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.
by: Isabel Inclan in Toronto, ON
It is no secret Canada is aiming to increase its immigration numbers over the next three years. The Liberal government will look to hit a target annual intake of 340,000 new immigrants by 2020. A number that stretches far beyond what the country has been able to reach within the past couple of decades, but still falls short of the 450,000 figure that was recommended by the federal government’s advisory council.
Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussein, has pointed to the growing demand for skilled labour. However, with data that shows there are former engineers, doctors and architects working as cab drivers, there are those that are seemingly already falling through the cracks in today’s job market.
Eugenia Gomez, once a researcher in infectology at the National Institute of Nutrition of Mexico, she now cleans residential homes in Toronto.
“My job was to work with the reagents, processed samples and special solution[s] for the scientific studies,” she recalls during one of her breaks. A specialist on a stomach bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, she has had trouble finding work in her field, despite credentials from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Prior to her current position, she worked at a local Tim Hortons. A graduate of Chemical Pharmaceutical Biology, she hopes to one day return to her previous career.
After a brief pause to lace up her sneakers — ideal shoes for six hours of cleaning — she heads back to finish off her shift.
Give me a break
Others offer similar experiences in their job searches. Maria Alvarez, who was a regional sales director at an international cosmetology company based out of Latin America, has faced the same issue. With over 10 years of experience in business development, sales training and leadership roles, she has been unable to find anything that matches her skill set. And not for lack of trying, since her arrival in 2014, she has held numerous positions as a housekeeper, overnight cleaning lady, night attendant, and concierge.
“I have distributed my curriculum vitae (resumé) with many people, but until now nobody called me. I just need one opportunity to show my skills as saleswoman”, she says.
Looking for a better way to make ends meet she finally decided to give driving for Uber a try, which she still does to this day.
“The income as a driver is not too bad if you are alone and work full time. In the last year and a half, I have made six thousand trips and my rating is 4.85 stars of 5,” Alvarez boasts. Although it is not what she envisioned, she stands proudly behind the fact that she can provide for herself working nine-hour shifts six days out of the week.
As a small sample of the female talent that have gone unrecognized, these women provide insight into the growing issue of “Canadian experience” that most immigrants lack.
Paola Gomez, founder of the Network of Latina Women in Canada, maintains that although many Latina women are grateful for the opportunity presented by living in this country, there can be a steep price. For those with extensive experience or higher educations in their home countries it can be difficult to find work within the same stream, which usually reduces them to survival jobs.
Misperception of Canada
In some instances, Canada’s reputation can actually hurt those who over-estimate the reach of the developmental programs in place. Claudia*, who immigrated from Mexico, explains that she was under the impression it would be easier to find employment once she moved.
“I wanted to be independent of my family. I thought it will be easier to find a job in Canada, similar to what I had in my country, but it wasn't,” she says.
Previously a manager of a bank teller division, she still remembers how hard she pushed herself to climb the rungs. Now a cleaner, she spends her days mop in hand, moving around various residential and commercial buildings. To make matters worse, her supervisors are extremely unpleasant and a portion of her pay goes to a placement agency.
Maria Alvarez was able to build a career based on her professional experience abroad without a post-secondary education. She argues that a lack of a degree should not prevent potential candidates from consideration. In her opinion, companies should keep some openings for immigrants without certification but with enough technical knowledge to compete for the positions.
While furthering one’s education is always an option, working survival jobs does not always provide the best financial flexibility. Even with support programs many immigrants can have issues with the reduced schooling rates and the fact that they may not be able to work as many hours during that time frame.
“The problem is if I get the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) I would not live with the same standard I have now working as [an] Uber driver,” Maria Alvarez explains. Sitting behind the wheel of her car she adds, “I would like to study Dental Hygienists or Digital Marketing.”
For Eugenia Gomez family obligations as well as monetary limitations have discouraged her from adding to her Mexican credentials.
“We arrive in Canada with many dreams and eager to work. In the beginning, we accept all kind of jobs because we have to pay rent, but when we want to try something else we are faced with the ‘Canadian experience’ requirement that is difficult for immigrants,” she explains.
The mother of two, now prioritizes her sons as opposed to her own professional opportunities.
Whereas others like Claudia, are maintaining up to two jobs as they save for fees that will regularize their immigration status.
Reaching full potential
In the Latin American community as well as many other immigrant groups, there is talent, experience, and professional skills that can go unnoticed. The government has attempted to eliminate the barrier that is “Canadian experience”, but as cases continue to arise, it seems a more concrete solution must be found.
Paola Gomez states that although these women face several professional obstacles of their own, they are content with the sacrifices they are making for their children.
“We need a more real political and societal intention, the intention of including Latina women into the workforce in ways that they can reach their full potential and Canadian society can benefit from it. Not only because of the betterment of the nation's economy but also because it gives a higher sense of belonging with the new home,” she concludes.
*Full name withheld to protect identity of individual.
Isabel Inclan is a journalist with three decades of experience in Mexico and in Canada. She currently works as a Foreign Correspondent for Notimex News Agency, a Mexican newspaper. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Commentary by: Jennilee Austria in Toronto, ON
Back when I was a settlement worker, many of my newcomer clients would enter the job market in positions of non-skilled labour. Ranging from forklift operators to construction workers to food service workers many of them felt that they would have to start with survival jobs before moving on to a role that fit their credentials. The initial joy that accompanied their first tastes of Canadian employment would pass soon after a couple of months, where they would then meet with me to ask if coming to Canada was the right choice.
Upon arrival, their main barriers revolved around a lack of financial flexibility and professional networks, however after working survival jobs for a time, many would lose confidence. Coming from backgrounds in accounting, engineering, law, IT and other multi-faceted sectors; their old professions would seem so far gone that they would begin to doubt that they could return to them.
While precarious work will define the Canadian job market of the future, the majority of immigrants are usually unaware of the available programs that will lead them to more secure positions. As the federal government continues to ramp up efforts to bring in more skilled workers, more support systems have been put in place so that these individuals are able to overcome many of the toughest issues plaguing immigrants in the past.
If some of the newcomers I had worked with had known about opportunities for training or mentorship, I know that they could have been able to start their Canadian careers sooner.
One of the biggest issues newcomers often face has been a lack of ‘Canadian experience’. Although the Ontario Human Rights Commission has made concerted efforts to discourage employers from discriminating on this basis, many immigrants can attest to the continued existence of this phenomenon. While it can be difficult to regulate employers’ selection basis for a number of reasons, programs that offer both training and employment experience.
NPower Canada, an organization which advocates for diversity in the workplace, provides cost-free employment training programs for youth aged 18-29. Since its 2014 launch in Canada, the charity has been able to train and support over 500 youth.
The need for such a program has become increasingly apparent in recent years. A 2011 study revealed that 43% of immigrant women between 24-35 with university degrees obtained outside of Canada or the US, were working in positions that required a high school education or less.
But the statistics are truly brought into perspective with first-hand accounts like 27-year-old Nigerian newcomer Adebola Arogundade’s. She arrived in Canada with a B.Sc in Marketing as well as experience abroad in marketing strategies, point-of-sale systems, and customer service; however, she was unable to find work within her field of work.
At a crossroads she decided to enroll in a program with NPower Canada. The 10-week program allows participants to work towards various certifications while simultaneously introducing them to employers such as Rogers, TD Canada Trust and Alterna Savings.
The direct impact the program will have on Arogundade’s job search is yet to be seen, but nonetheless she is content with the training and the Canadian experience she will receive.
For other newcomers, survival jobs become a primary option because of friends and family members they may have, which have already gone down those paths. In an attempt to break this cycle, (The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council) implemented a program that connects individuals with volunteer mentors in a range of careers.
“Immigrants often think that when they come, they have to get a survival job, like drive a taxi,” explains Daniel Kim of TRIEC. “But our whole organization’s mandate is to help those immigrants who come with skills and expertise, and to connect them to businesses who want that talent.”
Kim who is a Communications and Media Relations specialist with TRIEC, states that over 75% of the individuals enrolled in TRIEC Mentoring Partnership are able to find work within their field.
An astounding success rate that seemingly speaks to many of the studies that assert the benefits of mentor-mentee programs. While these relationships allow proteges to further develop their subject knowledge, it also helps facilitate more extensive professional networks. In addition, immigrants are able to practice soft skills which could benefit them immensely once they are within the workforce. The issue of ‘Canadian experience’ extends past the necessary technical skills for many employers. A lot of whom, worry about the soft skills newcomers may have, such as conflict resolution, workplace communication and fitting in with the team.
Professional Immigrant Networks
The TRIEC also provides an opportunity for immigrants to join networks specific to their profession and ethnicity.
PINs (Professional Immigrant Networks) are comprised of a range of occupations and ethnic backgrounds, from the Philippine Teachers Association Canada to the Association des femmes maroco-canadiennes (Association of Female Moroccan-Canadians).
Many of these networks were actually started by immigrants themselves.
Upon emigrating from the United Kingdom, Jenny Okonkwo felt isolated without a group that she could relate to. “Basically, what happened was that I didn’t know any Black female accountants,” she says. “If you don’t immediately have that small circle to call on, that just shows how big the gap is.”
In 2016, Okonkwo started BFAN (the Black Female Accountants Network), and soon after, her network joined PINs.
Today, BFAN has grown to 600 members nationwide and works in partnership with CPA Ontario (Chartered Professional Accountants). Their mandate is to encourage female accountants of African descent to network, share knowledge, and advance themselves in accounting.
“BFAN provides résumé reviews, career advice, development of soft skills, networking opportunities, and more— and all for free to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Canada,” said Okonkwo. While they don’t provide job matches, their members, ranging from executives to university students, are dedicated to helping others develop professional skills.
Their members have already published articles, presented on public stages, and created study groups to help one another pass their CPA exams.
“The value comes from saying to a newcomer, ‘I’ve already walked this path. I’ve walked it two, five, fifteen years ago, and here’s how I did it,’” said Okonkwo. “And they come out feeling like they’ve made the right decision about the progression of their career in Canada.”
TRIEC’s PINs and Mentoring Partnership program as well as NPower Canada’s employment training programs are only a few of the unique opportunities available to newcomers. While these free initiatives can help many immigrants overcome the innumerable barriers they will be faced with, they will only be effective if these skilled individuals are aware of what is available to them. Only time will tell how Ontario will ensure these resources are being utilized.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By Florence Hwang
Starting a business can be hard. Startup capital, asset management, and just attracting customers; are all obstacles new small businesses must learn to overcome on the fly. But these challenges can be amplified for female immigrants, most especially for those in rural areas that are not accustomed to working with diverse populations.
“It’s a constant battle with people questioning your qualifications because of your background and overlook[ing] your business,” says Tia Luangomba. A small business owner, who immigrated from the Republic of Congo almost 10 years ago. She has worked diligently to build a strong reputation.
“I realize that people fear what they don’t know [so] I let my work and talent speak for me. If you are confident in your work and your talent, people will trust you and the outcome will be a satisfied customer,” she continues.
When Luangomba first moved to Niagara Falls, she had trouble finding salons that could do her hair. This would then force her to trek out to either Toronto or St. Catharines in her various searches. Identifying a glaring need within her community, she decided to become a licensed hairdresser.
In 2012, she came out with her own salon, Hair by Tia Nicole. Beginning as a multicultural hairstylist, in a relatively new country, she didn’t have much support. In need of additional guidance she began a course in business application from the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program.
“I needed help with the business aspect of things, where to register, how to start, where to build a business, demographics and other important aspect[s] of starting a business,” she admits.
The program has helped her with social media advertisements, gaining clients, adjusting financial strategies and understanding different legal aspects including taxes and name registration. But it has also benefited her in a variety of other ways as well.
“Since the course I have a lot more confidence in how I am running my business,” she says, stating that she would have not been able to start her own business in Congo.
“In my country there is no resources available for one to get help to start a business on their own and with war raging every day and violence, poverty and hunger level rising. No one has time to even try. Here in Canada there are so much resources, help and places like [the] multicultural center available for anyone who is will[ing] to seek help, work hard enough and achieve their dream,” she says.
In her own salon, she takes comfort in the effect she has on those around her. “Knowing that I not only have an impact in my clients’ appearance but their confidence makes it all worth it,” she concludes.
Catering to the Caribbean community
Luangomba’s experiences with a lack of offerings for her individual needs, are one that is all to well known for many immigrants. With Naomie Cesar, it was beauty products for her hair, which she had trouble purchasing.
“Lot of newcomers all of us have the same problem,” says Cesar who originally came from Haiti.
Like Luangomba, Cesar applied and was accepted into the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program.
Following completion, she purchased beauty supplies from Toronto and went to local multicultural centres, churches and other places newcomers gathered. But she soon realized customers were not just looking for hair products, they were also looking for other things from their homelands – food. Realizing the demand in the area, she opened a shop in downtown Welland called CaribAfrica Specialty Store.
Soon, she was selling Caribbean staples such as okra and cornmeal before eventually moving to full on dinners. A jack of all trades, she now sells food products as well as makeup and hair products.
“In the afternoon I make chicken roti. I also make rice and beans, oxtail, soups. Different meals. I explain to them how to cook it at home. It keeps me busy,” says Cesar, referring to her two children.
But her heart wasn’t always set on entrepreneurship. With previous training as a nurse, she looked at bridging courses upon arrival in Canada, before settling on specialization in foot care. Prioritizing a work-life balance, she looked for alternatives to the scheduling requirements of nursing.
“I love to be independent, meet other people, be inspired, get inspired. I enjoy it. Get to spend time with my kids. The most special time is to have time with kids and be able to do other things. I get to do other things like missionary work. I get to do those things instead of being somewhere [to] just work,” she says.
Providing Welland with ethnic alternatives that were previously missed, its clear there are many in the community that are happy with her decision.
Lori Webster is the coordinator of the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program and has worked with the organization for the past five years. Meeting with a variety of immigrant women, she identifies language as one of the biggest barriers for those looking to learn about the Canadian marketplace.
“We have seen women start businesses in graphic design, commercial cleaning, hair styling, ethnic food store[s], imported products, online grocery delivery, jewelry-making, seamstress, holistic health care, and pet grooming, for example,” says Webster.
When the program began in 2013, it was originally set up as a two-year pilot project for six programs across Ontario. However, it continues to receive funding almost three years after the initial two-year pilot project. Helping educate immigrant women about the regulations and legal requirements of starting a business in Canada.
Over the years, a total of 102 women have completed the program. And of those, 56 have gone on to start their own businesses within 12 months of graduation.
Although the true success of these start-ups cannot be accurately measured until more time has elapsed, if the 2013 program is any indication, they should continue to thrive. Of the 23 net new businesses started since that initial program, 20 are still in operation.
Coordinators of the project hope to further the progress they’ve made and await a funding decision that could extend it for at least another 3 years.
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