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.
Komal Minhas, Owner of Ko-Media and Co-Founder of Dream, Girl
“Entrepreneurship builds a huge amount of resilience, capacity, emotional intelligence, and growth. My advice to young entrepreneurs is to take your time and build a strong group of people around you who can help you down your path- and remember to keep an intentionality to the hustle.”
As a successful young female entrepreneur who is the co-founder of widely viewed documentary Dream, Girl and the owner of her own media company, KoMedia, you may be surprised to learn that Komal Minhas got her start in Grand Prairie, Alberta. This rural city played an integral role in Komal’s story, as she was raised there by parents who immigrated from India. She grew up watching her parents face the many trials and triumphs of new immigrants and was inspired by their entrepreneurial spirit as they created a home for themselves. She also grew up witnessing the effects that patriarchal culture can have on women, and particularly young women and women of colour. She was always taught to dream big and she took this belief with her across the country as she started on a new path in Ottawa to pursue her dream of empowering women and girls.
After completing a degree in Journalism from Carleton University and graduate studies in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo, Komal fell in love with telling stories through video and documentary and gained an understanding of how business can have a positive impact when led by intentional and thoughtful leaders. Thus came the creation of KoMedia, which aims to create systemic change in how females are treated and does by undertaking projects that tell the complex and empowering stories of women and girls from around the world. Soon after, she connected with fellow entrepreneur Erin Bagwell, who had the innovative idea of creating a documentary that showcases the stories of female entrepreneurs, giving a voice to this underrepresented segment. Komal became a co-founder of the project, helping to create the documentary from pre-production, to production stages in New York City, to premiering across the world. The film has had many successes, from a sold-out public premiere at the Paris Theatre in NYC to a premiere hosted by Sophie Gregoire Trudeau in Ottawa. Komal is currently working out of Ottawa, a city that she continues to call her home-base despite having worked in many thriving cities around the world.
Christo Bilukidi, Entrepreneur, OCH Ambassador, and Former NFL Player
“I just want to show youth that you are not limited to anything in this world because of your upbringing, your circumstances, or your environment. You can do anything you set your mind to. A lot of people might tell you this, but I believe this because I have lived it, and that’s why I am an OCH Ambassador”.
Growing up in Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) and coming from a single-parent immigrant household, Christo Bilukidi was taught the values of hard work and perseverance. These came in handy when he found himself playing football for the first time in the twelfth grade and having a natural affinity for the sport, beginning a journey that he never imagined himself undertaking. By pushing himself through trainings, try-outs, and SAT tests, Christo earned a full-ride scholarship to play football at Georgia State University. Soon after, he was drafted into the NFL and played for the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Baltimore Ravens.
After five seasons in the NFL, Christo decided to take his retirement and follow a different passion: entrepreneurship. He is now a co-owner of a successful tailored suit business, Idlewood, and uses his free time for volunteerism. Christo decided to return to Ottawa, where he felt a strong sense of community in his home city and wanted the chance to give back. He is an OCH Ambassador, using his experiences growing up and in the sporting community to be a positive role model to youth. He cites that he will take part in as many community outreach opportunities as he can get his hands on, and is often engaging in public speaking at high schools or community centres in OCH neighbourhoods. On top of this, Christo is working on organizing a football camp for youth that he hopes will feature current NFL players and local Ottawa players to help empower young people through athleticism. He believes that sports are a great tool for youth empowerment, as they teach discipline, hard work, and motivation.
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!
Commentary by Justin Kong in Toronto
On June 22, members of the Chinese-Canadian community and allies gathered at Toronto City Hall to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Canadian government’s redress of the Chinese Head Tax and the 1923 Exclusion Act, legislations which had been used to prohibit Chinese immigration to Canada.
The mobilization for redress against these racist laws represented an important moment in Canadian history where a combination of Chinese community organization and political advocacy was able to secure a redress and apology from the federal government.
In other ways however, the redress remains incomplete. Most immediately, families of many Head Tax survivors have noted that their calls for an inclusive redress along the lines of "one certificate one claim" have gone unheeded.
As a consequence, only 1% of the 82,000 families directly affected by the Head Tax have been able to actually receive claims.
Redress is also incomplete in the sense the injustices faced by early Chinese and Asian migrants continue to prevail in today’s Canada.
Continued practice of economic exploitation of migrants
To recognize this failure is to understand that Chinese exclusion is not an isolated incident in Canadian history. It is a much longer and enduring practice in Canada where migrant labour is coveted, but the humanity and rights of those who provide that labour, denied.
The Chinese railroad worker, who has become etched into the national imaginary, exemplifies this practice. Conducting the most dangerous tasks that no white man was willing to do for the most meagre of wages, Chinese migrants built the railroad that brought the Canadian nation from conception to reality.
While the bodies of these migrant workers (estimates ranging from 600–1200) lined the railroad, Chinese migrants would continue to be denied citizenship.
Today, the exploitative relationship that constituted the experience of the Chinese railroad worker continues under new forms. Migrant workers now come to Canada from all over the world: Central America, the Caribbean and Asia.
These migrant workers are often bound to their employers, work in dangerous conditions, and denied protections and health care and — like the Chinese and Asian migrants of the past — denied status.
A commemoration of the legacy of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act must also be a commitment to standing with those that have followed in their footsteps: today's migrant workers. This means supporting their call for protections, and pivotally, their demand for status on arrival.
Head Tax history in immigrant communities
Asian exclusion and Head Tax were the legislative manifestation of a prevailing climate of racism, violence and economic exploitation, conditions which first confined Chinese migrants into Canada's very first Chinatowns.
Segregation created a disconnect between early migrant communities and the mainstream, with profound effects and enduring consequences for immigrant workers that persist to this day.
Nowhere is this more visible today than in the issue of labour law enforcement.
The findings of a recent report by the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, which surveyed Chinese restaurant workers in Toronto, provides us with a glimpse of just how irrelevant labour laws (such as minimum wage and overtime) can often be for immigrant workers.
Such abject conditions are part and parcel, the legacy of Head Tax and Asian Exclusion.
Addressing the plight of immigrant workers means getting behind mobilizations such as The Fight for $15 and Fairness, which call for proactive enforcement, laws that protect workers, and a system that allows already marginalized immigrant workers to make employment violation claims.
Mobilizing upon the legacy of Head Tax and Asian exclusion
To commemorate the legacy of Head Tax, we must address the unmet demands of the families of Head Tax survivors, but also the struggles of the migrant farmworker, the Chinese restaurant worker, the Filipina careworker and the Tamil grocery store worker of today’s Canada.
This also means making a commitment to fight against the injustice faced by today's immigrant and migrant workers.
Organized labour in Canada, which was actually a key advocate of Asian exclusion, must not repeat the mistakes of the past; it must stand with migrant workers. Among other things this means making cross racial solidarity and anti-racism a core component of the labour movement. Such a direction represents the only path forward for a powerful labour movement in the 21st century.
When we connect the struggles of migrants past with the continued struggles of migrants and immigrants today, we break free of the isolation and insularity produced by a class-unconscious multiculturalism. In turn, we move towards a future of economic and racial justice for all.
Until this is achieved however we must tell Mr. Harper and all Canadians who believe these laws are part of the past, that there can be no 'turning of the page' on this chapter of Canada’s history.
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Commentary by Fred Maroun in Ottawa
“Immigration played a role in the Brexit campaign”, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Since there were only four percentage points between the winning side (to leave the European Union) and the losing side, it is likely that this factor was decisive.
Concerns over immigration have lately been widespread across the West. They seem to have played an important role in Donald Trump’s success in the Republican primaries, and seem to be fuelling the growing popularity of hard right-wing parties in Europe.
These concerns represent a mixed bag. There is undoubtedly some xenophobia, but there are also valid concerns about the risk that immigration places on our liberal values.
I emigrated from Lebanon in 1984. My main motivation was to live in a society that shared my liberal values, where women and gay people are treated more fairly, and where freedom of expression is guaranteed.
Sharing liberal values
Many of the newcomers do not share the West’s liberal values and do not easily change their outlook once they arrive. As reported in The Guardian in 2009, a Gallup Poll found that “None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable”.
France fared better in the same poll, and “35% of French Muslims found homosexual acts to be acceptable”.
Both Britain and France have since then legalized same-sex marriage, a step well beyond simply tolerating homosexuality. If Muslims were in the majority in Britain and France, it is unlikely that same-sex marriage would have become the law.
Canadian Muslim reformer, Raheel Raza, wrote in reference to the niqab, “In the 25 years I have called Canada home, I have seen a steady rise of Muslim women being strangled in the pernicious black tent”.
Another Canadian Muslim reformer, Farzana Hassan, wrote in her book “Unveiled”, “To live strictly according to sharia is the goal of conservative Muslim families in Canada. These are the values they are imparting to their young children”.
Equality of cultures
Interestingly, our liberal values often discourage us from fighting back against attacks on these very same values. The politicians who raise concerns about immigration tend to be demagogues, such as Trump and hard right-wingers such as France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National.
If those politicians come to power, however, we cannot trust them to protect our liberal values. Demagogues pander to whatever political stand will get them elected, and hard right-wingers do not favour equal rights for minorities, a core principle of liberal values.
A claim often made by some liberals is that all cultures are equal and, therefore, we have no right to impose our culture on others. Even assuming that this claim is true, it only means that we should not forcefully go into other countries and impose our values there.
It does not take away our right to protect our own culture.
For example, extreme conservative Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia expect visitors to comply with their cultural practices, such as women covering up in public, yet we allow visitors and even immigrants to our countries to disregard our values by wearing the niqab in public.
This is not a relationship of equals. It is a relationship of subservience.
Cowering on the sidelines
Moderate Western politicians must protect our liberal values by taking reasonable measures that respect human rights. For example, many Syrian refugees have been welcomed in the West and many more are expected to arrive.
Yet, as noted by Amnesty International, “Gulf countries including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees”. The West should demand more participation from rich Muslim countries to ensure that refugees find homes that match their social values.
Another reasonable measure might be screening potential migrants based on their existing values and their ability to adapt to Western norms such as respect for LGBT rights and women’s rights. Once they have immigrated, there should be restrictions on some cultural practices.
Those of us who believe in liberal values have a right and even a duty to protect them. Centrist and left-wing politicians should be at the forefront of this battle rather than cowering on the sidelines, leaving the floor to illiberal politicians.
Defending our values is important not only for the West, but also to potential immigrants who wish to leave oppressive societies. Refusing to fight for our values is dangerous for us and a disservice to new immigrants.
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin who lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He writes at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/fred-maroun/ and http://www.jpost.com/Blogger/Fred-Maroun.
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by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
July 1, 2016 marks 93 years since the Chinese Immigration Act came into force, which marked the culmination of a decades-long initiative to limit Chinese immigration to Canada.
The Chinese head tax already existed to discourage immigration. By 1903, migrants were required to pay a $500 head tax, equivalent to two years’ worth of wages, to gain entry into Canada.
In the second half of the 19th century, many young Chinese men were sent to Canada with the hopes of earning enough money to support families back home and, eventually, to send for them. Though the head tax stemmed the flow of immigration, almost 100,000 still arrived from 1885 to 1923.
“The 19th century was highly mobile, perhaps as mobile as now. Chinese migrants would work overseas and regularly go back to visit,” says Henry Yu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia.
In order to stop the influx, the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which limited entrance to only merchants, scholars, diplomats and Canadian-born Chinese returning after educational pursuits abroad.
It would take 24 years for the Act to be lifted, a period during which only 15 Chinese immigrants were allowed into Canada.
Initial Chinese immigration to Canada
Famine and economic deprivation propelled many in China to leave in search of opportunity, or head to Gold Mountain, as British Columbia’s gold rush came to be known, says John Atkin, co-chair of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society in B.C.
They eked out a meagre living — relative to their white counterparts — working on the railroad, in fishing, forestry, among other industries.
Still, the prospect of steady employment far outweighed concerns about racial discrimination and hostile attitudes toward them. Villages cobbled their resources together to cover the head tax so that one of their own could emigrate, says Atkin.
“A lot of these workers would try to bring their families over,” says Jan Ransk, a researcher at Pier 21.
Growing hostility and the Chinese Immigration Act
With the head tax deemed an ineffective deterrent, Canadians demanded that the federal government end Chinese immigration. The “nativist response” originated in B.C., the front lines of immigration, where many felt their economic livelihood was under threat as they sought employment in the same trades as immigrants, says Ransk.
Their perceptions were largely coloured by “notions of immigrant desirability,” with Asians being deemed inferior, he adds.
“It’s from a period of time that, from our perspective, is so hard to comprehend how normal it was just to discriminate automatically against a whole class of people,” says Atkin.
The Chinese Immigration Act was enforced on July 1, 1923, coinciding with Dominion Day, which commemorated the formation of Canada as a Dominion in 1867. But for Chinese-Canadians, what was marked with parades and fireworks was a stinging reminder of their second-class status, and they called it Humiliation Day.
They abstained from participating or holding celebrations that day, until the act’s repeal in 1947.
Effects on the Chinese-Canadian community
Yu’s maternal grandfather settled in Vancouver in 1923, just before the implementation of the Act.
It was only in 1965 that Yu’s family could be reunited in Vancouver, but even then his mother, as an adult, needed to apply for special consideration.
This sort of exclusion perpetuated what had become a “bachelor society” in the Chinese-Canadian community. Census data from 1911 reveals that there were 2,800 Chinese men for every 100 Chinese women, as reported in Arlene Chen’s book “The Chinese in Toronto from 1878.”
“Exclusion had a devastating effect because for those already here, those generations after generations were cut off,” says Yu. “If you weren’t married already before 1923 and you had no family, it was harder both to create one and to bring family members over.”
The community was also forced to wrestle with the prospect they would be deported. “The immediate effect was that the folks that were here didn’t want to leave — they might not be allowed back in,” says Atkin.
What emerged in response were Chinese schools to educate children on their heritage and to prepare them for life in China should they be forced to return.
The repeal of the Immigration Act and the necessity of remembering
Apart from the efforts of community leaders, what ultimately paved the way for the lifting of the Exclusion Act were Chinese immigrants’ wartime contributions. They were one of the largest purchasers of war bonds during the Second World War, notes Atkin. Despite not qualifying as citizens, about 600 Chinese enlisted in the war.
“[Their military service] brought their efforts to the fore,” says Ransk. “The fact that they’re seeing women donate time, selling baked goods, made [Canadians] realize that pre-war notions of exclusion and thinking this community was unpatriotic, was complete nonsense.”
On June 22, 2006, the Harper government issued a formal apology to Chinese-Canadians who had paid the head tax; their survivors or spouses were given $20,000 in compensation.
For Yu, the apology was bittersweet and long overdue. “By 2006, it didn’t do those who actually paid the head tax any good,” he says. “Most of those people had long passed away.”
Suk Yin Ng, a librarian at the Toronto Public Library, immigrated from Hong Kong as a student in the 1970s. She is now leading an effort within the library to collect and establish a physical Chinese-Canadian archive, from 1878 up to today.
Ng will be collecting a range of ephemera, from diaries and old photographs to head tax certificates and grocery bills.
“It’s difficult for them to part with their [family documents],” says Ng. “But they realize that this is the right thing to do before they disappear. I think they’re happy to find a good home, to let people know the contributions of their grandparents.”
Starting a business in Canada can be a surprisingly straightforward experience for immigrant entrepreneurs.
Yet, every newcomer that travels the self-employment route faces bumps along the way. That’s why having an entrepreneurial mentor who’s had the same experience can make a big difference.
by Florence Hwang in Regina
Skilled immigrants are more likely than Canadian-born citizens to be their own boss, according to the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council.
By the late 2000s, 19 per cent of Canada’s immigrants were self-employed. The report from the Metcalf Foundation and Maytree examines the challenges and opportunities immigrants face with regards to self-employment and entrepreneurship
While in the past Canada has used immigration to fill its labour market needs — Chinese migrants who helped build the railway, temporary foreign workers to supplement the agricultural industry — creating their own businesses also allowed many immigrants to bring family over from their homeland.
Riding the wave of Italian immigration
Ever since Ralph Chiodo was young, he has loved cars. His dream was to open his own autobody shop. He now has 72 franchise locations in Ontario.
When Chiodo was 12, he worked in a blacksmith shop in Italy. He shoed horses, repaired wagons and plows for farmers. But what he really wanted to do was fix cars.
At 14, he landed at Pier 21. In 1959, he started working at a gas station in Toronto — getting the job was the easy part.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, thousands of Italians immigrated to Canada annually. Many were sponsored by family members already in Canada, including Chiodo.
Once he got his mechanic’s license in 1965, he opened his own garage and auto repair centre. By 1972, he opened an autobody shop, followed by a Chrysler Dodge dealership in 1980.
His advice for new immigrant entrepreneurs: “Treat people fairly. This includes not only the customers, but the suppliers, landlords and everybody [else]. There’s no substitution for treating everyone fairly.”
Iranian engineer starts own business
Mahboob Bolandi, who came to Canada from Iran in 2008 on a student visa, keeps himself motivated by not losing the big picture about the future of his business, Texers Inc.: “I always think of the objective and the success I will face and I will achieve through hard work. It has helped me to do and go forward.”
He started his ceramic materials business after he took the Entrepreneurship Connections program ACCES Employment in June 2014. Texers specializes in technical ceramics used in high technology, engineering or medical applications.
Starting his own business meant a lot of work because he was the only person running it: “I was doing everything by myself [. . .] doing accounting, doing a website, doing social media [. . .] Now I have enough time to focus on real business and growing the business.”
Bolandi gained valuable insight into contributing to Canadian society by serving as a board member on non-profit organizations, particularly those that were serving newcomers.
“But I’m thinking out of box now […] that being useful to your society, to your community, to serve your country does not necessarily mean doing something related to what you studied,” he notes.
Hire yourself if no one hires you
When Rene C. Berrospi first came to Canada from Lima, Peru in July 2011, he had more than a decade of international experience in immigration law, but he couldn’t find an entry-level position.
His solution was to start his own consulting firm: A&R Global Consulting.
There weren’t any programs to help immigrants with starting their own business, Berrospi says.
Luckily, he was able to get a business plan in place: “Because I have a legal background, I did my research … people without a legal background … have no idea … what kind of legal structure they need,” Berrospi says.
Another challenge is adapting to marketing in North America: “The marketing is different in North America than other countries so you have to adapt to that too and what kind of market you will have.”
“I [started] with two clients from two different countries. Now I’m helping a lot of different people from different backgrounds and nationalities. The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council chose me because part of the business I’m running [is] an internship program for young Canadians,” he says.
In addition to securing clients from all over the world — Korea, Ireland, Indian, Hungary, Romania, Brazil, Argentina — four of his interns have found work in legal or consulting firms.
Berrospi warns that entrepreneurship is not a nine-to-five job: “I’m very busy. I cannot complain.”
He advises new immigrants looking to become entrepreneurs not to be scared. As history has shown, he thinks there are a lot of opportunities to do business in Canada: “This is the advice I also give my clients: If no one wants to hire, hire yourself.”
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Canadian writers and educators are expressing a need for more children’s books about refugee and diaspora stories that reflect Canada’s diversity.
“It was very difficult several years ago when we tried to promote diverse kids’ books,” says Sheila Koffman, who hosted the workshop “Diverse Kid Lit” at the first-ever Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton, ON. Koffman has owned and managed Another Story Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Toronto, for nearly 30 years.
“We started in a basement of a house,” she shares. “We went around [to] schools, doing presentations and selling books.”
When she first began as a bookseller, Koffman was the only one showcasing diverse books – an experience that she says was “very devastating” because of the criticism she faced and the challenge of low book sales.
Since then, things have improved. Her bookstore has received many invitations to do presentations at different school boards, who are now very welcoming of Koffman’s diverse children's literature.
Stories of Canada’s kids
“There weren’t nearly enough diverse kids books in Canada,” Koffman says, adding she still relies on diverse children’s literature from England and the United States to stock her shelves.
“We have a lot diverse children books in Canada, but we need more,” says author and educator Nadia Hohn.
At the workshop, Hohn presented her children’s picture book Malaika’s Costume, a story loosely based on her childhood. The story starts with the first Caribbean Carnival that Malaika attends as a child after she moved to Canada with her mother. Hohn explains that many children, like Malaika, have come to Canada with their parents who must find work abroad to provide for their family.
“This is a fact for so many kids, not only Caribbean kids, but kids from so many ethnicities . . .” explains Hohn. “Growing up in Canada, a lot of children don’t know about how some of their classmates live. That’s their reality.”
From Joseph’s Big Ride, about a child refugee’s bicycle dream, to Sex Is a Funny Word, which is about gender identity, human bodies and sexuality, Koffman introduced a few examples of diverse children’s literature authored or published by Canadians.
She says there are not enough books for youth that discuss mental health – particularly mental health issues affecting immigrants and refugees.
Jael Richardson, Artistic Director of FOLD, introduced her new children’s book The Stone Thrower along with illustrator Matt James.
Based on a true story, The Stone Thrower tells of how Richardson’s father, Chuck Ealey, grew up in a poor and racially segregated community in Ohio and found refuge in Canada. The book’s cover features a photo of a young, Black man throwing a football. Ealey eventually became a professional player in the Canadian Football League.
Supporting independent authors
Hohn attended Koffman’s presentation as the founder of Sankofa, a collective of authors of African and Caribbean descent.
“I try to learn as much as I can to help me as an author and a writer,” explains Hohn.
She says authors from diverse backgrounds need support to write books that fit the needs of children.
“Most authors have full-time jobs and are doing this on the side,” Hohn explains. “Especially if you are self-published, you are paying for everything out-of-pocket.”
She adds that self-published writers face the additional challenge of not having their books showcased in certain bookstores and catalogues.
“Some libraries just started to accept some independently published books, so if most of the books published by Black authors are self-published and so many doors are closed, that means those books are not getting into where they need to,” she says.
Diverse literature gaining momentum
Hohn says she teaches in a school that has a mandate to reflect Black or Caribbean history, and believes all schools should reflect the diversity of Canada in their books.
“I don't think we should wait for the books to reflect the kids. Those books are windows to other worlds for our kids to learn about lives of kids from other ethnicities or even in their own country,” she explains.
FOLD, which Richardson says started two years ago in a coffee shop in downtown Brampton, is working toward this.
“Over the past year, provincial and municipal organizations, Canadian publishers, industry professionals, local companies, and community partners have stepped up to bring nearly 40 authors and performers to Brampton, delivering more than 30 sessions and events that showcase diverse Canadian literary talent and provide training for emerging writers,” Richardson says.
FOLD’s inauguration took place from May 6 to 8.
by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz owes his early literary education to the two local librarians who nurtured his love for reading.
The all-too-familiar story of unsupportive Dominican immigrant parents equating success with being a doctor applied to him, too, he said.
Diaz attended public school in a poor community in New Jersey, staffed by overworked teachers with little guidance to spare. He struck an unlikely friendship with two local librarians, though, who handpicked books that they thought he would enjoy.
“I didn’t receive the traditional mentorship,” Diaz said, addressing a diverse crowd at Mind the Gap: Crossing Imaginary Lines at the Toronto Reference Library.
Paying it forward
As part of Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue 2016 series, Diaz engaged in a lively discussion with Sri Lankan-American novelist and fiction writer Sunil Yapa about a writer’s relationship with readers and family, the notion of privilege, and their own upbringing.
“I did have very close relationships with my librarians, who introduced me to the things that mattered most,” he said. “They meant the world to me.”
Indebted to the librarians who broadened his outlook, Diaz said he decided years ago to pay-it-forward by helping to create space for other writers of colour in his work as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and through activism.
“There were folks who had even less than I did. I found myself wanting to be helpful because part of me was dreaming of that for myself,” he said. “You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”
Resolving conflict in writing
Family was a natural point of conversation between Yapa and Diaz, who each had their own anxieties about being seen as different.
For Yapa, it was his dad’s inability to accurately pronounce the expression, “Hunky dory,” which describes something that is satisfactory. Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.
That much of his work revolves around family, as Yapa notes, is not lost on Diaz.
“Families are an evergreen subject,” he said. “We are attracted to the machinations of family because this is the vernacular we speak best.”
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight, nerdy boy obsessed with science fiction, Diaz mined the familial conflict in his own family by exploring the fraught relationship between mother and daughter in his characters.
“I had to first imagine not only my sister’s deep problematic relationship with my mother, but I actually had to figure out how they might figure out a way to gain compassion for each other,” he said.
He added that it was largely a way for him to reconcile his own relationship with his sisters, who had borne the brunt of their mother’s excessive discipline, which he escaped because he was a boy.
His sisters were punished for coming home at ungodly hours, while he wasn’t. Even as he witnessed this, he said he didn't grasp how it had affected their relationships until he realized he had failed to sympathize with them.
“It was important to me to maintain the innocence of my privilege,” he said. “People always insist on their innocence when they’re guilty.”
A family of readers
Still broaching the concept of family, Yapa asked whether Diaz was forced to create his own literary family in the absence of one that supported his pursuit of writing. Diaz said unlike most writers, his “natural community” is other readers.
This is partly because he considers himself a reader before a writer, and partly because he said an author’s most important audience is readers, not other writers.
“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers,” he said.
As a writer, he writes with readers in mind – people who he said are an author’s fiercest defenders and who embrace a book despite its flaws.
Diaz later fielded questions from the audience – fans and writers alike – wrestling with issues of identity and writing from the margins.
One woman asked how he contends with the “pressure to get it right” on behalf of his community and other minorities, to which he bluntly responded: “Why torment yourself with this idea that there’s this enormous group of people who need you to get it right? . . . Our work is not going to sing less, it’s not going to right injustice.”
For writers hoping to use their work to gain their parents’ acceptance, he had this to say: “Know that perhaps it can’t do anything there, but that there may be another young person wrestling with the same question who awaits you. That’s perhaps the family you may save . . . Because I was saved by artists who had never imagined themselves saving me.”
The Halton Multicultural Council (HMC) held its 6th Annual Awards Gala Night & Fundraising at the Oakville Conference and Banquet Centre in Oakville, Ont., on April 22.
The event, titled Mapping the Immigrant Journey, was a celebration of multiculturalism and diversity showing the commitment made by HMC to provide various programs and services to newcomers, regardless of race or ethnic origin.
by Diana Manole in Ottawa
Four hundred years ago, on April, 23, 1616, William Shakespeare passed away. His plays are so special that today we can critically reflect on any topic when reading, staging, or watching them: social inequality, politics, history, culture, love and death.
The modernization of the English language also started with his work, leading to the current standard version, in England, and the numerous variants spoken all over the world by almost 943 million people.
As the saying goes, “The best reaction to reading a poem is writing a poem.”
George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate (PPL), along with the Library of Parliament and the League of Canadian Poets, organized a celebration of Shakespeare and National Poetry Month (NPM) through a poetry reading. Shakespeare on the Hill was the first official poetry reading on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, according to Clarke.
He says he plans to organize other similar events on Parliament Hill during his PPL tenure.
I was honoured to be included among the readers, together with Monty Reid, Amanda Earl and rob mclennan. Our selected readings from Shakespeare and our own work had to relate to this year’s NPM theme, “The Road” – or travelling.
Clarke is an award-winning Canadian writer, who has published 16 collections of poems, as well as plays, opera librettos and two novels. From Three Miles Plains, N.S., where he was born, Clarke has gone on many roads across Canada, but also around the world.
He emphasized Shakespeare’s influence on his own work. “Reading Titus Andronicus In Three Mile Plains, N.S.” is part of Execution Poems, for which Clarke received the Governor General’s Award. Inspired by Shakespeare’s perspective on crime, this poem denounces both historical violence and the persecution of black people in the 20th century. He writes:
“And History snapped its whip and bankrupted scholars,
School was violent improvement. I opened Shakespeare
And discovered a scarepriest, shaking in violent winds,
Some hallowed, heartless man, his brain boiling blood,
Aaron, seething, demanding: 'Is black so base a hue?'"
Recognizing accented writers
As a Romanian-born poet and a first-generation Canadian, this event had a special significance for me. I dedicated my reading to all “accented” writers from this country and the immigrant voyage to Canada that has changed their destinies. Indeed, my own trip to Canada in 2000 has been one of my most important journeys.
The first poem I read, “Fleeing. Becoming,” synthesizes the redefinition of my sense of national identity:
“I became Romanian, fleeing.
I became Canadian when the U.S.
took my fingerprints.”
Aurelia Zmeu, Diplomatic Counsellor at the Romanian Embassy in Ottawa, noted in my reading the ongoing travel between two cultures, which defines any immigrant.
“Listening to her reading from [Shakespeare’s] The Tempest and from her own work, I perceived the two pans of the balance scale in Diana Manole’s soul,” she said. “The poet’s feelings towards Romania, her country of origin, and Canada, her adoptive country, are placed on this scale, interconnected, in a balance that was perturbed only by the applause at the end.”
As Clarke emphasized after my reading, “The [foreign] accent represents the democratization of language.”
Indeed, “Shakespeare’s English” can be heard in Canada with accents from all over the world. It is one of the best proofs that people can find means to communicate beyond cultural barriers.
Clarke’s celebration of Shakespeare proved that poetry and politics can sometimes be on the same page – even at Parliament Hill.
Journeys of all forms
Earl is a poet, publisher and the author of two books of erotic fiction.
“The road for me equals time from birth to death and the obstacles along the way, the constancy of love in times of trouble,” she says.
Her Shakespeare selections reflect on similar experiences, including “Sonnet 116” and, from Hamlet, Gertrude’s description of Ophelia's madness and suicide. Her poem, “O’Keeffe,” deals with the reversed journey from death to life and the effort to understand its meaning:
“I seek answers in myth: Orpheus,
Persephone, those who’ve been
to the Underworld and back”“
Born in Saskatchewan, Reid worked for many years in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, and now lives in Ottawa. He focused on the theme of melancholy travel with Jacques’s monologue from As You Like It.
He also read some of his poems on the same topic, including “Very Soon, and With Someone Pleasant” from Disappointment Island.
“I don't care where you were. I don't care about the black ice
and the big trucks and all your other travelling anxieties.
Imagine trying to pick up Singapore noodles with a single stick.
That's how it makes me feel."
mclennan was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour in March 2016 and has won numerous awards and published nearly 30 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He read “Two ghazals, for newborn,” an homage to the birth of his third child, Aoife:
“Map: for she articulates
our new, invented landscapes.
A declaration of staccato kicks
A salted, sunny membrane
of gestures, squeaks and snorts.
Dr. Diana Manole is a Romanian-born poet, translator, and scholar. She has published nine collections of poems and plays, and contributed to many national and international magazines. Her latest poetry book, B&W was published in 2015 by Tracus Arte in a bilingual edition, co-translated with Adam J. Sorkin.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit