By: Sara Asalya in Toronto, ON
Newcomers to Canada face numerous challenges from the moment they land; most significantly managing their finances and successfully transitioning within their respective careers. In the majority of cases, acquiring a Canadian education or certification can be the only pathway to enter the local job market. However, given their limited financial resources and the various barriers to essential services, they can be in serious risk of losing their savings and wasting years of their life trying to get back on track. Consequently, they find themselves facing two choices: either start from scratch by going back to school, or accept a low-wage survival job to support their families. In many cases, newcomers don’t have the resources and financial means to access education. I was one of the immigrants who chose to go back to school and obtain some Canadian credentials.
But how in the first place did I end up being an immigrant in Canada? If ever there was a day that has been burned into my memory, it is Dec 27th, 2008. The first day of the 2008 war on Gaza and the day that changed my life forever. As a Palestinian, I was born and raised in a war-torn country and thus war was familiar to me. However, a time came when the familiar became unfamiliar—when the bombings destroyed my home at the time I had become a new mother. After witnessing 40 days of war and violence in Gaza and losing my childhood home, friends and family members; I decided that I no longer wanted to live there and raise my children in this nightmare. Brushing shoulders with death left an irreversible impact on me.
Arriving safely in Canada with my family was the beginning of a new journey. I thought all my fears and nightmares were behind me now. But the reality was different. There was a fear and uncertainty of the future. Where to go? How to start? And what do I want? To summarize, what I have learned from my first couple of months in Canada is that it all comes down to your Canadian credentials and who you know to find a job here. With zero connections and no Canadian references or experience, I decided to go back to school and gain some Canadian credentials that might open doors for me.
In 2015, I enrolled in the Community Engagement, Leadership and Development post graduate certificate at Ryerson University. My educational experience here was not an easy one. On my first day of school, I was stressed because I looked different than everyone I saw walking in the corridors. In my classes, I seemed to be the only mother and mature student whose first language was not English. I felt lost and lonely. I nervously spent two weeks preparing for my first three-minute presentation. I finished my presentation in less than a minute and I just wanted the earth to swallow me. I persevered, worked hard, and finished my certificate with a GPA of 3.96 out of 4.
Who was that person who was so insecure to do a three-minute presentation two years ago? In the short time of two years, I went from being anxious about a short presentation to being a leader who moderates panel discussions and accepts speaking invitations from Toronto colleges and local media outlets. This is more like the person I was before I came to Canada and someone I relate to as ‘me’. So why did it take me, then, a new immigrant, this time to navigate this system and return to my former self? There seems to be a fundamental lack of accessible support systems in higher education institutions for people like me, adult immigrant students who need to regain their confidence through adequate information, engagement and empowerment. No one should experience wanting the earth to just swallow them up.
My first-hand experience in a Canadian university campus has prompted me to make changes at Ryerson for the community of new immigrants of which I am a part. I formed the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR); the first student group of its kind for newcomer, immigrant and refugee students. I dedicated much of my time to empower this immigrant community with a special focus on their higher education experiences. Moreover, I managed to create the “NSAR Scholarship” for newcomer and adult immigrant students to empower and help them in their educational journeys. One of the biggest challenges I faced as an adult immigrant student was finding a community that I could belong to while re-positioning my identity. Through the group I formed at Ryerson, I aim to build an inclusive community for newcomer and adult immigrant students to help them create their own spaces.
After I enrolled at Ryerson, I noticed the increasing need to create a support and transition system for newcomer and immigrant students at postsecondary institutions. I also noticed the service gap. There was no system in place nor policies or programs to support my community at Ryerson. Even though Ryerson has been a leader in supporting immigrant and refugee communities, I believe it has the capacity to do so much more. In light of the changing landscape, I think Ryerson University can take a leadership position in changing policies and providing programming for newcomers to facilitate their post-secondary experiences.
Education is a core sector for human development and access to higher level of education can have an extraordinary, long-term and far-reaching impact on empowering communities. Universities should, therefore, invest in creating support systems for migrant students to ease their transition and integration process.
NSAR aims to build an inclusive community on the Ryerson campus that promotes community development and involvement. Our vision is of an inclusive society that values the skills and contributions of newcomers, immigrants, and their allies and actively engenders a sense of belonging within communities.
My team and I work to help newcomer and immigrant students make a smooth transition into the Canadian education system by providing peer support, cultural integration, information sessions, and networking events. Moreover, we help them in their pursuits educationally and professionally. My team also works on researching the challenges facing newcomer and adult immigrant students at Ryerson by soliciting feedback from these students to provide recommendations to the school. Most recently, we organized an international students' conference for the first time, that focused on the experiences of newcomers, immigrants, and refugees who had moved on to pursue higher educations. We also collaborated with the Scope radio at Ryerson University to create our own radio show that will host migrant students to learn about the challenges they face and their needs in higher education institutions. We also tend to look at the broader picture and analyze some of the immigration policies that might hinder newcomer integration and prevent them from accessing education.
NSAR has a special focus on immigrant women and that is why we established the “empowering immigrant women club”. The Ryerson club was established when we noticed a large number of female ethnic students struggled to attend their classes because of the lack of an affordable child-care system. Newcomers can’t afford to pay the high costs of childcare and education simultaneously, which results in many of these women dropping courses and eventually withdrawing from university. This club creates a support system for these women by offering free childcare, peer support and professional development. All women in the club work to back each other and build a self-sufficient support system.
Based on my first daunting encounter with the Canadian education system, I would have never thought that I would understand it or navigate through it, let alone flourish and achieve my potential. I made a promise to myself that I will always strive to help make this experience as welcoming and as accommodating as possible for every immigrant and newcomer to this country who has the desire and ability to pursue their passions and dreams.
Sara Alysa is the founder and president of the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR) as well as the Vice President of Events and Outreach at the Continuing Education Students' Association of Ryerson (CESAR). Her main interests are in looking at the experiences of migrant students in higher education and what post-secondary institutions offer for these students.
By: Joyeeta Dutta Ray in Toronto, ON
Toronto has always been a magnet for new immigrants. Some come here to escape bullets. Some come to fill up their wallets. Some are here to breathe in unpolluted air.
Over the last few years however, more and more skilled immigrants have traded their Permanent Resident garlands for a rosy life elsewhere.
The reason is almost always one of the two: Unemployment or underemployment!
This was seldom the case even a couple of decades back.
When Mila Lebuda fled to Toronto from communist Poland in 1991 at the age of 21, the country embraced her with open arms. It did not matter that she did not speak English or that she didn’t have much work experience. The grounds for adopting her were purely humanitarian.
“Canada gave me a new lease of life” she says. This is where she met her future husband, Vlad Lebuda another Polish immigrant like her. She made money as a caregiver. He drove a truck. As finances improved, their lifestyle did too. For Mila, the biggest barrier was language. Once that hurdle was crossed, life was sunshine and tulips.
However, not everyone finds the same success in Canada!
Mila’s tech-savvy Polish friend, Aron* (named changed for privacy) had higher ambitions. He went back to Poland as soon as conditions improved. “There are better opportunities there now. Despite living here for 10 years, he never got his due,” says Mila.
Not surprising! Statistics Canada reports that even after being in Canada for 15 years, immigrants with a university degree are more likely than the native-born to be in low-skilled jobs.
New Immigration Policies; New People
There’s a shift in trends. As new policies replace older ones, immigrants flying in to Canada now, are visibly different than those who came in earlier. They are better educated, better versed in English and better positioned professionally.
There’s a reason behind that. Earlier Canada took in more unskilled workers to meet economic needs. But recruitment efforts for skilled workers, entrepreneurs and investors are the need of the hour now. “Since 2006, the government has made dramatic changes to the federal skilled workers program by raising language requirements, restricting eligibility to specific professions and pre-screening applicants’ foreign credentials”, says the Toronto Star.
Yet, these very skilled immigrants are the ones who are having it rough.
For Roopa Rakshit who moved with her husband and 12 year old son to Thunder Bay (Ontario) from Thailand in 2012, migration was a decision based on being located closer to their daughter who was studying in UBC, Vancouver.
It was an intimidating prospect at a stage in their lives when they were well-settled professionally. But they were confident that their international resumes would open doors. They were in for a surprise!
It took Roopa 4 years to find a job suited to her skills. “I was an environmentalist in a United Nations affiliated organization in my previous life (Bangkok). While my International experience was appreciated, I was made to realize that I fell short of the “Canadian experience.“
In the race to build her “Canadianess”, Roopa sprinted on the volunteering path, networked along the way and picked up a scholarship for PHD at Lakehead University. That was the trophy that gave her the much needed break. “It was my research topic on energy planning with the First Nations people that led me to my current job in a First Nations Technical Services Organization.”
Malak Ahmed, who moved from Egypt in August 2016 with her husband and three daughters, has a similar story. She was a Business Unit Director in a leading advertising agency in Cairo. Despite her fancy title and a McGill Graduate Certificate, no employer was ready to lay out the red carpet for her.
“While I did expect to work my way up, I didn’t expect to stumble so many steps down the ladder in the process. I was surprised that a city that boasted of a high rate of immigration would put so much emphasis on 'Canadian experience'!”
To cross the barrier, her next step was to get an employment agency to rewrite her CV. That’s quite another story.
The Great Canadian Resume
Few countries have elevated the resume to such heights. It’s almost an art form here, based not on jotting down your skills but how strategically you phrase them. No matter how clipped your English, how impressive your name card or how many reference letters you come armed with, it’s hard for foreigners to master this skill.
Only Canadians know the trick! They have ingeniously made a business out of it, creating employment for themselves to help clueless newcomers like Malak.
When the planets finally aligned to bless her with a job, the pay didn’t match up to her qualifications. But despite it all, Malak chooses to stay on. “After the revolution in Cairo, the economy struggled and so did we. But it’s all been worthwhile. We like the cultural diversity here. The kids love their schools.”
Easy to see how soaring cost of living, rising crime and jobs with unscrupulous hours in Cairo make Canada seem like Disneyland.
For Alexa, who came from Honduras (Central America) to North York, the road was as rough. She arrived armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, a Masters in Marketing, 5 years at an International Telecommunications company and dreams to make it big. None of these made things any easier!
“I was a Marketing and Sales Manager at Huawei Technologies in Honduras. The biggest challenge for me was to start my career from the bottom up.” But she wouldn’t head back either. “Honduras is a small country where 50% of people live in poverty. There is a high rate of homicides and corruption.” In contrast, Canada offers commuting safety, free education and healthcare. The choice is clear!
Escaping corruption was high on the list for Marcia to move from Brazil as well. She arrived with her husband in Toronto in 2016. “The social discrepancy of wealth makes for very dangerous streets, with thefts happening everywhere” she says. While it’s a dream to stroll around North America’s safest metropolitan “without fear of getting mugged”, the Marketing professional who worked for 9 years in a leading multinational company, found it hard to find a job. It took her 3 months to find full-time employment and when she did, the job was an entry level position in Customer Service that paid less than she expected because of her lack of “Canadian Experience”.
“You feel like your experience in a foreign country is devalued because you haven’t applied it in Canada. Recruiters tend to disqualify you too”, she says.
Canada: More dependent on new immigrants than ever
Canada thrives on new immigrants to bring in the bucks. Estimates from the Conference Board of Canada reveal that if Canadian employers recognized and rewarded immigrant skills, the country would earn an additional $10 million annually.
Instead, every year, Canada loses valuable doctors, engineers, accountants and marketing professionals to the USA, where “American Experience” is an unheard of criterion! While others take up blue collar jobs that don’t do justice to their skills.
Local employers argue that “Canadian Experience” assures understanding of the soft skills essential for success here.
However, it pays for them to remember that the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) has laid down a strict declaration that “Canadian Experience” is discrimination and can only be used in very limited circumstances.
Interestingly enough, smaller cities and rural areas in Canada have set a better example. In 2013, Moncton, New Brunswick ran career fairs that encouraged employers to hire immigrants. In Manitoba the tiny cities of Winkler and Morden have not just drawn newcomers in large numbers with their successful immigration programs, but also helped them settle in to a quality lifestyle.
How can Ontario follow suit?
Roopa suggests, “Employers should be encouraged to accept professional immigrants to maximize on their experience. The integration can include in-house orientation.” Marcia agrees. “There should be more incentives from the government to encourage companies to hire qualified foreigners in appropriate positions. The success of the immigration policy should be measured not by the number of people who come in but by the number of people who stay on successfully in the country.”
For a country that prides itself on being humanitarian, learning from the smaller towns and listening to the less heard voices could be the key to turning things around before an ageing population and shrinking birth rate get the better of the nation.
Commentary By: Avi Benlolo in Toronto
Today is International Day of Democracy. Yet, the western world seems to have lost hope of the very fundamentals we are supposed to hold dear to our hearts – freedom, equality, respect and peace building. Democracies are far from perfect and disparities within exist and must be addressed to alleviate hardship and continued inequality. However, Gross Domestic Product, mortality and literacy rates are amongst the highest in the world among leading nation states which practice democracy. Third-world developing nations struggle with persistent war, poverty, disparity, environmental degradation and inequity. It’s no wonder that democracies like Canada enjoy an inflow of migrants who hope to live in a nation which respects the UN Declaration for Human Rights, unlike the majority of the UN General Assembly.
Still, democracies have become far too forgiving or compromising. While we preach gender equality, we look the other way as non-democracies practice gender apartheid and withhold women's rights, for example. We say we want to promote "women and girls' leadership and participation in political, social and peace-building processes" which would be essential to building democracies worldwide, but we timidly look the other way. We provide military equipment as Canada has to Saudi Arabia and promote trade with nations that discriminate against others, and in many cases are spreading the seeds of hate and intolerance worldwide.
For all of its good deeds in assisting the developing world with billions of dollars of investment aid in order to further democracy, the west is targeted relentlessly by terrorists who use the very freedom of movement and assembly to harm innocent people. Today, on International Day of Democracy, European cities have been placed on high alert as a result of a number of incidents, including a bomb in the London subway which injured 22 people; a hammer attack in Lyon that critically injured two women by a man running down the street yelling "Allahu Akhbar"; a knifeman stopped by police in Birmingham and a highway closed in Malmo after explosives were found in a car.
Yet our democracy is failing to curb the attack on the west, on our institutions and our citizens. We have seen a slow and steady degradation of our way of life since 9/11 with increasing spate of terrorism and relentless usage of rights like 'free speech' to sow hate and discord. In many ways, Jewish communities across Europe have been like the so-called canaries in the coal mine – having been the initial recipients of most terror attacks. Now it has spread to society at large.
In Canada, while we speak about equity, anti-racism, tolerance and peace building, our hate crime laws fail to be enforced giving way to more hate crime. We learned this week that in Quebec, the Crown Attorney dropped charges against two imams who were captured on video preaching hatred and violence against Jews at a Montreal mosque. In Toronto, a Muslim community calls for the elimination of Jews each year at its annual "Al Quds" protest at Queen’s Park while violence promoting antisemitic pamphlet circulates the province, with little reaction from authorities. Graffiti stating "Hitler was Right" is spray painted on bridges without condemnation from our premier or leading public figures.
If we are going to celebrate democracy and its fundamentals, we must learn to protect and defend our values and ideals. If democracies celebrate tolerance, they cannot and should not tolerate those who are intolerant of others. They must stand up to hate, enforce hate crime and hate speech laws and place our very values and ideals – like women's rights, justice and equality – first and foremost. Otherwise, I fear that if we are not passionate about our exceptional democratic system, hope for humanity might be lost.
Avi Benlolo is a Canadian human rights activist, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
By: Andrea Elliot in Toronto
“You don’t have Canadian experience.” This is what a new immigrant from New Delhi with a university degree, an MBA and a wealth of prior business experience was told at a recent job interview. In her 40s, the woman had arrived from India, confident she would have greater career opportunities and a better life for her daughters, but was quickly disheartened to find her impressive resume held little weight within our borders.
This is a story that has become all too common in Canada — especially when you consider that we have the highest foreign-born population (20%) of any G-8 country. While most Canadians take great pride in our nation’s rich history of diversity, the sad truth is our businesses are not always so welcoming to people with different names, customs and attire. A recent Canadian employment study proved as much, revealing that job candidates with Asian names (Chinese, Indian or Pakistani) are less likely to be called for interviews than their counterparts with Anglo-Canadian names, even when they have a higher level of education.
In my role at Dress for Success, it’s heartbreaking to see these stats come to life every day. Over the past five years, the number of new Canadians who have turned to our organization for career help has climbed to a point where immigrants now represent almost half of the women we serve. But, while our charitable organization is best known for providing women in need with professional attire, these new immigrants face challenges that go far beyond finding the right outfit for an interview.
Imagine entering a new country as a refugee. You’re a young parent with kids and no income. English is your second language. You don’t have a computer to work on your resume, or a smartphone to communicate with potential employers. You have to go to the public library to access the internet. You have no social network to rely on, and you’re certainly not on LinkedIn. Sometimes, I have to remind our volunteers and community partners of just how difficult an uphill climb our immigrant population faces to find employment.
Then, there are the hidden obstacles, understanding not just how to dress for an interview, but the social cues that could be holding them back (for instance, it might be inappropriate for a conservative Muslim woman to shake hands with a man during a job interview, but an employer may not be aware of this).
Needless to say, the learning curve for immigrants is steep. Each woman who shows up at Dress for Success has her own personal journey and it is our mission to embrace that journey, so they can gain confidence, find a job and earn financial and economic independence. We start by getting to know them through private, one-on-one conversations that last up to two hours and often become incredibly emotional. These are smart women who are desperate for nothing more than a better way of life, and our volunteers can’t help but become intimately involved.
After chatting about their interests and qualifications, we help these women position their experience and education for a Canadian audience, helping remove any hidden cues that may cause employers to be dismissive of their resume or LinkedIn profile. We also have them create “elevator pitches” on why they should be hired, and stage mock interviews to help them prepare. We even hold networking events where they have the opportunity to introduce themselves to executives and managers, and practice speaking in a corporate setting.
When it comes down to it, our mission is to build these women up every day so they not only gain confidence about what they can do, but feel good about who they are as individuals. There are many ways for people to get involved in our cause, but this is really a rallying cry to corporate Canada — I’m calling on our country’s business leaders to examine their hiring policies from the top down and take a more active role in providing new Canadians with opportunities.
For all the talk of a global marketplace, our businesses still act local. The number of women who continue to tell me they feel they’re being judged by their family name is significant and disheartening. It’s also disappointing when qualified candidates who have held great jobs in their home countries are not considered for similar positions here in Canada.
The sad truth is that while many of today’s corporate leaders are concerned with reaching male-female ratios and gender equality, promoting opportunities for new Canadians is not on their radar, even though it would be in their best interests to do so — in 2015, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that if Canadian employers and professional regulatory bodies did a better job of recognizing immigrants’ skills, they would earn an additional $10 billion annually, at minimum.
There is simply no reason or excuse for a “Canadian experience” job requirement to exist in 2017. And, as we continue to celebrate Canada 150, it’s time for our businesses to realize — as our country did years ago — that opening their doors to new immigrants will only make them stronger.
Andrea Elliott is Chair of the Board of Directors of Dress for Success Toronto, and its fundraising committee, Corporate Giving.
By: Sam Minassie in Toronto
The Institute of Canadian Archives is gearing up for its feature event of the year, which will showcase a number of speakers who will host open discussions on a range of topics. With over 30 diverse faith and non-faith based leaders, the event looks to send a strong message against xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The “Hearts & Minds Living Library: Compassion Catalogue” is slated to take place at Toronto’s City Hall. Multiple presentations will take place simultaneously, giving participants the ability to navigate the floor depending on their interests.
Award winning journalist and broadcaster, Naheed Mustafa will serve as the event’s Master of Ceremony. As an accomplished written contributor who has spent time in Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan, she offers a unique perspective on the day’s subject matter.
Five programs have been scheduled: The Living Library Sessions, Fireside Reading, Compassion Panel and a two-part Comedy Panel.
The event touches on a concept described as “the living book”. Attendants are able to check out actual individuals who they are interested in learning more about. Through the Living Library Sessions, a cast of about fifteen different people are available for booking. Positioned at several stations, participants are able to have one-on-one discussions to draw on their experiences and outlooks.
During the Fireside Reading, five “Best Sellers”, who cannot be individually booked, will speak to larger audiences. Named for their exclusivity, they are only available for a limited amount of time through group settings. The list includes Zaib Shaikh, Muhammad Fakih, Catherine Wallace, Nathalie Des Rosiers, and Dr. Ken Derry.
Hosted by Mustafa, the Compassion Panel will look to have an open discussion regarding tolerance and understanding. Titled, “Compassion in the 21st Century: Where Does Canada Stand?”, the panel will analyse how the country is responding to the increasing diversity of its population. Touching on various cultures, faiths and beliefs; listeners will have a chance to hear accounts from topical experts. Organizers hope that this will help move our communities towards increased inclusivity.
As readers hear different stories they are invited to take on new viewpoints by diving into narratives that differ from their own. The speakers look to show how Canadians can co-exist despite an array of ideals and past experiences. This is best put by one of the “Best Sellers”, Dr. Ken Derry, who defines compassion as a step further than empathy by keeping in mind that we are not always able to fully understand another’s experiences.
“And yet it is critical that we sympathize with the suffering involved, even while recognizing that we don’t ‘really’ understand….” Derry goes on, “In this respect, compassion is about asking (not telling) someone what they need.”
The day will close with Comedy panels that will showcase Anto Chan and the hosts of the So Help Me Pod, Courtney Gilmour and Dan Curtis Thompson. The acts will look to provide a humourous twist on a lot of the subject matter that was previously touched on. Maintaining that despite differences in beliefs, people can always share a laugh in good spirits.
The Institute of Canadian Archives is a non-profit based out of Toronto that aims to bring people together through storytelling. As the country’s social constructs continue to expand, the organization creates learning tools to better understand other’s views. In this regard, they hope to break down stereotypes and prejudices to build a more compassionate community for all Canadians.
The “Hearts & Mind Living Library” will start at 10 AM on September 9, with opening remarks from Executive Director, Azfar Rizvi. The full schedule can be found online, along with a floorplan of the proceedings.
Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa
The Globe and Mail featured a fascinating story in its weekend edition (August 12) on suicides in Toronto in which people throw themselves in front of subway cars. This has to be a particularly gruesome way to take one’s life and I really feel for the drivers of the subway. I have heard that they go through serious trauma at having been witness to a death for which they bear no responsibility but in which they play a critical role.
From the article I learned that:
Why am I talking about suicide prevention in a terrorist blog?? Because as I read the article I saw many parallels with 'violent radicalisation’. Allow me to explain.
Like subway suicide attempts, radicalisation to violence is rare. I would not go so far as to put a number like twice a month on the incidence rate but it is a relatively infrequent event. Yes it only takes one violent extremist to cause pain and destruction, but there is zero evidence to suggest we are dealing with a pandemic in Canada.
Analogous to suicide, we cannot reduce violent radicalisation to a small number of causes pointing to ‘why’ they did it. In a way, radicalisation to violence, is just like suicide, a choice and not something imposed from outside. The same tired old ‘explanations’ – alienation, poverty, discrimination, psychological illness – keep getting hauled out and none of them are satisfactory or comprehensive.
The ‘where’ of radicalisation varies as well. In the mid-2000s the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough, east of Toronto, was a ‘hotbed’. Calgary also saw a disproportionate number of foreign fighters join Islamic State. None of this is necessarily helpful in predicting the next ‘wave’ of violent extremism. People from ‘high density downtown neighbourhoods’ as well as the ‘well-heeled parts of north Toronto’ can embrace violent extremism. There is no ‘vaccine’ for suicide or radicalisation.
Sometimes those who opt to become violent extremists show every sign of being ‘normal’: successful, well-adjusted, popular people with promising futures like that teen in Toronto. It is important to get at the hidden signs to determine if there are things happening under the surface that should cause concern. I have always maintained that there are ALWAYS signs, if you know what to look for. It is this belief that led me to write my first book The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West (Rowman and Littlefield 2015).
I have found analogies to be a useful learning instrument and I hope that this post helps you understand a little more about violent radicalisation. It is also fascinating that seemingly disparate issues like suicide and violent extremism have a lot in common. After all, according to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. Maybe we should bear that in mind when we try to understand phenomena like violent radicalisation and terrorism.
Phil Gurski's latest book The Lesser Jihads: Bringing the Islamist extremism fight to the world is available for pre-order on Amazon.
By: Sam Minassie in Toronto
Ontario’s Black Youth Action Plan is taking another step forward with a new mentorship initiative. As part of its four-year $47 million-dollar project, the province will launch, “Together We Can”. The aim is to reach 10,800 black youth within priority communities outlined in regions such as the GTA, Hamilton, Ottawa and Windsor.
The province will look to tackle statistical discrepancies among young people of colour within major cities. For young Blacks, the numbers can be startling, with unemployment and dropout rates that almost double those of their Caucasian counterparts. Compounded with the fact that a black population that only accounts for about 8% of the province, makes up 41% of those receiving care at the Children’s Aid Society, there is a clear need for change.
The program has already started recruiting local organizations through a number of engagement sessions that have taken place across 13 communities. The sessions will continue throughout the summer in the hopes of collaborating with up to 25 different mentorships. As of now, four organizations have already signed up: The African-Canadian Coalition of Community Organizations, the NIA Centre for the Arts, Tropicana Community Services, and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Peel Community.
MPP Michael Coteau, has been a driving force behind the project. Raised in the very community he serves today, he has helped spread awareness on several of the issues he had to overcome. Growing up in Flemingdon Park, he was exposed to many of the systemic hardships that make it increasingly difficult for so many to further their educations. He credits a lot of his success to the positive influences he started seeing in the second half of his high school career and hopes to recreate a similar atmosphere for others.
Elected to office in 2011 as MPP of Toronto’s Don Valley East ward, he is also the Minister Responsible for Anti-Racism and Minister of Children and Youth Services. He sees the initiative as an “on-the-ground” solution that will help underprivileged minors with their futures.
“Partnering with local community organizations to provide mentorship opportunities specifically for Black children and youth will help them build the skills and connect them with the opportunities they need to succeed,” Coteau explains.
The project will try to keep locals involved and is in the process of putting together a committee made up of leaders, experts and other members of the black community to help with the overall direction.
Ontario’s Youth Action Plan outlines a number of steps that must be taken into consideration in order to adequately provide the support they require. Earlier intervention was identified as one of those first steps and in response, the province has already implemented optional full day kindergarten. Employment programs will also be expanded so that they are available on a full-time basis in the summer, as well as part-time throughout the year.
The plan will also employ more outreach workers across the province. In addition, training procedures will be reviewed to ensure that employees are adequately equipped.
With a firm plan of action in place, community leaders are optimistic of the positive change that will follow. Dwayne Dixon is the Executive Director at the Nia Centre for the Arts and is more than aware of the uphill battle they are facing.
“Very early in my artistic journey, when I was coming up, there were very limited opportunities (financial or otherwise) for young black artists to make the arts a viable career choice...I'm confident, experiences like mine will be the exception and not the rule,” he says.
As more organizations continue to join the cause, it is clear that major changes are under way. It will be interesting to see what a future of equal opportunity will hold for Canada’s most multicultural province.
Commentary By: Omer Aziz in Toronto
News that Omar Khadr would receive an official apology from the Canadian government along with a $10.5 million settlement of his civil suit elicited the predictable outcry from the Canadian media. Journalists and commentators questioned the wisdom of the decision and the amount of the settlement, and the narrative that has now taken form is of a convicted terrorist winning a taxpayer-funded lottery at the behest of a naïve prime minister.
The press has not simply questioned the wisdom of the apology and settlement—it has ignored or obscured the relevant facts that made an apology and settlement necessary in the first place. Opinion writers and pundits seem entirely uninterested in what, exactly, Khadr endured during his detention at Guantanamo Bay, and who he became afterwards.
Omar Khadr was fifteen years old in July 2002 when he allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. soldiers, killing Sgt. Christopher Speer. I say “allegedly threw” because the precise facts of what took place that day in the firefight have never been conclusively established: From 2002 to 2008, the official U.S. government story was that Khadr was the sole survivor in the compound after it had been bombarded and shot at—by inference, only Khadr could have thrown the grenade. In 2008, however, a report from the only witness to the firefight was inadvertently released to reporters. In it, the witness claimed that there were two men in the compound. The official government theory was weakened further when it was revealed that Lt. Col. Randy Watt, who had led the American battalion, wrote a report after the firefight describing how the grenade-thrower had been killed in battle. The report was later “updated” to state that the grenade-thrower was shot, not killed.
In normal circumstances, the factual inaccuracies would have been resolved at trial, except that the military commissions under which Khadr was tried were ridden with procedural and prosecutorial errors and deceptions. Khadr was interrogated without his lawyers present, and in the initial phase of the tribunal, could not even see the evidence against him. This was by design. The Bush administration had deliberately created a legal black hole: They argued that prisoners could be held in Guantanamo indefinitely, without charges, without the right to contest their detention, without even the right to know why they were there. The United States Supreme Court eventually found the first military commissions of the Bush administration to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions. As Muneer Ahmad, Omar Khadr’s first lawyer and now a professor at Yale Law School, wrote in 2008:
“The [U.S] government had sought to remove Omar and the other prisoners from the ambit of law, and in doing so, from the world. They chose Guantanamo because it was remote, then cloaked it in darkness, refusing to disclose the names or identities of those there, refusing access to the outside world. Legal erasure enabled physical erasure.”
Of the 780 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001, 731 were eventually released without charges—often after a decade of incarceration.
The Canadian press has forgotten all of this, or perhaps they remember it but do not think it relevant. What about torture? At fifteen, Khadr was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where a bag was placed over his head. He was ordered to stand for hours. Dogs leapt at his chest.
At Guantanamo, and still a teenager, Khadr urinated on himself. The guards poured pine oil on him and dragged the shackled boy through his own piss, using him as a human mop. Khadr was sixteen when Canadian security officials interviewed him at Guantanamo, and then illegally turned over the intelligence to the Pentagon. “Promise me you’ll protect me from the Americans,” the boy said to the representatives of his government. And then he showed them his scars. He cried for his mother. He was beaten, choked, deprived of light, deprived of sleep, forced into harmful stress positions. Guantanamo guards threatened to deport him to Arab countries like Syria where, they claimed, he would be raped by other men. All of this was done to a Canadian teenager, with the Canadian government’s full support.
Under duress, Khadr eventually pled guilty. He agreed to the facts as presented by the Military Commission because he and his lawyers concluded that fighting an unjust system without due process or adequate protections for the accused was an unwinnable battle. Khadr can therefore be called a “convicted terrorist,” but not asking how that “conviction” came about is irresponsible at best, unethical at worst.
So this was the context of the $10.5 million settlement: A child soldier who allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. forces (or didn’t), who was held for thirteen years in an offshore detention center, who was repeatedly abused and tortured with his government’s assistance, whose Charter rights were violated, whose entire youth was spent in chains. Khadr asked for an apology and restitution. He has been treated as though none of this happened, as though he was just a spoiled child who should feel lucky he’s still not in gitmo. The press seems to think that reparations for Khadr’s maltreatment are a bonus that he does not deserve. But this is not about bonuses or windfalls. It is about this country’s past sins, and the moral necessity of acknowledging and atoning for those sins. That’s what enlightened, self-professed democracies do.
The saga of Omar Khadr, however, has never been about law or even policy. It’s been about how we see the crimes of people who do not look like us, and are therefore treated as conditional citizens. Radio host Charles Adler said Khadr was “technically a Canadian”—as if citizenship was subject to technical whims. Margaret Wente opined that “If there is a victim here, people feel, it’s not Mr. Khadr.” John Ivison wrote that “Khadr’s reputation is now tinged with the grubbiness of what many will consider unjust gain.” Who are the “people” and the “many” that Wente and Ivison are ventriloquizing here? They are the Canadian public, who along with the press, do not yet have the moral imagination to countenance that maybe—just maybe—Khadr was also a victim here.
A basic empathy gap has always existed between Canada and Khadr. The minute the label “terrorist” is slapped onto someone—regardless of their age, their circumstances, or even the facts—we begin thinking with the blood. We rush to violate our most sacred principles at the first whiff of anger. Our memories of others’ crimes are always long and detailed, while our own faults are extinguished with the legitimizing elixir of moral superiority. It might feel good to denounce Omar Khadr. It might be cathartic to condemn him as a confessed terrorist. But the rights of citizenship are not abrogated because a citizen has committed a crime. They are not abrogated because the government thinks you have no place in society. Those rights exist to protect all of us, especially the vulnerable.
Omar Khadr spent much of his youth being abused in an unlawful penal colony. He could have come out of this harrowing experience a bitter and spiteful man, hateful of the country who supported his torturers, and vindictive towards the citizens who applauded that decision. Instead, Khadr has conducted himself with the utmost dignity. “My past,” he recently said, “I’m not excusing it. I’m not denying it. We all do things we wish we could change. All I can do right now is focus on the present and do my best to become a productive member of society, a good person, a good human being . . . I want to finish my nursing program. I want to work as a nurse somewhere it’s needed. I want to be able to use my languages and my ability as a nurse to relieve people from pain.”
After everything that’s happened to him, Khadr is prepared to accept the ills of his past. Perhaps Canada might do the same for its own recent history.
Republished in partnership with The Walrus.
Originally published under headline: "Omar Khadr and the Shame of the Canadian Press".
By: Sam Minassie in Toronto
Curtis Carmichael has set out to do what many could only dream of. Following in the footsteps of Canadian legends like Terry Fox, the young Toronto native will travel across the country to fund-raise. Riding his bicycle across 30 legs, the 3,300 km he will cover from Vancouver to Halifax is a tall task by any measure.
Knowing he needed to create a platform, he looked for a unique way to spark a nationwide conversation. After careful deliberation with a local non-profit, Urban Promise, they decided on a 5-week tour that would see him stopping in 50 different cities.
Carmichael himself grew up in Toronto Community Housing and has been a resident for over 20 years. It didn’t take long for him to notice some of the unique disadvantages that stemmed from stereotypes and associated stigmas.
“You are treated differently your whole life by teachers, police, employers, etc. You are told you are not as capable of being as successful as others who are not a minority or from a government housing area,” he says. “You watch the news and only see that government housing communities are viewed as dangerous, unsafe, and full of ‘Thugs’ and ‘bad people’.”
Media coverage that focuses more heavily on the negative aspects of the area, often overlooks many of the vibrant community building initiatives that take place. And with a resident majority that does not fall within the scope that is so widely portrayed, the resulting prejudices create additional hurdles that can be difficult to overcome.
“There is gun violence and drugs in some of these kinds of areas but there is much more to these communities than what is seen on the news,” Carmichael explains. “ [But] often not in the news is the joy and life that exists within people in these areas, the great successes of individuals and the strength in vibrant faith communities.”
Urban Promise Toronto creates a support structure similar to an extended family for youth between the ages of 5-25. The Christian organization holds after-school programs, summer camps, life groups and other engaging activities. They help many children from single parent and immigrant households who may not always have access to the same resources as other Canadians.
Youth are developed into leaders and encouraged to give back to their communities. Urban Promise is proud to say that a number of today’s counselors began as program participants within their adolescence. These individuals have grown to accept mentorship roles that allow them to impart their experiences on younger generations.
The product of Guyanese immigrants, Carmichael, has been a member since he was 8. From a young age, he developed a personal relationship with Camp Counselor, Julius Naredo, who he says was a “father-like figure” that helped mold him into the man he is today.
“The major thing Urban Promise did for me was give me an opportunity to develop as a leader and give back to my community,” he points out.
For Carmichael, the list of awards and accomplishments only continues to grow. The former high school valedictorian is now a Queen’s University graduate and Russ Jackson Award recipient. He is currently working as a classroom assistant and is on his way to a teaching diploma. Humble as always, he attributes a lot of his own success to the impact Urban Promise has had on his life. He hopes that others will see him as an example of the potential so many children possess.
The “Ride for Promise” campaign aims to spread awareness on the positive initiatives that are being put in place for youth in marginalized communities. He is looking to inspire change by challenging many of the biases associated with government housing. An initial goal has been set at $150,000 and donations will be accepted on the Urban Promise site.
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?
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.
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!
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit