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.
By: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver
To be the “last king” of anything means you left this world either a legend or a tragic figure. Maharajah Duleep Singh, the final monarch of the Punjab kingdom, who was forcibly separated from his family as a child, dispossessed of the Koh-i-noor diamond, converted to Christianity as a teenager, died a penniless, broken man in Paris, and is today buried in England, clearly falls into the latter category. But just as some within England’s Sikh community are seeking to exhume his remains for return to the Punjab, so are others working at rehabilitating his victim legacy.
Veteran U.K. actor and filmmaker Kavi Raz is one of these reformers. His film, The Black Prince, is a new production on the deposed monarch, who as an 11-year-old was removed from the throne and by 15 was exiled to England after his kingdom was annexed by the British in 1849. Unlike other ‘last kings’ such as Louis XVI of France and Nicholas II of Russia, Singh was spared the guillotine and firing squad, but the impressionable boy king would live out his life cut off from his family, culture, and homeland, remaining forever hidden away, if not lost, from his people.
Raz’s biopic sets course to rescue Duleep Singh from the forgotten recesses of English and Indian history. For the writer-director and his fellow producers, The Black Prince is clearly a passion project; the period piece is scripted in a mix of English and Punjabi, showcases an international cast, and features detail-oriented sets of Victorian England.
The film is not song-and-dance Bollywood, nor does it fall into the Punjabi-language genre which is bloated these days with slapstick comedies. Like the recent Oscar nominated Lion, The Black Prince is part of a new wave of film and television content capable of generating box office revenue domestically and internationally. In Canada, there are over one million Punjabi speaking South Asians who provide a niche target for the film.
Raz knows his target demographic well—he is originally from the Punjab region—and has crafted a story to win the hearts and minds of this audience. Unfortunately, this comes at an artistic cost, as The Black Prince seems more like a mission than a movie at times. Raz presses hard to recast Duleep Singh as a freedom fighter and a devotee of the Sikh faith, selectively omitting facts to make this case. The oversimplification of Duleep Singh’s re-initiation into the Sikh faith is one example of the film’s rolling-pin approach to the maharajah’s story (more on this pivot point below).
This heavy-handedness flattens characters throughout the movie, whether they be villainous English officers or the maharajah’s wives. Raz’s Duleep Singh is a stripped-down joyless version of an ex-sovereign, who was known to have thoroughly appreciated the velvet trappings of aristocratic life. We also see very little of a maharajah who took considerable pride in being a sportsman, playwright, and musician.
This ‘Black Prince’ who is constantly in a black mood is played by the eminent Punjabi musician Satinder Sartaaj who is forced to brood through his lines and awkward silences that ask too much of his acting skills. When he is not weighed down by a gnawing sense of displacement—the maharajah was, technically speaking, England’s first Sikh immigrant—he suffers from an identity crisis. That only intensifies when he finally reunites with his mother, Rani Jindan, superbly acted by Shabana Azmi.
These repetitive scenes of inner anguish neither advance the story nor reveal the complexity of a maharajah who, as a blue-blooded aristocrat, may have felt as much kinship with members of Europe’s ruling classes as with the average Punjabi peasant or Sikh devotee. The use of a third-person narrator would have relieved the maharajah from having to make banal political statements every other scene. Alternatively, Raz could have shot the film as a historical docu-drama interspersed with interviews to maximise his control over the narrative.
Eventually the maharajah’s contrived emotional distress culminates in a lukewarm climax when he re-converts to Sikhism during a failed passage to India—the British government denied him entry to travel to his homeland. Now near the end of his life, his unrest becomes outright rebellion as he bands with a group of Irish rebels and Russian agents and takes the helm of a quixotic, and ill-advised, plot to seize back his kingdom.
While there was likely some revolutionary fervor in the maharajah’s desire to overthrow English rule in India, it is a stretch to credit these actions solely to a pious freedom fighter, as Raz has suggested.
Historically there was also a financial motive—and a reasonably just one—behind Duleep Singh’s fall-out with his captors. Like many Victorian-era estate holders of his time, he was perpetually in debt due to a profligate lifestyle. His promised annual pension in 1860 of £40 thousand per annum ($7.7 million CAD in today’s terms) was always short-paid by half every year. While £20 thousand per year afforded him a luxurious lifestyle as single man, this amount, not indexed to the rate of inflation, became insufficient later in life as he became a father to eight children and husband to two wives.
At the time of Punjab’s annexation, the British government had also seized his family’s vast personal estates and holdings which should not have been included as state properties. Despite Singh’s ongoing campaigning to the Crown, these assets were never returned, much to his vexation.
