by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

Café Babanussa is a story about mental illness that has never been told before. Through the journey of a young, mixed-race woman exploring Germany in the 1980s, we see how mental instability creeps into the lives of even the most beautiful of characters. 

Living in Germany after its separation following the Second World War, Ruby Edwards must adjust to the racist backlash she receives as a Black Canadian in Europe. 

The book’s author, Karen Hill, had her own struggles. She was unable to maintain a nine-to-five job due to challenges with tasks such as getting dressed, arriving at work on time, and dealing with co-workers. She neglected work, which led to her living in poverty and having to survive on welfare. 

Eventually, she took on creative hobbies such as cooking, art and poetry. As a poet, she became known for her work “What is my Culture?” and “A Breath for you.” 

Café Babanussa mirrors Hill’s life and she debated making it a memoir. She wrote the novel – her first – from 1989 to 2012. 

Hill died in 2014 at the age of 56. Café Babanussa was co-edited after her death by her brother, author Lawrence Hill. 

Freedom from a mental cage 

As a child, the book's main character, Ruby, had reoccurring dreams of a man smothering her that continued to plague her into adulthood. She would write in her diary, lock herself up in her room, and argue with figments of her imagination. 

Now a young adult, Ruby’s need for freedom and independence takes her to Germany, where her past demons and current insecurities intermingle to wreak havoc on her mind and personal relationships.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“She became entranced listening to all their voices, searching for some truth in their words.”[/quote]

She explores West Berlin and nearby France. A young man named Werner, a British friend named Emma, and a mysterious drug dealer named Dom – Ruby seeks acceptance from them in a time of racial tumult, as well as an escape from the growing turmoil in her mind. 

After becoming pregnant and not knowing whom the father of her child is, Ruby has an abortion that takes a toll on her mind and body. Dom dies from a drug overdose, leading Ruby to slip deeper into depression. Hill described this process as a form of self-isolation. 

“Ruby was beginning to slowly lock herself up inside her mind. More and more people were prying their way into her head talking to her,” Hill wrote. “She became entranced listening to all their voices, searching for some truth in their words.” 

Ruby later finds out that her mother also dealt with mental illness. Hill reflected on this aspect of Ruby’s life in an essay included at the end of the book. She wrote about mental health problems in her own family and described her personal experience with mental illness as “being crazy.” 

A short reprieve 

Towards the end, we learn the significance of the book’s title. Café Babanussa is a haven where Ruby and her friends go to escape their stressful lives. At the café, she finds solitude for the first time and comfort in being unapologetically Black and ultimately, herself. 

“She felt grateful for having been accepted into the club,” Hill wrote. “The feeling of belonging to one race as opposed to none empowered her.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]At the café, she finds solitude for the first time and comfort in being unapologetically Black and ultimately, herself.[/quote]

At Café Babanussa, Ruby meets a new lover, Issam, and becomes pregnant again. She later gives birth to a child and moves back to her parents’ home in Toronto. Her adventure is over, yet her internal struggles continue. 

“The architecture in Toronto seemed so bland – new and ugly,” Hill wrote. “[A]lmost every night she went to sleep crying for what she no longer had [and] for weeks she wrestled with dark clouds that seemed to follow her wherever she went. She was tired and listless.” 

Understanding a common illness 

What makes Ruby’s story so relatable is the fact that we are all familiar with the places that Ruby has encountered on her journey to adulthood. Trying to be encouraged and spirited while dealing with responsibilities, social issues, love and growing-up can be stressful. 

Hill’s realistic portrayal of someone who cannot cope with these pressures provides a better understanding of mental illness. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]She showed that it is easy to succumb to the bullying thoughts, fears, and demons many of us confront.[/quote]

She did not identify Ruby’s illness as a rare and isolated occurrence, but as a struggle that people often encounter in life. She showed that it is easy to succumb to the bullying thoughts, fears, and demons that many of us confront. 

Before her death in 2014, Hill wrote a letter that talked about her lonely walks, physically and mentally, which was also included in the book. After being out of institutions and hospitals for three years, she had sympathy for those who remained locked-up and suffering as victims of their minds. 

“I feel I have finally reached a place of some stability. From here I can reach out and become a healthier and more active participant in the mental health and wider communities. Sadly, this is still not true for many others who struggle with mental illness.”  

Danica Samuel is a freelance journalist from Toronto. She is a compulsive writer who is constantly searching for new stories on the streets and through social media. Samuel has written for the Huffington Post, New Canadian Media and ByBlacks. She prides herself on her creativity, charisma and provocativeness, while always being committed to content that is memorable, relevant and original.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Books

by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto 

Hossein is a 10-year-old Iraqi orphan with long hair, big olive-coloured eyes and a shy smile. He loves going to school and playing soccer. He also loves visiting his Canadian dentist for annual check-ups. 

Hossein’s dentist is one of 51 volunteers who fly into Iraq every spring to provide free dental care. 

Armed with colouring books, games and iPads – to entertain the children while they wait for their turn – the dentists come fully equipped to carry out everything from oral health instruction to preventative care, including fissure sealants, extractions and stainless steel crowns. 

Toronto dentist Jaffer Kermalli* has been treating Hossein for several years. “His long hair hides scars from a bomb blast he was in,” Kermalli shares. “He came back to us [this year] and specifically wanted us to fix a broken front tooth and take away the pain from another tooth in his mouth.”

Kermalli recently went on his fifth trip to Iraq with Global Kindness Foundation (GKF), a Vancouver-based charitable organization that takes two trips every year to provide medical, dental and optical services to countries in need due to war and poverty. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.”[/quote]

A passion project 

In 2015, GKF took its dental mission to Iraq and Kenya. In the past, the organization (members pictured) also travelled to Peru, India and Tanzania. 

The 33-year-old dentist calls it his “passion project.” 

“I plan my year around the GKF trips, and over the years have become more active in helping organize supplies and train volunteers. It gives me focus throughout the year, and is my ‘reset,’” he says. “To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.” 

The children they treat are generally thrilled to see them – notwithstanding the usual anxiety that comes with dental visits. 

For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush. The lack of basic awareness is a direct outcome of living in both a war-torn country and refugee camps, where dental care is scarce or not available at all. 

Many non-dental volunteers have also joined the group, along with several opticians and physicians. The non-medical volunteers are assigned roles like screening the children in the waiting areas, occupying the children while they wait for their appointment and assisting the dentists. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush.[/quote]

Shahina Rahim, an IT executive at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, joined GKF for a second time this year. 

“I wanted to make a small difference to the lives of the children,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wanted to come back and help.” 

This time, though, she took a few Arabic classes in Toronto before leaving in order to help overcome the language barrier. 

Meeting many needs 

Additional medical and optical camps were also set up, seeing more than 1,000 children over two weeks. Many were referred to specialists. 

“One child had a case of congenital heart defect which had gone untreated and required surgery,” recalls Vancouver dentist and GKF founder, Dr. Hasnain Dewji (pictured).  

“There were also some cases of severe psychiatric conditions, so a referral to a local psychiatrist was arranged. Two other boys needed growth-hormone therapy. We are trying to determine the cost of therapy and see if we can raise the funds needed.” 

The two opticians in the group also flew in from Vancouver, and determined that at least 60 of the children they saw required corrective lenses. The charity arranged for the eyeglasses to be made in Tanzania and delivered for free to Iraq. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[The kids] have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us.”[/quote]

Kids are kids 

The dental mission to Iraq started on March 19 and ended April 1. GKF is already recruiting its next set of volunteers to travel to Bhavnagar, India, in December. 

For Rahim, the hardest part of her trip to Iraq was witnessing the social remnants of war – the beggars, the children in wheelchairs and the sheer poverty. 

“For many of the kids, you can see the poverty through hygiene, dirty or worn clothes, and shoes or sandals that don't fit them.”  

But none of that seemed to stop them from smiling, laughing and dreaming, she adds. 

“My encounter with the kids has been a wonderful one. They have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us,” she says. 

“Kids are kids after all, no matter what part of the world they live in.” 

*Source is not related to the author.

{module NCM Blurb} 

Published in Health

by Matt D’Amours in Montreal 

Community organizations and immigrant lobby groups in Quebec are speaking out against a provincial welfare reform bill that would require new social assistance applicants to enter the job market sooner. 

Activists say that Bill 70, “An Act to allow a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry,” will have a disproportionate impact on Quebec’s immigrant population, which is overrepresented in the welfare system. 

At the Minister of Labour’s request, Bill 70 would seek to introduce a “workfare” system that requires welfare recipients to enter a job training program, or “accept any offer of suitable employment.” 

Those who fail to meet these conditions could see their social assistance cut in half. For a single adult receiving $623 a month, that would mean a drop down to about $308. 

Political opponents have also criticized the plan, introduced last year by the province’s Liberal government. In a National Assembly debate on Feb. 25, Bernard Drainville of the Parti Québécois called the law “heartless, arbitrary, unwise, myopic and disrespectful.” 

During a parliamentary hearing on Feb. 17, Labour Minister François Blais defended Bill 70, saying that Quebec’s immigrant population would not be adversely affected by the legislation. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Labour Minister François Blais defended Bill 70, saying that Quebec’s immigrant population would not be adversely affected by the legislation.[/quote]

“In general, as you know, immigrants want to integrate and make the necessary efforts to find employment,” Blais said. The minister added that, among the organizations he had spoken to, there was “zero worry” about how the proposed welfare reforms would impact the immigrant population. 

Faulty perceptions of immigrants and employment 

Pascale Chanoux, of the group Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes (TCRI), testified at the Feb. 17 hearing, and said the minister’s comments highlight the government’s faulty logic about immigrants and employment. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The minister does not see that on the path of professional integration for immigrants, there are systemic obstacles."[/quote]

“Bill 70 claims that if we want to, we can – which is to say that whether someone gets a job or not is based on whether they want to or not,” Chanoux explained. “The minister does not see that on the path of professional integration for immigrants, there are systemic obstacles … [for him] everything is always about the willingness and responsibility of the individual.” 

Another person who testified that day was Nalawattage Pinto, a Sri Lankan immigrant who came to Canada in 1993. 

Pinto described the systemic barriers that made his job search difficult upon arrival, including his lack of French language skills, and the market’s lack of recognition of his professional experience in Sri Lanka. 

Pinto was forced to work nights at a chemical plant, which he alleged only hired new immigrants because it was dangerous work. 

He also said the company only hired people for six months, so that workers wouldn’t have time to unionize. After Pinto and his wife lost their jobs in 1994, they were forced to apply for welfare. 

Pinto is not alone. According to a provincial report on social assistance published in November 2015, new Canadians make up nearly a quarter of welfare recipients in Quebec. 

However, another provincial report, which tracked immigrant welfare requests between 1996 and 2004, found that most made their application early after their arrival in the province – usually within the first six months. 

That same report found that once these immigrants opted out of the welfare program, they generally didn’t return. 

“This first stay in social assistance is, in the large majority of cases, a unique episode in the process of integration for immigrants,” the report concluded. 

‘Suitable’ employment for who? 

The concern with Bill 70 is that for immigrants seeking assistance within their first months in Quebec, the mandate to accept a job that is deemed “suitable” by the government could force people into a cycle of low wages, and further trivialize the qualifications they held in their native countries. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Do we want to institutionalize de-qualification by pushing people into a job without regard to their socio-professional background?”[/quote]

“We talk about accepting a suitable job – but suitable for who?” asks Chanoux. “Do we want to institutionalize de-qualification by pushing people into a job without regard to their socio-professional background?” 

Those who refuse to accept “suitable” employment would see massive cuts to welfare benefits, which are already too low to live on, according to Project Genesis, a social justice community organization based in Montreal. 

The group points to a fall 2015 report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which shows that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Montreal now stands at $675 – $52 more than the current welfare benefits received by a single person. 

“Any policy that reduces the income of households living in poverty is destined to … [increase the] depth of poverty experienced by people on low income,” stated Project Genesis. 

During his closing remarks at the Feb. 17 hearing on Bill 70, Pinto outlined the hardships he had experienced as an immigrant in Quebec. 

“I’ve had jobs at minimum wage since I’ve been in Canada,” Pinto explained. “I am now 65, and I did not achieve the dream that we had when we came here.” 

If Bill 70 passes in Quebec, the TCRI and Project Genesis argue, Pinto’s dream of a better life will become harder to achieve for a whole new wave of immigrants. 

“We’re talking about poverty and exclusion,” Chanoux said of the proposed legislation. “It’s part of a tendency to try and recoup money on the backs of populations that are very vulnerable.”

 {module NCM Blurb}

Published in Top Stories

by Daniel Leon Rodriguez in Calgary

Jose Duque, an immigrant from Venezuela, is using music to keep children in band practice and out of trouble on the streets.

In his native country, Duque participated in the El Sistema program, for over 16 years as an orchestra player, music teacher, and later, as a regional co-ordinator.

The program, which is run in countries around the world, gives children from diverse backgrounds a safe and fun place that fosters discipline, increased self-esteem and a sense of community.

When Duque immigrated to Calgary 10 years ago, he thought there were no children living in poverty in the city.

“I thought Canada was paradise,” says Duque, adding he imagined no one in Calgary would need a program like El Sistema.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Duque soon started to see the cracks in his new homeland.[/quote]

The opportunity to dream

However, Duque soon started to see the cracks in his new homeland – Canada wasn’t the perfect paradise he imagined.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, he met many low-income families who had difficulties keeping their children away from drugs, gangs and isolation.

“I wanted to offer disadvantaged children the opportunity to dream,” says Duque.

That is why five years ago, he decided to start a free after school music program at the church.

Now, with the support of International Avenue Arts and Culture Centre (IAACC), Duque’s small initiative has grown into the Calgary Multicultural Orchestra (CMO) – a full-time program with three professors and 60 students based on the El Sistema program model.

The program operates in Calgary's Forest Lawn area, which has double the percentage of low-income households than the rest of the city, according to Statistics Canada. IAACC funding provides children with free musical instruments and music lessons every weekday from 4 to 6 p.m.

Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema youth orchestra system in Venezuela, shares the story behind the program.

Diverting children and youth from the streets

Duque says CMO will create positive outcomes similar to other El Sistema projects around the world – a decrease in juvenile crime and school drop-out rates. However, to achieve his dream he requires more participation from the community.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Some people believe that orchestral music is something exclusive, but it isn't true.”[/quote]

“If we could get 1,000 children from Forest Lawn and other communities in the northeast we could create a real change,” says Duque. 

According to a study by the Inter American Development Bank for every dollar invested in the El Sistema program in Venezuela, it reaped about $1.68 in social dividends – with benefits such as a decline in juvenile delinquency and improvement in school attendance.

The biggest rate of juvenile delinquency occurs between 4 and 7 p.m., explains Duque, which is the timeframe when children spend more time alone after school and before their parents return from work in the evening.

“We are giving a space to these kids to do something special,” he says. “We are taking them away from the streets, the drugs and the gangs.”

Putting a focus on inclusivity and tolerance

Amédée Waters, program administrator for the CMO, says the program aims to bring together children from all incomes, races and religions. 

“The idea is to create a sense of inclusivity, tolerance and community,” says Waters. “Some people believe that orchestral music is something exclusive, but it isn't true.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[T]he program makes children and parents focus on what we have in common instead of what makes us different.”[/quote]

Mark Lobnowcs, whose 11-year-old child participates in the CMO, agrees that the program creates more tolerance. 

“I think it is marvellous that the program makes children and parents focus on what we have in common instead of what makes us different,” says Lobnowcs.

He also says the program is a great opportunity to learn music from top professional musicians. “It is amazing that someone with Jose’s qualifications is doing something like this for free.”

Hikmat Kafi, whose seven-year-old daughter has been with the CMO for over two years, says that the program has helped her daughter to open up to other children.

Kafi arrived to Canada from North Sudan 10 years ago. She says that her daughter’s participation in the CMO has had a positive influence on her two brothers. “If you see your child happy, then all the family is happy too,” she shares.

The program costs IAACC over $2,300 per child per year, and funding can be an issue, according to Waters.

Right now the program has a waiting list of over 30 children, but it doesn’t have the funds to pay for teachers and instruments.

“It is always a struggle to find the funds,” says Waters. As a result, the program is always looking for volunteers and used musical instruments.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Arts & Culture

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga, Ontario

According to the 2015 child poverty report for Toronto, newcomer children, children of colour and children with disabilities are among the largest groups living in poverty. Families that fall into more than one of these groups face even more grim circumstances.

Sean Meagher, Executive Director of Social Planning Toronto suggests that immigrants with non-European backgrounds taking care of children born with disabilities face financial crises often.

“English speaking [people], compared to the significant number of immigrants who are not from that background, are successful in getting jobs and we do have a racially segmented employment market [that] people with coloured skin face.”

Sacrificing to take care of family

Those taking care of someone with a disability often relinquish their own plans, as is the case of Ottawa resident Maryem Hashi (name changed for privacy).

Hashi has three younger siblings between the ages of 22 and 26 years old who all have disabilities. She gave up her university studies and a full-time job to fulfill her responsibilities at home.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][I]mmigrants with non-European backgrounds taking care of children born with disabilities face financial crises often.[/quote]


Hashi, who moved here from Pakistan, recalls her initial days in Canada, when her mother had to face the ordeal of raising her siblings, without much access to Internet. With difficulty in speaking and understanding English, she had to navigate things like funding, health care and programs that suit the needs of her children.  

“My siblings didn’t receive any government funds and didn’t go to any specially designed programs to cater to their needs as my parents were not aware that some services were available,” explains Hashi. 

Hashi’s siblings have delayed development, which usually starts showing up after a child is two to five years old. It is a “mild” condition that affects their ability to do things “independently.”

“They tend to forget things easily and [have an] inability to do things on a daily basis like managing money, packing a [backpack], remembering directions, etc. and the challenge is to keep them in conversation,” shares Hashi.

Today, Hashi is a program assistant and works part-time in occupational therapy, serving children with disabilities under the age of three to five years old.  

What happens after 21 years old?

For Hashi’s siblings, a crucial time came when they each turned 21, as that is the cut-off age for school programming for kids with a disability.

“Due to the lack of government funded after school programs, people with disability after 21 years of age usually stay at home as there is a long waiting [lists] to get into programs suitable to their needs,” says Hashi. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[P]eople with disability after 21 years of age usually stay at home as there is a long waiting [lists] to get into programs suitable to their needs.”[/quote]


She says that such programs are a support for caregivers too, and allow the young person not to lose what they have learned from school.

“My siblings [have been] home for a couple of years, and [are] alone with depression and low self esteem; it’s hard to deal with their ordeal,” she shares. “If we take programs privately, it starts at $90 a day, which is unaffordable with multiple siblings [with a] disability.”

Rabia Khedr, executive director of the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities, runs a program in Mississauga, Ont., DEEN (Disability Empowerment Equality Network) support service, which is an extended-hour day program and works on the capacity building of individuals with disabilities who have aged out of school programs.

“It will be an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. program,” explains Khedr, “and gives enough time range to caregivers – particularly those who are striving to earn.”

The school has a sliding scale fee structure and the rest is fundraised through charitable donations.

In the long run, Khedr is planning a residence service, especially for people with disabilities who do not have caregivers. She shares that in Ontario alone 12,000 people with intellectual disabilities are waiting for housing.

Khedr’s extension of the school in Ottawa, where Hashi will provide some of her services too, is at the initial stage and individuals with disabilities will get three hours of activities on Sunday only starting in the new year.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[W]e want at least medication to be cost-free for all.”[/quote]


Making ends meet

Every year on Dec. 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disability. The theme in 2015: Inclusion matters, access and empowerment of people with all abilities.

According to the department of finance, in 2011 the Canadian federal government transferred almost $4 billion to low-income families and spent $19.9 billion on Employment Insurance benefits alone.

Still for some, medications, dental care and eye check-ups are not included. And in the cases of people with disabilities things like electronic gadgets, crutches, wheelchairs and scooters to assist in daily life are also not fully covered.

“They have to hire special vans to take these individuals from place to place. This all has a cost,” says Hashi. “And we want at least medication to be cost-free for all.”

Khedr says that people who don’t have the experience of poverty won’t understand how choices can become increasingly limited when a person is on welfare assistance.

She suggests, “The solution lies in a combination of a few hours of activity and government funds.”

Journalist Priya Ramanujam mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentorship Program.

{module NCM Blurb} 

Published in Health
Monday, 21 September 2015 14:43

Debunking the Racialization of Disease

by Lucy Oneka in Toronto 

There is an ever present bias in the historical theories of racialized people being more susceptible to disease, and these theories have been perpetuated by modern day media, say some Canadian researchers. 

Goldameir Oneka, University of Toronto PhD candidate and author of Extra, Extra, read all about it!: Toronto print news media coverage of type 2 diabetes, says the idea of race being linked to disease has long standing historical roots in biomedical research and practice.  

“If you look at the bio-medical literature – historical bio-medical literature – racialized peoples’ were constantly presented as individuals who were inherently diseased,” explains Oneka (full disclosure: she is the sister of this article’s author). 

“So we see theories that mainly linked the presence of diseases in racialized peoples to their so-called race. If they were sick it was because there was something in their DNA that made them sick. While there are some diseases that are linked to race/ethnicity there are many more that are not, and here is where the problem lies.” 

It is this school of thought that has fuelled the idea that non-White people are more susceptible to disease than White people. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“There was very little connection to economic circumstances or changes that happen when people immigrate to a new country.”[/quote]

Dr. Margery Fee, professor of English at University of British Columbia and author of the “Racializing Narratives: Obesity, Diabetes and the ‘Aboriginal’ Thrifty Genotype” in the journal Social Science and Medicine, indicates that until recently it was generally accepted that race was useful in predicting disease – without examining intersection of ethnicity, race and socio-economic status. 

“There was very little connection to economic circumstances or changes that happen when people immigrate to a new country,” Fee says. “There was very little understanding of those social factors which is hardly surprising because scientists are educated in a very narrow way – with very little in the way of humanities education.” 

Rooted in idea of racial hierarchy 

The racialization of disease can be traced back to Darwin and social Darwinism, Fee explains, a theory that stated there was a kind of racial hierarchy with the White race being at the top, and the so-called ‘fittest’. 

As Oneka points out there are several examples of where this theory has come into play when looking at diseases within particular communities. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Racialized peoples once again are presented as being ignorant for having the disease.”[/quote]

“If you look in South Africa for example, they had this thing that Blacks who had TB (Tuberculosis) had it because their bodies were not used to civilization,” Oneka recalls. “When they got civilized, their body couldn’t handle it so that’s how they got TB. They needed to go back to the primitive ways of living and doing things.” 

Or, Oneka adds, “In the North American context, there is a lot of talk about the Aboriginal population, Aboriginal peoples have a higher rate of type 2 diabetes because they have a gene – the thrifty gene theory.” 

The role of the media 

In order to counter such ways of thinking, the existence of such schools of thought must first be acknowledged. 

Oneka looked at how what was going on with type 2 diabetes was covered by Toronto print newspapers by conducting a content analysis. She examined things like the language used. 

“Racialized peoples once again are presented as being ignorant for having the disease,” Oneka says of her findings. “They don’t know how to take care of themselves type of thing, and they are inherently diseased too,” she explains, adding articles would at times imply “their genes make them more predisposed to developing this disease compared to the White population.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Yes, it’s true that everybody but White people has a higher risk factor for obesity and diabetes. But, it’s connected to poverty.”[/quote]

There is often a part of the story missing in news reports, Fee explains, pointing out that while the research she looked at years ago did show that White people seemed to have a better track record when it came to diabetes, this couldn’t necessarily be attributed to their race. 

“… [They] were demographically better off. As a result, they had a better diet, got more exercise and lived in better neighbourhoods,” Fee explains, adding they, for example, might be able to walk to the grocery store instead of having to drive. 

“Yes, it’s true that everybody but White people has a higher risk factor for obesity and diabetes,” Fee says. “But, it’s connected to poverty. And it is that fact which doesn’t turn up in the warnings.” 

Reporting should ‘reflect reality’ 

Oneka recommends that the media give more thought to how it reports on health. This is particularly important since generally people learn more about disease from the media than their doctor. 

When it comes to diabetes Oneka’s research shows that the media represents it mostly as a lifestyle or individual or genetic issue. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Oneka insists the media should reach out to social scientists that can shed insight on how environmental factors ... play into the development of disease.[/quote]

“These kinds of reporting attributes blame, and makes the individual think it’s their fault that they are sick,” she explains. “If a person does not have a good job, they can’t afford to eat well, and the media needs to cover a more accurate account of the causes of diseases – reflect reality.” 

Part of the problem, Oneka adds, is that reporters are not specialists, and therefore rely on interviews with scientists who mainly have bio-medical backgrounds for their news coverage. 

­­Oneka insists the media should reach out to social scientists that can shed insight on how environmental factors such as the economics, poverty, racism, prejudice and ageism play into the development of disease.  

Fee agrees. “People don’t like to talk about economic disparity,” she says. “Public health is not very popular. People want to find cures for cancer in any way, but [not fix] the environment [which is] a huge systematic and ideological barrier. It’s much more fun to go after a kind of gene or a drug where you can kind of narrow the problem.”

{module NCM Blurb} 


Published in Health

by Renee Comesotti in Kathmandu, Nepal

The world media is awash in images of death and devastation in Nepal. It’s an oddly schizophrenic experience to be ‘watching’ the current crisis from the dual perspectives of participant and observer — both on the ground and over the Internet. That’s life in a disaster zone in the Information Age.

We live in Dhobighat, a relatively new neighbourhood of Kathmandu, and our street is tiny but always busy: an overgrown, badly-paved footpath travelled every day by noisy schoolchildren, motorcycles, vegetable carts, honking taxis, young women arm in arm, gleefully reckless children on bicycles, and old people out for a walk because their daughters remind them that it’s good for them.

It’s a middle-class neighbourhood, congested and chatty, and at sundown everybody goes to the dhobi — the communal well after which the area is named — to gossip and watch the boys play a little football, and to fill up their water containers for the night.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"] Nepal deserves better. These are hardworking, capable people who are probably more stoic than is good for them. Their suffering was caused not by the earth shifting but by the constant, grinding movement of resources away from those who have not, toward those who already have.[/quote]

We live here because we work at the local international school, teaching the kids of ex-pat families and local folk who want an international education for their children. It’s a nice school, and our students are great — creative, thoughtful young people who have seen something of the world and who are building the skills (we hope) to act on their plans for a better world. It’s an immediate community of more than six hundred people, and all us survived the quake — the students and their immediate families, workers and support staff, teachers and all.

Dhobighat is a mess right now, but we know we’ve been very lucky. Houses have collapsed. A small child was killed nearby. We’re worried about our students, of course; many of them have been sleeping in the streets or in parks since the earthquake hit Saturday, and they’re all far too young to deal with this emotionally. But we’re getting something organized at the school for those who can make it in, and online for those who have Internet but can’t travel.

People in Dhobighat have lost much. Some have lost everything. But this is a relatively wealthy and well-built part of town. Most people in our neighbourhood survived. We’ve already started cleaning up.

It’s a different story out in the countryside, and in the poorer parts of town. Many of our friends’ villages were devastated. Others are just … gone, wiped out, their families with them.

There are no words to describe this. The dhobi is full of people today — they’ve been sleeping there, under tarpaulins — but nobody’s talking much. Everyone knows everyone, which means everyone knows where everyone else’s family was when the quake struck — the parents, the little nieces and nephews, the old aunties and uncles, the friends, their villages, their farms. Everyone knows, so there’s no need to ask and not much to say.

The children mostly seem as riotous as ever, kicking old soccer balls around.

Extreme Poverty

Most of the people who died were already living in desperate poverty. Their homes were ancient and picturesque because they couldn’t afford to build newer, safer ones. All Nepalis know how dangerous those old buildings are; they talk about it all the time. These close-knit families watch their grown children leave Nepal by the thousands, every year, to work in dangerous, underpaid jobs abroad so that they can send money back to Nepal to build better homes. It’s never enough.

Some other time, I’ll write about the many acts of generosity, friendliness, solidarity and resolute cheerfulness that we see here every day, even now. I am moved more than I can say by the uncomplaining courage and dignity of my neighbours and the people of Nepal. The man at little shop — who lost everything and whose name I don’t even know — asking me if my daughter was okay.

My little friend Felix, age five, telling me pointedly that he’d like to help with those dishes — but not until I put my helmet on for protection. The kids camped in the field next door, sharing their rice with a street dog. The women laughing as they lurch toward a makeshift laundry line, staggering under the weight of rain-soaked bedding.

But right now all I can think is this: Nepal deserves better. These are hardworking, capable people who are probably more stoic than is good for them. Their suffering was caused not by the earth shifting but by the constant, grinding movement of resources away from those who have not, toward those who already have.

An event of this magnitude does things to your head. Here at our house everybody’s coping, but nobody’s finishing sentences. We’re moving slowly and having a difficult time staying focused. Questions get asked, nobody answers and no one notices. Decisions are made and we forget to act on them.

It all feels strangely familiar. There are terrible forces at work here — and I’m not talking about earthquakes.

'Disaster Porn'

Since Saturday I have received an embarrassing number of concerned emails, from our friends all over the world, and from many people I’ve never even met, and they’re all worried and sad, and they all want to know what they can do to help. Sometimes people are cynical about that sort of thing; the phrase ‘disaster porn’ has been floating around town, and we all recognize that ugly phenomenon when we see it.

But this is different. People should want to help out, and they do. Our empathy — the thing that drives us to communicate, to reach out to one another and be part of another’s experience — is what our overgrown frontal lobes are all about. It’s why we have social media in the first place.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The problem here isn’t earthquakes. It’s poverty. And that isn’t really news.[/quote]

For the many good people who have something to spare and who want to help, my best advice is to first look around and find some locally-based organization with roots in the community, here in Nepal. Be as sure as you can be that they’ll use the money here on the ground, first to provide emergency services and then to rebuild — and to make it safer this time. I’ve heard of people pledging support for a family for a year, during the rebuilding. That seems like a good idea to me.

In the longer term, what we can all do is stop getting caught up in systems that leave us disempowered and smother our better instincts. We can elect governments that will ensure a more equitable world, in which countries like Nepal are not impoverished by unjust economic structures. We can demand change.

The problem here isn’t earthquakes. It’s poverty. And that isn’t really news.

Renee Comesotti is from Vancouver. She and her partner, Brad Waugh, work at the Lincoln School in Kathmandu; she teaches literature and he’s the secondary principal. They’ve taught abroad for nearly fourteen years.

Re-published in partnership with

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 26 November 2014 16:22

Research Watch: Studies Paint Depressing Picture

by Priya Ramanujam (@SincerelyPriyain Toronto

It may not be time for report cards in school just yet, but when it comes to research, several annual report cards are in. In this edition of Research Watch we take a look at three recently released reports that speak to how immigrants and visible minorities are faring in various aspects of Canadian life from child poverty to employment in the public sector to corporate boards. The overall grade in each instance: F.

Immigrant children getting left behind

Not having lunch at school. Not being able to participate in extracurricular activities. Being made fun of for being on welfare. When asked what poverty feels like, these were some of the responses that some of Ontario’s children provided, in a recently released report administered by Campaign 2000 and Family Services Toronto. And for 50 per cent of the province’s children born to immigrants this feeling is part of daily life, states the report. This is in comparison to the 20 per cent of children overall that live in poverty across Ontario.

The report, which used Statistics Canada data from 2012 income tax returns, brings attention to not only this startling information, but to the fact that in 1989 the federal government put forth a strategic plan to eradicate child poverty by the year 2000. Twenty-five years later, the problem has only increased, particularly for children of new immigrants, with racialized and First Nations children next in line.

“There’s plenty the government could do to end poverty, but I don’t understand why they aren’t doing that,” an anonymous Ontario grade school student says in the report. And the words hold much weight. Essentially, everything the government could, and should, be doing is outlined in the report. Perhaps the most insightful though: “Eradicating child poverty in Ontario requires addressing and dismantling long-standing systemic inequities.” Without this key element, no matter how many tax benefits or increases to social assistance are made (all of which was cited as part of 1989’s plan, then again in 2008 and again in 2014), real change will not be brought about. The various levels of government must address the root causes of this poverty, versus placing bandage solutions on the complex issue. 

Along these lines, the report calls on the government to, for example, legislate Employment Equity to remedy discrimination in Canadian workplaces, repeal the three month waiting period for immigrants to receive Ontario Health Insurance coverage, create equity and anti-racism boards to address inequities and take a proactive approach to enforcing employment standards to provide equal protection for people employed under the temporary foreign worker program. These specific recommendations speak to some of the unique challenges facing individuals of immigrant and racialized backgrounds and are in addition to more blanket proposed solutions of raising minimum wage to $15 an hour and ending the deduction of child support and the Ontario Child Benefit from social assistance funds.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“There’s plenty the government could do to end poverty, but I don’t understand why they aren’t doing that,” an anonymous Ontario grade school student says in the report.[/quote]

Many mitigating factors point out that this issue is only going to get worse if those in power don’t sit up, take notice, and most importantly, take action. The Ontario job market is bleak. Manufacturing jobs, once a major employer for women, racialized and recent immigrant populations, make up only 11 per cent of the market now, in comparison to a previous 18 per cent. Recent legislation, Bill C-583, if passed, may limit access to social assistance for refugee claimants. The generation born since 1989, when the vow of eliminating child poverty was made, is up against more unemployment than ever before, coupled with rising tuition, cost of living and limited affordable housing. Add to that mix being a young person who is of colour, new to the country, suffers from mental health challenges or is homeless and the odds only stack higher. All the while, the gap between the highest and lowest income families continues to widen.

What does all this mean? It means that the time is now for change. However, the most telling aspect of the report may also be the most discouraging. In 2008, a commitment was made to develop tailored solutions to the unique needs of women, racialized communities, newcomers, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal peoples, among others at higher risk of poverty. As of November 2014, while some investments for Aboriginal children and those with disabilities have been made, and some employment programs for newcomers have been implemented, no specific solutions have been outlined or reported, for racialized communities, nor has any commitment to tracking impact in this community been made. 

Having set a new goal in 2008, to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent in five years, and still fallen short – as of 2013 the rate had declined just over nine per cent – it is clear the work is far from over, and attention must be paid to Ontario’s most marginalized.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Eradicating child poverty in Ontario requires addressing and dismantling long-standing systemic inequities.[/quote]

Skilled immigrants missing in civil servant jobs  

It’s somewhat ironic. Multiculturalism and diversity are often promoted as two of Canada’s most redeeming qualities. But within its own three levels of government there is a gap in employment diversity that needs to be addressed says a recent study released by ALLIES (a Maytree affiliated organization). That gap is one of skilled immigrants – noticeably underrepresented in public sector jobs. Titled Government as Employer of Skilled Immigrants, the study aims to encourage government to become leaders in the area of hiring immigrants, while providing context to the challenges and conditions at play within the current work force. This isn’t just of utmost importance because the public sector represents a huge job market – the government currently employs 3.6 million people at its varying levels – but authors Sarah Wayland and Dan Sheffield write that it is also worth paying attention to because the government holds great influence over the rest of the market. Whether public or private, if other employers see the government taking greater strides to purposely hire skilled immigrants, they just may follow suit.

“By bringing in fresh perspectives whether from youth or immigrants or others, there is labour force advantage to be gained,” said Susan Brown, an employee of City of Toronto, in the report. “Moreover with an aging workforce, governments need new employees, even if overall numbers continue to decline. Prioritizing immigrants into the future gives us a great opportunity to diversify our workforce and address imbalances.”

This only makes sense for a country that has made a commitment to increasing focus on immigrants as skilled workers – in fact, it is expected that over the next 10 years, close to 100,000 recent immigrants will be added to the labour market annually. Not only will these individuals add to the diversity of the government bodies, bringing with them international perspectives and connections, but they also bring an element of lived experience which is beneficial in serving the immigrant population, which generally represents 20 per cent (in some areas much higher) of Canadian society.

The report cites several barriers that stand in the way of recent immigrants gaining employment with the government (the rates increase the longer individuals are in Canada), including lack of supports in smaller communities, bilingual and citizenship qualification criteria, seniority and a lack of data focused on the immigrant experience in the application, interview, hiring and retention stages of employment.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“By bringing in fresh perspectives whether from youth or immigrants or others, there is labour force advantage to be gained,” said Susan Brown, an employee of City of Toronto, in the report.[/quote]

Some organizations are more intentional with efforts to hire immigrants, than others, according to the report. Leading the pack is the City of Ottawa, recognized as one of the Best Diversity Employers in Canada in 2013, which has an active plan in the works to include immigrants in its organization as an effort to better reflect the community it serves. Using a strategy coined the Equity and Inclusion Lens since 2009, the City of Ottawa is proactively taking steps such as providing training to city councillors and staff, to remove systemic barriers and promote inclusion internally.

As it stands overall, while a shift in hiring culture is being cultivated in some areas across the country, immigrants are half as likely as their Canadian-born counterparts to land a job in public administration, but far more likely than Canadian-born residents to be working in manufacturing, accommodation and food service. In order for this to change, the report indicates it is crucial for a government organization to embed diversity into its day-to-day culture instead of having it as an “add-on”. 

Minorities barely visible on corporate boards

The country’s corporate boards are in need of some more diversity – visible diversity that is. It seems that while there have been positive increases in the area of women sitting on corporate boards, visible minority representation is at an all-time low. This is according to The Canadian Board Diversity Council (CBDC) annual report card, released this month.

In 2010, when the council was established, the percentage of visible minorities sitting on the boards of the companies studied, which range in industry from Finance and Insurance, Utilities and Retail/Trade to Manufacturing and Mining/Oil/Gas, was just over five. This year, visible minorities clocked in at less than half of that – two per cent.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Part of the underlying problem – when board members retire or step down, the remaining members tend to look to personal circles to fill the positions, and well, if visible minorities, Aboriginal people or people with disabilities aren’t in their circles, they lose out.[/quote]

While the report indicates that the majority of directors surveyed believed diversity was important on boards, it also stated that many groups feel they are already diverse, and only a quarter of the boards in most industries have diversity policies in place. This, of course, is indicative of a broad definition of diversity. It seems the boards studied have substantial diversity in areas of expertise and education, moderate levels of diversity in areas of age, gender and geographic location, but are significantly lacking in areas of diversity relating to visible minority and Aboriginal populations and those with disabilities. 

Part of the underlying problem – when board members retire or step down, the remaining members tend to look to personal circles to fill the positions, and well, if visible minorities, Aboriginal people or people with disabilities aren’t in their circles, they lose out. The CBDC has put together a database, Diversity 50, to help counter this. The database, which now has 150 individuals listed, includes the names and faces of eligible board members. Come this time next year, we will see if the database effectively helps more visible minorities into those board seats, or not.

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Published in Top Stories

by Our Vancouver Correspondent

One of Canada’s most authoritative voices on immigration and demographic trends is worried that the abandoning of the long-form census will prevent experts like him from answering this crucial question: are ethnic enclaves also hotbeds of poverty and joblessness?

Dan Hiebert, professor of geography at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who has been studying and writing about Canada’s evolving demographics for over a decade, calls the shift from the long-form census to a voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) in 2011 “a major mistake.” The first findings from the NHS were released on May 8 – including a detailed snapshot of immigration and settlement patterns. For instance, it reported that 62.5 per cent of recent immigrants between 2006 and 2011 live in the cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

“What we really need is a long-form census in 2016 … Hopefully, the current difficulties we are having with the NHS will encourage the Cabinet to revisit this issue and reinstate a known and reliable method of collecting data of vital national significance in 2016.”

Prof. Hiebert released the third part of an ongoing study on the emergence of ethnic enclaves last summer (July 2012) which – based on 2006 census data – attempted to forecast the demographic landscape of Canada’s three premier cities in the year 2031. Driven by new immigration and high fertility among the newcomers, all three cities will see huge demographic shifts by 2031. In that year, only 50 per cent of Montreal’s citizens will be able to trace their family history to their grandparents’ generation in Canada. In Toronto, that percentage will be only 20 per cent and in Vancouver only 27 per cent.

Here are his main findings from the report titled “A new residential order?” –

·         Toronto 2031 – 63 per cent of the population will be Visible Minority; 1.4 million South Asian Canadians, 650,000 Chinese-Canadians, 270,000 Canadians of African ancestry, and 200,000 Arab-Canadians will live in enclaves dominated by specific ethno-cultural groups. The top five Visible Minority groups (in descending order) will be South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino and West Asian (Arab).

·         Vancouver 2031 – 59 per cent of the city will be Visible Minority, but the number of single-group enclaves will be fewer than in Toronto, but Whites and Visible Minorities will tend to live in different parts of the metropolis. The top groups will be Chinese, South Asian, Filipino, Korean and West Asian (Arabs).

·         Montreal 2031 – the city will see more “White citadels” with nine of 10 Whites living in White-dominated neighbourhoods. An estimated 750,000 Blacks and Arabs will live in Montreal in enclaves that will also tend to be poor. The main groups will be Black, Arab, Chinese, Latin American and South Asian.

Enclaves of poverty

It is this economic aspect that has Prof. Hiebert worried. He is keenly awaiting the release of neighbourhood-level data by Statistics Canada, to see if his forecast is on the right trajectory. Based on 2006 data, the UBC professor was not unduly alarmed, stressing in his report that it is wrong to necessarily link ethnic segregation with poverty. There were indications that Montreal was witnessing a coincidence of poor economic performance among immigrants and the growth of ethnic enclaves, but Vancouver showed no such trend – that is, segregation did not appear to influence average household wages. Toronto was somewhere in between.

Written in the wake of riots in Paris and London that pitted poor immigrants against an uncaring state, the Canadian demographer said his report raises similar “crisis of confidence” issues beyond immigrant isolation. Integration, he said, is what will make the difference. “[I]f integration fails, newcomers are unemployed and the children of immigrants fail in the education system, we could expect the strained social relations seen, for example, in the banlieue neighbourhoods of Paris.”  

Data quality in question

If there was a silver lining in his last report to the nation, it was that Canada does not have a true “ghetto,” which typically suffers from an extreme degree of segregation. Prof. Hiebert defined the term as a neighbourhood “where a single Visible Minority group constitutes at least 60 per cent of the population; at least 30 per cent of the group lives in these types of areas; and the incidence of low income is double that of the larger metropolitan population.” Although the term “ghettoization” has gained currency in recent years, Canada had no areas of extreme ethnic segregation and low income in 2006.

Do we have any ghettoes now? “It is too soon to say. We need the data. But we also might not be able to answer this question given the quality of NHS data.”

Prof. Hiebert’s latest comments should not come as a surprise. In a footnote contained in the study released last year, he said this: “Most unfortunately, the National Household Survey (NHS) that replaced the census of 2011 will not enable us to make an interim assessment of the projections, since no one can say what the degree of error will be in the NHS at the scale of Census Tracts. Until we know the true value of data collected in that survey, Canadians will ‘fly blind’ in terms of the micro-geographic patterns analyzed in this study.”

The translation: Despite spending a reported $650 million on the NHS, we may not have reliable data to validate or rebut Prof. Hiebert’s projections into 2031.- New Canadian Media

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Published in National

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