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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Published in Books
Friday, 09 October 2015 17:35

The Many Problems with the Term "White"

by Rubin Friedman in Ottawa and Anita Bromberg in Toronto

Posters promoting a "White Student Union" appeared on campus at a number of Canadian universities recently. 

What are we to make of such a student group and the use of the term “White”? 

Those behind the union seem to see it as a natural response to groups focused on marginalized and racialized communities. Their website postings suggest that the union is merely a way to protect what it describes as “values of western civilization.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The word "White" is itself a loaded term.[/quote]

The students using these terms should be clear about what they are defending. Are they putting forward the idea that values such as democracy, parliament, human rights, equality, and habeas corpus are important to discuss and defend, or that these are exclusively linked to one colour?

The power of words

The word "White" is itself a loaded term. 

It is in fact an exclusionary term that has been used to oppress based on notions of racial superiority.

The history of Europe, like the history of Canada is a reflection of stories of migration of large groups of peoples of varying backgrounds.

Forming a group to discuss ‘western civilization values’, and what they might mean moving forward, could conceivably have some value. However, to form an exclusive club for “Whites only” based on skin colour rather than a willingness to discuss important issues of the day is a serious flaw.

It leads to the logical supposition that the union’s real purpose does, in fact, lie in the loaded word "White” as an expression of exclusion and false superiority. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][S]uch uses of the term “White” – no matter what side of the coin you are starting from – are dangerous and negative.[/quote]

Let's not forget that similarly named groups such as those that have cropped up in the United States have been linked to white supremacy movements as have other efforts claiming to be in the name of “European pride”.  

Is blaming one race racist?

These days, the term “White” also pops up in discussions led by anti-racists in the context of “White privilege”, or “White attitudes”. These phrases are used as a kind of blanket condemnation of western or European civilization. 

While such terms are used to explain racism, are they not themselves inherently racist? Is not blaming one race, as would be inherent in the term “White privilege”, racist in and of itself? 

Surely such terms prevent us from confronting the reality that individuals of any colour or origin can themselves be racist in their attitudes and behaviour.

Indeed, the whole framework for such terms depends on using racial classifications to distinguish between people, based on sweeping generalizations and without regard to any needed nuance.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The challenge is to find a broader approach to dealing with racism and discrimination as they are practised in any group.[/quote]

In the end, such uses of the term “White” – no matter what side of the coin you are starting from – are dangerous and negative.  Such divisive tactics cannot build cohesion within a state of equality for all.

Mutual respect and responsibility

The challenge is to find a broader approach to dealing with racism and discrimination as they are practised in any group. 

In the Canadian context, the way forward favoured by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation is to build a shared understanding of the current state of race relations and how we got here.

At the same time through initiatives such as our 150 stories, workshops and symposia, we would seek to include the broad range of Canadians in a dialogue about the non-racist values we want to guide us towards a common future based on mutual respect and responsibility.


Rubin Friedman is a member of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation board of directors. He has extensive experience in dealing with issues of community, integration, prejudice and discrimination. 

Anita Bromberg has been the Executive Director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation since June 2014. Prior to that, she served as National Director Legal Affairs at B'nai Brith Canada.

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Published in Commentary

by Jessica M. Campbell

Jessica M. Campbell

“Sssstttt.” I looked back. Unlike in Canada, a forceful push of breath through open lips and locked teeth is socially acceptable in Ghana. The intended targets of the hissing are often cab drivers, street hawkers, waiters or waitresses. And it gets you service, not a dirty look.

But even though I don’t roam the streets of Accra, the country’s capital, driving a taxi or selling goods, I get hissed at all the time. My supposed “service” is valued and noticed primarily by Ghanaian men.

As common as the hissing is, I still turned to see a not-so-common punter running toward me the other day. He was a policeman with a gun strapped to his back. “Am I in trouble?” Far from. 

“Obruni, I want to marry you,” he said, trying to catch his breath from both excitement and his light dash. Obruni is the Ghanaian term for a person from outside of Africa, usually white.

This was the fifth such proposal that day. And all asked before hearing me speak. The policeman’s ticket number, issued by me and not him, and his disregard for the supposed authority role, marked this as a watershed moment. 

Reasonable visa process

It’s when I started investigating why some Ghanaian men obsess over marrying obruni. My guess was that it might be their easiest way to get out of Africa, considering how difficult it is for Ghanaians to cross into more prosperous countries. I made my way to the Canadian High Commission to confirm my suspicions.

There, Michael Opoku Gyebi, 21, was nearly in tears after a man handed him his passport with his student visa for Canada pasted inside. Gyebi had dropped it off two weeks earlier as he planned to study accounting at the University of British Columbia. He wasn’t sure of his application being approved.

“I’m just excited,” he said, staring closely at the keypad on his cellphone to compensate for his trembling hands trying to dial home. “My dad is going to be so happy.”

Although meticulous, he said the process to get his visa was reasonable. He had to verify his school’s acceptance, and that his family can financially support his education. He spent $125 (Cdn) on an affidavit to confirm the above information.

His medical exam, about $100, had to confirm he is in good health. This included an x-ray of his chest and blood tests. Finally, he paid his CND$150 application fee when handing over his passport for a multi-entry visa.

U.S. universities too had accepted Gyebi for admission. “I chose Canada because I know it is peaceful,” he said after being told by friends already studying across North America. They also value Canada’s education system, he said. “It’s practical.” Gyebi wants to return to Ghana to run his family’s road construction business when he completes his degree in four years.

Like Gyebi, other Ghanaians stood in line at the mission waiting to retrieve their passports. Aside from the common grumble about paperwork, all had positive feedback on Canada’s visa application process.

Anthony Teye, accompanying his brother applying for a visa, said he has already been to Canada three times: “I didn’t go through any hassle.” A few years ago, he obtained a single entry visa to attend a conference on water management in Ottawa. “It was approved the same day,” he said.

Teye has also been to the U.S. and said he prefers the Canadian application process. In-person interviews are mandatory for U.S. visas, unlike the Canadian system.

“I usually don’t compare apples with oranges, so I take a country on its own” said Teye, who has been interviewed for both countries’ visas. “But the U.S., sometimes they don’t really want to listen to you and look at your actual circumstances. They base their decision on how they feel. I find the Canadian interview to be much friendlier because the questions were related to personal issues.”

Despite this subtle difference, both processes are quite similar and fair, said Teye.

‘White is better than black’

Evidently, you don’t need to marry an obruni to travel to Canada or the U.S. Not knowing what I was still missing, I swallowed my pride and headed to Ghana’s Immigration Service to interview the head of public affairs, Francis Palmdeti, the next day. We shared a laugh when I told him about my investigation. But, his response wasn’t as funny.

“A black man’s fascination is a result of seeing a white lady as of a certain prestigious level,” Palmdeti said. “To have a white woman is of ultimate status. He thinks that white is better than black.”

This outlook, stemming both from the country’s demoralizing involvement in the slave trade centuries ago and now poor education, leads to myths about white women, said Palmdeti. A lot of “unpolished” men think obruni women come to Ghana looking for husbands, he said. “It has to do with upbringing.”

Gulp! I would almost rather if my potential fiancés were motivated by unrealistic visa processes. They’re a lot easier to remedy than views on race.

But, realistically, tighter border controls would only further perpetrate the problem as travel is a part of the solution.

Sitting at his desk in his military-like uniform, Palmdeti’s face lit up when I told him my nationality. “My wife wants to move to Canada!” he said.

And seeing she has visited Canada and is married to a Ghanaian, it’s not to find a white man. It’s because every time she returns from Canada she raves about how friendly people are and how everyone there is treated equally, Palmdeti said.

Perhaps something she wouldn’t have learned without travelling there, and now something I aim to show my hissers during my travels here. How a person is valued should never be based on race. 

“For me, if I were to settle with a white lady, I must love her. I should find qualities in her that I wish to spend the rest of my life with,” said Palmdeti. Closed borders won’t let my hissers realize exactly that.  -- New Canadian Media

Jessica Campbell is a passionate freelance journalist based in Africa. While on the continent, she has had affiliations to Farm Radio International and jhr: Journalists for Human Rights. In 2014, the Carleton University journalism and political science graduate from Brampton, ON, will relocate her career to South America.

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Published in Africa

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