member of Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) and a collaborator on the documentary, her meeting with seasonal agricultural workers from Chile made her see that she needs to hold her country to a higher standard. "I realized, I have to hold Canada responsible for its international image.”

Encalada’s meeting with the workers had to be set up in secrecy as those contacted feared the threat of deportation after speaking with media.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Canadian employers use the TFWP when “qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.”[/quote]

This issue was discussed recently in The National Post, where another interviewee, Ricky Joseph from Saint Lucia, mentioned that the deportation threat arose “the moment you speak up.”

Other critics have compared the program to the import of thousands of foreign workers in the 20th century to work in the silver and gold mines of Northern Ontario as well as the railway industry. “The mine owners said they were filling a labour shortage. But their real reason was to keep wages down,” writes Thomas Walkom.

Lee's inspiration for the documentary came from a need to draw a picture about migration. Although the program has been around for decades, Lee says that, “‘Migrant Dreams’ is an untold story. There has not been much talk about temporary foreign workers. They are part of our reality.”

Recommendations for change

According to Lee, “the rules and regulations for living accommodations are outdated because Ontario has not changed since 1975.”

Temporary foreign workers can apply for permanent residence if they can show their skills are in continuing demand, and 29,000 of the 192,000 temporary foreign workers who entered Canada in 2011 made the transition to permanent status. However, the rest are subject to the whims of employers who often fail to meet the regulations of the program.

Both Lee and Encalada voice concerns about workers being bound to one employer. “Being tethered to your employer while you are working in Canada means that you are completely unable to speak out about problems that may arise. Your silence is fueled by the rules and regulations,” Lee comments. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"The rules and regulations for living accommodations are outdated because Ontario has not changed since 1975.”[/quote]

“The staffing in charge of these policies is not consistent. Often the inspectors who are supposed to go to farms to ensure that living quarters are up to par just do not exist or they are summer students,” Lee notes.

When asked for a solution, Lee replies, “Workers should be given status upon arrival. Access and pathways to permanent residency is number one.”

She continues, “The migrant labour program creates a labour apartheid in our country. It creates two tiers of labour and human rights — one for Canadian citizens and an entirely different set of rights for non-citizens. That is completely, I think, against the broadly accepted principles of universal justice and human rights that Canada is known for.”

Hope for the future

Lee hopes the documentary will have a political impact and can be used as a tool for social change by anyone who gets involved with government or community organizations.

“I hope it’s used for educating people about the situation for migrant workers and for humanizing migrant workers, who are often dehumanized when they do appear in mainstream media,” she states.

When asked what viewers can do to support temporary foreign workers, Encalada suggests they visit the Harvesting Freedom Campaign, sign a petition and join pilgrimage to remind people that migrants collect our food. 

“Let's rebuild Canada and put ourselves in others shoes. Watch the documentary and when buying a tomato, think that is has a story. It has a story of adaption," Encalada concludes. 

The documentary "Migrant Dreams" will premiere on May 1 as part of the Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

{module NCM Blurb}

by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver, British Columbia

Identity determines how we value ourselves and how others perceive us. Its significance has increased with globalization, migration and technological advancements. Many people today consider themselves to have multiple identities, while others are happy with a single identifier.

In The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self, a book edited by Nurjehan Aziz, 12 authors grapple with the idea of Islamic identity in Canada.

Panel discussions on the book have been held throughout Canada, including in Vancouver.

The book documents the everyday lives of several Canadian Muslims. Some authors write about their own experiences, others about the Muslim community in Canada. Some essays are written in an academic style, while others are personal narratives.

Islam in post-Harper Canada

Almost every chapter criticizes the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “targeting” or “scapegoating” Muslims for political gain. 

Haroon Siddiqui’s chapter, “Anti-Muslim Bigotry Goes Official — Canada’s Newest Dark Chapter,” deals with the experiences of Muslims under the Harper government.

He presents a list of what he calls “Islamophobic” actions, speeches, policies or legislation undertaken by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, immigration ministers Chris Alexander and Jason Kenney, and other Conservative members of Parliament and senators.

Ihsaan Gardee and Amira Elghawaby call on Canadian Muslims to reclaim their identities and reframe harmful narratives that were on the verge of becoming mainstream under the Conservative government.

This requires active civic engagement from Canadian Muslims, something that has increased thanks in part to groups such as Canadian-Muslim Vote and the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Authors debate Muslim identity

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“My sense of Muslim identity may not be another’s definition of what a Muslim ought to be and it also may not be in line with scripture and sacred text.”[/quote]

In some instances, one author in the book responds to the concerns or questions raised by another. Safia Fazlul says she “lives on the fringe of being ‘somewhat liberal Canadian’ and ‘somewhat conservative Muslim South Asian.’”

Her inability and unwillingness to live strictly in one category led her to be discriminated against and excluded by “both liberal and secular Canadians and traditional Muslim Canadians.” People do not accept her even though she is comfortable with her multiple identities.

Ameen Merchant, on the other hand, raises a valid point about subjectivity and somewhat ignores the opinions of others about his relationship with Islam.

“My sense of Muslim identity may not be another’s definition of what a Muslim ought to be and it also may not be in line with scripture and sacred text,” he writes. "Then again, my subjectivity is also not anyone else’s. It is multifarious absorbent, and always subject to change. And it is my own.”

Mohamed Abualy Alibhai’s suggestion that Muslims in North America “abandon the belief in the verbal revelation of the Qur'an,” mirrors arguments raised by activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, mainly that the literal understanding of the Qur'an must be “reformed or discarded.”

Alibhai and Hirsi Ali are in agreement on their understanding of controversial topics such as jihad, sharia and the importance of the afterlife in Islam.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]…we need Muslim reformist thinkers to use Islam to fight against radical interpretations of the religion.[/quote]

Furthermore, Alibhai advocates for a conscience-based Islamic denomination, as if it does not exist. However, a look at Karim H. Karim’s chapter illustrates how Aga Khan, the Imam or spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, has been doing what Alibhai argues is needed.

“The Islamic leader presents the concepts of ethics, democracy, development, meritocracy, pluralism and quality of life as some of the ‘brides that unite’ ways of understanding that are religious and secular,” writes Karim about Aga Khan.

The Ismaili leader’s ideas of the Qur'an underlie his discourse, but he rarely makes overt religious references in his speeches.

At the same time, Alibhai is dismissive of Muslim reformist thinkers who reinterpret the Islamic texts to accommodate the realities of modern life. Monia Mazigh’s chapter, for example, illustrates how Islamic discourses can be invoked to disprove the notion of men’s perceived superiority over women.

Interpreting modern Islam

There are different ways to convince different people of the same issue. You can argue that robbery is socially unacceptable, morally reprehensible, illegal, or against your religion. Each one of those arguments is valid depending on the audience. The argument based on religion is more appealing to a religious person.

In the same vein, we need Muslim reformist thinkers to use Islam to fight against radical interpretations of the religion.

Some of the authors identify as “inconsistent Muslim” or “cultural Muslim,” however, we do not see a representation from an “observant Muslim” – those who may imprecisely be called conservative or traditional Muslims.

These are the proud Canadian Muslims who follow all Islamic laws and traditions and believe that they can also be civically engaged Canadians.

Furthermore, three of the authors are of Arab origin and the rest are South Asian. The Muslim community in Canada is much more diverse and the overwhelming majority of them are not represented in this book.

Overall, Aziz’s book is a success as it represents a segment of an underrepresented group of Canadian citizens: Muslims who are spoken, about but rarely given the chance to speak for themselves.

Alireza Ahmadian is a Vancouver-based writer and researcher. He has a Masters of Arts in International Affairs and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian to discuss world affairs and is published on online forums such as New Canadian Media, BBC, and foreign policy blogs.


{module NCM Blurb}

Tuesday, 26 April 2016 01:46

Accents Celebrated at Shakespeare Reading

Written by

by Diana Manole in Ottawa 

Four hundred years ago, on April, 23, 1616, William Shakespeare passed away. His plays are so special that today we can critically reflect on any topic when reading, staging, or watching them: social inequality, politics, history, culture, love and death.

The modernization of the English language also started with his work, leading to the current standard version, in England, and the numerous variants spoken all over the world by almost 943 million people.

As the saying goes, “The best reaction to reading a poem is writing a poem.”

George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate (PPL), along with the Library of Parliament and the League of Canadian Poets, organized a celebration of Shakespeare and National Poetry Month (NPM) through a poetry reading. Shakespeare on the Hill was the first official poetry reading on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, according to Clarke.

He says he plans to organize other similar events on Parliament Hill during his PPL tenure. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Shakespeare’s English” can be heard in Canada with accents from all over the world.[/quote]

I was honoured to be included among the readers, together with Monty Reid, Amanda Earl and rob mclennan. Our selected readings from Shakespeare and our own work had to relate to this year’s NPM theme, “The Road” – or travelling. 

Clarke is an award-winning Canadian writer, who has published 16 collections of poems, as well as plays, opera librettos and two novels. From Three Miles Plains, N.S., where he was born, Clarke has gone on many roads across Canada, but also around the world.

He emphasized Shakespeare’s influence on his own work. “Reading Titus Andronicus In Three Mile Plains, N.S.” is part of Execution Poems, for which Clarke received the Governor General’s Award. Inspired by Shakespeare’s perspective on crime, this poem denounces both historical violence and the persecution of black people in the 20th century. He writes:

“And History snapped its whip and bankrupted scholars,
School was violent improvement. I opened Shakespeare
And discovered a scarepriest, shaking in violent winds,
Some hallowed, heartless man, his brain boiling blood,
Aaron, seething, demanding: 'Is black so base a hue?'"

Recognizing accented writers

As a Romanian-born poet and a first-generation Canadian, this event had a special significance for me. I dedicated my reading to all “accented” writers from this country and the immigrant voyage to Canada that has changed their destinies. Indeed, my own trip to Canada in 2000 has been one of my most important journeys. 

The first poem I read, “Fleeing. Becoming,” synthesizes the redefinition of my sense of national identity: 

“I became Romanian, fleeing.
I became Canadian when the U.S.
took my fingerprints.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The [foreign] accent represents the democratization of language.”[/quote]

Aurelia Zmeu, Diplomatic Counsellor at the Romanian Embassy in Ottawa, noted in my reading the ongoing travel between two cultures, which defines any immigrant. 

“Listening to her reading from [Shakespeare’s] The Tempest and from her own work, I perceived the two pans of the balance scale in Diana Manole’s soul,” she said. “The poet’s feelings towards Romania, her country of origin, and Canada, her adoptive country, are placed on this scale, interconnected, in a balance that was perturbed only by the applause at the end.” 

As Clarke emphasized after my reading, “The [foreign] accent represents the democratization of language.”

Indeed, “Shakespeare’s English” can be heard in Canada with accents from all over the world. It is one of the best proofs that people can find means to communicate beyond cultural barriers.

Clarke’s celebration of Shakespeare proved that poetry and politics can sometimes be on the same page – even at Parliament Hill. 

Journeys of all forms 

Earl is a poet, publisher and the author of two books of erotic fiction. 

“The road for me equals time from birth to death and the obstacles along the way, the constancy of love in times of trouble,” she says. 

Her Shakespeare selections reflect on similar experiences, including “Sonnet 116” and, from Hamlet, Gertrude’s description of Ophelia's madness and suicide. Her poem, “O’Keeffe,” deals with the reversed journey from death to life and the effort to understand its meaning:

“I seek answers in myth: Orpheus, 
Persephone, those who’ve been 
to the Underworld and back”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The road for me equals time from birth to death and the obstacles along the way, the constancy of love in times of trouble.”[/quote]

Born in Saskatchewan, Reid worked for many years in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, and now lives in Ottawa. He focused on the theme of melancholy travel with Jacques’s monologue from As You Like It.

He also read some of his poems on the same topic, including “Very Soon, and With Someone Pleasant” from Disappointment Island. 

“I don't care where you were. I don't care about the black ice
and the big trucks and all your other travelling anxieties.
Imagine trying to pick up Singapore noodles with a single stick.
That's how it makes me feel." 

mclennan was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour in March 2016 and has won numerous awards and published nearly 30 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He read “Two ghazals, for newborn,” an homage to the birth of his third child, Aoife: 

“Map: for she articulates
our new, invented landscapes.

A declaration of staccato kicks
and wails.

A salted, sunny membrane
of gestures, squeaks and snorts.

Dr. Diana Manole is a Romanian-born poet, translator, and scholar. She has published nine collections of poems and plays, and contributed to many national and international magazines. Her latest poetry book, B&W was published in 2015 by Tracus Arte in a bilingual edition, co-translated with Adam J. Sorkin.


{module NCM Blurb} 

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

“Just because you’ve fallen off ship doesn’t mean you’re drowning.” 

In the film My Internship in Canada, the person struggling to stay afloat is the politician who fails to please everyone. Oscar-nominated director Philippe Falardeau’s film is a satirical, yet eye-opening, take on Canadian politics that showcases just how non-democratic our government can be. 

For National Canadian Film Day on April 20, charitable organization Samara Canada collaborated with the Regent Park Film Festival to fill a Cineplex movie theatre in downtown Toronto for Falardeau’s political comedy. 

The film is based on the journey of a young Haitian man, Souverain Pascal, played by Irdens Exantus, who greatly admires Canadian politics and culture. He gets a response to his 15-page application and secures an internship with a Northern Quebec member of Parliament (MP). 

Steve Guibord, played by Patrick Huard, is the independent MP for Prescott-Makadew à Rapides-aux-Outardes and unwillingly finds himself in the awkward position of holding the decisive vote on whether Canada will go to war. 

Guibord travels across his riding to consult constituents with his wife, daughter and Pascal. The story escalates when groups of lobbyists get involved in a debate that spins out of control. In the end, Guibord is tugged and pulled in various directions and must face his own conscience to make a decision that could affect the entire country. 

Making politics accessible

Newcomers to Canada and members of the Toronto communities of North York and Lotherton were among those who attended. 

“We thought it was a great opportunity to provide a little bit of education behind Canada’s political system, in a fun way,” said Madison Van West, coordinator of the Democracy Talks program at North York Community House (NYCH). She worked with her colleagues to bring 75 people to the screening from NYCH, which provides civic engagement and community development services to newcomers. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We’ve seen them try to create platforms and implement mechanisms to be open and democratic, but in doing that, anyone can speak and say anything.”[/quote]

“Sometimes politics isn’t the most accessible topic, but a movie screening is a great way to bring everyone together and learn more.” 

In the film, Guibord tries to initiate democracy by inviting members of his community to a town hall. Unfortunately, opposing viewpoints cause tension rather than a conversation that leads to a collaborative decision. The scene shows just how messy democracy can be. 

NYCH program manager Zesta Kim said she understands and has witnessed the hardships politicians face in her community when having to weigh several interests to create an all-inclusive environment. 

“We’ve seen them try to create platforms and implement mechanisms to be open and democratic, but in doing that, anyone can speak and say anything,” she explains. “So, sometimes it doesn’t turn out too well.” 

Falsification of equality 

In the film, Guibord has trouble balancing the interests of his wife, daughter, protesters, the mayor, and the prime minister. He can only rely on Pascal to help find a middle ground that stays true to Canadian culture and democracy. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We haven’t seen a representation of minorities in politics and in Parliament.”[/quote]

In a panel discussion held after the screening, emerging filmmaker Amita Zamaan said these competing special interests are what disappoint and deter people from engaging in Canadian politics. 

She added that the disengagement is due to the lack of representation and the falsification of equality in our government. 

Through her web series, Dhaliwal15Zamaan, like Falardeau, approaches politics through satire when examining the lack of diversity in Canadian politics.  

“We haven’t seen a representation of minorities in politics and in Parliament,” she said. “I’m trying to address that issue by placing this fictional character (Bobby Dhaliwal, played by Jasmeet Singh) in my film, but also addressing how limited our discussions in Canada are on progressive issues.” 

Explaining voter apathy 

Another panel member, Algoma-Manitoulin member of provincial Parliament (MPP), Michael Mantha, said the problem is deeper than just having an open platform to discuss. He said there is a lack of interest from community members. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“However you make your decision, you will have to put your head on your pillow and live with your conscience.”[/quote]

“I’ve being trying to engage with people throughout my riding, to try and get a pulse on what needs to be discussed for better engagement,” Mantha said. 

“Going off the numbers in my area, last election there was a 51 per cent voter turnout. People have look at politicians, their decisions, and their actions and think, ‘Why am I going to get involved if they’re not listening to me?’” he added. 

Mantha, who was elected in 2011, has served two consecutive terms as MPP and said while he loves all aspects of his riding, from its environment to its citizens, he is well aware of the tactics that are often involved in getting politicians to make certain decisions.  

“Individuals are put into difficult positions, but again it comes down to that person’s principles and being responsible to the people that put you into that position,” he said. “However you make your decision, you will have to put your head on your pillow and live with your conscience.”


{module NCM Blurb}

New Canadian Media provides nonpartisan news and views representing all Canadian immigrant communities. As part of this endeavour, we re-publish aggregated content from various ethnic media publishers in Canada in an effort to raise the profile of news and commentary from an immigrant perspective. New Canadian Media, however, does not guarantee the accuracy of or endorse the views and opinions contained in content from such other sites. The views expressed on this site are those of the individual writers and commentators, and not necessarily those of New Canadian Media. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved