by Lucy Slavianska (@lucylsl) in Toronto, Ontario

As mainstream media focus on the war in Ukraine and Canada’s position on it, headlines in the Eastern European diaspora media reveal some of the other challenges, struggles and joys of its community in Canada.

Canada Relaxes Visa Requirements for Citizens of Romania And Bulgaria

Romanian and Bulgarian media report on the Harper government’s decision to relax the visa requirements for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals.

According to new regulations coming in 2016, Bulgarian Flame reports, Bulgarian citizens who have held a Canadian visa in the last 10 years or who hold a U.S. non-immigrant visa will no longer need to apply for Canadian visas, but will only have to register for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA). The same regulations apply for Romanian citizens.

The news came after Romania and Bulgaria, both European Union (EU) members, declared they would not ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a EU-Canada free-trade agreement, if Ottawa would not lift the visa requirements for their nationals. In order for CETA to come into effect, all 28 EU members must ratify it.  

Prior to Bulgaria and Romania, the Czech Republic declared it wouldn’t ratify CETA if Canada didn’t lift the visa requirement for Czech citizens. The Harper government removed visas for Czech citizens, but only relaxed the requirements for Bulgarians and Romanians.

“It is a step towards the total lifting of visas for Romanians,” Pagini Romanesti writes, “but it seems unlikely that the Canadian authorities will take this decision very soon.”

Canadians, on the other hand, don’t need visas for any of the EU countries, including Romania and Bulgaria.

Biometric Data Collection Expands for Visitors to Canada

The federal government announced that the collection of biometric data from people entering Canada would vastly expand.

Polish website Bejsment.com, however, informed its readers that Poles who cross the Canadian border do not have to provide such data, because the new regulations do not apply to nationals of countries with which Canada has visa-free agreements. Also, the website explains that the biometric data of the Polish citizens are already saved in the electronic chips of their passports.

However, citizens of 148 countries who require visas will be subject to biometric data collection which includes fingerprints, facial and iris scanning. According to the federal government, the tightening of border control would not only increase the internal security, but would also limit the influx of unwanted people.

The drawback of the new project is the high cost – about $200 million for installation, and about $20 million annually for maintenance of the system.

Despite the expenses, security expert John Thompson believes that other countries should follow Canada’s example. In fact, collecting biometric data is already a common practice in Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. 

Photo Credit: Bejsment.com (Accompanied original referenced article.)

The Fight for Kindergarten Ukrainian-Language Programs

Parents, teachers, community activists and organizations are concerned about anticipated changes in the decades-old Ukrainian language program running in three kindergarten classes in Toronto’s Eastern-Rite Catholic schools. In five articles, the Ukrainian-Canadian news portal New Pathway followed the heated discussions and actions of the Ukrainian community to preserve the language program.

Until 2014, the three kindergartens, which included separate half-day classes in Ukrainian, were partly funded by parents. When they became fully funded by the province, John Yan, senior coordinator at the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), said there would be changes to the Ukrainian language component’s delivery.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]After several meetings, the prompt and united actions of the Ukrainian community members resulted in successful negotiations with TCDSB.[/quote]

Meanwhile, a petition stated, “Teachers were informed that they have to abandon their separate Ukrainian classrooms and assume support duties within the regular English curriculum.”

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) Toronto branch announced a committee of parents and community activists would challenge the changes. Some of the group’s main concerns were, “the difficulty of combining instruction in two languages for young children in a single session,” “the volume of instruction in Ukrainian” and “ways to ensure the interests of Ukrainian teachers in the new circumstances.”

After several meetings, the prompt and united actions of the Ukrainian community members resulted in successful negotiations with TCDSB. On June 3, 2015, the UCC and TCDSB released a joint statement announcing children would spend half a day with an English teacher and the other half with a Ukrainian one and an ECE (early childhood education) team.

Photo: St. Josaphat Catholic School Celebrates 50 Years // Photo Credit: tcdsb.org

Annual Competitions Encourage Reading, Writing and Spelling in Polish

To stimulate young people of Polish background to learn, use and improve their Polish-language skills, Polish schools in most provinces organize competitions in essay writing, reading and spelling at the end of every school year. Polish portal Goniec published Teresa Szramek’s report on the most popular competitions in the country.

This year, the Best Essay in Polish Language competition was held for the 50th time. According to Szramek, the jury did a tremendous job, reading and evaluating hundreds of essays sent from Polish schools from all across Canada. Among the grading criteria were the ability to use the language beautifully and the courage to speak out on difficult subjects.

The reading contest, “Champion at Reading Beautifully,” took place at John Paul II Polish Cultural Centre Mississauga. Children read a text by Barbara Gawryluk’s My Bullerby, a novel about a girl who faces challenges when her parents decide to emigrate from Poland to Sweden.

“The reading contest for children is really important,” Szramek writes, “especially in the era of ubiquitous Internet. The contest aims, among other things, to arouse interest in books, which are a cultural asset of every nation, and to encourage reading, because books develop the imagination and enrich the vocabulary of the young readers.”

A record number of candidates also competed for the title of Spelling Champion of the Year 2015.

Photo Credit: Goniec (Accompanied original referenced article.)

Volunteers Run “Food Bank On Wheels”

People who use the Canadian social assistance system should not just passively wait for help – many of them could be more actively engaged in improving of their situations and the lives of others in need, says Lada Alexeychuk in Russian Week.

Alexeychuk is involved in an organization created and run by volunteers who call this activity “food bank on wheels.”

The work is simple: the volunteers talk to grocery store and warehouse managers and, at the end of the day, pick up the food that has not been sold. They immediately deliver this food to the homes of people in need. In this way, about 100 people receive fresh fruit and vegetables every week.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Since products are delivered the same day, the “food bank” doesn’t need storage or administrative staff. All it takes is the will to help others.[/quote]

Alexeychuk writes that elderly people are especially grateful for this home-delivery service in winter, because they don’t have to walk the slushy, slippery streets to get food.

Since products are delivered the same day, the “food bank” doesn’t need storage or administrative staff. All it takes is the will to help others.

“The reasons people need help are different – unemployment, sickness, old age, immigration,” Alexeychuk says. “However, if a person is in need of social assistance, this doesn’t mean that he or she is completely helpless. If you think about it, every man, even the weakest person with disability can be of some help in some way.”

Photo Credit: Russian Week (Accompanied original referenced article.)


Lucy Slavianska is a Toronto-based journalist who has lived and worked in Bulgaria, Japan, Venezuela and the Netherlands. She has a PhD in clinical philosophy and background in editing and publishing.

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Published in Eastern Europe

by Richard M. Landau

Can we force a minority community to either integrate outsiders into its activities or disperse?

These are the questions at the heart of a recent debate in Thornhill, Vaughan – an upper-middle class community north of Toronto.

A local Shia Muslim congregation had proposed to erect a 17-storey, 205-unit residence with retail space, along with another 17-storey seniors residence with 100 assisted living units and 61 three-storey condo townhouses near a major intersection. This is a large undertaking and buildings of that height and stature could be potentially dominant architecturally – never mind who occupies them.

Now understand that this suburb of Toronto has a rather interesting cultural history: A few decades ago, the emerging Italian populace moved into part of the community now called Woodbridge.  Thornhill became a favourite location for Toronto’s growing Jewish population.  Along with these two, shall we call them “enclaves”, came other east and south Asian minority settlements. The Toronto area has lots of them: Portuguese, Caribbean, eastern European, etc.

Among the communities in Thornhill is a significant Shia Muslim population with mostly Persian, South Asian, African and other roots. In fact, their long-standing Jaffari Islamic Centre famously shared a parking lot with the Jewish congregation of Temple Har Zion next door. It’s been a story of cooperation that many Canadians pointed to with pride.

Condo proposal

But when the condo proposal was brought forward, not all was sweetness and light. Chief among the detractors was the Jewish Defence League (JDL), whose spokesperson was quoted as saying, the said condo complex would “encourage the spread of radical Islam.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Though its reasoning is specious, it’s actually good the JDL is putting its cards on the table and not speaking in euphemisms or from behind the usual smokescreens.[/quote]

An online petition of Thornhill residents listed concerns about: traffic congestion, impact on quality of life, safety, the environment, the incongruity of such high-density construction.

In other communities I have witnessed attempts to stop the construction of gurudwaras and mosques because residents ostensibly felt they might create parking problems or traffic congestion or some obscure zoning precedent was cited.  Those were rarely the real issues. The core issue, beyond the size and configuration of the proposed project, is the fear that the other guy is going to invade my community, radically alter my community, and make me feel like a stranger in my own neighbourhood.

As my First Nations friends might say: “Welcome to my life and my history. Get over it”

I appreciate that this project, proposed for an area densely populated by Jews, would and could cause some alarm.  However, to their credit, the developers and sponsors of the complex showed a measure of sensitivity. They knew that there might be fears of a “massive” influx of “others”; a fear of ghettoization – yes, all that in a community already packed with existing enclaves.

So the developers wrote: “our intention is to design the development with the broader community in mind.  As such, we envision that many parts of the development will be open to all residents of Vaughan and the surrounding areas, including the playing fields and tennis courts.”  That’s a good start.  It would have been preferable, I believe, if they opened some of the residential units to outsiders, too.

That’s the type of Canada I’d like to live in.

Civic discourse

To the credit of the Vaughan community, its leadership and its citizens, the municipal discourse was largely civil and polite and the project was sent for further study.  And, that brings me to my overall observations.

It is a measure of our freedom as Canadians to choose to live pretty much wherever the by-laws allow residential dwelling.  It is also true that new Canadians, especially those with a strong religious identity or of non-Anglo-Saxon origins, will feel most comfortable residing with their social and cultural peers, close to familiar services and institutions. Hence, we have Chinatowns in most major cities.  Across the nation, we have rural Hutterite and Mennonite and Doukhobour communities that choose to live with their own people – apart from the rest of us.  That is their freedom to choose.

In a free society, we do not compel cultures and groups to be social. But we all know too well the evils of apartheid. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It is one thing for a people to choose to segregate.  It is another to have it imposed by law or by culture or economic stratification.[/quote]

I would encourage each of these cultural communities to make room in their midst – better yet, to welcome – those who are culturally diverse.  I would encourage the Jewish communities in Thornhill to continue to welcome the Shia Muslims.  I applaud the Muslims for recognizing the value of being social with others.

Why? First, because of the richness gained from cultural exchange.  A child who grows up with exposure to a number of cultures is more likely to respect and understand those cultures and can comfortably travel the world and make friends everywhere. Second, diversity serves to inoculate a community against being profiled or attacked on the basis of race, religion, language or wealth. When communities are segregated and mono-cultural, I believe there often develops a tension, an antagonism between that community and the rest of the society.  And while there may be strength in numbers, it can also sever the segregated community from larger consideration and opportunities. We call that a ghetto; a ghetto of the residents’ choosing – not one created by “White flight”.

Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992.  He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa.  A leader in interfaith dialogue, Mr. Landau has consulted with the UK Home Office, and the White House Office of Community- and Faith-Based Initiatives.  He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions.  He is author of “What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.”

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Published in Commentary

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