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Sunday, 12 March 2017 14:59

Turning the BIG Day Into A Getaway

Written by

by Tanya Mok

Autumn is arguably the most beautiful season in Toronto, but even clear skies and above-average temperatures weren’t enough to keep Samantha Beniprashad-Maharaj and her husband Ryan Maharaj from leaving the country to get married this past October.

Before he had even proposed in June 2015, Ryan, 33, and Samantha, 30, had decided they wanted to have a destination wedding. Samantha says they wanted to cut on costs and, more importantly, “eliminate stress and chaos.” A year-and-a-half of planning later, they flew to Jamaica and were married at an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay.

As a Guyanese-Canadian couple, Samantha, a human resources representative, and Ryan, a loss prevention investigator, are just one of many young couples from Canada’s ethnic communities opting for a destination wedding instead of a local one.

Getting married abroad has become an attractive option for those who’d rather turn their special day into a vacation while getting more for their money. Unlike their parents’ generation, these couples care less about guest count and more about turning their special day into a big getaway. Vacation resorts now make it easier and more cost-effective than ever for couples to have a destination wedding, pleasing young and old alike by accommodating cultural wedding traditions abroad. Tara Soloway, co-founder of Toronto-based agency Luxe Destination Weddings, says the number of requests for cultural marriage ceremonies abroad have increased over the past two years.

Of all the weddings her agency now manages, Soloway says, 25 to 30 per cent require traditional cultural elements and she predicts that number will keep growing. “[Couples are] looking to have fun rather than a stressful traditional-type wedding.”

Samantha and Ryan were both aware of how demanding a traditional Guyanese wedding could be. Five years ago, Samantha’s older sister had both her Hindu and Christian ceremonies in Toronto with 300 and 500 guests at each, respectively. The total cost of her wedding was around $80,000.

In comparison, Samantha and Ryan’s wedding in mid-October cost $25,000, nearly $6,000 less than the national average, according to this bridal industry survey. That number includes the couple’s travel expenses, their seven-day stay in Jamaica, off-site excursions, both Hindu and Christian ceremonies, wedding regalia, decorations and pre-marriage festivities held in Toronto.

While most brides demand they be able to inspect their wedding venues firsthand before the big day, Samantha didn’t mind waiting until landing in Jamaica to see her resort in person. She had already scoped out all the details of her wedding online from the comfort of her home: pictures and videos of the cocktail party and wedding cake, for example, were just a click away.

It was the flight that Samantha felt the most apprehensive about. She worried that some of the suitcases might go missing — the one with the decorations, maybe, or the dresses. With 65 of her guests and their baggage on board, the plane was bound to get hectic.

“That was the highest point of anxiety for me but once we got there and we got settled everything was very, very smooth,” she says.

The flight ended up being hitch-free and cost-free as well: Samantha and Ryan had scored a deal where every seventh guest’s stay at the resort was on the house, so the couple’s flight and stay were free.

Amanda Punit, who is Guyanese-Canadian, was symbolically wed to her husband of Trinidadian descent, Thabo Kathirgamanathan, on a weeklong trip to Punta Cana in August 2015. The couple held their traditional Guyanese and Sri Lankan ceremonies at home in Toronto prior to the vacation but Amanda, 29, says she also wanted to plan something “smaller and more intimate.”

The couple’s Punta Cana wedding cost around $27,000 and was held at a venue off their all-inclusive resort. Unlike Samantha, Amanda was nervous about not seeing the locale before the reception. “You don’t know what to expect, you haven’t met anyone in person, you just see pictures and you hope that it all turns out the way it looks,” she says. But thanks to a group booking discount Amanda also scored significant savings: nearly all of her 95 guests booked through the same travel agency, Red Tag, and she was able to bring the cost of each all-inclusive stay down to $1360 from around $1700. 

Resorts and airlines often offer discounts like this to lure in couples and the high volume of guests they bring. Vacation countries are also seeing a boost in their economy: local vendors that cater to the wedding industry are benefiting from this increase in travel weddings. Destinations like Jamaica do well because of relaxed residency requirements, even having a page on their consulate website promoting the ease of hotel marriages.

“A lot of these countries want people to come down and get married because it’s great for tourism,” says Soloway.

Kara Mahbubani and her husband Arun opened their restaurant Mystic India six years ago in Ironshore, a suburb along the coast just east of Montego Bay. The couple caters authentic Indian cuisine to weddings on and off nearby resorts, also providing Hindu weddings with traditional props like Dandia sticks, used for Gujarati dances, and the Havan Kund, a fire pit.

According to Kara, Mystic India has seen a “significant increase in sales.”

“Destination weddings have become such a trend since the past three or four years,” she says. Her restaurant now caters two to four weddings a month, up from one wedding every three to four months in 2012.

Food and garments aside, there was one aspect of Samantha and Ryan’s wedding that didn’t stick to conventional Hindu wedding guidelines: the guest count. Of the 250 people that were invited, 72 adults and eight children celebrated with them in Montego Bay, a tiny number compared to most Hindu weddings where guest counts can surge into the hundreds.

The reason: guests must pay sizeably larger bills for destination weddings than they would a local one.

While there are no Canadian estimates, this 2015 American Express report says that guests in the U.S. spent an average of U.S. $673 (or Cdn $821 in 2015) per wedding; Samantha and Ryan’s attendees paid $1,534 (Cdn) per person for the seven-day trip.

That price can put a heavy cap on the number of guests able to afford a destination wedding, which can be problematic since some ethnic communities prefer more guests than less. On top of long travel times and big bills for guests, it's just another reason for families to advise against destination weddings.

Soloway says she’s witnessed pushback from parents who had envisioned a more traditional marriage for their kids. “We see it all the time…sometimes it’s more of a personal struggle that a mother or father can face,” she says. Samantha’s mother Rawattie Beniprashad had some reservations. “In Guyana destination weddings are very uncommon and would be considered a luxurious and different way to get married,” she says. However, the fact that Samantha’s out-of-town wedding actually cut on costs was a big plus, and Beniprashad says that for many guests it was more than a wedding, it was a family holiday.

Since marriages in Guyana are usually home affairs, Samantha honoured the Hindu maticore and mehendi traditions at her parent’s place in Toronto before flying to Jamaica. During these ceremonies, the bride is dyed and purified at home and the women dance outside to the lively beat of traditional tassa drums, an essential component of Guyanese weddings. But Samantha didn’t get to have the tassa drums, having opted for a simplified version because Toronto’s weather was “on and off”.

Beniprashad was worried that the rest of her daughter’s wedding in Montego Bay would mean more cuts to those wedding traditions. “One of the major concerns I had was that if the resort would be able to deliver on all of the Hindu customs that we wanted to include in her ceremony.”

It's a common worry, and many wedding agencies catering to ethnic communities use parents’ peace-of-mind as a selling point for their businesses. Blue Petal Destination Weddings is a Vancouver-based agency that specializes in Hindi, Sikh and Muslim destination weddings in Mexico, and their website lists 'keeping your family happy' as the first major feature of their service.

Pam Gosal, president of Blue Petal Destination Weddings, says that parents should express explicitly to planners what they expect, especially in a country where English isn’t the first language. “Communication is a very important aspect of this,” she says. “You don’t want your wires crossed.”

Soloway says that many large destination resorts have had to evolve over the last two years to become more accessible to couples of different ethnic backgrounds and their families. Some resorts keep a roster of cultural wedding-friendly vendors while others offer to help couples find local officiants like rabbis or pandits for their ceremonies, Many now have chefs onsite that can accommodate more traditional and demanding feasts. Kosher meals, for example, are now available at select resorts that previously didn’t offer them before due to the tremendous effort it takes to transform a Caribbean kitchen into a kosher one.

“It’s great because that allows for more people to attend the wedding, especially the older family members who are a bit more skeptical,” says Soloway. “It’s been happening slowly over time but now everybody’s kind of catching up … and even moving into the future we’re going to be seeing more and more of it.”

According to Samantha, their Hindu ceremony in Jamaica had all the accoutrements of an authentic Guyanese wedding. The ceremony included a pandit that the couple flew out from Toronto, fresh-water coconuts for guests and a buffet of South Asian fare, all-included. “The resort did an amazing job at helping us keep with the traditions,” she says.

As for Samantha’s mother, her worries were appeased, saying that her daughter’s wedding was “everything we imagined it to be.” Destination weddings can be a meeting of cultures —  that of the newlyweds’ and of the country they’re visiting. While the destination may seem unfamiliar, the fusion of customs is something members of ethnic communities are familiar with living in a country as diverse as Canada.

“The location and simplicity of my daughter’s wedding was definitely different ... [but] the core traditions and rituals have not changed,” says Beniprashad. “To us Canadians, it’s a lot of fun.”


Tanya is a content creator and journalist reporting on diasporic culture and communities in Toronto.

Saturday, 11 March 2017 15:34

When Bigger is Better

Written by

by Tazeen Inam

For 21-year-old Mahnoor Baig, who grew up in Mississauga, the guest list for her wedding came as a shock. It included many people she had never met before, and numbered in the hundreds. But her parents insisted they wanted to invite people from every corner of the world to their only daughter’s celebration.

Though younger Pakistanis tend to be more modest in their approach, older generations see weddings as an once-in-a-lifetime affair, to be celebrated extravagantly. Industry insiders say that community members compete to outdo each other in a bid to wow attendees, designing events to be remembered and discussed long after the couple has returned from their honeymoon.

What followed were intense negotiations between parents and daughter. “The final list had only 5 per cent [of guests] that I had not met before,” Baig says. Her husband, Farhan Khan, a physician, is also not very fond of crowded weddings, but understood why so many were invited. “It’s a social gathering that reunites people who’ve been separated for a long time. It was a new experience for me, and in the end, I didn’t mind it as I met lot of people from both sides.” 

They wound up hosting 350 guests at their reception at the Burlington Convention Centre, with some coming in from other parts of Canada, Pakistan, the U.S., and the U.K.

Compared to the average cost of a Canadian wedding — $30,717, including honeymoon — Pakistani celebrations can run between $50,000 and $200,000, according to Roxy Zapala, founder and creative director of Art of Celebrations, who has been planning weddings for 15 years.

For Baig's parents and others like them, a month-long celebration is a small investment to mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment, much like making a down payment on a house. Days are spent shopping, finalizing vendors, and dropping off invitations, while on the weekends close family and friends are invited for tea or dinner. They play the dholki — a large-skinned drum that is struck with a metal spoon — sing traditional songs extolling the bride and groom, apply henna, exchange gifts, and plan for the big day. 

Shahnaz Shah, an obstetrician and gynecologist who immigrated to Canada from the U.K. in 2000, blew her son Rehan away with a grand reception held at Toronto's Casa Loma.  “I knew that my mother [was] going to do something extra for me," Rehan says, "but I never expected it to be this grand.”

“We had bhangra [music], belly dancers, a dance floor, and piano playing too. It was a combination with exquisite decor, to keep my guests occupied with fun-filled activities," Shah recalls. "People are still talking about how well it was organized.”

Other than lavish food and entertainment, the bridal dress (typically red) and jewellry consume a lot of the budget. Yellow or white gold is embedded with diamonds, pearls, or precious stones, and usually customized to match the wedding outfit. Special dresses for the immediate family, outfits for the groom, and an exchange of presents between the families add to the costs.

Competition to provide these services is intense. “There were only a few shops in the Toronto area when I started business 20 years ago," says Erum Ahmed, owner of Erum’s Creations, and a dress designer who caters primarily to the Pakistani immigrant community. "Now there are more than 50 good designer outlets selling traditional, customized bridal dresses.”

Makeup and hairstyling add to the budget as well. Makeup artists such as Aneela Gardezi, who has many years of experience working with Pakistani-Canadian families, says completing a bride's look in the traditional style can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $1,500. “Pakistani makeup is famous for its heaviness," she explains, "so those who opt for total transformation of complexion and features need extra material.”

Baig went for a natural look that suited her pastel outfit. But she had to pay extra for her hijab and dupatta (veil). “Everyone is not an expert on setting bridal hijab," she says. "I called someone at the makeup studio to do the job for me, and obviously I had to pay her extra.” 

All this preparation needs to be documented too. This can include drone cinematography to provide a 360-degree aerial view of the wedding, which can run between $1,500 and $4,500 per shoot, according to Zapala.

Khawaja tried it out at her choreographed Burlington Convention Centre event. “It’s like creating virtual reality for us and for those who missed parts of the wedding. The drone costs us a bit more, but it lent a new perspective and thrilled my guests.”

It's just the latest trend as a community attempts to meld tradition with modernity in a new land.


Tazeen Inam is a freelance journalist with New Canadian Media and Muslim Link based in Mississauga, Ontario.

This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.

Saturday, 11 March 2017 14:47

A Tradition of Thrift

Written by

by Lucy Slavianska

Victoria Bechkalo, a social worker from Ukraine, and Aleksandr Aksenov, a bank analyst from Russia, had only five guests at their Toronto wedding — the groom’s brother, his wife and children, and a family friend. Since their home countries were at war with each other, dividing their friends, and their parents couldn’t make it to Toronto due to visa issues, Bechkalo and Aksenov couldn’t plan a big wedding.

Still, they say their ceremony at Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral was the happiest moment of their lives, because what mattered to them was not the number of guests, a drive in a limo, or a lavish reception, but the decision to create their family in peaceful, tolerant Canada and their ability to do this by blending traditions from their respective homelands with those from their new home.

One of these traditions is affordability.

There is a long history of church weddings in eastern European communities, not just because of the opulent atmosphere — the candles, richly decorated altars, clerical vestments, murals, and iconography — but because the churches make a point of keeping costs down.

Many churches, for instance, charge more than $1,000 for wedding ceremonies (the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto charges $1,500 for a wedding, and the Anglican St. Clement Church charges $1,725), but eastern European churches tend to have much lower fees. Some, like the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church and St. Mary’s Polish Roman Catholic Church, charge between $100 and $500, but if a couple cannot afford to pay, even those charges may be waived. Others don’t charge for weddings at all, though couples often make a donation. 

Elena and Joseph Peccoreli chose to marry in the same Russian Orthodox cathedral as Bechkalo and Aksenov. Before the ceremony, Elena bought a small icon and her wedding ring from the cathedral’s shop. “These things are cheap [there] and everybody can afford them,” she says. “I chose a white gold ring that was brought to Canada from a Russian monastery. But in general, the crosses and the rings don’t have to be golden. The idea is that nobody should be stopped from getting married because of money.”

Aliaksei Androsik, originally from Russia, and Julia Gorbunova, from Belarus, had been wanting to get married for more than a decade. “We met when I was 13 and she was 14 years old,” Androsik says. “At that time we were both attending school in Poland, and she told me to wait till we grew up. We lived in different countries for years, keeping in touch over the internet, and we finally decided that she [would] come to me to Canada.”  They married in a small Belorussian church in Toronto, with 40 guests in attendance. After the ceremony, there was a party in the church hall with cake and vodka, and then the couple hosted a barbecue at home.

This is very much in keeping with cultural beliefs shared throughout eastern Europe. Salaries are significantly lower there than in western countries, so frugality is generally valued. Eastern European priests here presume that young couples, and especially new immigrants, might not have much by way of savings. There is also a widespread belief that couples should use their money for more practical purposes, such as buying a home or providing for future children. Priests emphasize that saving is righteous, and they discourage couples from going into debt over a day of celebrations.

Archpriest Vasily Kolega, from Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral (which doesn't charge for weddings), considers the overspending that's so common unwise: “In Canada, we see a lot of couples who use up their savings or borrow money and spend a lot on big weddings, and then spend years paying [it] back.”

By contrast, he says, couples like Bechkalo and Aksenov (whom he married in the summer of 2016) have a different perspective when it comes to celebrating their wedding. “Such couples who come to us believe that the wedding ceremony is much more significant than a big wedding party or than going to Mexico or somewhere else to spend money. They start their family life. They declare their love for each other, take their vows very seriously, and believe this more important than the material sides of the weddings.”


Lucy Slavianska is a Toronto-based journalist and editor who has lived and worked in Canada, Japan, Bulgaria, Venezuela, and the Netherlands.

This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.

Saturday, 11 March 2017 14:34

Beyond White Dresses and Tiered Cakes

Written by

by Renée Sylvestre-Williams

When Toronto-based lawyer Anjli Patel and her husband, Parambir Keila, were planning their Sikh wedding ceremony, they wanted to keep it simple and have it downtown. But they didn't look specifically for a South Asian planner familiar with their cultures. 

“We found our wedding planner through a listing on Wedluxe.com,” says Patel. It wasn't necessarily the norm for Patel to have a planner. She says traditionally South Asian weddings were organized by families and, in some cases, the entire village. But since her 2012 wedding, she says having a planner instead of relying on family has become more accepted in South Asian communities. 

“There are South Asian wedding planners, like Sapna [Weddings], but we went with our planner [Melissa Haggerty from Spectacular Spectacular], even though ours was their first South Asian wedding, because we wanted to get married in a downtown venue, and our planner had a lot of experience planning events in downtown venues.” Spectacular Spectacular has planned a few South Asian weddings each year since.

That choice, and that distribution of knowledge, wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago, when Vicki Singh was planning her wedding. She was inspired to start her own wedding planning business after trying to find suppliers who could cater to the South Asian market.

As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. With the Canadian wedding industry worth $5 billion and catering to an average of 160,000 couples annually (according to a survey in Weddingbells magazine), the industry has evolved beyond the white dress. And while it's easy for many people to find a planner who understands their wishes in their countries of origin, it can be difficult to find planners in Canada who fully appreciate clients’ varied needs and cultural sensitivities.

“This year will be our 15th anniversary [of the business],” says Singh, who has published two books on the subject, Cultural Weddings and The South Asian Wedding Planner. “This issue kept coming up. Finding suppliers who wanted and could cater to Indian weddings was a challenge. Instagram wasn’t as prevalent, so there were fewer ways to find out about new services and ideas. We were counting a lot on word of mouth to find people to do video, makeup — and the referrals weren’t always of the best quality.”

“We helped plan a Sikh wedding last year where the photographer had never done this kind of wedding before,” Singh explains, describing one typical example. “She was adamant she knew what to do, but there are certain things you need to know beforehand that she never got to: in a Sikh wedding you remove your shoes, cover your head, et cetera, during the ceremony. She came to the venue not knowing any of that.”

Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, says couples who've wanted a diverse wedding have been chronically underserved by the industry, but that is changing. “Diversity has always been a key factor in Canadian weddings, and with more and more couples wanting to incorporate their cultures into their celebration, there has definitely been a shift in the wedding marketplace … Offerings are more multicultural today than ever before, and it is now not as difficult to find a wedding planner specializing in specific cultural celebrations.” She also said that wedding shows — often the place where couples find vendors and suppliers — are becoming more varied, offering services specific to different cultural backgrounds. 

Danielle Andrews, co-founder of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada, has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I don’t know that multicultural weddings themselves have necessarily increased,” she says. “What I’m seeing is more wedding coordinators getting involved. We’re seeing a shift towards having a wedding coordinator handling the [culturally specific] details — and not necessarily always a wedding coordinator of the couple’s culture.”

What has changed, in other words, is that wedding coordinators are educating themselves about different cultures. They might have training in (and until recently, cultural familiarity with) western wedding mores, but now they’re expanding their expertise and range of services.

Andrews says they’re seeing more weddings that blend eastern and western traditions — “more western-style weddings with the Chinese tea ceremony included," for instance. "It’s not heavy on customs, but it’s definitely incorporating customs.” Couples are picking and choosing which customs they want incorporated into their wedding.

Patel and Keila chose not to include extravagant Sikh or Hindu traditions into their wedding, which often include a week of events leading up to the ceremony. Instead, she and her husband kept the wedding small, celebrating at the Art Gallery of Ontario with 150 people, and even skipping the cake. She says working with Haggerty might have sounded risky, but it worked out: “We had a South Asian officiant and we all met a number of times to review the ceremony in detail. We had many design meetings where we discussed the big-picture look and feel and details as well. Having said that, our vision was never beyond her comprehension because we have the same aesthetic sensibility. We were always on the same page.”

Singh, the one who started her own wedding planning business, may have had trouble finding suppliers who could help plan weddings, but now, people can get her books everywhere. “We have brides who get our books at the Bay or Bed Bath and Beyond. And [then they] will have their nieces use it — a progression of people.”


Renee Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Quartz.

This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.

Wednesday, 08 March 2017 21:16

Asian Cinema Week: Chop-Socky of Fun

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By R. Paul Dhillon in Surrey

Last week turned out to be an unplanned Asian cinema watching binge, watching four Asian films – three Chinese and one Korean.

I love Asian films as some of them have action and special effects that are better than Hollywood even if they sometimes lack in the story-plot, but over all they are spectacular visual feasts.

First up was the Super hit special-effects laden Journey To The West - Demons Attack, an action packed road movie with four characters - a Monk, powerful monkey king, a pig man and a devilish looking beast. It had out of this world fights and action even if the story was a bit off.

Next up was Korean cop buddy picture Confidential Assignment with a terrific pairing of top Korean actors who play two very different North and South Korean cops, forcefully teamed to catch a rogue North Korean general who took off with valuable US currency printing plates. It was a fun ride of comedy and action and beautifully crafted with a tight story and characters easily identifiable and likeable.

Jackie Chan's Kung Fu Yoga, a silly action adventure with top of the line production design and chop-socky action which only Jackie can execute. Even at his 60 plus age, Jackie can kick ass like a young stud. Kung Fu Yoga also features Indian characters and storyline about lost treasures from the ancient civilisations of Indo-Chinese descents.

It features the beautiful Disha Patani playing an Indian Princess and Bollywood villain Sonu Sood as you guessed it as a villain seeking to inherit or steal the riches found by Jackie and his archaeological team. Not a lot of meaningful story-plot but a lot of fun and crazy action featuring car stunts, animals and of course the classic hand to hand Kung Fu speciality of the one and only Jackie Chan.

The fourth film in my Asian cinema foray was The Great Wall, which opened in North America recently after making more than $250 million in China and overseas. The film featuring Hollywood star Matt Damon and top Chinese stars is masterfully crafted by ace Chinese filmmaker Zhang Zimou. The alien sci-fi drama is an action film with good performances and dazzling special effects. For me it had the beautiful mix of western and Chinese big tent pole action film elements with a tight story and dramatic elements that lift it above average action sci-fi films.

The Great Wall was the best among the four Asian films I saw in my Asian Cinema Week and I'm glad it came at the end of my viewing odyssey as it will remain with me for a while.


R. Paul Dhillon is an award-winning journalist and editor of the South Asian LINK Newspaper and founder-publisher of Desibuzzbc. Dhillon is also a prominent filmmaker with feature film credits, including the latest The Fusion Generation.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017 08:14

Depicting the First 150 Days in Canada

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by Tanya Mok in Toronto

OVER 300 movie-goers attended the recent world premiere of ‘My First 150 Days in Canada’, a documentary that strikes to the core of the Canadian immigrant experience.

The film screened at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as part of TVO’s year-long programming dedicated to Canada’s 150th anniversary. It follows single mother Melona Banico and her family during their first 150 days together in Canada, after immigrating from the Philippines. It offers an emotional glimpse into the life of a matriarch struggling to provide for her family in a new country while coping with her own disappointments and expectations.

“All immigrants can relate to the story of the family one way or another,” says the documentary director and writer, Diana Dai. “We all experience loneliness, language problems, difficulty finding jobs.”

Coming to terms

‘My First 150 Days in Canada’ is particularly touching because it focuses on the spectrum of hardships new immigrants must face, from the external struggles like unemployment and cold climates to the emotional, more complex impacts of realigning with a new society under less than favourable circumstances.

The documentary begins nearly a year ago with a tearful reunion at Pearson Airport as the Banico family is reunited for the first time, but it’s bittersweet: Melona has toiled for nearly 10 years, sometimes working three jobs simultaneously, in order to sponsor her son Jade, 24, her daughters, Judelyn, 26, and Jeah, 14, and her grandson, Clyde, 10, to come to Canada.

The separation, though, has been too long. She’s become a stranger to her children, having missed out on their most formative years. Suddenly, the family of five is thrust together into a single apartment with one goal: to save enough money for a better future.

Dai, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, says she could relate to the Banico family as an immigrant herself. As a Chinese-born immigrant who first moved to England and then Canada, Dai has spent years documenting issues facing Chinese people and their diaspora community in Toronto.

“You have to work harder than local people, that’s a fact,” she says.  “It’s important for local Canadians to know how we live, what we’ve been through ... I want them to understand their hopes and expectations.”

The first few months

But Dai says the documentary also has a message for new immigrants as well. “I want them to know the first few months is hard.”  

Capturing the Banico family’s ups and downs was a tough process. The family was cooperative at first but, overtime, became less and less willing to share their vulnerable moments. Financial expectations had caused a rift between Melona and her children, especially with Jade and Judelyn, who were too old to go to school but lacked the experience for non-minimum wage jobs.

They also had mouths to feed back home: Jade’s one-year-old daughter and Clyde’s father still lived in the Philippines, and Jeah was facing health problems. Melona was fired from her job and the bills were ever-looming.

Sometimes, the family would ignore Dai’s calls and scheduling shoots became difficult. It was only when Dai shared her own experiences as a new immigrant from China that the Banico family became less resistant to sharing their own.

“That’s the one reason why we trust each other, because I can feel that frustration. I understand their difficulties,” the director says. “Very few [documentaries] touch the conflicts among [new immigrant] family members because people don’t want to talk about it ... I’m very lucky that they allowed me to enter their world.”

For many in Canada, that world is a reality not so different from their own. From first snowfalls to being made fun of in school or for eating too much rice for lunch, ‘My First 150 Days in Canada’ is not just a story of Filipino immigrants, but the story of families across the world trying to make a better life for themselves in a new country.

Ending in optimism

Though the Banico family seemed to face a seemingly endless list of obstacles in Canada, an undercurrent of love and Melona’s determination for a better future for her family carried them through the first five months towards an optimistic ending in the film.

After the screening, the Banico family and Dai were invited onstage to a question and answer session with TVO’s Nam Kiwanuka, host of The Agenda In The Summer, where audience members had more words of support and gratitude for the family than questions.

Though the Banico family’s journey has just begun, Melona had words to impart to the many immigrants who have recently arrived in Canada, just as her family did nearly a year ago.

“My advice is try to be strong and put your family first,” she says. “Fight for the challenges that might be encountered in life. Later on, once everything’s settles down, they’re going to get better.”


 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Saturday, 04 February 2017 13:56

Privileging Diversity in Canadian Newsrooms

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Commentary by George Abraham in Ottawa

IN the summer of 2015, a roomful of Ottawa folks got together at the National Arts Centre, eager to gain insights into the question, “What Stories Swing Votes?” The next federal election – the one that eventually ended Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decade in power – were just around the corner, and up on the stage at this Canadian Journalism Foundation event were some of Canada’s best political pundits – Susan Delacourt, Frank Graves, Adam Radwanski, David Herle and Tom Clark.

I don’t recall much of what was said, except one particular expression Radwanski used. It has stayed with me ever since. He spoke of a “subterranean campaign” that would be waged in immigrant communities across Canada – presumably in foreign languages and in a vernacular that would be very different from appeals to the rest of Canada. He was predicting a different playbook in select ridings – a playbook that Radwanski assumed would be beyond his understanding.

Looking back, I suspect he was right: there indeed was a playbook that enabled the Liberals to win immigrant-rich ridings. It is widely believed that part of the Liberals’ victory in October 2015 came from immigrant communities switching their votes away from the Conservatives. The Liberals won the so-called “ethnic vote.”

However, Radwanski’s choice of expression has intrigued me ever since. The respected columnist writes for the Globe and Mail – a paper that I have consistently read ever since I set foot in Canada in 2002.

I know the paper to be resourceful, financially well-endowed and world class. As a reader, I see that it invests in its journalists, giving them generous travel budgets to report at great length from hotspots on every continent, but also giving its columnists lots of latitude. It is a great Canadian institution.

And so I was fascinated by the concept that a campaign could be “subterranean” when it dealt with massive, well-established communities, served by hundreds of ethnic media publications. Why did the Globe not already have a cadre of journalistic talent that would have helped it cover these “subterranean” communities just as it did all the other ridings in Canada? Why not use translators, when necessary, to make inroads into these sorts of communities?

Radwanski’s telling observation begged a larger question: Why is our journalism not as multicultural as the rest of society?

In the period since the October 2015 election, I have reframed my question to ask, Why are our journalists not as representative as our federal cabinet?

I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Prime Minister-Elect Justin Trudeau shared with the head of his transition team, Peter Harder, his thoughts on how he wanted to go about selecting cabinet ministers. Together they produced a masterpiece of Canadian diversity. How did they get it so right, without really inviting a backlash from those who have got so used to a monochromatic hegemony in all the levers of power?

More than one year on, I still have trouble reconciling to the fact that a turbaned Sikh immigrant is Canada’s Defence Minister.

I am not the first journalist in Canada to shine a light on the lack of diversity in Canadian journalism. A few years after I set up New Canadian Media, I had the honour of meeting John Miller, a former chair of Ryerson’s journalism school, somebody who made it his life’s mission to make newsrooms more representative, more reflective of their readership and viewership. Miller has researched the issue and written extensively on the topic, to little avail.

There are still spaces in Canada that media don’t understand and have made barely an effort to try to understand. The less charitable side of me thinks they’d simply label these spaces as “ghettos” and be done with them. I suspect there are newsroom managers who argue that these newcomer enclaves don’t see themselves as Canadian.

It is incumbent on our media to do better: our journalism must enable all Canadians to feel equally included.

Given that one in five Canadians born in another country and an equal number are the children of first-generation Canadians, the “immigrant” ethos is writ large. We’ve been adding 1 million new Canadians every four years. And, generally speaking, their ethnic profile tends to be different from that of earlier settlers – for the last three decades, the majority of our newcomers have come from Asia, nations such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Canada is changing right before our eyes.

In 2012, I took a tentative step toward blending my experience as a journalist in Asia into the Canadian milieu. By then, I was convinced that most newcomers and their children share a sense of dislocation, having moved to North America from regions that are racially and socio-politically very different from the origins of earlier arrivals. They have different mores, a different worldview and a different “lived experience.” They consume news differently and view the world through a different lens.

Interestingly, Canada has had a robust ethnic media sector for a very long time. Visit any grocery store in the suburbs outside the major cities and you will encounter scores of publications stacked in neat piles. A local radio station will play music from “back home,” and the newspapers will say very little about happenings in Canada.

This anecdote may be apocryphal, but a respected ethnic journalist recently told me about a Vancouver radio station that launches its broadcast with the words, “Good morning, Vancouver! The weather in Chandigarh is …”

Each of these publications covers a particular immigrant community, in a specific geographic region, often in a foreign language. Most ethnic media continue to be narrowly focused on issues concerning their communities.

They are staffed mainly by the hundreds of journalists who arrived in Canada wanting to continue in their profession, but find it hard to gain a foothold. About 200 of them have worked with New Canadian Media or participated in our training sessions. They possess experience and language skills that could perhaps help the mainstream media demystify their communities, but nobody has quite figured out a way to marry their talents with the current needs of newsrooms.

I would be the first to admit that not all journalists are created equal. Having lived in five countries, I know first hand that every nation has its own ways of doing journalism. I also know that ethnic and “mainstream” could not be further apart in their professional standards. It would be the rare ethnic journalist who has had the luxury of paying for a journalism degree in Canada.

Working for multicultural media is very different from working for, say, the Globe. The reporters often double up as advertising salespeople. Ethnic publishers roll from one financial crisis to another; scores of them go under every year, while others sprout in their place. The line between editorial and advertising is blurred.

These publications, though, remain a vibrant part of Canada’s media ecosystem and play a critical role in informing and welcoming new immigrants. They fulfill a vital democratic function – albeit an insufficient one.

We in the media need to do a better job of speaking for Canadians and being a mirror to society. This is a cliché, but readers, viewers and listeners want to see and hear themselves reflected in our newsrooms. They want to hear foreign-sounding accents and even a mangled English or French sentence once in a while.

Journalism is about reflecting the lives and times of all Canadians – in all their diversity, colour and socio-political complexity. Newcomers invariably do not fit into the preconceived notions of today’s mainstream media editors.

That’s why it is very important for newsroom managers to specifically empower journalists in our newsrooms from diverse backgrounds to speak up, not to be cowed by those who perhaps unwittingly crowd out more timid voices and offbeat perspectives. In short, let’s privilege diversity, rather than conformity.

As we imagine a new media landscape for future generations, I suggest a “third way” that enables Canada to become the first nation in the world to marry ethnic and mainstream – a true reflection of our unique demographics. Let’s recognize that our highly corporatized media organizations have lost touch and are excluding large segments of our population by continuing to hire candidates who could not possibly do justice to the worldviews or lived experiences of many communities, including immigrants.

I realize it will take more than a generation to achieve in the media what Trudeau has done with his cabinet. It will take more than resolve and window dressing. In the meanwhile, let’s find ways for the two media silos to work together, discover common ground, and, in the process, improve the coverage of communities that feel left out.

This commentary was first published in Policy Options and part of a special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.

Saturday, 28 January 2017 14:02

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Written by

Commentary by Mayank Bhatt in Toronto

I published my debut novel, Belief, in Canada last year.  It’s the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.

Just when everything seems to be falling into place after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, the family discovers their son’s apparent involvement in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours, who put them in touch with a police officer known to them.

The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story. It deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants.

This is an important issue because in their desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make it clear that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same.

In writing my novel, I set out with a simple objective – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

Parental dilemma

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with society at large, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction?

I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalisation and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate.

I’d still want to believe that it would still represent an enormous crisis from the parents’ point of view. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is “only” dealing with a drug problem, rather than being radicalised as a terrorist.

Being Muslim

The other challenge I dealt with while writing the novel was that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil?

I was born in a Hindu family. However, but for my grandmother, nobody really practised the religion regularly or ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai).

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed first-hand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered.

And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Cultural appropriation

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here).

Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be Aboriginal; his defence is that he feels like one, even if he may not be one genetically.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and suggested that I abandon the “misadventure”. I was, of course, not going to do that, mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience.

I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House. Read our review here - Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Monday, 16 January 2017 11:37

Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Written by

Book Review by Phil Gurski

Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto.  It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers. 

The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.

This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”. 

It does not quite achieve that goal, but does contain a good look into the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada, but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land.  We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be canceled because of Rafiq’s actions.

We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.

The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada.  There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.  

Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.

The mastermind

Early in the novel the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot.  These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it.  Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.

Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  Who else was involved in his plot?  How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant? .

The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq.  She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.

Flashbacks to India

I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it.  That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.

The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious.  They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.

Throughout the book the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral.  While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role. 

It is only at the end of the novel, when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.

Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.

The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling. 

As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.

Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

The book Belief  is published by Mawenzi House

by Dr. Gina Valle in Toronto

Children of immigrants learn to live in two worlds. As a first-generation Canadian, I learned to maintain and modify my Italian culture in order to make it valid and workable in Canadian society. There is some consolation in knowing that many children of immigrants share this feeling and practice.

As a woman raised in an immigrant home, I travel daily between the rural, southern Italian culture I acquired inside my home and the urban, mainstream Canadian culture I live outside. Each day, I build bridges of understanding, as I create a new culture. This new culture straddles the ‘old’ world in which I was raised and the ‘new’ world of contemporary Canadian society.  There is no doubt that the contrast between these diverse realities has allowed me to live a more full life.

My parents were post-war immigrants to Canada from Calabria. My father, Domenico Valle, arrived at Pier 21, in Halifax, in 1957.  My mother, Giuseppa Ziccarelli, came in 1960.  My parents had been neighbours in their hometown of Lago, Cosenza. My father was the eldest of his family, and shortly after his father died, he went to France, Germany and eventually Canada in search of steady work.

While in Toronto, my father held down three jobs and lived with his cousins, Luca and Sofia Perri, until he decided it was time to get married. He wrote his neighbour in Lago, Antonio Ziccarelli, and asked for his eldest daughter’s hand.  A few months later, in the spring of 1960, my mother boarded a ship in Napoli, bound for Canada. (A wedding picture at left)

Two years after her arrival, I was born. Three years later, my brother Antonio Nicola was born. In the early years, my father made donuts, washed cars, and sold vacuum cleaners. My mother made clothes for dolls and took care of boarders, to help support her family. As my parents worked around the clock, my grandmother, Luigina Valle, cared for us in our home. Nonna had come to Canada, to live with her eldest son, shortly before my baptism.

Although my father’s love of building new homes was where his real interest lay, he went on to start a business as an insurance broker, with my uncle Domenico Groe. They worked hard at this business, until they finally retired and closed their doors in 2002.

Richness of two worlds

I attended public schools, and in keeping with my parents’ strong work ethic, I began working as an 11-year old by delivering newspapers, babysitting and stocking shelves at the local drugstore.  From time to time, I would adopt a ‘Hollywood’ version of life, but otherwise, I instinctively knew that everything in life would require hard work.

Language and culture shape me as they weave their way through my life as a daughter, mother, wife, granddaughter, friend, and professional. Creating a new culture, one that straddles the old world that my parents understand, and the new world of contemporary society, has always been a very complex process for me. As a child of immigrants, I often tried to reconcile the irreconcilable — home and school — my private and public worlds.  Many children of immigrants feel that they have to choose between family and school, and this inevitably became a choice between belonging to an ethnocultural  community, or succeeding as an individual. This reality caused part of the alienation I have known as a first-generation Canadian. Having said that, however, it also has allowed me to experience the richness of living in two worlds.

Over time, as I learned to accommodate Canadian culture, I quietly abandoned my Italian culture. I believe that this is the reality of many first-generation Canadians, as we struggle to merge two cultures. Immigrants in a new homeland often know only one way of viewing the world. Children of immigrants always know two. Very subtle negotiations became part of my daily decision-making, as both cultures competed for my allegiance. As a teen, I told half-truths and half-lies to get by, like when I wanted to attend the school dance, go to a sleepover, date a boy, wear make-up or travel outside of Toronto. (Picture — family Christmas circa 1970)

The tensions between two cultural systems remain inside me to this day.

Embracing motherhood

It is this conflict that fuelled my professional work, as I continue to search for ways in which bicultural, multilingual children in our classrooms can accept and wholeheartedly believe in their contribution to education and ultimately our society. Ever since I was a child, I made every attempt to be recognized as an impeccable member of Canadian society, which inevitably consisted of closing off my private life when I closed the door behind me and went to school. I became resourceful, as I adjusted my behaviour to respond to the expectations of Canadian culture.

I had to become creative to cope with realities like why there was no summer camp, but rather my holidays consisted of hanging out with Nonna on the front porch. When classmates departed for the cottage, my excursions were limited to the park down the street. I attended university in Toronto rather than moving out and living in residence.  Often, I try to make sense of the choices my parents have made, and the lives they have led — dislocated from the old world, alienated in the new. In the end, however, living in two cultures has made me a more flexible, open-minded and resourceful person.

As a woman raised in a traditional culture, I was only expected to wed and embrace motherhood. The added accomplishment of higher education and a profession were niceties. I was often caught between my first culture’s expectations and my own needs and aspirations as a woman.  I have had to work twice as hard as the men in my culture, only to receive half the recognition.

In the same year I was accepted to do my doctoral work, I also became a wife. Guess which garnered more celebration? As such, I have lived in a sea of crushing pressure to conform and limit my expectations to that of wife and mother. In other words, I was expected to accommodate marriage and motherhood. Although deeply connected to my culture in many ways, I quietly chose to rebel against the same culture that can devalue our contribution as women. I opted to walk away from the ‘script’ that others had written for me. It seemed, at times, that few of my accomplishments in life were worthy of discussion around the kitchen table.

According to my southern Italian culture, success as a ‘real’ woman is measured by how well I tend to the hearth, and not in academic terms. In the home, I clear away the table and make coffee for my uncles. Outside of the home, I challenge people’s biases and teach immigrant women about their rights. At times, the dissonance between the competing images of womanhood is difficult to shoulder. There is no doubt that many young girls from traditional cultures are attempting to resolve the same dilemma. They need to face their dragons one by one, and with time their courage will surface.  Having grown up feeling that few choices were available to me, outside of a traditional female lifestyle, my hope in my professional work is to create a space for young women to consider they have more choices.

Persevering with French

In 1994, I married David Chemla (see picture below) and moved to Montreal where my husband articled and then worked as a lawyer at Stikeman Elliott. We lived there for several years. Prior to moving to Quebec, I had made few attempts to understand the complexities of that province. I quietly settled into my life in Montreal, and went about my business, naturally assuming that Montreal was like everywhere else in North America.  I decided that my ‘practical’ commitment to the Canadian debate about Quebec would be to speak French as often as my energy and goodwill would permit. I persevered to gain proficiency in the French language. Over the years, my studies in France, work projects in Quebec, and French-speaking friends and family members all brought me closer to the language.

I arrived in Montreal shortly after the Meech Lake Accord and just before the 1995 Referendum. As a newcomer to the province, how could I possibly grasp the complexity of the cultural and linguistic debates simmering in the province?  Gradually, my social identity began to shift.  I was now categorized as an Allophone and not an Anglophone, even though I communicate most efficiently in English. For the first time ever, my native origin was questioned by strangers.  “I hear a tinge of an accent,” they would say, trying to determine where I was from.

I worked, shopped, entertained, assessed arguments and sent e-mails in French and English. I read, socialized, attended meetings, negotiated car repairs, accessed services, took courses and returned phone messages in French and English.  Everything about my life in Montreal was becoming increasingly bilingual.  In essence, what is most unique about the city is its inherent bilingual nature.

Our first son, Gabriel was born on a blistery cold January day. It seemed that it would take forever before I would love being a mother. But as routine set in and our son smiled and made us laugh, I fell in love with him and with my new role. My husband David’s work commitments, as legal counsel for a multinational engineering firm, took him to far off places. This meant that I was often alone with a newborn. Loneliness set in and I longed for the days of family gatherings around the kitchen table.

I asked David if he could request a transfer to Toronto. He said he would make the request, but he was concerned that our children would not be raised in a French-speaking environment. As a Francophone Canadian, whose family was from France and Tunisia, this was very important.  I gave him my word. If we moved to Ontario, I would speak to Gabriel, and then also Alexandre, only in French. I continue this to the present day. Add to that the fact that they attended French schools – their books, television and family chit-chat was in French – and somehow in a sea of English dominance, David and I were able to raise two bilingual Francophone children.

Voice for the community

At some point, their French surpassed mine and it was time to focus on Italian. Gabriel and Alexandre always spoke Italian with my parents. They also attended summer camps, sing-along classes, read comics and watched soccer games in Italian. They developed a strong sense of being Italian, which meant spending time with family, helping the grandparents in the garden or in the kitchen and connecting with their cousins in Italy.

After the defence of my doctoral thesis, which was at the same time that I was carrying our second child Alexandre, my precious Nonna fell ill and it was time to complete the circle of care that she had started when she arrived in time for my baptism in 1963. With two children in diapers, my Nonna bedridden due to a stroke, my husband travelling more than ever since his portfolio had expanded in Ontario, and looking for a decent home in an exaggerated market, my professional goals needed to be put on hold.

They were for a while, until we settled into a routine, in our own home.  With the kids in school, given that my doctoral work had focused on Teacher Education and Multicultural Studies, I turned my efforts to working in the field of diversity. I launched Diversity Matters Inc. and went on to publish several books, curate a photo exhibit that has travelled to Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East, produce and direct a multi-faith documentary, develop curriculum resources and deliver workshops.

Life seemed manageable, and as decent as it should be, given the storyline we are fed in our noisy world, until the sudden illness of my father. At the age of 74, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Dad was the eldest in his family, the caregiver, nurturer, relentless worker who loved his home-made salami, trips to Florida, bocce games, lunch at the Mandarin, and above all else, his family. He died within a matter of weeks, and everything I knew to be true and real, shattered.  I grieved longingly for the person who had been such an inspiration in my life, and an exceptional role model for my sons. He left us too soon. (See picture of  Domenico and Giuseppa Valle with their grandchildren, in 2004.)

So, instead of having quiet dinners at home or buying a new rug that matches the living room furniture, I participate in a host of Italian Canadian initiatives, from documenting the stories of Italian immigrant women for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, to providing feedback on the Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens national project, or being a board member of AMICI Museum, the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, Italian Heritage Month and most recently Villa Charities. I am a voice for our community as OMNI Television restructures its programming for ethnocultural communities.

I help with homework, prepare dinner, carpool to soccer practice and go to a meeting in our Italian Canadian community (or to Lifeline Syria, Multifaith Toronto, or the Canadian Race Relations Foundation). I do this for my parents, and I do this for my children. I do this for Domenico and Giuseppa Valle, as it is my small way of honouring my parents’ love and commitment to us and to this country. And I do this for my sons Gabriel and Alexandre, as it is my way of teaching them about the past, and giving them a strong sense of belonging to a place we all call home.


 Gina Valle, Ph.D., is a diversity trainer, speaker, author and the founder of Diversity Matters, where she challenges Canadians to think outside the black box when it comes to pluralism within our borders and beyond. This first-person account first appeared in Transformations Canada

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