Commentary by: George Abraham in Ottawa, ON
ENTREPRENEURIAL journalism sounds deceptively simple to execute. Combine journalism with business acumen … and voilà you have a winner.
Sadly, that is not the way it actually works in real life. It is a long, lonely slog, made even more difficult with the declining economics of Canadian media companies all around. One soon learns that the ability of reporters to break new ground and the ability of editors to present stories in a way that resonates with their audience derives from the financial strength of the parent media organization.
The M-word looms large: monetization. How do you keep the lights on and feed the hungry beast that is your burgeoning editorial budget?
We weren’t daft when a bunch of us embarked on this journey called New Canadian Media. The trend towards newsroom closures and downsizing was already written on the wall. The business model of legacy organizations itself was broken or breaking down before our very eyes. Sure, there were any number of naysayers who saw no point in trying to carve out a niche that portrayed the collective perspective of newcomers to Canada. We were warned that we would be neither “ethnic” nor “mainstream” – a mongrel among media – and that advertisers will make no room for hybrid models like ours because they have niche marketing budgets.
But, it was virgin space in May, 2014, when we launched our portal … and remains so even today.
Our first goal was to demonstrate that we could indeed produce high-quality journalism using largely immigrant talent. We’ve done that in spades. It’s our calling card.
Second, we needed to find “seed capital” that would help us convincingly demonstrate the strength of NCM’s original idea. We’ve done that as well. However, as we scaled up, we found the going difficult.
The intervening years since the launch of our site demonstrated not only the endurance of the original idea to represent “the immigrant perspective”, but also to tap into a rich vein of journalism talent that remains largely unexplored in Canada. But, in addition to pioneering a new form of journalism, we went against the grain in several important respects, all in an effort to buck the trend and improve the odds.
The original idea
NCM was founded on a rather simple premise: waves of immigrants continue to reshape this country in both visible and invisible ways. For visible signs, look no further than the sushi restaurant in your neighbourhood, turbans in the RCMP, Canada’s tilt towards the Asia-Pacific driven largely by immigration from that region of the world, ethnic nannies who raise babies for rich Canadians and the entrepreneurial energy that has made this country more prosperous.
While existing media capture the mega-trends, they do a rather poor job of portraying undercurrents and speaking to a new Canada-in-the-making. Our idea was to give voice to the opinion and points-of-view of newcomers, while enabling all Canadians to better appreciate this new perspective.
Jagdeesh Mann, executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post published in English and distributed in downtown Vancouver, has a readership that is as much white as Asian. “Canadians want to know what was happening in the Asian community and Asians want to participate,” Mr. Mann says, adding “food was usually the gateway.”
We, however, went about this in unconventional ways, ensuring that we continually broadened our horizons even while staying true to our core mission of delivering the immigrant perspective. We took great care to avoid creating what media experts call a new, isolationist “silo”, but rather to work with both existing ethnic and mainstream news organizations so our limited dollars did not end up duplicating journalism that was already out there.
There was no template to follow and hence we charted our own course.
Amid a climate of great public mistrust of ‘elites’ in general, and the media in particular, we set ourselves up as a non-profit, with paid members across Canada. When we discovered that our contributors could benefit from training and mentoring, we found the funds to launch a national professional development program. Last year, we broadened this grassroots undertaking to create an NCM Collective, inviting our contributors to band together in a countrywide effort to organize and lend even more heft to their inimitable immigrant voices.
At the same time, the organization has sustained itself on the backs of volunteer directors and pro bono time from members of our editorial board.
By the numbers
We’ve taken great pains to cross language and racial divides to address issues that confront every one of the 200 ethnic communities in Canada. Our range of stories and datelines from cities and towns across the country speak for themselves. It has contributed, dare I say, to giving many an immigrant a greater sense of belonging.
In perhaps our biggest break from tradition, we have consistently fostered a bottom-up journalism that privileges the findings of on-the-ground reporters over the preconceived notions of distant editors. We very rarely dictated a story idea, relying on our formidable network to serve as listening posts in their respective communities. Retaining a reporter’s voice is very important to us. We’ve tried our best not to shoehorn a reporter’s findings into a pre-cooked, nifty headline, or come up with an elegant turn of phrase that may not do full justice to the original sentiment.
Trust me, this has made the editing process a lot more laborious, but it has been surely worth it: it has led to unfiltered, authentic voices from communities across this fabulous country. Copy editors have gone apoplectic at times, but this approach has allowed immigrant journalists to portray the everyday experiences, joys and sorrows of new Canadians, signifying perhaps NCM’s biggest accomplishment to date.
All of this pioneering work has been sustained largely through project-based public funding (roughly $275,000 so far), enabling NCM to demonstrate the calibre and depth of its journalism and showcase the work of a growing roster of new reporters in every province.
Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but here are a few to illustrate our growth and current profile:
Our board of directors believes we are market-ready, and primed to emerge as a media platform in our own right. Towards this end, the board is re-tooling the NCM organization, rethinking our financial and business model, while we revamp our web platform to update several of its key attributes – to ensure that we continue to present the immigrant perspective in all its colour and vibrancy.
We are surely not alone in imagining a different media scene – one that truly reflects Canada in the 21st century. As our good friend and publisher of the Walrus magazine puts it, “If NCM did not already exist, this country would be compelled to invent it.”
George Abraham is NCM’s founder and publisher.
Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC
Over its 132-year history since incorporation as a city, Vancouver has had 39 mayors. All of them have been white men.
Change seems to be coming, however, and suddenly.
Two of the Vancouver’s leading municipal parties will be running mayoral candidates from diverse backgrounds for the upcoming 2018 civic election now only four months away.
Recently, Ken Sim, the second-generation Canadian-born son of Chinese immigrants, won the nomination for the city’s right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association (NPA). This party, which was founded in 1937, has traditionally been aligned with the interests of the city’s business community.
In a surprising result, the entrepreneur and cofounder of Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt bagel shops, beat out the establishment candidate John Coupar, the two-time NPA Vancouver park board commissioner who had the support of other establishment figures like former councillor Suzanne Anton and former mayor Philip Owen.
Meanwhile, the currently ruling Vision Vancouver party has confirmed its mayoral candidate will be Squamish Nation hereditary chief Ian Campbell.
Internet entrepreneur Taleeb Noormohamed—who drew comparisons to Calgary’s wonder-mayor Naheed Nenshi—had been bidding for the Vision Vancouver leadership until recently, when a health matter forced him to drop out of the campaign.
On the sidelines, former federal Conservative MP, Wai Young has indicated interest in running as an independent but hasn’t confirmed her candidacy yet. Raymond Louie, the five-time Vision city councillor who would have made a strong candidate for mayor, has also declared he is not running. There is some uncertainty about why he wasn’t recruited by his own Vision party for the mayor’s nomination (or if he pre-emptively declined the possibility).
It seems 2018 may be the year when Vancouver—one of the most left-of-centre cities in North America, Canada’s commercial and cultural gateway to Asia, and the metropolis that was early to embrace Indian yoga and in gratitude paid the world back with lululemon yoga pants—finally elects a nonwhite mayor.
Leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs from smaller diverse communities have increasingly participated in Canadian politics over the past two decades. It has now become the norm to see the country’s diversity represented among its politicians, whether that be in cabinet in Ottawa or the legislative backbenches in Victoria.
But at the municipal level, and particularly in Vancouver, they have struggled to break through, or perhaps a better term is "break out" from their ethnic silos and gain a voice on a broader citywide stage.
So far, however, the run-up to the 2018 election is proving to be an inflection point in this narrative. Hollywood had its #OscarsSoWhite reckoning two years ago, so it seems apt for Hollywood North to also have its own #VancouverSoWhite moment, though one would think progressive Canadians would have beat their American counterparts to this milestone.
While there is an immigrants-coming-of-age story here, there is also a perfect storm of political conditions that have triggered the backroom players and eminences grise behind the major parties to seek out diverse candidates.
For the NPA, Ken Sim’s nomination effectively counters any potential candidacy of Stephen Harper-era conservative Wai Young, who has significant support from within the Chinese community.
Sim’s family roots go back to Hong Kong and he will pull votes from this segment of the Chinese community (he may have less of a connection among Mainland Chinese immigrants). His last-minute entry—or recruitment—into the mayoral race looks to be an efficacious use of inclusiveness by a party that has been out of power for a decade.
For the progressive left-leaning Vision Vancouver, Campbell’s nomination provides a clean break from the past and a chance to rebrand a party that many believe has much to account (or some would say atone) for after the past decade in power.
For political watchers, this greater-than-usual interest in standing for public office from qualified diverse candidates makes this year’s election intriguing.
But for the average citizen all of this may go unnoticed if it all turns out to be business-as-usual and the 40th mayor of Vancouver—like the thirty-nine previously—once again is another white person.
There are still many twists, announcements, and deals to unfold before that forecast becomes clearer. But it is worth a look to see how various local and Canadian laws, policies, and practices of exclusion over the past century-and-a-half have led to this much delayed point, where diverse candidates—in a city where half the population is not white—finally have a real shot at becoming mayor.
In four months time, this election may be remembered as the moment Vancouverites finally said “Yes We Can” instead of the usual “Yes We Can’t”.
Lack of profile exerts a high price
Among the jigsaw pieces that comprise the map of Lower Mainland municipalities, Surrey is the fastest growing city in the region. Ten thousand new people move into Surrey every year.
Barinder Rasode, a former two-term Surrey city councillor, has come the closest among nonwhite candidates in the Lower Mainland to winning a coveted mayor’s seat.
There have been a small number of nonwhite politicians who have won mayoral races in B.C., but all have been outside the Lower Mainland: Jamese Atebe in Mission, Alan Lowe in Victoria, Akbal Mund in Vernon, and Colin Basran in Kelowna.
Naranjan Grewal of Mission was the first nonwhite mayor in all of B.C. when he was elected in 1954. He died under suspicious circumstances three years later.
Despite late entry to the race, Rasode garnered an impressive 21 percent of the votes in the 2014 Surrey municipal election. She has been one of the few individuals to cross over in appeal to the broader community, a feat not easily achieved given the tendency of potential candidates from diverse communities to remain in their comfort zones, or even self-segregate, when encountering barriers of entry to mainstream political organizations.
“When it comes to municipal elections, if a candidate hopes to compete or have any chance at winning, they must have a profile beyond their own community,” explained Rasode, who served on board of directors for Fraser Health and served as a Surrey city councillor from 2008 to 2014. “This is evident in electoral results. Even when minorities run for council seats as part of recognized slates, they tend to be the ones who fall short or to the bottom of the slate.”
Rasode’s observation holds true whether in Surrey or in Vancouver. In the 2014 Vancouver election, only two Vision Vancouver council candidates out of eight on the slate failed to win seats: Niki Sharma and Tony Tang, candidates from South Asian and Chinese backgrounds.
In 2008, the lone Vision councillor out of eight on the slate who failed to win a seat was Kashmir Dhaliwal, the former president of the Khalsa Diwan Society (Ross Street Sikh Temple). Despite being a power broker within one of B.C.’s biggest Sikh temples, and one with a very politically active congregation, Dhaliwal still fell short of being elected—he just lacked a wider profile beyond his South Vancouver neighbourhood.
Fast forward 10 years and back to the upcoming election. This lack of profile is still an Achilles heel for both the NPA nominee Ken Sim and Ian Campbell. Both will be hampered by being relatively unknown to broader sections of Vancouver’s voting public (Sim likely more than Campbell).
Unlike previous diverse candidates, however, who have in the past ran as independents, both Sim and Campbell will have the party machines of the NPA and Vision to help remedy some of this lack of profile.
But there is a caveat emptor here, particularly for Vision. Ian Campbell will first have much work to do in rebuilding a damaged Vision brand before he hopes to reap any of the rewards of membership.
It is clear the 2018 version of Vision does not have the potency it once did circa 2011 or even in 2014. It looks to be sinking ship with neither Mayor Gregor Robertson seeking re-election, nor three of its councillors. One veteran city hall reporter has even suggested the party may want to consider disbanding for a dignified end to its political life.
For these two newcomers, the mission will be to "get their names out there" into a congested daily news cycle. Bonus points if they edge out other candidates.
This, however, is much more easily said than done.
Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was meant to deliver oil to offshore tankers for lighting up cities abroad. In actuality, the pipeline has pumped media exposure to antagonistic local politicians and lit up their approval rating numbers.
The fight against Kinder Morgan—the news story of the year in Vancouver—has been a gift to the other anti-pipeline mayoral candidates like NDP member of Parliament Kennedy Stewart, and SFU professor of public practice Shauna Sylvester. It would have also helped popular Green party city councilor Adriane Carr but she has recently decided not to run for mayor. Still, if Vancouver doesn’t elect its first nonwhite mayor, it may be due to voters electing Sylvester as their first woman mayor, no less a milestone-in-waiting.
Depending on how the Kinder Morgan narrative unfolds, the pipelines and oil tankers debate could end up overshadowing other hot-button issues, possibly even housing affordability. This would be a boon particularly for Stewart, who was recently arrested in March for contempt after he marched to British Columbia’s frontline and deliberately breached the five-meter exclusion zone buffering "The Fence" that safeguards the Kinder Morgan’s tanker farm on Burnaby Mountain.
His act of civil disobedience against a heavy-handed Trudeau government bulldozing ahead with now their pipeline project has transformed the staid NDP politician into a sort of Gandhi-of-Burnaby.
No doubt this act will add some swagger to Stewart’s campaign. When it counted, he could be counted, standing among those lined up against the carbon-spewing machinery of Big Oil. Stewart’s chances of winning will increase further if the muscle of B.C.’s local NDP machine gets behind him.
Given the vocal opposition to the pipeline by the Squamish Nation, and Vision Vancouver, Ian Campbell also stands to gain on this issue. But he will need to find a way to "out-activist" Stewart, who has gotten to the front of the line on this issue.
Getting arrested and having a record, however, isn’t always a viable strategy for most candidates to gain the profile necessary to win a municipal election—or to stay if office, given they usually have day jobs and other real-life entanglements. Besides, historically speaking, getting arrested for most people, and notably for people of colour, has never been an ideal path to career advancement. Ultimately, diversifying Vancouver city politics is not the same thing as integrating an Alabama lunch counter.
But the real obstacle for diverse candidates seeking to gain name recognition runs deeper than being able to generate viral hashtags, or skillfully jockeying for media airtime.
It is a more permanent and seemingly intractable structural barrier at the heart of Vancouver’s municipal electoral system.
No wards led to more exclusion from power
A ward system divides a city into neighbourhoods with each electing one councillor.
Virtually all major Canadian cities have implemented a ward system to ensure individual neighbourhoods are represented at the council level by an individual who has ties to or lives in that neighbourhood.
These cities include Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax, and so forth. I think you get the point.
Vancouver, however, is the largest Canadian city that uses an at-large system. It is based on a "to-the-victors-the-spoils" approach to city politics.
Vancouver city council is comprised of the 10 candidates who receive the most votes from across all the neighbourhoods of the city. It is a system that has some benefits as it requires candidates to see the bigger picture and know all of the issues in the city, but it is a system that has also been criticized as been exclusionary, even racist, for blocking out candidates of diverse backgrounds.
There have been a number of cases in the United States where at-large systems were found by the courts to be discriminatory toward minority black and Hispanic populations.
Unlike the at-large system, wards allow more localized neighbourhood candidates a channel to access the bigger citywide stage.
Vancouver is a city that is simultaneously diverse but ethnically siloed—it is a place where people from different backgrounds peacefully co-exist but don’t necessarily coalesce. A ward system makes the difference between a candidate from a diverse background getting heard or getting crowded out. It ameliorates the "lack of profile" issue for diverse candidates.
In 2004, the city held a referendum asking Vancouver voters about moving to a wards system. The No side rejected the proposition by a small majority of 54 percent.
Given the momentum currently building for British Columbia to adopt a proportional-representation electoral system, it seems likely that a referendum on ward system would receive more support today than it did 14 years ago.
RJ Aquino, who has previously run for council in 2011 for COPE and in 2014 for the then-nascent OneCity party, believes a ward system would have altered the outcomes of his previous campaigns.
Aquino, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years, serves on the board of Collingwood Neighbourhood House. He is active in various initiatives in his part of Vancouver.
In 2014, Aquino was among the top vote-getters in Collingwood-Renfrew, Vancouver-Kensington, and the Fraser Street and King Edward area, all neighbourhoods with a significant population of Filipinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in B.C.
According to the recent census, there are 94,000 Filipinos living in the Metro Vancouver region, yet there has never been anyone of Filipino descent on Vancouver council, or the Vancouver park board.
“For people from diverse communities, we really have to work that much harder to get our name out there,” said Aquino, who is seeking a OneCity nomination for council this year. “Every time I encounter new people, there is always that extra step of explaining my background, how I fit into Vancouver, and how my values connect with the city’s values.”
But there has always been that extra distance to make up for diverse candidates. For this current generation, this means a "lack of profile" problem. Two generations ago, it was a matter of lacking the requisite language skills.
But going back even further, it was a matter of being barred from participating in the political process altogether.
Institutional racism plays a role
Amid Vancouver’s picturesque surroundings and its generally polite daily exchanges between its multicultural residents of all backgrounds, it is easy to forget the city was once the gateway to enforcing the country’s "white Canada" policy that deterred non-European immigration until the mid 20th century.
This policy was best articulated by former Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose face has been featured on Canada’s five-dollar bill.
In a parliamentary debate on Asian immigration in October 1914, he said: “The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship . . . These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it’s too late.”
It was this racist vision for the country that led to the Canadian government refusing permission to the Komagata Maru to dock in 1914 when the infamous Japanese tramp steamer arrived in Burrard Inlet with 376 would-be immigrants from India. The Vancouver Sun reported on the incident with toxic headlines like “Hindu invaders now in the city harbour on Komagata Maru”.
During that time other publications, like the Vancouver World, routinely railed against Chinese and Japanese residents with their poison pens and the World openly bragged that it was the “the one daily paper in Vancouver which has consistently set its face against the Orientals”.
While this "white Canada" policy blocked non-European immigrants from entering Canada for much of the 20th century, those who were already living here were not granted the full rights of citizenship.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Asian Canadians from Indian and Chinese backgrounds were permitted to vote and participate in the political process.
Meanwhile, in terms of its treatment of the Indigenous population, when the Canadian government wasn’t tearing Indigenous children away from their families and sending them to odious residential schools, it was also maintaining the ban on status Indigenous people from voting in elections, finally repealed only in 1960.
While that may seem like a long time ago for some too quick to dismiss the institutionalized racism of Canada’s past, consider this: some of the community elders who may be advising Squamish Nation hereditary Chief Ian Campbell on his mayoral bid were in their own lifetime once prohibited from voting in civic elections.
It doesn’t take much digging to unearth the artifacts of Vancouver’s racist history. According to local journalist Francis Bula, the covenant on NPA nominee Ken Sim’s house in the Arbutus neighbourhood on the West Side of the city prohibits someone of Chinese descent from owning the property. Many houses in the city’s elite neighbourhoods still have similar racist clauses in their covenants though they are no longer enforced.
It is understandable for Vancouverites to want to move on, or to forget, Canada’s own Jim Crow-like era. But it has not been as easy for those disenfranchised communities. Even after these race-based antivoting acts were repealed, it would take decades before nonwhite Canadians began putting their names forward to participate in politics.
It would take 25 years after the repeal of Canada racist voting legislation until the first resident of South Asian descent would win a seat on Vancouver council. Since V.S. Pendakur’s lone two-year term ended in 1974, no other person of South Asian descent has been on Vancouver council.
For the Chinese community, the wait was even longer. It would take 35 years before the first resident of Chinese descent, Bill Yee, won a council seat in 1982.
Three decades on, seeing diverse candidates come forward for elections has become normalized. But that doesn’t mean they still don’t encounter the racial slurs and broadsides of yesterday.
In 2016, when Niki Sharma, the former park board commissioner and Vision candidate for council, ran for the Vancity board of directors, someone trolling her Facebook page posted: “We don’t want packys (sic) in politics you people are taking over our country”.
Rather than deleting the comment, Sharma responded to it. Readers shared and commented on her post hundreds of times.
“I was going to delete your comment. As my hand went over to the delete button, something stopped me,” she wrote in the middle of that sleepless night. “As much as we both might want to, you and I cannot delete each other.”
Where diverse Canadians have been under-represented on municipal councils, it has been the reverse for white Canadians. Generation upon generation of white politicians have benefited from an under-acknowledged privilege of being allowed to vote, stand for elections, and get ahead thanks to a wielding a disproportionate voice in the political sphere.
This has created its own adverse consequences, such as encouraging ethnic pandering where white politician seem to show up at temples, and mosques every so often, often in ethnic garb, to hit up vote banks or follow the instructions of cooked up "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plans".
It also led to cringing moments of white paternalism. This white-on-nonwhite crime was most recently witnessed in 2015 when the current Vancouver mayor thought he had a "teachable moment" and tried to educate a prominent local Chinese-Canadian professional about what is and isn’t racist.
Andy Yan, then an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects, produced a study that looked at the names of buyers of homes on Vancouver’s tony west side. He found that buyers with non-Anglicized Chinese names were purchasing the majority of the homes in that neighbourhood.
Gregor Robertson publicly dismissed Yan’s work as racist, failing to see the irony of his criticism of Yan, given his great-grandfather was forced to pay the actually-racist Chinese Head Tax that was designed to keep Chinese immigrants out of B.C. As a social scientist, Yan was just looking at the data and sharing his observations, which were in plain sight.
The irony of the mayor’s response, however, was not lost on Brandon Yan, who is currently seeking to run for city council on the OneCity slate. He countered the mayor’s misguided comments in a line that should be quoted in a Dear White People racism primer, “Let’s leave it to the rich white dudes to decide what’s racist, right?”
This kind of paternalism is a natural outcome of a long history of exclusion. Out a total of 1,080 council and mayor’s seats across 102 administrations, 98 percent have been occupied by white politicians—like Andy Yan, I ran my own name analysis, through of all the city councillors and mayors over Vancouver’s history.
And of the seats occupied by councillors from diverse backgrounds: half have been won only in the past two decades since 2000.
When 98 percent of "leaders" in Vancouver’s brief history have been white but the population has steadily diversified to point of being 50 percent nonwhite, there is bound to be a disconnect between city hall’s perception and the reality on the ground.
Diversity: an optical illusion?
Because of their low turnout rates, municipal elections are notoriously difficult to poll. This is a point that Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, stressed repeatedly in our recent conversation.
“Compared to provincial and federal elections, turnout rates for municipal elections are around 30 percent. The X-factor is turnout, and it’s more exaggerated in city elections,” explained Kurl, who heads the public opinion polling organization.
In the 2017 by-election when Hector Bremner from the NPA was elected to city council, only 11 percent of voters turned out to vote.
“Just look at the recent example in Calgary. The polling for that election was not close to the final results. The polls had (Naheed) Nenshi running neck-in-neck. In the end, Nenshi won extremely comfortably for his 3rd term.”
In the 2014 council election, Vision candidate Niki Sharma placed 17th out of 49 candidates, receiving close to 50,000 votes. She fell short of winning by only 8,000 votes.
From her perspective, every percentage increase in turnout has the potential to reverse a loss into a victory, “In an election with low voter turnout, it doesn’t take many people deciding not to vote for you to be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected.”
The NPA may be hoping Ken Sim can trigger this X-factor in his favour and lure more voters from the Chinese community to participate. It could be all the difference he needs to win the coveted mayor’s gavel.
But as in the case of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the three-term Muslim mayor at the head of one of the more conservative cities in the country, the success of an ethnic candidate is not determined by the strength of his support from within his ethnic base, but rather from beyond it.
Nenshi, the only nonwhite mayor of a major Canadian city, has become a celebrity politician in Calgary, and across Alberta, because of his competence and ability to engage with the electorate.
But this does raise a question about diversity and politics—is there a causal link between Naheed Nenshi’s skills as a politician and his ethnicity?
Consider this hypothetical: if Nenshi had been a white Protestant instead of a brown Muslim, and still produced the same outcomes for Calgarians, then wouldn’t "celebrating diversity" only be emphasizing difference and fostering identity politics? In other words, shouldn’t Canadians focus their "celebration" solely on the actual achievements of their leaders instead of also on their "diversity"?
RJ Aquino, the aspiring city council candidate for OneCity, addressed this criticism often levelled from the right through a personal anecdote.
“In 2011, when I first ran for office, I started getting local university students from my community contacting me because they recognized my last name as Filipino. These were students who otherwise weren’t paying attention or engaged in civic politics, but when they learned I was from the same background, they looked me up and inquired about me.”
“Because I looked like them and because I was in the public eye, it showed to younger generations that it was possible to do this, that we can be represented.”
Where there is under-representation—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—it does not invite wider participation from all citizens, ultimately at the expense of our democratic institutions.
This segues to the other potential benefit of diversity: that diverse candidates bring unique experiences and insights, which may in turn lead to solutions and policies otherwise overlooked.
This claim is also open to some scrutiny given second- and third-generation Canadians—regardless of background—end up sharing common experiences. Or in other words, eventually all Canadians, if you live here long enough, end up being different but in the same way.
A diversity of faces may make for good optics—as in the current Trudeau’s cabinet—but may still be little more than an optical illusion when it comes to actual diversity of ideas.
To be fair, it is a reasonable conclusion that looking "different" does not necessarily translate into thinking differently.
But—and this is the crucial point—this flattening of Canadian diversity over time doesn’t mean that people from different backgrounds don’t empathize differently.
Let’s bring it back to the Vancouver context.
Should either Ian Campbell or Ken Sim become mayor, it is reasonable to conclude neither may have novel approaches to age-old issues facing the city. And as complete outsiders, particularly for Sim, they will likely struggle to learn the in-and-outs of city hall management and governance conventions.
But that does not mean they wouldn’t bring much-needed new empathy on age-old issues that, if nothing else, prevent these issues from being ignored.
Some examples to illustrate.
The past decade have been halcyon years for developers who have made more profits than ever while recasting Vancouver into an Eden of gleaming glass towers. Out of the billions flowing through Vancouver’s real estate market, a tiny infintesimal fraction could have been diverted to provide a lasting and sustainable solution to the city’s chronic problem of homelessness.
Yet 10 years after Vision took power having promised to end homelessness, the issue remains as chronic as ever.
It is a fitting metaphor for what Vancouver has become when one encounters its homeless residents trying to sleep in the cold-concrete nooks and doorways of its half-empty, but ecofriendly LEED skyscrapers.
It seems unlikely Campbell, someone from an indigenous background, would only pay lip service to this homelessness issue given that 40 percent of homeless people in the city are from an indigenous background, a staggering 20 times greater than their actual percentage of the overall population.
And perhaps it will require a Vancouver mayor from an Indigenous background like Ian Campbell to advance the reconciliation agenda and create new community initiatives that go beyond declarations of recognizing Vancouver as the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
In the case of Ken Sim, he is a second-generation Canadian who witnessed firsthand the struggles of his immigrant parents. He took menial jobs, worked as a janitor during high school, and like other second-generation Canadians found a way to sacrifice and forge ahead.
Would Sim not be more empathetic to Vancouver’s affordability issues than the current mayor, even if he is representing the right-of-centre NPA?
I worked as a janitor during high school and I had immigrant parents who struggled like others in a similar position. Back then it seemed inconceivable that those sweeping up the offices could one day be the ones sweeping into them.
For me, the candidacies and civic participation of Ken Sim, Ian Campbell, RJ Aquino, Brandon Yan, and a growing number of other diverse candidates in this coming 2018 election has piqued my interest in civic politics more than ever.
These candidates represent the other half of Vancouver that rarely gets to be heard in our city affairs, and the half that historically has been discouraged and once even banned from participating.
It may turn out that 2018 is still not the year a nonwhite candidate becomes mayor of Vancouver, but it seems 2018 will be the year that finally shows it is possible.
And that is an inflection point when truly "diversity becomes our strength", not just for half our city residents but for us all.
Jagdeesh Mann is the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. Based in Vancouver, he is also an active contributor to a number of publications and a member of the NCM Collective.
Commentary by: Kasi Rao in Toronto, ON
Increasing trade and investment with India was a focal point of the discussion at this year’s Canada-India Business Council’s Annual Partnership Summit. There’s enormous room for growth, with two-way trade currently hovering around a modest $8 billion between the two countries. The purpose of the Summit is to provide an opportunity for the business community to discuss and collaborate on how to best pursue this lucrative opportunity.
The unprecedented participation at the Mumbai and Delhi business forums during Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit in February, as well as those who were in Toronto, point to the business community’s sustained interest. Attendance and participation from various major sectors, and especially by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), Brookfield, Fairfax, Air Canada, and Bombardier Inc., was duly noticed in India.
Additionally, the need to develop business opportunities in the context of gender-related initiatives such as those discussed at the Executive Women’s Roundtable in Mumbai, was recognized as an opportunity to pursue for Canada and India.
There is real potential for increased growth given the statistics of the growing immigration and foreign student population in Canada. Last year alone there was a 58% increase in both study and work permits issued to Indian citizens (Statistics Canada, 2016 Census Data). The skilling needs of India and innovative research partnerships that address the development needs at all skill levels were highlighted with examples of Canadian collaboration.
Still just a few months into the year, the Canada-India Business Council is busy working to sustain the momentum and implement actionable recommendations. Whether a start-up, boutique, or conglomerate, creating spaces where members of the business community are able to learn of new opportunities in the corridor is the abiding theme behind all of our initiatives.
During the summit, senior executives from BMO Financial Group, Tata Consultancy Services, ICICI Bank, Air Canada, and Bombardier Inc. were panel participants, offering practical insights for all levels of enterprise. Leading Indian corporations such as TCS, and Paytm shared invaluable lessons and advice on navigating the local landscape. Representatives from Seneca College and The University of Toronto spoke of the fascinating breadth of ideas and innovation that comes through intercontinental knowledge exchange and how that exchange subsequently feeds into economic growth. Rounding out the holistic approach, the Summit also attracted interest and collaboration from various branches of the Canadian government and the Indian Consulate and High Commission.
Increased collaboration continues to make good business sense. For Canadian companies, India is a viable growth market in a wide range of sectors. For Indian businesses, Canada is a way to continue the relationship with existing customers with access to North American markets. Both countries have long identified diversification as a tremendous facet of surviving the ever-changing economic landscape.
One of the important developments underway in India is the emphasis on “competitive and co-operative federalism”. Panelists observed that various states in India have undertaken a number of policy reforms. As such, it was noted that businesses should target the subnational level as a viable avenue to encourage growth. This of course is consistent with Canadian federalism where a number of provinces are active in promoting their interests reflecting the diverse strengths of the Canadian economy.
The Canadian brand is evolving and our openness to trade and investment, innovation and ideas, combined with pluralism and diversity are important to emphasize to relevant Indian audiences as we move forward.
Canada’s strategy within the creative industry was discussed as another avenue for growth. The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) was highlighted as a remarkable cross-sector example of the soft power so useful in international relations. Given the Festival’s global projection, reach, and existing ties to giants in Canadian literature, exploration of collaboration here in Toronto is yet another way to bolster economic interests.
A report will be prepared on the Summit encompassing key learnings, challenges, and next steps.
The Canada-India Business Council has and will continue to hold roundtables, and meetings across the country for business leaders, and government representatives to tackle the ‘How?’ and ‘What now?’ of opportunities from a local perspective. Host cities include Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Halifax, Saskatoon, and Vancouver, among others.
The end of this year will see the Council back in India for the Mumbai Forum where the aim is to build on the sustained engagement.
Kasi Rao is President and CEO of the Canada-India Business Council (C-IBC).
By: Marieke Walsh in Ottawa, ON
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was repeatedly under attack and on the defensive Wednesday night during a debate on issues facing the black community.
The debate in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood featured all major party leaders except Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.
Wynne was taken to task for her government’s record on disproportionate numbers of black children facing suspension and expulsion, inequities in the health care system and the persistence of carding by police.
Throughout, the premier stuck to her talking points that the Liberal government has taken these issues “head on” and that “more needs to be done.”
At one point moderator Royson James called Wynne out for her response to systemic racism in the education system.
“You do know that whatever you’re doing isn’t working,” James asked Wynne. And he wondered if the people responsible for the school system understand the “urgency.”
His follow-up was met with laughs and a shout of “clueless” from someone in the crowd of roughly 200 people.
“I get that there’s a huge frustration and I feel that frustration,” Wynne said.
At which point NDP Leader Andrea Horwath broke in with “15 years” — referencing the Liberal’s time in power.
James had previously listed several statistics pointing to the experience of black children in the Toronto District School Board in 2011.
Calling them “crushing statistics” he said the stats show almost half of the black students who graduate high school don’t have the credits and grades needed to go to university and 42 per cent didn’t apply to post secondary school. Moreover he said, of those students that apply, only one in four are accepted.
Of every 100 black students only 69 graduate, James said. Out of that number, he said only 18 end up in university or college.
He said the numbers are “worse” for boys, adding that half of the students expelled from school are black kids. “What do you plan to do about this abject failure of our schools to educate black students,” James asked the three leaders.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the “first thing you have to do is admit that there’s a problem.”
“These stats aren’t new,” Horwath said. “I’d suggest that it’s getting worse and not better.” She said the government should deal with the curriculum in schools and ensure supports are there for students.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the statistics show how much the “status quo is failing our young people.”
Meanwhile, Wynne defended her government’s record on implementing items like the Black Youth Action Plan and the Education Equity Action Plan while agreeing that more needs to be done.
“There is absolutely no doubt that there is more structural change that’s needed,” Wynne said.
Wynne got the loudest applause when she was first introduced at the event but it went downhill from there — she was at times jeered, challenged and interrupted by the crowd.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, she said the issues debated “are not simple” nor “easily dealt with.”
“What I was saying was that we have been tackling them, we have been addressing them and yes there is still more to be done,” Wynne said.
Horwath, who got a warm reception from the crowd by the end of the night, called the debate “very enjoyable.”
The Elephant not in the Room
Ford’s absence wasn’t addressed very much by the leaders during the debate, but was met with boos from the crowd when the event organizers noted his absence.
Speaking to iPolitics afterward, several audience members said his absence would hurt Ford, while another said he would still hear out the ideas put forward from the Progressive Conservatives.
Earlier in the day Wynne issued a letter challenging Ford to three debates, saying he hasn’t yet agreed to a single one ahead of the June election.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Wynne said Ford is “the one person who wouldn’t have agreed with anything that we were saying and he wasn’t there to put his position forward.”
“It is really important that he show up and that he put his opinions forward because people need to understand what that contrast is,” she said.
Ford was in Northern Ontario on a campaign-style tour.
Horwath questioned Ford’s priorities and said the “community was pretty disappointed” by his absence.
Republished under arrangement with iPolitics.
By: Deanna Cheng in Vancouver, BC
Sniffles came from the crowd. Even the children present knew to remain quiet.
Syrian journalist Maisoun Almasri said she saw her younger brother get shot by a Syrian government sniper. That sniper prevented anyone from trying to rescue the little boy.
Through a translator, Almasri said no one had any experience doing first aid.
“So my brother lost his life in our arms. We can’t do anything. Looking at me, looking at our mother, all those surrounding him, and we can’t do anything. I was haunted by the look in his eyes.”
She said that look haunted her every night. “The feeling of helplessness will kill you. The guilt of doing nothing will kill you.”
Almasri joined the White Helmets after that moment in 2013.
She uses that first memory as a reminder of what it means to be part of the organization and to prevent it from happening again.
In total, she has lost two younger brothers.
Three White Helmets volunteers shared personal stories of their lives in Syria, through Mohammed Alsaleh and two other translators, to a packed hall at Simon Fraser University. Those three volunteers wished for Vancouver residents to understand the daily tragedies happening abroad, to have a better understanding of what the organization is about, and to pressure the Canadian government into helping them build a democracy similar to the one Canadians enjoy.
Syria Civil Defense
White Helmets, known officially as the Syria Civil Defense, is a formal emergency response team of civilian volunteers and an apolitical organization. Its four principles are humanity, objectivity, neutrality and independence.
Almasri said 112,000 lives have been saved by the White Helmets.
Nedal Izdden, one of its board members, said, “We are the only non-armed group doing this kind of work in Syria.”
He adds that 233 volunteers have lost their lives from this war.
By doing this humanitarian work of easing people’s suffering, Izdden said, the volunteers are sending a clear message that violence can only produce violence.
“We strive for stability in the area.”
The ultimate goal is peace, he said. Rebuild the cities and the country.
“We are the only ones praying to lose our jobs,” he joked.
In contrast to the quiet sounds of a little toddler burbling on her father’s lap in the room, Mustafa Almahamed talked about his 10-year-old nephew dying in his arms on December 15, 2012.
Turning to Almasri on the panel, he said, “That look haunted me too.”
Today, Almahamed is the Syria Civil Defense manager for Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria. He continues to face the results of cluster and barrel bombs.
In the last year and a half, the organization started helping people find places to hide when the bombs hit.
Breaking down Gender Barriers
Almasri shared what women have contributed to the cause.
When White Helmets was first established, she said, there were no more than 10 women.
Now there are over 400 female volunteers and more than 45 women centers.
“We provide the same service as men. This includes carrying people to the ambulances and search and rescue.”
The difference they have made are noted in certain conservative groups where women were uncomfortable being helped by men.
Almasri said gender was a barrier. “Women were able to fill the gap and provide support.”
The women centers provide first aid training, search and rescue efforts and trauma support for children, she said. Outreach programs have volunteers doing demonstrations at schools and in people’s homes.
The goal is one rescuer in each home.
“In six months, we have closed more than 30,000 cases,” Almasri said.
Currently, the organization is training women on how to work with unexploded devices and identify non-traditional weapons such as barrel bombs.
When asked how White Helmets remain apolitical and how to ensure it remains that way, Izdden said, “We all know countries have a humanitarian side to them and it is the side we are talking to.”
He said the organization is lucky to be recognized by countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.
In response to the second part of the question, Izdden said the 4,000 White Helmets are not angels.
“We are everyday people. Our work, like schools and institutions, is dedicated to a code of ethics and a code of conduct.”
He said when they recognize a member who isn’t committed to the organization’s four principles or to its code of ethics and conduct, they simply stop their association with the person and he or she is no longer a member.
Reasons for expulsion include using a gun or an affiliation with a political group.
“Mistakes do happen,” Izdden said. “We do our best to address them when they happen.”
Almasri still reports on life within Syria, issues such as safety and socio-economic affairs, in between her duties as the head staff of women’s affairs. She plans to commit fully to journalism after the White Helmets are not needed anymore.
Same as Izddan with dentistry. Same as Almahamed with auto mechanics.
The event was co-hosted by SFU International, PeaceGeeks and the British Consulate-General Vancouver. The three Syrians visited Ottawa with the assistance of Global Affairs Canada before coming to Vancouver.
Deanna Cheng is a member of the NCM Collective based out of Vancouver.
By: Janice Dickson in Ottawa, ON
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is urging Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to help Iranians who have reported painfully long wait times to become permanent residents.
“I am writing about public reports of systemic discrimination by Canada against Iranians, both residents here and overseas,” said Michael Bryant, the CCLA’s executive director in the letter to Hussen on April 6.
“We will work with the Iranian community to marshal the legal effort to investigate and remedy any discrimination. We urge your Ministry to announce immediate remedial steps to assure Iranians that Canada takes these allegations very seriously,” said Bryant.
According to the Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC), more than 200 Iranian nationals, who are students or recent graduates in Canada, have reported long waits to become permanent residents.
The Iranians believe they are being treated unfairly and have taken to Twitter using the #DelayedIranianApplications hashtag to share their stories.
Bryant wrote that the ICC told him Hussen has not agreed to meet personally with their organization, but that a meeting with officials has been scheduled.
Hursh Jaswal, a spokesman for Hussen said security checks have no set processing time and they will vary as they are done case by case.
“The CBSA performs background checks on all visitors, immigrants and refugee claimants of 18 years of age or over to ensure that inadmissible person — such as criminals or persons considered security risks — are not allowed to enter or remain in Canada,” he said in an email.
Jaswal said the department understands the “frustration” of applicants and their loved ones, but thorough security screening of all applicants is important to ensure the safety and security of Canadians.
“BSA and the Government of Canada are committed to a fair and non-discriminatory application of immigration procedures while protecting the safety and security of Canadians,” he said.
The processing time currently listed for Quebec skilled workers, for example, is 15 months, said Jaswal, that figure represents the time it takes IRCC to process 80 per cent of applications, which means that 20 per cent of applications have taken longer than that.
Republished under arrangement with iPolitics.
By: Janice Dickson in Ottawa, ON
Iranian nationals say they’re enduring painfully long wait times to become permanent residents and citizens in Canada and believe they are being treated unfairly.
Iranians who have lived and studied in Canada for years have taken to Twitter using the #DelayedIranianApplications hashtag to share their stories.
In Canada 6 yrs, got MSc here, contributed to cancer research & use of AI for cancer recognition, finance & and use of AI to spot fraud/money laundering, a performer in cultural events, Yet on #DelayedIranianApplications by @CitImmCanada. Same for other 100s of skilled Iranians.— Koosha (@Koosha_tp) March 25, 2018
Graduated from a Canadian university 3 years ago, now having a Canadian boy and expecting a new baby I'm suffering from anxiety and stress caused by the delay in my permanent residency application.— Elham Mirshekari (@e_mirshekari) March 24, 2018
We have problems in health coverage, job finding,..
I am an Assistant professor at the university of Manitoba, being here for 7 years, established a family, with Canadian born baby and have been waiting for PR for almost 3 years now. #DelayedIranianApplications— Soodeh Saberian (@SoodehSaberian) March 23, 2018
“I, along with many other Iranians are victims of systemic discrimination by the Canadian government and security apparatuses,” said Naeim Karimi, a senior business analyst with Moneris.
Karimi said that he applied for permanent residency in 2012 and obtained it in 2014. Now he’s applied for his citizenship but he said his application is “stuck” at the security screening stage, which is similar to those waiting for permanent residency.
“I first thought this was isolated to me, but then when I found many many others online who were in a similar situation, I realized that this is the result of systemic discrimination against Iranians,” he said.
Hursh Jaswal, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said security checks have no set processing time and they will vary as they are done on a case-by-case basis.
“The CBSA performs background checks on all visitors, immigrants and refugee claimants of 18 years of age or over to ensure that inadmissible person — such as criminals or persons considered security risks — are not allowed to enter or remain in Canada,” he said.
Jaswal said the department understands the “frustration” felt by applicants and their loved ones, but that the thorough security screening of all applicants is important to ensure the safety and security of Canadians.
“BSA and the Government of Canada are committed to a fair and non-discriminatory application of immigration procedures while protecting the safety and security of Canadians,” said Jaswal.
Karimi said he’s submitted a complaint to the Human Rights Commission and advised others to do the same.
“In the case of the PR applicants, who are all highly educated individuals and have graduated from or are currently enrolled in Canadian universities, we are seeing delays of up to two years from the regular six-month processing time,” he said.
Karimi called the “processing time” Jaswal had mentioned “a self-declared time” by the department of immigration.
“This alone is an indication of the systemic discrimination.”
“We are all professionals, masters or PhD [students] and pay very high taxes, contributing to the economy. Many of us are scientists or entrepreneurs and contribute to Canada’s scientific advancement. Canada is getting all the benefits and we are kept in a limbo. Unable to vote and uncertain if we can even continue to stay,” said Karimi, who is an Ontario resident.
Iranian nationals in Quebec spoke out recently about the delays for permanent residency. CBC News reported that dozens of Iranians in Quebec have been waiting more than two years to become permanent residents.
Jaswal said the total processing time for currently listed for Quebec skilled workers is 15 months. That figure represents the time it has taken IRCC to process 80 per cent of applications, which means that 20 per cent of the applications received have taken longer than that.
Jaswal said the department cannot comment on the details of any specific case due to privacy laws.
Republished under arrangement with iPolitics.
By: Asfia Yassir in Toronto, ON
Grandparents can be gems to have as part of any family unit. Regardless of their day-to-day contributions, their mere presence can have a positive effect on all those around them.
Within a family household, this could range from eliminating loneliness, creating bonds or conveying culture through generations. But for many immigrants, in a practical sense, grandparents play a unique role in offsetting the financial burden of childcare.
For Ritu Ganesh, the cost of daycare was more than what they could afford. The fact that her 18-month-old daughter would not eat or even talk to anyone because of how unhappy she was at the daycare, only added to her distress.
“Having my mother over for a visit and later my mother-in-law who moved with us in Canada, was like stirring happiness in the family. I did not have to pay for the daycare anymore which would take more than half of what our monthly mortgage was,” Ganesh recalls.
The family had been in the midst of a financial crunch following their decision to buy a house so work had become imperative. When Ganesh’s mother arrived in Canada, however she was able to look after her daughter.
The number of grandparents across the country is growing at a significantly faster rate than the general population. With the ageing population of Canada, grandparents are playing a critical role in their family’s lives as caregiver, mentors, and spiritual guides.
Benefits on Both Sides
Many immigrants are bound by their culture to take the financial responsibilities of their parents despite living in separate countries. When such parents move in with their sons or daughters, it can also help cut expenses related to monthly remittances.
Living with a child’s family is a preferred choice for many elderly parents as they don’t have to go through the empty nest syndrome.
However, it requires a lot of effort and courage for grandparents to settle down in a new place. In addition they must overcome the nostalgia they experience while living in Canada.
“Life is quite happening back home. I miss all the cultural festivities and the fun we used to have with my relatives,” mentions Sumitha Ganesh who is living here with her son’s family. It is because of this nostalgia that Ganesh travels back home every year to reunite with all that she yearns for.
More grandparents in immigrant households
For immigrants still attempting to adapt to their new “Canadian lives”, the multi-generational family system becomes a means of solace. More than 1 in 5 recent immigrants (21%) lived with their grandchildren in 2011, compared with three per cent of the Canadian-born population in the same age group.
In single-parent households, the demand put on the sole income earner, can become overwhelming at times. The trials of migrating to a new country are magnified compared to when both parents are present.
Azra Riffat has been taking care of her family, including her mother, as the sole breadwinner. As a mother of two teenage sons supporting her ailing mother, it was increasingly difficult just to stay afloat. She took up evening and night jobs because her mother could not stay alone at home during the day.
“With my job we were just making our ends meet but thanks to the disability allowances of my mother which helped us as it contributed to our monthly rental expense,” recalls Azra. She further adds that her trials could have been reduced if the government allowed some compensation for caregivers of disabled citizens which is the case in many European countries like the UK.
For immigrants in particular, it is crucial to have the moral and emotional support of family as they begin their lives in a new country.
However, having an elderly parent in the home can also be stressful on younger generations. Old age comes with its own impediments in terms of health, requiring continuing care and emotional support.
Ashok and Meera* got married at a later stage in their lives and do not have children. Ashok’s mother, who is a dementia patient, lives with the couple as opposed to a retirement home. The family, in spite of their good financial standing, is also able to save on what would have been additional costs. Ashok adds that taking care of elderly parents teaches compassion and patience, which in turn creates a more emotionally grounded society.
“I decided to take care of my mother not because we cannot afford the fortune which old home facilities cost, but because there is love and care to show when you are living together as family,” he explains.
The couple feels happy to have their mother staying with them. “There is no loneliness at home and I enjoy her company,” says Meera. Although at times Meera feels that her movement is somewhat restricted, they are able to find time to vacation and get away through the help of Ashok’s sister.
The reality of multi-generational households is more complex compared to conventional family units. However, for many immigrants, the benefits of having these family members around far outweighs the negatives.
Parenthood is a journey of countless sacrifices as well as phenomenal devotion. Yet despite these untiring efforts, it seems that even in their old age, these parents may still have more to offer. In their support of the next generation, they become a source of relief for the entire family. While their children care for them an endless life cycle is continued in their new Canadian homes.
*Names changed for confidentiality.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Canadian literature continues to diversify as more stories look to include a wider range of content set locally and abroad. Language barriers, migration trauma, cultural discrepancies and family responsibilities; women authors of diaspora are defying the odds, breaking through different obstacles to have their voices heard.
Ayelet Tsabari and Fartumo Kusow are two examples of determined women whose journeys outline what so many must overcome to become Canadian authors.
Breaking through Language Barriers
Ayelet Tsabari, who is from Israel, worked as a Hebrew journalist until she came to Canada at the age of 25. Writing, she believes, completes her. But in what was once a strong suit, language now became a challenge, pushing Tsabari to stop writing altogether. She could speak and read English, however it took her about eight years to gain the confidence to start writing.
Tsabari’s development started with her enrollment in a writing program, which she coupled with Canadian content she would read. As time passed, English began to flow into her work more naturally.
Tapping into her long lost passion, she began to create original pieces in the hopes of being published. But, to no avail as her lack of success prompted one of her teachers to suggest she read books other than Canadian literature.
“I realized that it’s not just language but it’s your heritage and even your mother tongue are still in you when you are writing in a new language. So certain things didn’t work for the publishers,” Tsabari explains.
Tsabari broadened her scope and soon she was reading literature from an array of multicultural writers. This broke the prison that had withheld her imagination, allowing her to finally express her voice.
“I just thought that if I started writing with that in my mind, just be you and do what you are and that’s what ended up getting me published,” she says.
Her dream came to fruition when her first book, "The Best Place on Earth", was published in 2013. The collection of short stories challenges the connection of spiritual heritage with modern life. Met with good reviews, it went on to win several distinctions, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Feeding off her first book’s momentum, she is now working on her second. In addition, she is also currently working with immigrant writers at the Toronto Public Library to improve their writing skills.
Fartumo Kusow was born to a farmer’s family in Somalia, as the seventh child. From a young age, she had difficulties establishing social connections with her peers and preferred to write instead.
“Instead of socializing with them I always had a notebook in my hand, that my father gave me and I would write in the notebook,” Kusow recalls.
As per Somali tradition, she married young, becoming a wife at the age of 16. Subsequently, this was also the same year her first fictional story was published in the national newspaper, where she worked.
Her husband had a job in the Middle East, which kept them financially stable. But when the civil war started in 1990, she was forced to leave. Already pregnant with her third child, she immigrated to Canada with her then-husband and two children.
Holding onto her dreams, Kusow knew that she wanted to become an author.
Unfortunately, Somali is her first language, Arabic her second. And due to war, she had little to no transcripts that could prove her credentials. However, she didn’t give up, completing her Bachelor’s in English before going on to a teaching program in Windsor. She has now been teaching since 2000.
Despite her successes, war trauma combined with move factors led to a failed marriage. She was left with no choice but to put her dream on hold as she filled the role of breadwinner for herself and her five children.
As she supported the household, her inner writer continued to itch at her until she resumed writing in 2011.
“When the kids are bit older and my career and my profession is [a] little more stable, I decided to spend an hour a day just to write something,” states Kusow.
Perseverance trumps Rejection
Nothing could stop her, not even the 104 rejections could dare be a hurdle to her dream. Though she finished her fictional piece in about three years, it did not garner much publisher interest. Sleepless nights turned into frustration as she pondered the reasoning behind her struggles. Until she came to the realization that the rejections were not personal but rather that publishing was simply a business.
With this in mind, she persevered, eventually getting published in 2017, when she produced "Tale of a Boon’s Wife".
Reviews speak to Kusow’s ability to clearly depict the issues stemming from the traditional Somali caste system, while simultaneously detailing the sufferings of the country’s civil war.
Kusow’s children are very proud of her and look up to her as a stronghold of leadership.
Though it has not been long since Canadian literature has started promoting more diverse content, its clear the industry is moving in the right direction. Several initiatives such as the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) constantly take steps to ensure progress continues.
While both Tsabari and Fartamo are giving back to the community in the form of teaching, it is important to provide aspiring writers with the opportunities to develop their skills. Through mentorships and training the next generation of writers will make an even bigger impact on Canada’s literary landscape.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by: Sukaina Jaffer in Brampton, ON
It is difficult to replicate how an immigrant feels when they arrive in the country of their adoption. Imagine wearing summer clothing all year long and then being plopped on to a snowbank the next second. How would you feel when everything from the aroma of your food and the sound of your prayers, to the clothing on your back to your very employment status is re-arranged? How do women cope when their language is a barrier?
Across Ontario, women are making adjustments to ensure they are in a position to succeed in a new land.
For Hedaya AlDaleel who immigrated from Singapore in April 2016, her family found the weather quite daunting. Wearing winter gear was not something they were familiar with coming from warmer climates. “Our first winter was tough, the kids loved the snow, but I dreaded walking or driving in it,” admits AlDaleel.
In addition, upon arrival financial limitations also proved a challenge as they looked to adapt to their new lives. “The first few months are the hardest, with total uncertainty and no clear vision of the future, it was a very stressful period,” she says. “We were blessed that my husband found a job a few months after we arrived, but the idea of a career ‘downgrade’ will continue to be a struggle.”
Initially, AlDaleel set out by renting a space within a Hair Salon & Spa so she could open her own massage practice. Using the Dorn-Method she treated patients with neck, shoulder and back pain. Although the approach is safe and pain-free, it is not covered by most insurance policies and is very uncommon in Canada. Thus, through various struggles, the business eventually closed within months.
“Having no network or connections, social circle or support group around me, made it hard to grow a customer base,” recalls AlDaleel. Unfazed, she enrolled in a Global Business course at the Newcomer’s Centre of Peel to familiarize herself with different strategies.
The material helped her in “understanding the economy, taxation, resource management, marketing and business communication as well as networking.” Working with three advisors, she was able to go over content that was applicable to her interests. “[It] was a great learning experience [which] gave me the foundation to build on,” AlDaleel continues.
Discrimination has also been cited by some academics as a key cultural barrier for newcomers. Dr. Soma Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at York University, she explains, “The idea that mainstream Canadian ways are more progressive than [the] rest of the world's. Many immigrant women I know of are under pressure to 'measure up' to the dominant standards.”
She notes that newcomers may face discrimination when they are refused housing or asked offensive questions about the kind of food they cook when applying for rent. This type of experience may force new immigrants to change some of their most deeply held cultural values.
Furthermore, not all immigrants have an easy time adjusting, especially if language is a barrier. As was the case with Esraa Ali whose biggest challenge, upon arrival from Iraq, was learning English. An issue that is only magnified with statistics that show over 70 per cent of immigrants as having a mother tongue other than English or French.
While Ali has a Bachelor of Science in Biology back in Iraq, her current part-time jobs include working as a lunchroom monitor and supply teacher in a private school. She prefers the reduced hours so that she is able to spend more time with her kids. Joining the 32 per cent of middle-aged women that have made the same decision to care for their children.
Sadaf Hussain, a Pakistani native who immigrated to Toronto in August 2016 from Dubai found the adjustment particularly challenging. She came alone with her two children because her husband was still working in the Emirates.
Hussain mentions that one of the greatest challenge she faced was leaving behind her loved ones. The busy bustle of life in Canada, lead to loneliness within the first few months. A feeling that only intensified in winters that offered shorter days and less to do outdoors.
She also grew frustrated with the constant searches for basic amenities, often travelling to multiple destinations before finding what she needed.
“We spent hours going through every single supermarket before we figured out where things were sold,” she explains. In addition, making it even harder, she would often evaluate the value of goods by converting local prices into the currency used in her native land.
Even routine activities such as driving in the snow presented challenges, having never lived in a region with snow.
She misses the stronger sense of community she found elsewhere. “I miss the sound of the call to prayers five times a day. I miss the way Ramadan (Islamic month of fasting) was so festive and how the entire United Emirates seemed to break their fast together (a cannon would sound).”
Slowly, she has learned to overcome her initial difficulties but continues to adjust as she spends more time in the country she now calls home.
Sense of community
For many immigrants, retaining their sense of cultural identity is essential.
Having lived in a number of countries, AlDaleel was prepared for the diversity that exists in Canada. She constantly educates her children about their cultural roots. “It’s important for our children to maintain their identity, as they learn to navigate their way into their new Canadian life,” she says.
Despite the adjustments they have been forced to make, both women are grateful for the opportunity they are now presented with.
Al Daleel goes on, “there’s so much room for personal growth and career change. I have learnt that in Canada, the job you do, doesn’t define who you are, or who you are striving to be. Unlike many other places around the world, you can dream big here...”
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit