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, 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: (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:

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 Ranjit Bhaskar

Maria, a 38-year-old single mother of two boys, aged 14 and 8, graduated from university in the Philippines and did well as a dental hygienist there. The family recently immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto’s Scarborough area. Maria needs to re-train as a hygienist as her credentials are not recognized in Canada. Having spent all her savings on tuition, she is forced to make regular visits to a food bank to keep hunger at bay.
Like Maria, Ali and Sabrina from the Middle East are not your stereotypical users of food banks. Newcomers living in the Peel region of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the couple first visited the food bank not for food but to look for jobs in the community centre where it is located. Both have Masters Degrees from their home country, Ali in Biochemistry and Sabrina in Agronomy. Fluent in English, they are volunteering to get Canadian work experience. Sabrina says the effect of hunger is devastating on her family. “We are educated and just want any kind of job to survive.”  They have three children, daughters 11 and 9 and an 8-year-old son.
Both these families are a snapshot of new immigrants who now account for one in 10 people using food banks in Canada along with a similar number of aboriginals. While the March 2013 figures for people using food banks show a drop of 4.5 per cent from 2012, it fails to become a good news story as use remains 23 per cent higher than in 2008, before the recession began.
With far too many Canadians, new and old, struggling to put food on the table despite the apparent economic recovery, hunger has been called the epicenter of the country’s most pressing issues and flagged by the UN as unacceptable. The HungerCount 2013 report released on Tuesday by Food Banks Canada is the latest to highlight the scourge.
“The report comes as no surprise to me as the labour market, especially for new immigrants has become very tight and they have to depend on precarious jobs for mere survival,” said Dr. Usha George, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson University in Toronto.
New immigrants are also more vulnerable to the vagaries of the job market as they tend to congregate on cities like Toronto that are becoming increasingly expensive, Dr. George said. “The gap between income and expenses is tremendous and it is growing.”
Sensitive economic indicator
A 2013 profile of hunger in the GTA put out by the Daily Bread Food Bank said visits to food banks might be a more sensitive indicator than unemployment rates of how the economy is doing. For most months following April 2012, Daily Bread member agencies saw a reduction in client visits from over the previous year. It preceded a downward trend in unemployment rates in Toronto that began in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Food-bank statistics have become a key indicator of poverty in Canada as national figures do not exist for social assistance rates, the number of people whose jobless benefits end before they find work or the waiting list for affordable housing.
While people accessing food banks across the GTA are reflective of Toronto’s diversity, there are indications of who might be more affected by poverty. Compared to five years ago, the clients are getting older, more highly educated, and more likely to be born outside of Canada.
The Daily Bread Food Bank profile says newcomers who have been in the country for five years or less represent twice the proportion than the general GTA population. This difference is even larger in the inner suburbs where close to 40 per cent of the newcomer population coming to food banks have been in the country for five years or less. Those numbers include highly educated, but underemployed, newcomer families with children living in apartments that are barely affordable.
“The people who utilize our services would challenge any typical notion of a food bank client you may have. We have medical doctors, lawyers, doctorates coming to us because of the systemic discrimination they face in the employment market,” said Daven Seebarran, Executive Director of Sikhs Serving Canada, a charity that runs the Seva Food Bank in the Mississauga region of the GTA.  
Culturally appropriate
Anecdotal evidences about increasing numbers of newcomers using food banks are many. “The numbers seem to have doubled over the years,” said Qamer Phirzada, the food bank manager of the Muslim Welfare Centre in Toronto’s Scarborough area. While her centre mainly caters to Muslims seeking Halal food, people from other cultures too use its services. “We try our best to put our clients at ease about their predicament,” said Ms. Phirzada.
Most food banks in the GTA are increasingly trying to make sure that they serve culturally appropriate food to their client. “One of the main tenets we focus on is to provide culture-appropriate food. This stems from research that says food from the home culture is essential for newcomers at a time of great stress,” said Mr. Seebarran. “We try to accommodate our clients’ needs and make their experience at the food bank as pleasant as possible.  We are dealing with a racialized populace that needs to be handled with sensitivity to make the whole exercise of giving meaningful.”
Like the Muslim Welfare Centre, Seva too serves a varied clientele and has seen an increase in the number of new immigrants using its services. “We are expanding to Malton area of Mississauga which again is a racialized community with the highest rate of unemployment in the region and the lowest rate of household income. Our new branch is really, really essential for the community,” said Mr. Seebarran.
Ryerson’s Dr. George said new immigrants are finding the going tough because working is no longer a safeguard against poverty due to lack of full-time jobs and the trend towards more part-time or seasonal job opportunities. The survey report on hunger in the GTA indicated that 35 per cent of food bank clients who have been on welfare have cycled on and of it two or more times, illustrating employment precariousness. One respondent to the survey said, “I am not the kind of person to go out and ask people or neighbours for food, money, or help. Without it (food banks), I often would not eat.”
Need to focus on root causes
However, food banks may be compounding the very problems they seem to be solving, according to Nick Saul, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. In an article in The Walrus , Mr. Saul says food banks, “with all of their collecting and sorting and distributing and thanking, are meeting the needs of everyone except the people they were set up to help: the poor and hungry.”
“This emergency handout approach divides us as citizens, breaking down our society into us and them, givers and takers... We need to stop cheering on an approach that has already failed, and instead focus on the root of the problem: people are hungry because they are poor.”
A concern that was shared by Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, during his contentious visit to the country last year. Calling for a national food strategy, the UN official said a large number of Canadians are too poor to afford adequate diets, “800,000 households are food insecure... This is a country that is rich, but that fails to adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities, including food and housing. Food banks that depend on charity are not a solution: they are a symptom of failing social safety nets that the Government must address."
Another recent report by researchers at the University of Toronto  said 3.9 million Canadians struggled to afford enough food in 2011, an increase of close to half a million compared with 2008. Of those that went hungry, 1.1 million were children.
“The impact of this situation on children, families, communities, the health care system and our economy cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and principal investigator for PROOF, an international team of researchers committed to the reduction of household food insecurity.
“The problem is not under control and more effective responses are urgently needed," Tarasuk said. "The cost of inaction is simply too high.” – New Canadian Media
Maria, Ali and Sabrina mentioned in the article are fictional profiles based on composite statistics from real client stories from the Daily Bread Food Bank’s 2013 report on hunger in the GTA
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