Among Sikhs, there is a commonly held view that the modern downfall of their Punjab state actually began over 150 years ago when the kingdom created by Duleep’s father, the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh, crumbled after the Anglo-Sikh wars. A century after the golden age of the Lahore Darbar, Punjab was torn in half by Partition in 1947, and today what is left is being further shredded by rampant drug abuse, gross corruption, farmer suicides, and environmental damage.
Solutions remain elusive, but heroic accounts from the past provide hope that things can be better.
The Black Prince covers an important story that has long required production. While this movie pays tribute to the maharajah by rescuing him from the shadow of history, it does not, however, set him free. Over a century since his death, Duleep Singh still remains a pawn—now of modern-day Punjabi and Sikh identity politics—as he once was during the Great Game of colonialism in the 19th century.
Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional who works as the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. This article has been republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Sports has the ability to unite Canada, show the recently released findings of an Association for Canadian Studies survey.
“A majority of Canadians agree that sports break down linguistic and cultural barriers to unite people,” the report states.
In Canada, immigrants from different countries and origins also bring with them some of their own favourite sports.
Dr. John Shields, interim academic director at Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS), highlights the growing popularity of cricket in Canada as an example.
“[There are a] lot of people coming from South Africa, Pakistan and India who are avid fans of cricket,” says Shields.
Sports history important to know
University of Toronto vice-president Bruce Kidd says including sports history in the country’s narrative is an important step in telling a complete story.
“If you don’t understand the role of sports in Canadian history, you missed an important part and your sense of Canadian history will be incomplete.”
For instance, Canadian national sports like lacrosse and hockey were part of the nation’s culture even before confederation. They were the outdoor games played by First Nations. Curling and golf arrived with Scottish immigrants in the 1600s.
Canadians also played important roles in the early beginnings of popular sports like football and basketball.
Kidd explains that when sports are adopted in Canada they are infused with Canadian values, skills and narratives.
“I would say that Canadians have put their own stamp on the games that we play.”
Sports as a unifying force
Today, hockey alone can ignite patriotism throughout the country.
Jennifer Anderson, historian at the Canadian Museum of History, says hockey is often reflected in Canadian popular culture. Even those who are not enormous hockey fans come across cultural references to the game in everyday life through TV shows, books and children stories.
“Somewhere there is a link between the game and our culture, and I think it demonstrates the relationship that Canadians have to the game,” she explains.
While sports can be a unifying force, like other aspects of Canadian culture, it can also be divisive, says Kidd.
“During those times when Canadian teams made up of Anglophone and Francophone athletes lead internationally, it forges bilingualism and commonality,” he says.
However, he adds, “When you have the Canada games, which put efforts from each of the different provinces against each other, it may create rivalries on linguistic ground.”
Exclusion also part of sports history
While Shields says that sport “tends to bring people together in terms of common cause,” he points out there certainly has been a history of exclusion and racism in Canadian sports, too.
“Historically it was very hard for Aboriginal people to get into the professional hockey leagues, as was for Black people,” Shields says.
Anderson explains that it’s not that First Nations people are dissatisfied with the way games like hockey and lacrosse have evolved; it’s more about the acknowledgement of their participation.
“They would like to be acknowledged as having participated in the game over an extended period of time,” she states. “Not just the beginning perhaps, not just the origin, but they continued to participate in the sport.”
Similarly, women have always been engaged in Canadian sports, but pre-Confederation, they were often barred from sports and had to participate informally.
Kidd says that women have gradually succeeded in winning opportunities for themselves in this area.
“I would say since the First World War, they played every sport that men played and today are an important, proud part of Canadian sports,” he adds.
Anderson emphasizes that “this hasn’t always been acknowledged in the same way as men sports has.”
Increasing the media’s coverage of women’s sports has been a long-fought battle, and there have been movements and conversations about ensuring equality.
“Currently [women’s sport is] still underperforming in the kind of media coverage it gets,” Anderson says. “But I think social media has changed this to some degree and to some extent has shifted the way women sports is being covered.”
Sports have long been an important part of the Canadian economy, culture and education system, but experts like Anderson suggest that more efforts are required to promote equality in Canadian sports.
Specifically, they suggest we need to counter the growing cost of playing sports, ensure greater exposure of women’s sports and include more First Nations people in the national sports arena.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Although a mass expulsion in 1755 resulted in their dispersal, the Acadians of present day New Brunswick and Nova Scotia remained undaunted and, upon their return, revived their cultural roots.
The Acadians are the descendants of 17th century French immigrants. For 100 years, they lived as a French colony called “Acadie.”
Under British rule since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, they did not want to bear arms in the event of war and were recognized as neutral subjects within the colony from 1730.
During the War of the Austrian Succession, Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia refused to trust them because of their religious and linguistic affiliation — Catholic and French. In 1755, the Acadians were deported in small groups to British and French colonies around the Atlantic.
“They (the British) saw them as an obstacle to the larger empire that they wanted to build in North America,” says Maurice Basque, a scientific advisor at the University of Moncton.
Several thousand Acadians died during deportation of illness, drowning and starvation.
Today, as a global strategy, Acadians are working to revitalize their traditions and bring back Acadians from around the world to their origin in Canada.
The return of the Acadians
The Acadians were allowed to return after 1764 on humanitarian grounds. They rebuilt their villages in eastern Canada and began rebuilding their culture.
“[The] 300,000 Acadians that you find today in Atlantic Canada speak French on a daily basis and [call] themselves Acadians,” says Basque.
The Musée des Acadiens des Pubnicos et Centre de recherché in Pubnico-Ouest has preserved Acadian history and culture since 1653. It prominently features the Acadian craft of quilting.
“We have workshops and classes that we give to people who are interested in keeping the traditions alive,” says Bernice d’Entremont, museum coordinator.
With new techniques and sewing machines, quilting is not usually done the way it was 350 years ago. But at “Quilting Bees”, d’Entremont and others enthusiastically teach the art of hand quilting to a new generation.
“There is a pride in doing the quilting and having it displayed,” she explains.
With time, Acadians have become “open-minded.” Basque says that they have proudly adopted Canadian identity. In eastern Canada, the Acadian flag proudly flies next to the Canadian flag.
Basque adds, “Canadian identity is very elastic.”
Now many Acadians work at the international level with Francophone organizations that focus on the youth. Association acadienne des artistes professionnel.le.s du Nouveau-Brunswick supports individual, French-speaking artistes and collectives.
The association, through its immigration initiatives, invites people to delve into Acadian artisan and take missions to other countries.
René Cormier, president of the Société nationale de l’Acadie says, “We go to promote this region as the real region; we bring with us artists so the people of other countries can see, hear and feel what we are.”
They organize the World Acadian Congress every five years, which invites people from all over the world. The objective is to promote Acadian culture as an active and present part of the Canadian community.
“Our objective is to contribute to the development of Canada — what Acadian people can bring through the development of our culture,” says Cormier.
The group has members in almost all the provinces of Canada. They work for Francophones’ immigration that includes post-graduate students, young entrepreneurs and artisans.
Cormier adds, “We [are] really an organization that brings people together, not only to talk, but to work together.”
Among the challenges facing Acadians today is creating a closer relationship with the First Nations people of New Brunswick and helping them preserve their language.
“Acadians are Francophone and should understand, in my opinion, the wish of the First Nations to keep their languages, so the first languages of this continent won’t disappear,” says Marque.
Historically, the Acadians were allies of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet First Nations who taught them how to survive extreme cold, dyke marshland, fish, farm, and locate spices and medicines.
“I must say as a historian that there is lots of goodwill, but concrete actions may be missing,” suggests Marque.
Acadians also need to build bridges with new groups that are arriving in Canada. New Brunswick is one of the least multicultural provinces in the country. “It’s still mostly what we could call traditional white,” Marque explains.
Marque concludes, “But the city I live [in], Moncton, is changing. More people that are arriving and settling here with different cultures, Acadians are now opting to the cultures of the world that are becoming part of their culture now.”
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Commentary by Valerie Knowles in Ottawa
This past February, an enterprising and cheeky Cape Breton radio disk jockey set up a website entitled “Cape Breton If Donald Trump Wins.” By this means, Rob Calabrese sought to poke fun at the narcissistic buffoon and presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. President, and, more importantly, interest disaffected Americans in immigrating to beautiful Cape Breton.
According to Rolling Stone Magazine, Calabrese and his wife had been following the U.S. election campaign closely and thought that it might be “the key” to reversing the fortunes of an island that has been witnessing a steady decline in population. Still, the DJ was stunned by the reaction to his site.
Hundreds of inquiries poured in, many of them from Yankees expressing a serious interest in moving to Nova Scotia. And the avalanche of inquiries continued. When he could no longer handle the huge volume, Calabrese passed them on to the local tourist board, which then started to refer to the uptick as the “Trump bump".
Website viewers who had contemplated seeking refuge in Nova Scotia if Trump became President came closer to taking that step when Republican National Convention delegates voted Donald Trump the party’s presidential nominee. The convention, held in Cleveland, Ohio from July 18 to July 21, could aptly be described as the Trump Convention. As such, it was a disorganized, ramshackle affair, in short, a bizarre showcase for the New York City businessman’s political style.
In his long acceptance speech, Trump painted an America on the verge of collapse, a country beset by violence and chaos everywhere. To make it great again, he will ban immigration from countries where terrorism is rife and build “a great border wall to stop illegal immigration.” He will also enforce law and order in his own country; boost employment in the hard-hit manufacturing sector by prohibiting companies from moving their production outside the U.S. “without consequences", “turn bad trade agreements into great ones”; and reconsider America's membership in NATO.
With Trump becoming the Republican Party’s standard bearer and Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, the race for the White House became a real one. In fact, on July 28, Nate Silver, of the poll aggregation site fivethirtyeight.com, placed the probability of Clinton being voted into the presidency at just 52 percent, down from 75 percent the previous week.
The serious threat of a Trump presidency made the promise of an attractive lifestyle in Nova Scotia resonate even more with many Americans.
Each year, thousands of Americans pack up and move to Canada, but not after being aggressively courted by Canadian government officials and radio disk jockeys. As my book Strangers At Our Gates notes, when it comes to assiduously courting American immigrants, we have to look back to the early years of the 20th century.
These were the years when dynamic Clifford Sifton (picture at right, courtesy Library and Archives Canada) oversaw immigration as Minister of the Interior and Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs in Wilfrid — Laurier’s “Sunny Days” Liberal government (1896-1905). A lawyer from Brandon, Manitoba, Clinton was convinced that massive agricultural immigration was the key to general Canadian prosperity; if primary resources were developed, then industry and commerce would follow naturally.
This close-mouthed man stated his immigration goals nowhere more explicitly than in a memorandum that he wrote to Laurier in 1901. Said Sifton, “Our desire is to promote the immigration of farmers and farm labourers. We have not been disposed to exclude foreigners of any nationality who seemed likely to become successful agriculturalists ... (Strangers At Our Gates, p85).
When wearing his immigration hat, Sifton sought to attract agricultural settlers from the U.S., Great Britain and continental Europe to the almost empty Canadian prairies. Pamphlets in several languages flooded the U.S., Britain, and Europe; foreign journalists were wined and dined on guided tours across the West and Canadian exhibits were mounted at fairs and public displays in targeted countries.
When it came to recruiting immigrants from the United States, Sifton pulled out all the stops to attract experienced farmers with capital. Thanks to his effective advertising campaign, the expansion of his department’s network of offices and agents and the widespread perception in rural America that the frontier had closed, more Americans than ever before headed north. In fact, Americans constituted the largest immigrant group in the newly formed provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Could a similar surge in American immigration take place in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada in the months to come?
Or, will the “Trump bump” be short-lived, another example of progressive thinking Americans joking about moving north when American politics threaten to take a “conservative” turn.
Valerie Knowles is an Ottawa author with degrees from Smith College (B. A. Honours History), McGill University (M.A. History), and Carleton University (B.J.). In addition to authoring books, Knowles has written for magazines, newspapers, and federal government departments, taught history, and worked briefly as an archivist. Her book, From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C.Van Horne (Dundurn Press, 2004), won the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography for 2004, the City of Ottawa Non-Fiction Book Award for 2005, and the Canadian Railroad Historical Association Annual Book Award for 2005.
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
From a machine gun wielding high school girl-yakuza boss to time travelling samurai; from sexual awakening in the final devastating days of WWII Tokyo to the true story of “the Japanese Schindler”, Canadian and Japanese audiences enjoyed yet another cultural feast at the 5th annual Toronto Japanese Film Festival.
The Festival ran for two weeks in June in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC), located at Don Mills Rd. and Eglinton Ave. It screened more than two dozen Japanese movies to over 10,000 audience members from all over the GTA.
“Our 2016 line-up again reflects the films that resonate with Japanese audiences, critics and Japanese Academy Award judges, providing a thorough cross section of the very diverse Japanese film industry. In our first four years we attracted large and diverse crowds and much positive reaction to the films,” says Gary Kawaguchi, President of JCCC.
The 70th anniversary of the Second World War
A lot of films came out the end of 2015 that marked 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. These include Nagasaki – Memories of My Son, which centred around a mother who lost her son when the atomic bomb was dropped; and The Emperor in August, a powerful political drama that tells the little-known story of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War.
There was also Persona Non Grata, the story of Ghiune Sugihara, known as the “Schindler of Japan” for saving 6,000 Jewish people from the Holocaust; and When I Was Most Beautiful, a story of Japanese people’s lives in the summer of 1945 when the war is drawing to a close.
James Heron, Executive Director of JCCC, says that 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is quite significant in Japan, particularly because many of the people involved in the war are at the end of their lives.
“We saw a lot of the films from different perspectives. There are consistent anti-war films, mostly about the people who were trapped,” he continues. “Average Japanese people feel like they were trapped between the military government that started the War and the gigantic response from the Allies powers. The films are made for domestic markets, so they tend to look at things from Japanese perspective.”
Internment and Japanese persecution in Canada
“Last year we showed the film Asah, which was all about the internment of Japanese-Canadians. The film was made entirely in Japan but was about a Japanese-Canadian baseball team that really played for the pride of Japanese Canadians. The team was ended when Japanese Canadians were put into camps,” says Heron.
Japanese-Canadians had to suffer internment after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced that Japanese-Canadians were to move into prisoner of war camps. Their possessions were confiscated and their belongings were sold.
Heron, who spent 11 years living and working in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese. His wife is also Japanese. “One of the reason the Festival and the Cultural Centre exists is many Japanese-Canadians feel that they were persecuted in the Second World War because people didn’t understand them and Japanese culture. Because Canadians didn’t understand, they were afraid of the Japanese, even the Japanese-Canadians who were born here, “ he explains.
By having the Cultural Centre where they could introduce Japanese-Canadian and Japanese culture, the organizers hope there will be better understanding and that persecution will never happen again to Japanese-Canadians.
Aftermath of the Festival
When the audience enjoyed sushi and Japanese sake at TJFF’s closing ceremony, Dr. Sandra Annett, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, announced that Being Good, a movie on raising children and having compassion, received the Grand Prize Jury Award for Best Film.
A coming-of-age story, Flying Colors, won the Kobayashi Audience Choice.
Toronto resident Shiming Fei, 29, particularly enjoyed The Magnificent Nine, which featured one of her favourite Japanese actors, Eita.
As a young Chinese person who came to Canada to study ten years ago, Shiming says she experiences Japanese culture through food and TV dramas. This is why Festivals like TJFF are so important to her.
“I come here for the food and movie, maybe make a couple of new friends,” she giggles, renewing her search for her favourite hors-d’oeuvre at the closing reception of the Festival.
by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says the immigration experience helped make her the award-winning and best-selling Indian-American writer she is today.
Her immigration story — which she calls "strong" and "powerful" — along with those of other immigrant women, are central themes in much of her work.
“I had grown up in a very traditional family, been very protected,” she says of her upbringing in Kolkata, India. “Then I was in America… to go to school,” recalls Divakaruni, sitting behind a table piled high with copies of her latest novel, Before We Meet the Goddess, inside Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre.
“I was living away from my family, I was working odd jobs… and I was really missing my culture. That made me see my culture in a way that I had never seen it when I was living immersed in it.”
The Houston, TX based author is in Toronto for Arranged Marriage, a theatre adaptation of her short story “Clothes,” published in her first book, also titled Arranged Marriage.
“It’s not so much about arranged marriage,” says Peggy Shannon, professor and chair of the Ryerson School of Performance, when introducing the play to the audience. “It is the immigrant story, the immigrant experience.”
The immigrant dream
Divakaruni says one theme the stage production of “Clothes” captured well is the idea of the “immigrant dream” — the hopes and expectations that are attached to moving to places like Canada and the United States — and what happens when they go awry.
“Both of these countries are wonderful in many ways. They offer many opportunities, but they can’t be perfect. No place can be perfect,” she says. “Sometimes that dream is going to fail and then what do they do? They have to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives.”
Such is the case for Sumita, the main character of Arranged Marriage, who moves to Mississauga, ON (the original short story is based in California) after her arranged marriage to Somesh. Months after arriving, tragedy strikes and she has to find the strength to go on with her life despite a dream deferred.
Even though people immigrating from South Asia to Canada or America today have a much easier time than Divakaruni did more than three decades ago, thanks to advancements like the Internet and well-established community connections, the author says challenges remain.
This is something she says she sets out to reflect in the characters and plots she creates.
“Missing your home country, missing your family, feeling like you’ve left a whole support system behind – you still feel those things.”
Touching on taboo topics
Through her writing, Divakaruni says she aims to do two things: break down barriers and prejudices between different cultural communities in North America, and ensure that her own South Asian-American community sees its reality reflected in serious literature.
This is why she does not shy away from topics considered taboo by some, such as alcoholism, infidelity, and abortion.
Her approach has not always been popular among readers, both in North America and in India. But as of late, more people are accepting that Divakaruni pushes boundaries.
One taboo topic she writes about at length is domestic abuse — an area in which she has been volunteering to help victims since university. Problems like this can be aggravated in immigrant communities because victims are away from their larger familial and friend supports, she explains.
“It’s very important for us to create a realistic and complex notion of our community,” she says. “Otherwise, we are giving in to stereotypes, either positive or negative ones.”
When this happens, Divakaruni continues, people will feel like they are the only ones experiencing such things and something must be wrong with them.
“I have this great quote that I love: ‘Good literature should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,’” she shares. “If we are complacent, [thinking] we have no problems, that’s a problem right there because we are not being realistic.”
In Before We Meet the Goddess, the chapters alternate between the lives of grandmother Sabitri who lived all her life in India, mother Bela who immigrated to the U.S. from India, and daughter Tara who was born in the U.S.
The novel details their complicated, and often strained, relationships with each other and the many challenges they face in their journey to figuring out what success is.
Similar to her earlier works, Divakaruni aims to empower women with this novel.
“All of these three women who are the main characters… they certainly have their challenges, but I think by the end of the book they’ve achieved something,” she says.
“I’m hoping that my books are empowering to women of all backgrounds as they’re going through their own challenges, hopes, and trying to reach for goals . . . [and] help the readers to examine their life and what it means to be [successful].”
Commentary by Justin Kong in Toronto
On June 22, members of the Chinese-Canadian community and allies gathered at Toronto City Hall to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Canadian government’s redress of the Chinese Head Tax and the 1923 Exclusion Act, legislations which had been used to prohibit Chinese immigration to Canada.
The mobilization for redress against these racist laws represented an important moment in Canadian history where a combination of Chinese community organization and political advocacy was able to secure a redress and apology from the federal government.
In other ways however, the redress remains incomplete. Most immediately, families of many Head Tax survivors have noted that their calls for an inclusive redress along the lines of "one certificate one claim" have gone unheeded.
As a consequence, only 1% of the 82,000 families directly affected by the Head Tax have been able to actually receive claims.
Redress is also incomplete in the sense the injustices faced by early Chinese and Asian migrants continue to prevail in today’s Canada.
Continued practice of economic exploitation of migrants
To recognize this failure is to understand that Chinese exclusion is not an isolated incident in Canadian history. It is a much longer and enduring practice in Canada where migrant labour is coveted, but the humanity and rights of those who provide that labour, denied.
The Chinese railroad worker, who has become etched into the national imaginary, exemplifies this practice. Conducting the most dangerous tasks that no white man was willing to do for the most meagre of wages, Chinese migrants built the railroad that brought the Canadian nation from conception to reality.
While the bodies of these migrant workers (estimates ranging from 600–1200) lined the railroad, Chinese migrants would continue to be denied citizenship.
Today, the exploitative relationship that constituted the experience of the Chinese railroad worker continues under new forms. Migrant workers now come to Canada from all over the world: Central America, the Caribbean and Asia.
These migrant workers are often bound to their employers, work in dangerous conditions, and denied protections and health care and — like the Chinese and Asian migrants of the past — denied status.
A commemoration of the legacy of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act must also be a commitment to standing with those that have followed in their footsteps: today's migrant workers. This means supporting their call for protections, and pivotally, their demand for status on arrival.
Head Tax history in immigrant communities
Asian exclusion and Head Tax were the legislative manifestation of a prevailing climate of racism, violence and economic exploitation, conditions which first confined Chinese migrants into Canada's very first Chinatowns.
Segregation created a disconnect between early migrant communities and the mainstream, with profound effects and enduring consequences for immigrant workers that persist to this day.
Nowhere is this more visible today than in the issue of labour law enforcement.
The findings of a recent report by the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, which surveyed Chinese restaurant workers in Toronto, provides us with a glimpse of just how irrelevant labour laws (such as minimum wage and overtime) can often be for immigrant workers.
Such abject conditions are part and parcel, the legacy of Head Tax and Asian Exclusion.
Addressing the plight of immigrant workers means getting behind mobilizations such as The Fight for $15 and Fairness, which call for proactive enforcement, laws that protect workers, and a system that allows already marginalized immigrant workers to make employment violation claims.
Mobilizing upon the legacy of Head Tax and Asian exclusion
To commemorate the legacy of Head Tax, we must address the unmet demands of the families of Head Tax survivors, but also the struggles of the migrant farmworker, the Chinese restaurant worker, the Filipina careworker and the Tamil grocery store worker of today’s Canada.
This also means making a commitment to fight against the injustice faced by today's immigrant and migrant workers.
Organized labour in Canada, which was actually a key advocate of Asian exclusion, must not repeat the mistakes of the past; it must stand with migrant workers. Among other things this means making cross racial solidarity and anti-racism a core component of the labour movement. Such a direction represents the only path forward for a powerful labour movement in the 21st century.
When we connect the struggles of migrants past with the continued struggles of migrants and immigrants today, we break free of the isolation and insularity produced by a class-unconscious multiculturalism. In turn, we move towards a future of economic and racial justice for all.
Until this is achieved however we must tell Mr. Harper and all Canadians who believe these laws are part of the past, that there can be no 'turning of the page' on this chapter of Canada’s history.
by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
In Canada, Muslim people are often spoken about, rather than the people who are doing the speaking.
The program recently launched Homebound IIII, its latest collection of Muslim women’s poetry, during its fourth annual Volume: Sisters Make Noise showcase held at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto.
Homebound is a collection of poetry written by six young women who self-identify as Muslim through spiritual, familial, ancestral, cultural or political connections. During six months, the women came together bi-weekly to share “herstories,” explains the book’s preface.
“This was a sacred place where our worlds came together, and we felt less disjointed, taking parts of each other and making a whole,” it reads.
The result: 36 pages of powerful tales exploring everything from the immigration experience to young love, carefully crafted in various styles of poetry.
You can exist
El Mugammar says that in Muslim communities, events are often separated into the “sister side” and the “brother side.”
The sister side is taking care of children, preparing food for everyone, organizing and cleaning up. It’s not usually invited to participate. Both the book and its launch — an evening of spoken word, poetry, and musical performances by Muslim women — represent something that is lacking.
“I think it’s critical to just carve out space and say this is just for us . . . this is our space,” explains El Mugammar, who performed at all four editions of Sisters Make Noise and mentored many of the current and past contributors to Homebound.
Resilience and strength in the face of adversity are common threads found throughout Homebound. In her poem, “choose you,” Urooj (MC Shahzadi) writes:
Even in this damned society you can exist,
Blessed with experiences filled of heavenly bliss,
Take the hardest moments as a reminder to choose,
The choice towards a destiny only determined by you.
In the book’s preface, Outburst facilitators Jamila-Khanom Allidina, Rosina Kazi, and Shameela Zaman reflect on this verse, writing, “Not only do we exist, we fight, we laugh, we write and centuries of Muslim women’s resilience is celebrated and remembered. Even if it’s just to remind ourselves: we are powerful, breathtaking and brilliant.”
Fighting to claim stories
El Mugammar says she likes to tell stories of the people in her life, primarily Sudanese women. These stories, she says, are missing from the very public, “Google-and-find-it” type of mainstream historical documentation.
“Our day-to-day lives, they often get lost,” she says. “I don’t want the women that I know helped shape me to be the person that I am today to be forgotten.”
These daily experiences are creatively woven throughout Homebound.
In “skype-shype,” Reema Kureishy captures what it’s like to video chat with her grandparents in her native country, India, effectively detailing their minimal understanding of how to work with technology and the endless promises of “coming home” thrown back and forth.
In “thoughts in a waiting room,” Seema (who goes only by her first name) offers a story about the agonizing pain of finding out if a parent has cancer.
In the book’s opening piece “jung,” Kureishy writes about the fight “to claim not land, but our stories.”
As El Mugammar points out, these stories are important for everyone, not just Muslim women, to listen to and read.
“A lot of people...who may not identify with that identity of being a young, Muslim woman… can identify with a lot of the feelings, a lot of the kinds of stories that we tell.”
I am real…
El Mugammar says that Outburst allows racialized women like herself to be showcased as more than one-dimensional.
She explains that while she has often relied on writing to release some of the anger she feels about the social injustices and oppression she experiences, she is more than the “angry, Black woman” people are quick to label her as.
“I’m also funny and smart and a whole lot of other things,” she says, adding that the Outburst program allows participants to explore the multi-faceted aspects of their personalities, experiences, and community’s stories.
Dumo, an Outburst alumni and co-host of the Sisters Make Noise event, exemplifies this multi-faceted experience in her high-energy monologues. One is about her mother interrupting her Dragon Ball Z episodes to cart her off to Qur’an lessons, another about convincing her Muslim parents to allow her to participate in the school Christmas concert.
As another woman of East African descent, El Mugammar says that while watching Dumo, she felt a strong sense of connection.
“There was a young girl,” she begins, referring to 11-year-old Marley Dias of the United States, “who started a Black girls’ book club because she was tired of reading about ‘white boys and dogs’ and in a lot of ways, I feel the same. It’s always nice to get the kind of humour and the kinds of stories that are absolutely relevant to my life.”
by Lucy L. Oneka in Toronto
Writers of Japanese descent say their work is helping to fill gaps in Canada’s literary landscape.
“When I was at university, the only way I could study a writer of colour was to take the Commonwealth Literature course, and that was a white professor pontificating about South Africa or other places around the world,” says author Terry Watada.
“There was no such thing as Japanese-Canadian or Asian-Canadian/American writing.”
Watada spoke as part of a panel on the Japanese Canadian Experience in Literature with fellow Japanese-Canadian writers Kerri Sakamoto, Leslie Shimotakahara and Lynne Kutsukake in Toronto during Asian Heritage Month.
Evolution of Japanese-Canadian literature
Watada recalls how the Japanese community first reacted to the absence of their litrature in Canada by taking a stand and boldly declaring who they are.
“When I started in 1970, I was with a group of people who decided that it is a political act to call yourself a Japanese-Canadian writer, an Asian-Canadian writer, and I think it was modelled on the Asian Americans who also did the same thing,” he says.
Watada is a playwright, poet and novelist who has written about Japanese history – including experiences with immigration, internment, and Japanese and Buddhist traditions.
“I am from the same generation as Terry [Watada],” says Sakamoto. “The way that people think about race is completely different now, but yes, I think it was a real act of reclamation to call yourself a Japanese-Canadian writer because you were mistaken for being a foreigner at that time. There were not as many Asians in Canada, so it was a real declaration of self.”
“But that has changed over the years and I don’t believe anyone starts out by saying, ‘I am a Japanese-Canadian writer,’” Watada adds.
Reclaiming their history
The panellists say the absence of Japanese voices in literature created a vacuum in the Japanese-Canadian narrative.
“I felt there was so much to write about that had not been written on the history of internment, and the experience of growing up with racism,” Sakamoto explains, referring to the period during the Second World War when Japanese Canadians were removed from their homes and held in camps in British Columbia’s interior and Alberta. The Canadian government ordered their internment following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Sakamoto’s first novel, The Electrical Field, tells the story of her own family members’ experiences with internment and the loss of their homes and businesses at the end of their detainment.
“I felt like I wanted to express that more than just to be a writer,” she says. “I really wrote personally out of a sense of being able to express what I wasn’t seeing in literature or culture at all, at that time.”
Shimotakahara, a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, was also inspired to begin writing because of the lack of Japanese narrative and literature about the period of Japanese internment in Canada.
“I think it comes from more of a personal struggle to understand that whole period of internment history that seemed to me, growing up, people in the family had very contradictory approaches towards,” Shimotakahara says.
She won the 2012 Canada-Japan Literary Award for The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, a memoir about how she used literature to gain a sense of direction in her life, and at the same time developed a bond with her father and deeper understanding of his past.
Inspiring each other
Reading was also a gateway to the past for author Lynne Kutsukake, who says she was impacted by the few Asian authors she found in North American literature.
“Long before I dared to start writing, I was a reader,” she says. “I remember in the 1970s [and] 1980s, how startling it was when I read for the first time Asian-American, Japanese-American, or Asian-Canadian writing.”
She says that before then, the only way to study literature in Canada was to read mostly white Canadian authors.
“I remember that the first Asian-American novel I ever read was by Maxine Hong Kingston,” she says, referring to the Chinese-American author and activist. “I was just blown away.”
Both Sakamoto and Kutsukake say they were influenced by the writing of Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa, whose novel Obasan tells the story of a Japanese-Canadian family who was persecuted during internment, from the perspective of a young child.
“Most readers read looking for something they can identify with,” says Kutsukake. “So many things are universal, but some things are very unique to your own personal identity, and reading Japanese-Canadian literature allowed me to find a voice.”
Like Sakamoto and Kogawa, Kutsukake also writes about Japanese Canadian internment in her novel The Translation of Love. It tells the story of a family living in post-WWII Japan, after being exiled from Canada during the internment period.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit