By: Davina Bhandar in Vancouver
Within the space of a few moments, Jagmeet Singh became one of Canada’s most admired politicians. His cool-under-pressure reaction to being confronted by an angry heckler is just one of the reasons Singh is considered to be the favourite contender for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party.
A video of the Sept. 6 incident at Singh’s campaign event in Brampton, Ont., went viral and has been viewed millions of times in Canada and around the world. Moments into the event, an angry white woman interrupted Singh and shouted Islamophobic and vitriolic statements at him, and physically gesticulated, demonstrating her feeling of entitlement — to space, voice and position - in relation to others at the event.
Singh seemed undeterred by the outburst. His response to her rant was to rally his audience to help him relay his campaign message. He asked his guests to chant: “Love and courage.”
What is the nature of Singh’s call for love? His political slogan is based on a message of universal love and courage. Singh’s message — and chant that evening — is uniquely situated among the slogans of the three other candidates: Charlie Angus “Got your back,” Niki Ashton “Building a movement, together,” and Guy Caron, “Let’s Build a Progressive and Sustainable Economy.”
The dramatic events at the Sept. 6 meeting demonstrates something about Singh, as a person and as a candidate. It also points to new undercurrents of religion and spirituality and its role — not only in Canadian politics, but also in the leadership race for the NDP.
Singh’s campaign and potential leadership arrives in a climate of increasing hatred, fear and division. His call for universal love is coherent with Sikhism, which challenges the division between daily life and a devotional love that guides all thought and action. How does the language of love and courage relate to a New Democratic Party trying to find its way in a shifting political landscape?
Singh’s outward appearance solicits questions from some Canadians — as in the case of the heckler — regarding his secular position: To what degree does Singh’s religion relate to his policy ideas or conduct?
Canadian political institutions and traditions are imbued with Judeo-Christian values and symbols. Yet the separation of church and state maintains religion does not dictate the making of policy and law. However, in the game of politics, courting ethno-racial, national and religious identified voters has become a central art of party campaign strategists.
Political parties of all persuasions have had to navigate this division in a variety of ways. In Canada, the left social democratic tradition, represented now by the NDP, has had less experience with faith-based movements and the religious identity of its leaders than their right-wing counterparts and left-leaning parties elsewhere in the world. Singh’s leadership challenge will likely change that.
While Singh is positioned as a secular politician, his ethos, sense of justice and formation of his identity is connected to a Sikh practice. The very essence of the message of universal love and courage is embedded in a Sikh devotion, rather than a secular idea of loving all humankind. Practising Sikhism defines a way of life — one that is contemplative, meditative and committed to spiritualism and positive actions.
To understand the contemporary role of religion in politics, we need to look at one of our turning points: 9/11. The attacks on New York City and the Pentagon served as a marker of the time foreign and domestic policy in North America was called upon to name Islamic terrorism as a universal enemy.
Once North America and other western governments embraced the rhetoric of a civilization divide, the psyche of liberal democratic nations split apart. The already tenuous divide between the religious and secular began to rupture further.
This reinforced a binary division and emboldened a powerful discourse of racism and Islamophobia. The basic premise is that Islam represents something universally distinct from Christian belief systems.
This discourse of racism and difference has gained strength and societal control through the election of conservative governments with moral platforms that build on fears and anxieties of susceptible citizens.
Sixteen years of corrosive discourses since 9/11 has led to: Us vs. Them, the Clash of Civilizations and racism. We are now at the point of the normalization of white supremacy. It is no longer an oddity or a left-wing conspiracy theory to discuss the presence of fascism and neo-Nazis — these are events widely circulated in our social media feeds and featured during the evening news.
Islamophobia and racism are often understood to be twinned structures of oppression. In many ways they are, but there are complex differences between them. They disseminate and exist in different political, cultural and social taxonomies.
Islamophobia operates through systems of stereotypes, often misunderstanding or misrepresenting the traditions, religious practices and customs of highly diverse ethno-national and racial communities. Islamophobia has been manufactured in multiple ways in society through popular culture, media, policy and criminalizing targeting Islam and Muslims.
Racism is a larger systemic operation of power denigrating one race while validating or elevating another.
When the Harper Conservatives were in government, they attempted to map onto Canadian national values a form of social conservatism. This was articulated through a distinction between Canada and the “barbaric cultural practices” of others.
The clear lines that were being drawn between what Harper referred to as “old stock Canadians” during a 2015 federal leaders’ debate brought into discourse front and center the relationship between white supremacy and Islamophobia. It connected the dots between a normative white Christian Canadian identity that could stand against the racialized others.
Now the Conservative Party has a leader who proudly accepts the label: “Harper with a Smile.”“ Andrew Scheer has the support of social conservatives in the Conservative Party. He has steadfastly supported free speech over the condemnation of Islamophobia and was absent during the House of Commons vote for the Anti-Islamophobia Motion M-103, overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons.
Singh said his ability to remain cool under pressure was largely owed to his experience of being a brown, Sikh and turbaned man, growing up in the 1980s in Brampton, Ont., just northwest of Toronto.
His past experiences of religious and racist intolerance helped to fortify him against racist language and assault.
In the moment in which the racist woman yelled at him, she assumed he was a Muslim. Many wondered why Singh did not attempt to correct her misconceived perception; he is not a Muslim, but rather, a Sikh.
Suggesting such a distinction in the moment, he said, would only further the misunderstanding that somehow being Muslim means such treatment is considered justifiable. His reaction, he said, should not be to proclaim his religion. By not correcting this misconception, Singh was acting in solidarity against Islamophobia.
Sikhs have been affected throughout the post-9/11 discourses of Islamophobia, mainly because of this misunderstood identity. In the U.S., and elsewhere, there has been a rise in hate bias attacks against Sikhs, with the 2012 Oak Creek, Wis., shooting as a visible example.
While there are those who, in the similar vein as Singh, have sought to challenge Islamophobia by standing in solidarity, there have also been many instances where Sikhs in America, the U.K. and Canada painstakingly distinguish themselves from Muslims.
However, in countless examples, when Islamophobia is experienced in the public sphere against properly identified Muslims, there has been a lack of outcry.
In Canada, the shooting deaths in Quebec’s Sainte-Foy’s Mosque, in which Azzedine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubakar Thabthi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahim Barry were killed, was unmistakably an act of terrorism. Canadians across the country mourned this tragedy. And yet was it recognized as an act of terrorism against the citizens of this state?
The day-to-day effects of Islamophobia have led to many Muslims living with heightened experiences of fear and not knowing what they might encounter on a walk to school, a day at work or even waiting for a bus.
The left social-democrats of the NDP hold steadfastly to their conception of justice, fairness and equality in a secular world. The ways in which people are encountering the public today, however, is seemingly much murkier than these stark divisions.
The issues of racism, religious intolerance and social justice are not central issues for any federal political party. These issues, however, should no longer be viewed as separate from major policy platforms including health, welfare reform, employment, national defense, national security, aboriginal relations and education. Perhaps a political leader such as Jagmeet Singh will be able to navigate these debates with an alacrity and style we have yet to witness in the Canadian political world.
By: Bhupinder S. Liddar in Oliver, BC
Nestled in the scenic and stunning rolling dry desert hills and mirror lakes of Okanagan Valley in beautiful British Columbia is the town of Oliver – the wine capital of Canada!
Oliver’s population of 5,000 is made up of about 1,000 Sikhs. If one drives along the town’s Main Street, one is bound to see a turbaned Sikh or a Sikh lady in Punjabi dress, as well as the Sikh Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). And as one proceeds through the scenic Okanagan Valley one is struck by the greenery of wineries and fruit orchards, and depending on the time of the summer, one will drive by cherry, peach, apple, and perhaps prune trees all along Highway 97.
Oliver’s Mayor Ron Hovanes describes his town as an “authentic farming community.” Other than driving along the fruit-tree-lined highway, one can pull into one of the many wineries for tasting, buying, or even a meal.
The Sikhs started migrating and buying orchards and vineyards in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley about three decades ago. Farming is in the Sikh genes. Their ancestral home state of Punjab is the breadbasket of India. Sikhs are also successful farmers in Australia, Kenya, Fiji, among other countries.
The Sikhs bought orchards/vineyards predominantly from the Portuguese, who had migrated here in the 1950s. Mayor Hovanes explains the origins of Oliver are in the irrigation canal built in 1926 under British Columbia Premier John Oliver, after whom the town is named. The intent was to settle returning British veterans of the First World War.
The British migrants were followed by Germans in the 1930s and Hungarians in the 1940s and 1950s. Sikhs own about 70 per cent of orchards and wineries. The average holding is about 10–12 acres, and according to farmer Bhupinder Singh Karwasra, an acre generates an income of about $8,000 to $10,000. Prices of land have doubled or tripled since Sikhs first bought land at $4,000 an acre.
Apart from farming, Sikhs are venturing into other trades and commercial enterprises. Paramjit Singh Chauhan owns and operates East India Meat Shop on Highway 97, down the road from Oliver. Similarly, Surjit Singh Aulakh this month set up a hairdresser shop on Oliver’s Main Street.
Oliver-born Baljeet S. Dhaliwal, a graduate of Simon Fraser University, is now a manager at one of BC Tree Fruits packinghouses. Others, such as Toor twin brothers – Randy and Jessie, have set up an 80-acre, state-of-the-art Desert Hills Estate Winery on what was once an apple orchard. They are the second Sikh family to settle in the area, in the footsteps of Major Dhaliwal. The Toor brothers, from Village of Ucha Jattana, immigrated from India to Canada in 1982 and settled in Winnipeg. On the urging of their sister Lucky Gill, who is involved in the hospitality industry, they moved to Oliver in 1988. Randy Toor was elected to one term on Oliver Town council in 2005.
Oliver’s major communities – indigenous, Portuguese, Caucasian, and Sikhs live in silos, with little or no informal social interaction other than in schools, shopping centres and workplaces. Mohinder Singh Gill, president of the Sikh Gurdwara, attributes this partly to lack of English speaking skills among Sikhs. For instance, the Sikh seniors meet at the Gurdwara instead of going to the central seniors centre.
The indigenous Osoyoos people, almost all live on a reservation adjoining Oliver.
Punjabi was offered at Oliver High School until recently and the search is on for a Punjabi instructor.
Fortunately, days of ugly racism are almost over, though I was told of schoolyard fights among indigenous, Sikh and white students.
According to Mayor Hovanes, there is “no overt racial tension,” and former Town councillor Randy Toor observes there is “very little evidence of racism and it is fading away.”
The future looks promising for the Sikh community in Oliver, though many young Sikhs are opting to head to urban areas and into professions other than farming. But for now, most Sikhs make up a dynamic, vibrant and growing community in Oliver and the Okanagan Valley.
Bhupinder S. Liddar is a Kenya-born Sikh and a retired Canadian diplomat. This piece was republished under arrangement with the Oliver Chronicle.
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".
INTERNATIONAL Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and India’s Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday discussed the impressive growth in trade and investment between Canada and India as well as their shared desire to further deepen this partnership at the third Canada-India Ministerial Dialogue on Trade and Investment.
This meeting, held at […]
I was talking with my good friend James (real person, but name changed) the other day and he wasn’t very happy. But first let me tell you a little bit about James. He has spent his whole retirement living here in Ontario — he is 83 and first started drawing his UK State Pension in 1990.
At that time he was paid £46.90/week, which in those days meant he was getting about $90/week; this was when gas cost 59 cents/litre, and a loaf of bread cost just 70 cents.
Today, because of the UK’s “frozen” pension policy, James is still getting £46.90/week, which immediately after the Brexit vote converted to $79/week — the British pound instantly fell 18% against the loonie. Meanwhile the cost of gas has gone up to 94 cents/litre ($1.15/litre in Western Canada), and a loaf of bread is now nearly $3. How can anybody be expected to live on 80 bucks a week?
Brits in Toronto
by Elvira Truglia in Montreal
The stories in the Best of All Worlds represent seven of the most commonly spoken immigrant languages in Canada’s largest cities.
“When children see their heritage languages in books, they instinctively understand that their languages are valued and their cultures are important in Canada,” says Gina Valle about a collection of multilingual children’s stories which she brought together in The Best of All Worlds.
Published in 2015, the illustrated book features seven stories in their original languages — Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish — as well as in English and French translations.
The stories were selected from the winning and finalist submissions from the Multilingual Kid Lit Award competition organized by Toronto bookstore Rainbow Caterpillar. Valle initiated the project to mark 15 years since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established International Mother Tongue Day “to promote diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism.”
Multilingual stories, multicultural perspectives
Questions are to children what texting is to smartphone touting teenagers – second nature. The Best of All Worlds provides many opportunities to tap into children’s inquisitive nature as it exposes them to culturally-specific symbolism, such as the Japanese kappa, and various writing systems including the Latin alphabet, Arabic script and Chinese characters.
New myths grounded in Canadian history, such as the ‘Tulip Fairy’ who helps keep the Tulip Festival alive in Ottawa, and original stories about what it means to be human and Canadian in today’s world, can spur a flurry of questions as young children read along with a parent, grandparent or teacher in their language of choice or ability.
And if the stories don’t pique a child’s interest, the vivid illustrations will stand in, each with a unique style.
Kings, giants, fairies and fables
The Best of All Worlds has something for all tastes. From fables to fairy tales of kings, giants and other fantastical characters, each story has elements that make children’s books fun to read for children and adults alike.
My 11-year-old daughter Sabina’s favourite story was “The Happy King,” originally written in Portuguese, because it was “weird, in a good way.” Cursed with being sad by a wizard who wasn’t invited to the royal party, love is what broke the curse and made the King happy again, explains Sabina.
But her interpretation of the “message of the story” was an afterthought. What kept Sabina’s attention was the quirky King who reminded her of the curses, wizards and witches she read in tales as a younger child.
“The Happy King” and other stories are filled with familiar tropes and original twists. The internal struggles and choices of the characters mirror lifelong and universal quests.
Sabina is an avid reader in English and French and is starting to read in Italian and Spanish – her first languages. When reading The Best of All Worlds on her own, she zig-zagged between all four languages and eventually stuck to one of Canada’s official languages.
Reading a book in multiple languages is tricky. Like many children growing up in Canada, she needs some priming to continue speaking and reading her heritage languages.
Keep talking your mother tongue
Krista Byers-Heinlein, an associate professor of psychology at Concordia University, specializes in language acquisition and early bilingualism. She spoke to Panoram Italia Magazine about the three-generation rule: “In the first generation, the language is strong – it’s how people communicate. In the second generation, there is a solid understanding of the language, but the writing or reading is weak. By the third generation, the language is at risk."
When it comes to language, you either use it or lose it. Passively watching TV won’t do the trick, but reading together and having conversations about what you’re reading is a great way to interact in your mother tongue.
Schools are an important audience for The Best of All Worlds and a great context for validating first languages. According to Valle, some 20 library systems across the country have ordered the book and a curriculum guide for Ontario teachers is currently in the works.
Making multilingualism a new norm
Valle says the book reflects who we are as Canadians.
“We can speak many languages and live with many cultures and be at ease with each,” she says. “We can speak Mandarin at home, French at school, English on the soccer field and feel that no matter what we speak or where we come from, we can be full citizens in this country.”
The Best of All Worlds was put together over 18 months with a team of writers, illustrators and translators who originate from some two dozen countries.
“There are bilingual books but there are no multilingual children’s books in Canada,” says Valle.
For that, The Best of All Worlds, is an important and new contribution to Canada’s literary scene.
Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics and social issues. She has recently written for New Canadian Media, The Huffington Post, and the social justice radio program, Making Contact. She is also an emerging photographer whose documentary photos have recently been published in New Canadian Media’s online library. Elvira has worked in the non-profit sector for more than 20 years, focusing on communications, education and human rights.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
From a machine gun wielding high school girl-yakuza boss to time travelling samurai; from sexual awakening in the final devastating days of WWII Tokyo to the true story of “the Japanese Schindler”, Canadian and Japanese audiences enjoyed yet another cultural feast at the 5th annual Toronto Japanese Film Festival.
The Festival ran for two weeks in June in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC), located at Don Mills Rd. and Eglinton Ave. It screened more than two dozen Japanese movies to over 10,000 audience members from all over the GTA.
“Our 2016 line-up again reflects the films that resonate with Japanese audiences, critics and Japanese Academy Award judges, providing a thorough cross section of the very diverse Japanese film industry. In our first four years we attracted large and diverse crowds and much positive reaction to the films,” says Gary Kawaguchi, President of JCCC.
The 70th anniversary of the Second World War
A lot of films came out the end of 2015 that marked 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. These include Nagasaki – Memories of My Son, which centred around a mother who lost her son when the atomic bomb was dropped; and The Emperor in August, a powerful political drama that tells the little-known story of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War.
There was also Persona Non Grata, the story of Ghiune Sugihara, known as the “Schindler of Japan” for saving 6,000 Jewish people from the Holocaust; and When I Was Most Beautiful, a story of Japanese people’s lives in the summer of 1945 when the war is drawing to a close.
James Heron, Executive Director of JCCC, says that 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is quite significant in Japan, particularly because many of the people involved in the war are at the end of their lives.
“We saw a lot of the films from different perspectives. There are consistent anti-war films, mostly about the people who were trapped,” he continues. “Average Japanese people feel like they were trapped between the military government that started the War and the gigantic response from the Allies powers. The films are made for domestic markets, so they tend to look at things from Japanese perspective.”
Internment and Japanese persecution in Canada
“Last year we showed the film Asah, which was all about the internment of Japanese-Canadians. The film was made entirely in Japan but was about a Japanese-Canadian baseball team that really played for the pride of Japanese Canadians. The team was ended when Japanese Canadians were put into camps,” says Heron.
Japanese-Canadians had to suffer internment after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced that Japanese-Canadians were to move into prisoner of war camps. Their possessions were confiscated and their belongings were sold.
Heron, who spent 11 years living and working in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese. His wife is also Japanese. “One of the reason the Festival and the Cultural Centre exists is many Japanese-Canadians feel that they were persecuted in the Second World War because people didn’t understand them and Japanese culture. Because Canadians didn’t understand, they were afraid of the Japanese, even the Japanese-Canadians who were born here, “ he explains.
By having the Cultural Centre where they could introduce Japanese-Canadian and Japanese culture, the organizers hope there will be better understanding and that persecution will never happen again to Japanese-Canadians.
Aftermath of the Festival
When the audience enjoyed sushi and Japanese sake at TJFF’s closing ceremony, Dr. Sandra Annett, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, announced that Being Good, a movie on raising children and having compassion, received the Grand Prize Jury Award for Best Film.
A coming-of-age story, Flying Colors, won the Kobayashi Audience Choice.
Toronto resident Shiming Fei, 29, particularly enjoyed The Magnificent Nine, which featured one of her favourite Japanese actors, Eita.
As a young Chinese person who came to Canada to study ten years ago, Shiming says she experiences Japanese culture through food and TV dramas. This is why Festivals like TJFF are so important to her.
“I come here for the food and movie, maybe make a couple of new friends,” she giggles, renewing her search for her favourite hors-d’oeuvre at the closing reception of the Festival.
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by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says the immigration experience helped make her the award-winning and best-selling Indian-American writer she is today.
Her immigration story — which she calls "strong" and "powerful" — along with those of other immigrant women, are central themes in much of her work.
“I had grown up in a very traditional family, been very protected,” she says of her upbringing in Kolkata, India. “Then I was in America… to go to school,” recalls Divakaruni, sitting behind a table piled high with copies of her latest novel, Before We Meet the Goddess, inside Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre.
“I was living away from my family, I was working odd jobs… and I was really missing my culture. That made me see my culture in a way that I had never seen it when I was living immersed in it.”
The Houston, TX based author is in Toronto for Arranged Marriage, a theatre adaptation of her short story “Clothes,” published in her first book, also titled Arranged Marriage.
“It’s not so much about arranged marriage,” says Peggy Shannon, professor and chair of the Ryerson School of Performance, when introducing the play to the audience. “It is the immigrant story, the immigrant experience.”
The immigrant dream
Divakaruni says one theme the stage production of “Clothes” captured well is the idea of the “immigrant dream” — the hopes and expectations that are attached to moving to places like Canada and the United States — and what happens when they go awry.
“Both of these countries are wonderful in many ways. They offer many opportunities, but they can’t be perfect. No place can be perfect,” she says. “Sometimes that dream is going to fail and then what do they do? They have to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives.”
Such is the case for Sumita, the main character of Arranged Marriage, who moves to Mississauga, ON (the original short story is based in California) after her arranged marriage to Somesh. Months after arriving, tragedy strikes and she has to find the strength to go on with her life despite a dream deferred.
Even though people immigrating from South Asia to Canada or America today have a much easier time than Divakaruni did more than three decades ago, thanks to advancements like the Internet and well-established community connections, the author says challenges remain.
This is something she says she sets out to reflect in the characters and plots she creates.
“Missing your home country, missing your family, feeling like you’ve left a whole support system behind – you still feel those things.”
Touching on taboo topics
Through her writing, Divakaruni says she aims to do two things: break down barriers and prejudices between different cultural communities in North America, and ensure that her own South Asian-American community sees its reality reflected in serious literature.
This is why she does not shy away from topics considered taboo by some, such as alcoholism, infidelity, and abortion.
Her approach has not always been popular among readers, both in North America and in India. But as of late, more people are accepting that Divakaruni pushes boundaries.
One taboo topic she writes about at length is domestic abuse — an area in which she has been volunteering to help victims since university. Problems like this can be aggravated in immigrant communities because victims are away from their larger familial and friend supports, she explains.
“It’s very important for us to create a realistic and complex notion of our community,” she says. “Otherwise, we are giving in to stereotypes, either positive or negative ones.”
When this happens, Divakaruni continues, people will feel like they are the only ones experiencing such things and something must be wrong with them.
“I have this great quote that I love: ‘Good literature should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,’” she shares. “If we are complacent, [thinking] we have no problems, that’s a problem right there because we are not being realistic.”
In Before We Meet the Goddess, the chapters alternate between the lives of grandmother Sabitri who lived all her life in India, mother Bela who immigrated to the U.S. from India, and daughter Tara who was born in the U.S.
The novel details their complicated, and often strained, relationships with each other and the many challenges they face in their journey to figuring out what success is.
Similar to her earlier works, Divakaruni aims to empower women with this novel.
“All of these three women who are the main characters… they certainly have their challenges, but I think by the end of the book they’ve achieved something,” she says.
“I’m hoping that my books are empowering to women of all backgrounds as they’re going through their own challenges, hopes, and trying to reach for goals . . . [and] help the readers to examine their life and what it means to be [successful].”
by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
In Canada, Muslim people are often spoken about, rather than the people who are doing the speaking.
The program recently launched Homebound IIII, its latest collection of Muslim women’s poetry, during its fourth annual Volume: Sisters Make Noise showcase held at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto.
Homebound is a collection of poetry written by six young women who self-identify as Muslim through spiritual, familial, ancestral, cultural or political connections. During six months, the women came together bi-weekly to share “herstories,” explains the book’s preface.
“This was a sacred place where our worlds came together, and we felt less disjointed, taking parts of each other and making a whole,” it reads.
The result: 36 pages of powerful tales exploring everything from the immigration experience to young love, carefully crafted in various styles of poetry.
You can exist
El Mugammar says that in Muslim communities, events are often separated into the “sister side” and the “brother side.”
The sister side is taking care of children, preparing food for everyone, organizing and cleaning up. It’s not usually invited to participate. Both the book and its launch — an evening of spoken word, poetry, and musical performances by Muslim women — represent something that is lacking.
“I think it’s critical to just carve out space and say this is just for us . . . this is our space,” explains El Mugammar, who performed at all four editions of Sisters Make Noise and mentored many of the current and past contributors to Homebound.
Resilience and strength in the face of adversity are common threads found throughout Homebound. In her poem, “choose you,” Urooj (MC Shahzadi) writes:
Even in this damned society you can exist,
Blessed with experiences filled of heavenly bliss,
Take the hardest moments as a reminder to choose,
The choice towards a destiny only determined by you.
In the book’s preface, Outburst facilitators Jamila-Khanom Allidina, Rosina Kazi, and Shameela Zaman reflect on this verse, writing, “Not only do we exist, we fight, we laugh, we write and centuries of Muslim women’s resilience is celebrated and remembered. Even if it’s just to remind ourselves: we are powerful, breathtaking and brilliant.”
Fighting to claim stories
El Mugammar says she likes to tell stories of the people in her life, primarily Sudanese women. These stories, she says, are missing from the very public, “Google-and-find-it” type of mainstream historical documentation.
“Our day-to-day lives, they often get lost,” she says. “I don’t want the women that I know helped shape me to be the person that I am today to be forgotten.”
These daily experiences are creatively woven throughout Homebound.
In “skype-shype,” Reema Kureishy captures what it’s like to video chat with her grandparents in her native country, India, effectively detailing their minimal understanding of how to work with technology and the endless promises of “coming home” thrown back and forth.
In “thoughts in a waiting room,” Seema (who goes only by her first name) offers a story about the agonizing pain of finding out if a parent has cancer.
In the book’s opening piece “jung,” Kureishy writes about the fight “to claim not land, but our stories.”
As El Mugammar points out, these stories are important for everyone, not just Muslim women, to listen to and read.
“A lot of people...who may not identify with that identity of being a young, Muslim woman… can identify with a lot of the feelings, a lot of the kinds of stories that we tell.”
I am real…
El Mugammar says that Outburst allows racialized women like herself to be showcased as more than one-dimensional.
She explains that while she has often relied on writing to release some of the anger she feels about the social injustices and oppression she experiences, she is more than the “angry, Black woman” people are quick to label her as.
“I’m also funny and smart and a whole lot of other things,” she says, adding that the Outburst program allows participants to explore the multi-faceted aspects of their personalities, experiences, and community’s stories.
Dumo, an Outburst alumni and co-host of the Sisters Make Noise event, exemplifies this multi-faceted experience in her high-energy monologues. One is about her mother interrupting her Dragon Ball Z episodes to cart her off to Qur’an lessons, another about convincing her Muslim parents to allow her to participate in the school Christmas concert.
As another woman of East African descent, El Mugammar says that while watching Dumo, she felt a strong sense of connection.
“There was a young girl,” she begins, referring to 11-year-old Marley Dias of the United States, “who started a Black girls’ book club because she was tired of reading about ‘white boys and dogs’ and in a lot of ways, I feel the same. It’s always nice to get the kind of humour and the kinds of stories that are absolutely relevant to my life.”
by Aurora Tejeida in Vancouver, British Columbia
The University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program is suggesting that Mexico be removed from Canada’s “safe country” list, making it easier for sexual minorities and those living with HIV to seek asylum here.
The report, published on World Refugee Day Monday, comes at an awkward time: just when Ottawa is moving to remove visa restrictions imposed on that country by the previous Harper government in 2009.
The UofT study, co-authored by Kristin Marshall and Maia Rotman, was based on in-country interviews with 50 Mexicans, including journalists, activists, members of the country’s LGBTQ+ community, health care professionals and people living with HIV. It documents the gap between laws to protect minorities in Mexico and the on-the-ground reality of discrimination and exclusion faced by vulnerable populations.
This spotlight on Mexico’s human rights comes on the heels of violent clashes between government forces and Mexico’s largest teachers’ union. The most recent conflict in Oaxaca left at least four protesters dead and hundreds of people injured, including police officers.
Mexican President Peña Nieto is visiting Ottawa next week for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama for the Three Amigos summit on June 29.
Canada considers Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs) (or, “safe country”) as those that “do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection.” The list includes countries like the U.S., Denmark, Finland and Germany, but also countries like Hungary, Israel and Mexico, which was added to the list only in February 2013
“I think these two countries, Mexico and Hungary, were targeted because there were such a high number of claims,” explained Marshall.
“They wanted less Mexican [refugee] claimants, and the government rhetoric at the time was about deterring bogus and unfounded claims from Mexico and Hungary, their thinking was that by giving faster timelines and no option to appeal, all of these "baseless" claims would go through the system and the people would get deported back to their countries,” added Marshall. "It sends the message 'don't bother coming' because we think Mexico is safe.”
Fewer refugee claims
The twin measures resulted in fewer Mexicans seeking asylum, which fell to 1,199 from more than 9,000. However, the percentage of successful refugee claims remained about the same.
Marshall thinks that signalling that Mexico is “safe” could have an impact on cases that might have otherwise been successful.
However, the “safe country” designation is not imminent. All an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) spokesperson would say is that “being listed on Canada’s designated country of origin list does not prevent individuals from seeking refugee protection in Canada.”
The IRCC added that it “continuously monitors all designated countries of origin to determine whether conditions remain similar to those at the time they were designated. In the event of significant changes, IRCC may undertake a review of country conditions to determine if removal from the designated country of origin list is warranted.”
The spokesperson confirmed that Canadian officials are currently working with their Mexican counterparts to lift the visa requirements.
Clearly, a “safe country” designation is a mixed blessing.
Commenting on the UofT report, Dr. Chris Erickson from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Political Science, noted, "On one level it looks like inclusion on the ‘safe countries’ list is a compliment to whatever state is put there. On the other hand, it does allow for significant abuses to be entirely whitewashed. The language itself indicates that any claim to asylum coming from someone from one of the states on the list is likely to be false.”
Not safe for minorities
In one particularly shocking section of the report, the writers describe an attack on a transgender woman in the northern state of Chihuahua. The woman was beat up and shot in the head just days before Mexico City’s 2015 Pride parade.
“The victim’s body was wrapped in a Mexican flag — apparently a protest against the Supreme Court’s June ruling allowing gay marriage,” reads the report.
Despite enacting laws to protect LGBTQ+ rights, including a recent proposal from President Nieto legalizing same sex marriages, according to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, the country has the second highest number of hate crimes against sexual minorities in the Americas.
“There's a great effort and determination invested to project a certain image to the world, but the will to implement laws isn't there,” explained Marshall. “There are also issues with resources that are unavailable, and many of the problems faced by sexual minorities also have to do with conservative values in Mexico, which means deep down there isn't a desire to see these rights protected.”
The report recommends offering assistance to Mexico to create specialized health care services for trans people and working with the government to create educational resources about sexual and reproductive health.
“I don't think human rights will feature prominently in the Three Amigos summit,” said Marshall. “But I do think this is a new government [in Ottawa] and it's a new opportunity for Canada to show international leadership.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit