New Canadian Media
Wednesday, 14 June 2017 08:09

Exploring Toronto's Most Diverse Community

By: Sam Minassie in Toronto

"The World in Ten Blocks" is a two part documentary that offers viewers an in-depth look at one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto. Bloorcourt is home to a wide range of immigrants from across the world, which is inherently reflected in the small businesses that line its busy streets. Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal originally moved into the community back in 2011 while studying Documentary Media at Ryerson University. Inspired by residents' stories of resilience, they created a linear film, as well as a virtual tour that allows users to interact with shop owners. New Canadian Media conducted an interview with the two filmmakers via email.

Q: What were the biggest influences behind your decision to study Documentary Media?

A: Documentary has been a long-standing interest of ours going back to high school in the early 2000s, where we made our first short doc for a school project. As our interests in social justice, politics, and environmental issues evolved and deepened, documentary film increasingly emerged as the ideal form to bring together our varied skills and passions, including creative writing, journalism, videography, and photography. Moving into documentary work in the online sphere has only broadened these syncretic possibilities. 

Q: The interactive tour provides a very unique experience, where did the inspiration for this idea come from?

A: As the children of immigrants, many of the themes explored in the project have long been close to our hearts. "The World in Ten Blocks" actually began as our joint thesis work in the Documentary Media MFA program at Ryerson University in Toronto, for which we originally moved to the city. The documentary is set in the community where we both lived when we started the project, and having gotten to know a few of the immigrant small business owners in the neighbourhood and heard their incredible stories, the idea for the project started to percolate. After producing a 34 min linear film, we began working in earnest on the interactive experience after graduation in mid-2013.

Two of the main underlying motives with this project are to share the diversity of the neighbourhood and to honour the immigration experiences of some of its small business owners. After experiencing projects like Hollow, Welcome to Pine Point, and others, we decided that an interactive documentary would be be the most compelling way to situate those stories in an engaging, user-driven exploration of the geography and history of the neighbourhood. 

Q: There seemed to be a lot of thought and hard work that went into the project with Robinder even learning how to code, what would each of you say were the biggest challenges of the project and why?

A: As a basically self-funded project (i.e. thousands of hours of own labour with virtually no financial support), we had no choice but to develop a wide range of skills and manage a workload between the two of us that would normally be carved up among various specialists. Most notable, was that in order to make the project possible, one of us (Robinder) taught himself to code from scratch (e.g. HTML, CSS and JavaScript); a gargantuan, but ultimately gratifying endeavour.

Making the documentary is just one part of the process; finding an audience is a huge challenge in its own right, and often even the best-funded work falls very flat in this area. As independent producers working in the still relatively unknown realm of interactive doc, we felt that a "media partner" with an established audience who could promote and distribute the project would be a huge hand up for us. Looking at the Canadian media landscape, The Globe and Mail seemed the best fit, especially because we wanted to reach audiences not just in Toronto but across the country. As emerging creators without much of a track record, we were fortunate that the folks at The Globe were willing to give us a chance, especially given the lack of precedent for a partnership like ours (i.e. it's the first major interactive documentary they've hosted). While they didn't fund the project, we see a lot of potential for independent creators and media organizations, big and small, to partner in the delivery of in-depth documentary content that goes far beyond the scope of traditional news coverage.After 33 years of business, Wire's Variety closed its doors for the final time in 2013

Q: There are small mentions of the negative effects large corporations have on small businesses, most evident with “Wire’s Variety” which was closed by the time the documentary was released. In your opinion, what can the city do to support Bloorcourt’s independent businesses?

A: From our perspective, some of the most serious structural challenges for independent small businesses in Bloorcourt and throughout Toronto are problems that the city could go a long way toward addressing. Most notable is the lack of commercial rent control, combined with the ability of landlords to decline to renew leases entirely at their own discretion. The city has the capacity to address both of these concerns, and failing to do so will have serious consequences for our communities.

As real estate prices rise, there's often nothing that prevents a landlord from dramatically increasing the rent from one lease cycle to the next. This is a very real threat for all of the city's small businesses who rent and do not own the properties where they operate. Without some measure of rent control for commercial leases—which, keep in mind, is found in some jurisdictions—runaway commercial rents will lead to increasing numbers of downtown Toronto storefronts taken up by corporate chains, destroying the diverse character of neighbourhoods like Bloorcourt.

Unlike with residential tenancy, a commercial landlord can simply refuse to renew a lease at their discretion, despite the considerable investment that a tenant may have made to improve the space, building a customer base, etc. Just this past weekend (May 27th), one of the participant businesses in the project, Courense Bakery, closed suddenly when their landlord refused to renew their lease (apparently because they intend to sell the building). This is a big blow not only for the owners and staff, but for the neighbourhood as a whole, whose successive generations have patronized that bakery for some 35 years.

In addition, we also found out this week that participant business Pam's Roti will be forced to relocate (for the third time), as her landlord is refusing to renew her lease, ostensibly because he intends to install a Subway franchise in the same space. Pam and her husband have invested tens of thousands of dollars in improvements and renovations to the space, and it remains to be seen whether the landlord will compensate them. This touches on a third major issue, which is that very often small businesses lack strong legal counsel when it comes to designing the terms of their lease. Furthermore, it's not uncommon for a tenant to be too intimidated to pursue damages in court, given the generally more substantial financial resources of the landlord. The city could contribute to addressing these power dynamics by providing an ombudsman or legal advisor to review leases, a collection of resources/guides, or other types of legal support for small businesses.

Q: What is the most important lesson you took away from this experience and why?

A: Working on "The World in Ten Blocks" over the last five years has been a profound and life-changing experience for both of us, and we've learned lessons about a great many things along the way. We learned early on that things which seem stable can change very rapidly. For example, the closure of Wire's Variety took us by surprise—we were out of town for a few weeks and returned to a business shuttered after 33 years—and putting Wire's story together was far more difficult because of that. The overarching lesson for us as documentary filmmakers has been to never take for granted the ability to come back and film another day.

Q: What are some other upcoming projects people should look out for?

A: A new project that we're about a year and a half into focuses on a police abuse incident and its legal aftermath. It's set in Calgary, which is where we're from originally. The vision is for a serialized multimedia web piece that will be more reportage and a less immersive experience than Ten Blocks, although there's something of a through-line content-wise as the victim is a young immigrant. Our concept is to offer various levels of engagement: short videos that cover the main beat of a given instalment, with more expansive materials (documents, audio-visuals, etc.) for those that want to dive deeper. In some ways, the project feels like an obvious direction for us as we've long been interested in exploring the shortcomings of our civic institutions, and feel that narrowing in on this particular story will shed light on some of the profound dysfunction of a law enforcement and legal system that lacks fundamental safeguards to prevent the abuse of power.

We also just launched the last installment of League of Exotique Dancers Interactive, the interactive companion piece to the feature doc of the same name that opened Hot Docs 2016. This project presented a different challenge in that we were hired hands who were handed an existing body of material to work with (video, personal archives, score, etc.) and asked to come up with something compelling... which we think we did!

Also, in terms of the future of The World in Ten Blocks, the project has been invited to the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, which is exciting because it has long been a goal for us to share the diversity and relatively high degree of inclusivity that we enjoy here in Toronto with audiences in Europe. The project will continue to be exhibited at a number of local events, galleries, and festivals, including a six-week installation as part of Making Peace (a multi-year international traveling exhibition) that will be up until the end of June.

One thing that has always been very important to us is to have the project seen and used in schools. To that end, we're really excited to have embarked on an ambitious outreach and knowledge mobilization program that focuses on junior and senior high school students, and utilizes the project to explore diversity, foster inclusivity, and engender appreciation for the historical contribution of immigrant communities to Toronto. We have some stellar collaborators on board who will take the helm to produce an educational guide for use in the classroom, and develop educator- and community-oriented workshops and presentations. We've even had a number of educators get in touch who have already started using the project in their classrooms going back to soon after the launch at the end of 2016, which is very exciting! 

Published in Arts & Culture
Thursday, 18 May 2017 11:02

Embracing Gratitude over Guilt

By Laska Paré in Toronto

Trunk Tales: Leaving home … finding home is an exhibit that recently opened in Toronto. Through a variety of heirlooms — trunks, clothes, photos and letters—stories of Ukrainians immigrating to Canada are told.

My great-grandmother, Sophia Lysy, was part of the second wave (1918-1939) of Ukrainian immigrants to reach Canada. In 1926 at the tender age of 16, she left her home in Tyahliv, Ukraine, to live with her Aunt and Uncle in Point Pelee, Canada. Upon leaving Europe, Sophia had been provided with a return passage to Tyahliv. However, struck by the poor conditions of the farming community where her family had settled, she cashed in her return ticket to help her Aunt and Uncle purchase a better farm. And so, Canada became her new home.

Though I’ve heard the stories from my family many times over, it wasn’t until recently when I gazed at my Babsia’s encased obrus (embroidered Ukrainian tablecloth) and read dozens of other narratives from immigrants displayed in the room, did I feel a sense of guilt about my life in Canada.

The Canadian Perks

As a third-generation Canadian, it’s taken years of foreign travel for me to recognize the value of my citizenship. The fact that I can proudly sew our nation’s flag on my backpack knowing it will only be of benefit, and perhaps a bonus, during my international travels says a lot about our country.

I understand why my Babsia sacrificed everything to come to Canada, and why immigrants continue to do so today.

 

Being a Canadian has allowed me to by-pass many extensive processes or requirements for documentation and has omitted me from being seen or questioned as a threat. So yes, there’s no question I’m grateful for my citizenship and the specialized treatment that comes with the nation’s brand.

Gratitude vs Guilt

Gratitude, and being grateful for my national identity, is simple. The only specification is to enjoy the daily ease of one’s life and where appropriate, acknowledge the advantages that come with the citizenship when brought up in discussion.

After travelling, living and working abroad, the real challenge I’m learning is coming home and resuming the patterns of life without feeling a sense of guilt. Once a person has bared witness to real adversity, struggle and strife in the world, it’s easy to come back to Canada and feel grateful about our lifestyle; but it can be difficult to move on without feeling a sense of guilt and shame for enjoying the comfort, support and calm of our nation.

Coming to Terms

I understand why my Babsia sacrificed everything to come to Canada, and why immigrants continue to do so today. Even though she came with the intention to have and—eventually—give a better life to her family, I can only imagine the guilt she must have felt every time she wrote a letter to her loved one’s back in Ukraine; knowing it wasn’t the same, or even remotely close.

My great-grandmother would want nothing more than for me to be happy and enjoy the freedoms we have in Canada, especially because of the sacrifices she unknowingly made on my behalf. Part of me is still learning not to judge myself or criticize others when they claim to have a problem or issue, knowing they may be trivial on the grand scope. Even though our rights and freedoms are evolving, particularly freedom of speech, I still believe Canada is rich in opportunity, comfort and luxury, and that is something we need to step back, embrace and be grateful for more often.

A copywriter for a communications agency in Toronto, when not contemplating ideas around identity or working on her children’s book series, you will find Laska outside seeking adventure. 

Published in History

In partnership with Apathy is Boring, New Canadian Media will be posting first-person accounts from the 150 Years Young Project, a campaign that highlights the positive impact youth are making throughout their communities.

Mathura Mahendren, Toronto for Everyone

“I thought I was going to move away from the city, but something keeps drawing me back in. There’s a change for the better coming, and I want to be a part of that.”

Mathura has seen and had opportunities to learn about the strength of community-driven growth. While she proactively takes on roles and responsibilities that allow her to be the proverbial “fly on the wall”, the work she has done, and continues to do for community development, is difficult to dismiss for its impact. Over the past few years, Mathura was given the opportunity to work on Global Health initiatives in Malawi and The Gambia towards implementing sustainable and community-developed innovations in health promotion and education.

As someone who struggles with dichotomies and, instead, operates primarily within the grey-spaces, Mathura stresses the importance of embedded learning experiences in Global Health initiatives. She discusses this concern in the face of work being done with the intention of establishing a “one-size-fits-all” solution to Global Health problems. Her opportunities, she explains, have helped her appreciate the nuances and complexities of individual narratives and how they fit together towards large scale concerns.

Today, Mathura is working actively with the Toronto for Everyone initiative to jumpstart the city towards a more inclusive community that all can feel a part of. Spearheaded by the Centre for Social Innovation, the initiative organized a farewell event at the end of February to honour Honest Ed’s legacy as being an establishment of inherent inclusivity.

Salima Visram, Soular Backpack

“I believe that every human requires food, water, education, access to healthcare, and economic empowerment. I hope that Soular is able to become the catalyst for individuals and communities to develop these essentials for themselves.”

Salima was raised in Kenya and came to Canada for her university education at McGill where she studied International Development and Business. She founded Soular in 2014 after learning that kids were using kerosene to power the lights they used to study with in the evening. Kerosene, when exposed to in large quantities, increases the risk of cancer and several other health problems. These issues also lead to poor performance in school, with many kids unable to move on to secondary education.

Knowing this, and brainstorming several interventions, Salima presented the Soular Backpack – a backpack with solar panels, a battery, and now a lamp that is charged over the course of the day for students to use in the evenings. Her initial Kickstarter campaign was able to fundraise $50,000 towards making this project a reality and get the first 2,500 backpacks on the ground in Kenya. She is hoping that, by the end of May 2017, Soular is able to provide 4,000 kids across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda with backpacks.

Salima believes that it is important to consider financial sustainability for not-for-profit organizations so that they are able continue working towards their mission independently. She is, therefore, using a one-for-one model to pair buyers from established economies to support the users in East Africa. Salima hopes that Soular is able to expand its impact to the rest of Africa and establish itself towards supporting the education of these students.


The 150 Years Young Project: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, Apathy is Boring is teaming up with community organizers and city ambassadors to recognize positive contributions by youth. Follow the hashtag #150yy for more!

Published in Arts & Culture
Wednesday, 19 April 2017 10:32

Giving Voice Through Folk Art

by Sean Howard in Toronto

There is next to no public space in St James Town. The most densely populated community in all of Canada has no public land. So when Poonam Sharma and Community Matters wanted to create an art installation, they had to gain approval from the owner of the towers. No easy feat. But they persisted, first with a small trial project and then with another until, some years later, they have a number of art projects across the properties we call St James Town.

Poonam Sharma is hard to say no to. She has devoted her life and art to engaging local communities through the folk art and rich traditions that are to be found amongst Toronto’s highly diverse immigrant communities. For one of her latest installations, The Mosaic Project, she teamed up with the St James Town based organization Community Matters. Seven artists worked together to create an intricate mural on an exposed stairwell in St James Town. The Neighborhood of Nations by Poonam Sharma, Catherine Tammaro and Michael Cavanaugh

Poonam designed the mural to represent eight different traditional folk arts, uniting them into one mural while keeping each distinct. She chose the eight, mostly South Asian folk arts, as they best represented the cultural heritages that make up the St James Town community. Having seven artists was a critical part of Poonam’s approach. It was about getting people in the community to be witness to the art and the artists.

Pressure on Folk Artists

Poonam sees many pressures on folk artists. Folk art is often a private or family endeavor kept behind closed doors. She wanted to bust through this and show that folk art is something to cherish and be proud of.

One of the artists was quite uncertain about participating and not used to working in public, let alone showing her art to the wider community. Poonam told her to just come for one day and see how she felt.

She came and stayed for all 25 days. She cried when the project was complete as she had nothing to work on now. Poonam grows animated as she recalls telling her collaborator, “Why not!? Apply for stuff!”

Poonam was not the only one to get excited. So many in the community expressed interest and even support for the art and artists involved. It forged new relationships and created something that the community now cherishes. Poonam takes this as a great example of the many benefits of projects like these.

She wanted to bust through this and show that folk art is something to cherish and be proud of.

It took over 25 days to complete the mural. At the beginning, people gathered on their balconies to watch. As the days progressed many came down to approach the artists or look at a side they couldn’t see from their apartmentOne elderly couple even watched over the piece at night from a nearby balcony, calling out to the artists each morning as they resumed their work.

Poonam calls herself a contemporary folk artist. Her love of traditional arts has led her to learn much about the many disciplines of ancient folk arts, but she wants to use these skills in a new way – to bridge issues and bring communities together. It was a joy to spend some time with her and also to see some of her other pieces hidden around the densely packed towers lifting up into the sky on all sides of us.

Neighbourhood of Nations

One of the daunting things about St James Town is how to enter the place if you don’t live there. Most of the points of entry are private driveways clearly marked for resident use only.

At one of these private entrances is another large mural titled “Neighborhood of Nations.” It was created by Poonam Sharma, Catherine Tammaro and Michael Cavanaugh and tells the story of early Irish Immigrants, Native American culture and the current journey of immigrants arriving to Toronto.

Poonam yearns to see more art on every shared surface in St James Town that tells the story of this diverse and vibrant, but underserved, immigrant community.


This piece is part of a larger series called the "Intercity Project". Sean Howard describes it as a publication "for all the in-between spaces of Toronto  —  those communities lost to or ignored by politicians, developers and even city planners." He started by speaking to artists in these neighbourhoods, but is open to other voices as well. Find more of his work at medium.com/intercity-toronto.

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 04 April 2017 14:35

Feeling Like a Stranger at Home

Commentary by Laska Paré in Toronto

“If you were born in Canada, you won!” was the catchphrase that came to mind during my flight's turbulent descent into Toronto airport. The next thing I knew, flight EK 241 was making harsh contact with the runway, followed by the pilot’s announcement: “Welcome to Toronto Pearson International Airport.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Am I really here? After twenty-nine months, am I finally back?

I stood up slowly, as you do after a 14-hour flight and let out a big sigh of relief.

I was back in Canada, my home and native land.

As I trudged through the airport, I considered how elated my grandma would be. During my time away, she always made it a point to end our calls by reminding me that people around the world were dying to get into Canada, hoping to create stable opportunities for themselves and their families.

And there I was, instead, gallivanting to every developing Asian country I could locate on a map. 

The birthright lottery

Having won the birthright lottery, that is, a Canadian passport, I've always felt as if it was my duty and responsibility to understand the value of my citizenship. My grandma was right – people risk their lives for a chance to have a decent life in Canada.

But, I've also always wanted to know more about the struggle of newcomers and perhaps gain a better understanding of how immigrants and dual citizens identify once they are in Canada. Do they identify as strangers? Does Canada ever truly feel like their home?

Two and a half years have passed since I set foot on Canadian soil. For some, that seems like a lifetime to go without seeing family, friends, or a house pet.

But after living across Asia and witnessing the sacrifices people make to provide for their family – seeing their spouses and children on a short holiday once a year, if that, for example – my absence and sacrifice seem very brief and insignificant.  

Defining Strangers at Home

A "stranger" is an individual who does not belong as her position in a group is determined by the fact that she has not belonged to it from the beginning. A "home" may be understood to be a place where individuals experience a sense of security and are comfortable in familiar surroundings.

Therefore, feeling like a stranger suggests that an individual does not identify with the people around him, and consequently, does not belong or does not feel accepted in the place that he identifies as home.

As I took my place in the "citizen" queue in the customs hall, I couldn’t help but feel as if something was wrong.

By now, I knew bits of several languages, had become accustomed to eating rice with my hands, greeted people by saying “Namaste” and mastered the skill of washing my hair upside-down in a bucket. My norms, customs and mannerisms would come across as abnormal to the rest of my native, Canadian comrades. For the first time, I felt like a stranger at home.

Understanding the Other

The customs officer signaled that it was okay for me to approach the counter. He flipped through my passport – pages now filled with stamps and visas – and without a question about my two-and-a-half-year absence, waved me through with a jaunty, “Welcome home.”

I looked back at the long line of anxious visitors, hands filled with papers and documents. Not only had I travelled all over Asia without struggle, but I was able to come “home” after an extended trip and not be questioned about my absence.

It was in that moment that I understood why all the sacrifice and risk was worth the chance in Canada.

Now settled in Toronto, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for my citizenship.

While I’m still adjusting to life in the city, there’s no question I’ve gained a better understanding of how new immigrants and dual citizens may feel upon their arrival in Canada, as I now identify with countries and ethnic groups not part of my country of origin.

After so much sacrifice in the hopes for a better life, the ambiguity around identity and desire to identify with one’s new “home” must be difficult for new residents. Building a new life is one thing; however, reconstructing one’s sense of belonging to a nation must require time. 

As I greeted my uncle in the arrivals hall and looked around at the room filled with diverse faces, I realized that to identify as a stranger is to empathize with all Canadians – because diversity has built our land.

An experienced mentor to women in business and the youth, Laska has an unshakeable passion for writing. Inspired by helping people realize their human potential, when not coaching a client or sitting at her computer creating engaging content, you will find her outside seeking adventure.

Published in Arts & Culture
Tuesday, 14 March 2017 12:06

Whitening Your Resumé to Get the Job

Commentary by Hamlin Grange in Toronto

While working as a television journalist with Canada's public broadcaster, CBC, in Toronto, I produced a documentary series on how new immigrants were settling in Canada. It was part of an effort by the CBC to celebrate Pier 21, the point of entry for up to one million immigrants to Canada from 1928 to 1971. Pier 21 was often called the "Gateway to Canada." Today it is a national historic site and museum.

For the series, TV cameras followed a man and his wife on their journey from Shanghai to Canada, and in their early weeks of settlement in Toronto. They had worked as electrical engineers in power plants in China. Now, like all new immigrants, they were starting over.

We were there when they moved into their one-bedroom apartment above a convenience store. We were there when they went to the local job placement office to search for jobs and to update and print off their resumes. And we there when they bumped up against the stark reality of discrimination.

I knew him by his real name, which was, of course, Chinese. His accented English was quite good because he studied English in China. We talked frequently during those weeks, exchanging phone calls to catch up on his efforts to find a job.

Then one day I got a message that “Andrew” had called. I didn’t recognize the name. Once I called back, I recognized his voice right away. He was the same person I’d been talking to all those weeks, except his new name was Andrew. I asked him why he had changed his name. He said that acquaintances in Toronto’s Chinese community had advised him to change his Chinese name to a “Canadian name” if he wanted to get a job. That’s what Chinese immigrants have to do, he was told. Once he changed his name, his phone began to ring.

I recalled that story as I read a Toronto Star story about a new study by University of Toronto researchers. According to the study, 40 per cent of non-white job seekers are “whitening” their resumes in order to get called for job interviews. Names such as the Chinese “Lei” become “Luke”.

That’s not the only change applicants are making to their resumes in their effort to ‘whiten’ their profiles.

Only 10 per cent of African-Canadians who included experience with African-Canadian organizations were invited to interviews, but that rate jumped to 25.5 per cent when they deleted that experience from their resumes.

I can certainly relate to this. When I was recruited by the CBC in the late 80’s, a manager on the hiring panel asked me if I could be “objective” covering the black community because he noticed I had indicated on my resume that I had volunteered with a few black community organizations.

I told him I could be objective and that because of my involvement in that community I had unique access to a community other reporters did not have. I also pointed out that my resume also included my volunteer work with the YMCA and that I am certain I would be able to objectively cover stories about the Y. I got the job.

Sonia Kang, the lead author of “Whitened Resumes, Race and Self-Representation in the Labour Market” says the findings show that job applicants from racial minority groups are fighting back against discrimination.

In our practice at DiversiPro, we have heard these stories over and over. They are not new. We have been told of immigrants changing their names, their accents and their experience to be more acceptable to other Canadians.

We’ve also heard from immigrants from former British or French colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere whose European names have disguised their race or ethnicities until they turn up for a job interview – only to find the welcome mat withdrawn.

In the current political climate in the United States, and to a lesser degree even in Canada, many individuals are cautious about how they identify themselves. In a time of "travel bans" and screening for "Canadian values", it's no surprise some new immigrants may decide to minimize their differences in order to be accepted.

The encouraging news is that new immigrants and people from racial minority backgrounds are finding ways to adapt and work around a system that is not often based on merit but how well a hiring manager believes a job candidate will “fit” into the organization.

I have no doubt that such short-sightedness has deprived companies of competent, hardworking individuals who could have contributed to the bottom line.

Hamlin Grange is a Diversity and Inclusion specialist and principal consultant with DiversiPro.

Published in Economy
Saturday, 11 March 2017 14:47

A Tradition of Thrift

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.

Published in Arts & Culture
Saturday, 11 March 2017 14:34

Beyond White Dresses and Tiered Cakes

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.

Published in Arts & Culture
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 08:14

Depicting the First 150 Days in Canada

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

Published in Arts & Culture
Saturday, 28 January 2017 14:02

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

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

Published in Books
Page 1 of 27

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