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!
By Laska Paré in Toronto
Trunk Tales: Leaving home … finding home is an exhibit that recently opened in Toronto. Through a variety of heirlooms — trunks, clothes, photos and letters—stories of Ukrainians immigrating to Canada are told.
My great-grandmother, Sophia Lysy, was part of the second wave (1918-1939) of Ukrainian immigrants to reach Canada. In 1926 at the tender age of 16, she left her home in Tyahliv, Ukraine, to live with her Aunt and Uncle in Point Pelee, Canada. Upon leaving Europe, Sophia had been provided with a return passage to Tyahliv. However, struck by the poor conditions of the farming community where her family had settled, she cashed in her return ticket to help her Aunt and Uncle purchase a better farm. And so, Canada became her new home.
Though I’ve heard the stories from my family many times over, it wasn’t until recently when I gazed at my Babsia’s encased obrus (embroidered Ukrainian tablecloth) and read dozens of other narratives from immigrants displayed in the room, did I feel a sense of guilt about my life in Canada.
The Canadian Perks
As a third-generation Canadian, it’s taken years of foreign travel for me to recognize the value of my citizenship. The fact that I can proudly sew our nation’s flag on my backpack knowing it will only be of benefit, and perhaps a bonus, during my international travels says a lot about our country.
Being a Canadian has allowed me to by-pass many extensive processes or requirements for documentation and has omitted me from being seen or questioned as a threat. So yes, there’s no question I’m grateful for my citizenship and the specialized treatment that comes with the nation’s brand.
Gratitude vs Guilt
Gratitude, and being grateful for my national identity, is simple. The only specification is to enjoy the daily ease of one’s life and where appropriate, acknowledge the advantages that come with the citizenship when brought up in discussion.
After travelling, living and working abroad, the real challenge I’m learning is coming home and resuming the patterns of life without feeling a sense of guilt. Once a person has bared witness to real adversity, struggle and strife in the world, it’s easy to come back to Canada and feel grateful about our lifestyle; but it can be difficult to move on without feeling a sense of guilt and shame for enjoying the comfort, support and calm of our nation.
Coming to Terms
I understand why my Babsia sacrificed everything to come to Canada, and why immigrants continue to do so today. Even though she came with the intention to have and—eventually—give a better life to her family, I can only imagine the guilt she must have felt every time she wrote a letter to her loved one’s back in Ukraine; knowing it wasn’t the same, or even remotely close.
My great-grandmother would want nothing more than for me to be happy and enjoy the freedoms we have in Canada, especially because of the sacrifices she unknowingly made on my behalf. Part of me is still learning not to judge myself or criticize others when they claim to have a problem or issue, knowing they may be trivial on the grand scope. Even though our rights and freedoms are evolving, particularly freedom of speech, I still believe Canada is rich in opportunity, comfort and luxury, and that is something we need to step back, embrace and be grateful for more often.
A copywriter for a communications agency in Toronto, when not contemplating ideas around identity or working on her children’s book series, you will find Laska outside seeking adventure.
In partnership with Apathy is Boring, New Canadian Media will be posting first-person accounts from the 150 Years Young Project, a campaign that highlights the positive impact youth are making throughout their communities.
Mathura Mahendren, Toronto for Everyone
“I thought I was going to move away from the city, but something keeps drawing me back in. There’s a change for the better coming, and I want to be a part of that.”
Mathura has seen and had opportunities to learn about the strength of community-driven growth. While she proactively takes on roles and responsibilities that allow her to be the proverbial “fly on the wall”, the work she has done, and continues to do for community development, is difficult to dismiss for its impact. Over the past few years, Mathura was given the opportunity to work on Global Health initiatives in Malawi and The Gambia towards implementing sustainable and community-developed innovations in health promotion and education.
As someone who struggles with dichotomies and, instead, operates primarily within the grey-spaces, Mathura stresses the importance of embedded learning experiences in Global Health initiatives. She discusses this concern in the face of work being done with the intention of establishing a “one-size-fits-all” solution to Global Health problems. Her opportunities, she explains, have helped her appreciate the nuances and complexities of individual narratives and how they fit together towards large scale concerns.
Today, Mathura is working actively with the Toronto for Everyone initiative to jumpstart the city towards a more inclusive community that all can feel a part of. Spearheaded by the Centre for Social Innovation, the initiative organized a farewell event at the end of February to honour Honest Ed’s legacy as being an establishment of inherent inclusivity.
Salima Visram, Soular Backpack
“I believe that every human requires food, water, education, access to healthcare, and economic empowerment. I hope that Soular is able to become the catalyst for individuals and communities to develop these essentials for themselves.”
Salima was raised in Kenya and came to Canada for her university education at McGill where she studied International Development and Business. She founded Soular in 2014 after learning that kids were using kerosene to power the lights they used to study with in the evening. Kerosene, when exposed to in large quantities, increases the risk of cancer and several other health problems. These issues also lead to poor performance in school, with many kids unable to move on to secondary education.
Knowing this, and brainstorming several interventions, Salima presented the Soular Backpack – a backpack with solar panels, a battery, and now a lamp that is charged over the course of the day for students to use in the evenings. Her initial Kickstarter campaign was able to fundraise $50,000 towards making this project a reality and get the first 2,500 backpacks on the ground in Kenya. She is hoping that, by the end of May 2017, Soular is able to provide 4,000 kids across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda with backpacks.
Salima believes that it is important to consider financial sustainability for not-for-profit organizations so that they are able continue working towards their mission independently. She is, therefore, using a one-for-one model to pair buyers from established economies to support the users in East Africa. Salima hopes that Soular is able to expand its impact to the rest of Africa and establish itself towards supporting the education of these students.
The 150 Years Young Project: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, Apathy is Boring is teaming up with community organizers and city ambassadors to recognize positive contributions by youth. Follow the hashtag #150yy for more!
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit