By: Marieke Walsh in Ottawa, ON
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was repeatedly under attack and on the defensive Wednesday night during a debate on issues facing the black community.
The debate in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood featured all major party leaders except Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.
Wynne was taken to task for her government’s record on disproportionate numbers of black children facing suspension and expulsion, inequities in the health care system and the persistence of carding by police.
Throughout, the premier stuck to her talking points that the Liberal government has taken these issues “head on” and that “more needs to be done.”
At one point moderator Royson James called Wynne out for her response to systemic racism in the education system.
“You do know that whatever you’re doing isn’t working,” James asked Wynne. And he wondered if the people responsible for the school system understand the “urgency.”
His follow-up was met with laughs and a shout of “clueless” from someone in the crowd of roughly 200 people.
“I get that there’s a huge frustration and I feel that frustration,” Wynne said.
At which point NDP Leader Andrea Horwath broke in with “15 years” — referencing the Liberal’s time in power.
James had previously listed several statistics pointing to the experience of black children in the Toronto District School Board in 2011.
Calling them “crushing statistics” he said the stats show almost half of the black students who graduate high school don’t have the credits and grades needed to go to university and 42 per cent didn’t apply to post secondary school. Moreover he said, of those students that apply, only one in four are accepted.
Of every 100 black students only 69 graduate, James said. Out of that number, he said only 18 end up in university or college.
He said the numbers are “worse” for boys, adding that half of the students expelled from school are black kids. “What do you plan to do about this abject failure of our schools to educate black students,” James asked the three leaders.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the “first thing you have to do is admit that there’s a problem.”
“These stats aren’t new,” Horwath said. “I’d suggest that it’s getting worse and not better.” She said the government should deal with the curriculum in schools and ensure supports are there for students.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the statistics show how much the “status quo is failing our young people.”
Meanwhile, Wynne defended her government’s record on implementing items like the Black Youth Action Plan and the Education Equity Action Plan while agreeing that more needs to be done.
“There is absolutely no doubt that there is more structural change that’s needed,” Wynne said.
Wynne got the loudest applause when she was first introduced at the event but it went downhill from there — she was at times jeered, challenged and interrupted by the crowd.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, she said the issues debated “are not simple” nor “easily dealt with.”
“What I was saying was that we have been tackling them, we have been addressing them and yes there is still more to be done,” Wynne said.
Horwath, who got a warm reception from the crowd by the end of the night, called the debate “very enjoyable.”
The Elephant not in the Room
Ford’s absence wasn’t addressed very much by the leaders during the debate, but was met with boos from the crowd when the event organizers noted his absence.
Speaking to iPolitics afterward, several audience members said his absence would hurt Ford, while another said he would still hear out the ideas put forward from the Progressive Conservatives.
Earlier in the day Wynne issued a letter challenging Ford to three debates, saying he hasn’t yet agreed to a single one ahead of the June election.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Wynne said Ford is “the one person who wouldn’t have agreed with anything that we were saying and he wasn’t there to put his position forward.”
“It is really important that he show up and that he put his opinions forward because people need to understand what that contrast is,” she said.
Ford was in Northern Ontario on a campaign-style tour.
Horwath questioned Ford’s priorities and said the “community was pretty disappointed” by his absence.
Republished under arrangement with iPolitics.
By: Asfia Yassir in Toronto, ON
Grandparents can be gems to have as part of any family unit. Regardless of their day-to-day contributions, their mere presence can have a positive effect on all those around them.
Within a family household, this could range from eliminating loneliness, creating bonds or conveying culture through generations. But for many immigrants, in a practical sense, grandparents play a unique role in offsetting the financial burden of childcare.
For Ritu Ganesh, the cost of daycare was more than what they could afford. The fact that her 18-month-old daughter would not eat or even talk to anyone because of how unhappy she was at the daycare, only added to her distress.
“Having my mother over for a visit and later my mother-in-law who moved with us in Canada, was like stirring happiness in the family. I did not have to pay for the daycare anymore which would take more than half of what our monthly mortgage was,” Ganesh recalls.
The family had been in the midst of a financial crunch following their decision to buy a house so work had become imperative. When Ganesh’s mother arrived in Canada, however she was able to look after her daughter.
The number of grandparents across the country is growing at a significantly faster rate than the general population. With the ageing population of Canada, grandparents are playing a critical role in their family’s lives as caregiver, mentors, and spiritual guides.
Benefits on Both Sides
Many immigrants are bound by their culture to take the financial responsibilities of their parents despite living in separate countries. When such parents move in with their sons or daughters, it can also help cut expenses related to monthly remittances.
Living with a child’s family is a preferred choice for many elderly parents as they don’t have to go through the empty nest syndrome.
However, it requires a lot of effort and courage for grandparents to settle down in a new place. In addition they must overcome the nostalgia they experience while living in Canada.
“Life is quite happening back home. I miss all the cultural festivities and the fun we used to have with my relatives,” mentions Sumitha Ganesh who is living here with her son’s family. It is because of this nostalgia that Ganesh travels back home every year to reunite with all that she yearns for.
More grandparents in immigrant households
For immigrants still attempting to adapt to their new “Canadian lives”, the multi-generational family system becomes a means of solace. More than 1 in 5 recent immigrants (21%) lived with their grandchildren in 2011, compared with three per cent of the Canadian-born population in the same age group.
In single-parent households, the demand put on the sole income earner, can become overwhelming at times. The trials of migrating to a new country are magnified compared to when both parents are present.
Azra Riffat has been taking care of her family, including her mother, as the sole breadwinner. As a mother of two teenage sons supporting her ailing mother, it was increasingly difficult just to stay afloat. She took up evening and night jobs because her mother could not stay alone at home during the day.
“With my job we were just making our ends meet but thanks to the disability allowances of my mother which helped us as it contributed to our monthly rental expense,” recalls Azra. She further adds that her trials could have been reduced if the government allowed some compensation for caregivers of disabled citizens which is the case in many European countries like the UK.
For immigrants in particular, it is crucial to have the moral and emotional support of family as they begin their lives in a new country.
However, having an elderly parent in the home can also be stressful on younger generations. Old age comes with its own impediments in terms of health, requiring continuing care and emotional support.
Ashok and Meera* got married at a later stage in their lives and do not have children. Ashok’s mother, who is a dementia patient, lives with the couple as opposed to a retirement home. The family, in spite of their good financial standing, is also able to save on what would have been additional costs. Ashok adds that taking care of elderly parents teaches compassion and patience, which in turn creates a more emotionally grounded society.
“I decided to take care of my mother not because we cannot afford the fortune which old home facilities cost, but because there is love and care to show when you are living together as family,” he explains.
The couple feels happy to have their mother staying with them. “There is no loneliness at home and I enjoy her company,” says Meera. Although at times Meera feels that her movement is somewhat restricted, they are able to find time to vacation and get away through the help of Ashok’s sister.
The reality of multi-generational households is more complex compared to conventional family units. However, for many immigrants, the benefits of having these family members around far outweighs the negatives.
Parenthood is a journey of countless sacrifices as well as phenomenal devotion. Yet despite these untiring efforts, it seems that even in their old age, these parents may still have more to offer. In their support of the next generation, they become a source of relief for the entire family. While their children care for them an endless life cycle is continued in their new Canadian homes.
*Names changed for confidentiality.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Canadian literature continues to diversify as more stories look to include a wider range of content set locally and abroad. Language barriers, migration trauma, cultural discrepancies and family responsibilities; women authors of diaspora are defying the odds, breaking through different obstacles to have their voices heard.
Ayelet Tsabari and Fartumo Kusow are two examples of determined women whose journeys outline what so many must overcome to become Canadian authors.
Breaking through Language Barriers
Ayelet Tsabari, who is from Israel, worked as a Hebrew journalist until she came to Canada at the age of 25. Writing, she believes, completes her. But in what was once a strong suit, language now became a challenge, pushing Tsabari to stop writing altogether. She could speak and read English, however it took her about eight years to gain the confidence to start writing.
Tsabari’s development started with her enrollment in a writing program, which she coupled with Canadian content she would read. As time passed, English began to flow into her work more naturally.
Tapping into her long lost passion, she began to create original pieces in the hopes of being published. But, to no avail as her lack of success prompted one of her teachers to suggest she read books other than Canadian literature.
“I realized that it’s not just language but it’s your heritage and even your mother tongue are still in you when you are writing in a new language. So certain things didn’t work for the publishers,” Tsabari explains.
Tsabari broadened her scope and soon she was reading literature from an array of multicultural writers. This broke the prison that had withheld her imagination, allowing her to finally express her voice.
“I just thought that if I started writing with that in my mind, just be you and do what you are and that’s what ended up getting me published,” she says.
Her dream came to fruition when her first book, "The Best Place on Earth", was published in 2013. The collection of short stories challenges the connection of spiritual heritage with modern life. Met with good reviews, it went on to win several distinctions, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Feeding off her first book’s momentum, she is now working on her second. In addition, she is also currently working with immigrant writers at the Toronto Public Library to improve their writing skills.
Fartumo Kusow was born to a farmer’s family in Somalia, as the seventh child. From a young age, she had difficulties establishing social connections with her peers and preferred to write instead.
“Instead of socializing with them I always had a notebook in my hand, that my father gave me and I would write in the notebook,” Kusow recalls.
As per Somali tradition, she married young, becoming a wife at the age of 16. Subsequently, this was also the same year her first fictional story was published in the national newspaper, where she worked.
Her husband had a job in the Middle East, which kept them financially stable. But when the civil war started in 1990, she was forced to leave. Already pregnant with her third child, she immigrated to Canada with her then-husband and two children.
Holding onto her dreams, Kusow knew that she wanted to become an author.
Unfortunately, Somali is her first language, Arabic her second. And due to war, she had little to no transcripts that could prove her credentials. However, she didn’t give up, completing her Bachelor’s in English before going on to a teaching program in Windsor. She has now been teaching since 2000.
Despite her successes, war trauma combined with move factors led to a failed marriage. She was left with no choice but to put her dream on hold as she filled the role of breadwinner for herself and her five children.
As she supported the household, her inner writer continued to itch at her until she resumed writing in 2011.
“When the kids are bit older and my career and my profession is [a] little more stable, I decided to spend an hour a day just to write something,” states Kusow.
Perseverance trumps Rejection
Nothing could stop her, not even the 104 rejections could dare be a hurdle to her dream. Though she finished her fictional piece in about three years, it did not garner much publisher interest. Sleepless nights turned into frustration as she pondered the reasoning behind her struggles. Until she came to the realization that the rejections were not personal but rather that publishing was simply a business.
With this in mind, she persevered, eventually getting published in 2017, when she produced "Tale of a Boon’s Wife".
Reviews speak to Kusow’s ability to clearly depict the issues stemming from the traditional Somali caste system, while simultaneously detailing the sufferings of the country’s civil war.
Kusow’s children are very proud of her and look up to her as a stronghold of leadership.
Though it has not been long since Canadian literature has started promoting more diverse content, its clear the industry is moving in the right direction. Several initiatives such as the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) constantly take steps to ensure progress continues.
While both Tsabari and Fartamo are giving back to the community in the form of teaching, it is important to provide aspiring writers with the opportunities to develop their skills. Through mentorships and training the next generation of writers will make an even bigger impact on Canada’s literary landscape.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by: Sukaina Jaffer in Brampton, ON
It is difficult to replicate how an immigrant feels when they arrive in the country of their adoption. Imagine wearing summer clothing all year long and then being plopped on to a snowbank the next second. How would you feel when everything from the aroma of your food and the sound of your prayers, to the clothing on your back to your very employment status is re-arranged? How do women cope when their language is a barrier?
Across Ontario, women are making adjustments to ensure they are in a position to succeed in a new land.
For Hedaya AlDaleel who immigrated from Singapore in April 2016, her family found the weather quite daunting. Wearing winter gear was not something they were familiar with coming from warmer climates. “Our first winter was tough, the kids loved the snow, but I dreaded walking or driving in it,” admits AlDaleel.
In addition, upon arrival financial limitations also proved a challenge as they looked to adapt to their new lives. “The first few months are the hardest, with total uncertainty and no clear vision of the future, it was a very stressful period,” she says. “We were blessed that my husband found a job a few months after we arrived, but the idea of a career ‘downgrade’ will continue to be a struggle.”
Initially, AlDaleel set out by renting a space within a Hair Salon & Spa so she could open her own massage practice. Using the Dorn-Method she treated patients with neck, shoulder and back pain. Although the approach is safe and pain-free, it is not covered by most insurance policies and is very uncommon in Canada. Thus, through various struggles, the business eventually closed within months.
“Having no network or connections, social circle or support group around me, made it hard to grow a customer base,” recalls AlDaleel. Unfazed, she enrolled in a Global Business course at the Newcomer’s Centre of Peel to familiarize herself with different strategies.
The material helped her in “understanding the economy, taxation, resource management, marketing and business communication as well as networking.” Working with three advisors, she was able to go over content that was applicable to her interests. “[It] was a great learning experience [which] gave me the foundation to build on,” AlDaleel continues.
Discrimination has also been cited by some academics as a key cultural barrier for newcomers. Dr. Soma Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at York University, she explains, “The idea that mainstream Canadian ways are more progressive than [the] rest of the world's. Many immigrant women I know of are under pressure to 'measure up' to the dominant standards.”
She notes that newcomers may face discrimination when they are refused housing or asked offensive questions about the kind of food they cook when applying for rent. This type of experience may force new immigrants to change some of their most deeply held cultural values.
Furthermore, not all immigrants have an easy time adjusting, especially if language is a barrier. As was the case with Esraa Ali whose biggest challenge, upon arrival from Iraq, was learning English. An issue that is only magnified with statistics that show over 70 per cent of immigrants as having a mother tongue other than English or French.
While Ali has a Bachelor of Science in Biology back in Iraq, her current part-time jobs include working as a lunchroom monitor and supply teacher in a private school. She prefers the reduced hours so that she is able to spend more time with her kids. Joining the 32 per cent of middle-aged women that have made the same decision to care for their children.
Sadaf Hussain, a Pakistani native who immigrated to Toronto in August 2016 from Dubai found the adjustment particularly challenging. She came alone with her two children because her husband was still working in the Emirates.
Hussain mentions that one of the greatest challenge she faced was leaving behind her loved ones. The busy bustle of life in Canada, lead to loneliness within the first few months. A feeling that only intensified in winters that offered shorter days and less to do outdoors.
She also grew frustrated with the constant searches for basic amenities, often travelling to multiple destinations before finding what she needed.
“We spent hours going through every single supermarket before we figured out where things were sold,” she explains. In addition, making it even harder, she would often evaluate the value of goods by converting local prices into the currency used in her native land.
Even routine activities such as driving in the snow presented challenges, having never lived in a region with snow.
She misses the stronger sense of community she found elsewhere. “I miss the sound of the call to prayers five times a day. I miss the way Ramadan (Islamic month of fasting) was so festive and how the entire United Emirates seemed to break their fast together (a cannon would sound).”
Slowly, she has learned to overcome her initial difficulties but continues to adjust as she spends more time in the country she now calls home.
Sense of community
For many immigrants, retaining their sense of cultural identity is essential.
Having lived in a number of countries, AlDaleel was prepared for the diversity that exists in Canada. She constantly educates her children about their cultural roots. “It’s important for our children to maintain their identity, as they learn to navigate their way into their new Canadian life,” she says.
Despite the adjustments they have been forced to make, both women are grateful for the opportunity they are now presented with.
Al Daleel goes on, “there’s so much room for personal growth and career change. I have learnt that in Canada, the job you do, doesn’t define who you are, or who you are striving to be. Unlike many other places around the world, you can dream big here...”
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by: Isabel Inclan in Toronto, ON
It is no secret Canada is aiming to increase its immigration numbers over the next three years. The Liberal government will look to hit a target annual intake of 340,000 new immigrants by 2020. A number that stretches far beyond what the country has been able to reach within the past couple of decades, but still falls short of the 450,000 figure that was recommended by the federal government’s advisory council.
Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussein, has pointed to the growing demand for skilled labour. However, with data that shows there are former engineers, doctors and architects working as cab drivers, there are those that are seemingly already falling through the cracks in today’s job market.
Eugenia Gomez, once a researcher in infectology at the National Institute of Nutrition of Mexico, she now cleans residential homes in Toronto.
“My job was to work with the reagents, processed samples and special solution[s] for the scientific studies,” she recalls during one of her breaks. A specialist on a stomach bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, she has had trouble finding work in her field, despite credentials from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Prior to her current position, she worked at a local Tim Hortons. A graduate of Chemical Pharmaceutical Biology, she hopes to one day return to her previous career.
After a brief pause to lace up her sneakers — ideal shoes for six hours of cleaning — she heads back to finish off her shift.
Give me a break
Others offer similar experiences in their job searches. Maria Alvarez, who was a regional sales director at an international cosmetology company based out of Latin America, has faced the same issue. With over 10 years of experience in business development, sales training and leadership roles, she has been unable to find anything that matches her skill set. And not for lack of trying, since her arrival in 2014, she has held numerous positions as a housekeeper, overnight cleaning lady, night attendant, and concierge.
“I have distributed my curriculum vitae (resumé) with many people, but until now nobody called me. I just need one opportunity to show my skills as saleswoman”, she says.
Looking for a better way to make ends meet she finally decided to give driving for Uber a try, which she still does to this day.
“The income as a driver is not too bad if you are alone and work full time. In the last year and a half, I have made six thousand trips and my rating is 4.85 stars of 5,” Alvarez boasts. Although it is not what she envisioned, she stands proudly behind the fact that she can provide for herself working nine-hour shifts six days out of the week.
As a small sample of the female talent that have gone unrecognized, these women provide insight into the growing issue of “Canadian experience” that most immigrants lack.
Paola Gomez, founder of the Network of Latina Women in Canada, maintains that although many Latina women are grateful for the opportunity presented by living in this country, there can be a steep price. For those with extensive experience or higher educations in their home countries it can be difficult to find work within the same stream, which usually reduces them to survival jobs.
Misperception of Canada
In some instances, Canada’s reputation can actually hurt those who over-estimate the reach of the developmental programs in place. Claudia*, who immigrated from Mexico, explains that she was under the impression it would be easier to find employment once she moved.
“I wanted to be independent of my family. I thought it will be easier to find a job in Canada, similar to what I had in my country, but it wasn't,” she says.
Previously a manager of a bank teller division, she still remembers how hard she pushed herself to climb the rungs. Now a cleaner, she spends her days mop in hand, moving around various residential and commercial buildings. To make matters worse, her supervisors are extremely unpleasant and a portion of her pay goes to a placement agency.
Maria Alvarez was able to build a career based on her professional experience abroad without a post-secondary education. She argues that a lack of a degree should not prevent potential candidates from consideration. In her opinion, companies should keep some openings for immigrants without certification but with enough technical knowledge to compete for the positions.
While furthering one’s education is always an option, working survival jobs does not always provide the best financial flexibility. Even with support programs many immigrants can have issues with the reduced schooling rates and the fact that they may not be able to work as many hours during that time frame.
“The problem is if I get the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) I would not live with the same standard I have now working as [an] Uber driver,” Maria Alvarez explains. Sitting behind the wheel of her car she adds, “I would like to study Dental Hygienists or Digital Marketing.”
For Eugenia Gomez family obligations as well as monetary limitations have discouraged her from adding to her Mexican credentials.
“We arrive in Canada with many dreams and eager to work. In the beginning, we accept all kind of jobs because we have to pay rent, but when we want to try something else we are faced with the ‘Canadian experience’ requirement that is difficult for immigrants,” she explains.
The mother of two, now prioritizes her sons as opposed to her own professional opportunities.
Whereas others like Claudia, are maintaining up to two jobs as they save for fees that will regularize their immigration status.
Reaching full potential
In the Latin American community as well as many other immigrant groups, there is talent, experience, and professional skills that can go unnoticed. The government has attempted to eliminate the barrier that is “Canadian experience”, but as cases continue to arise, it seems a more concrete solution must be found.
Paola Gomez states that although these women face several professional obstacles of their own, they are content with the sacrifices they are making for their children.
“We need a more real political and societal intention, the intention of including Latina women into the workforce in ways that they can reach their full potential and Canadian society can benefit from it. Not only because of the betterment of the nation's economy but also because it gives a higher sense of belonging with the new home,” she concludes.
*Full name withheld to protect identity of individual.
Isabel Inclan is a journalist with three decades of experience in Mexico and in Canada. She currently works as a Foreign Correspondent for Notimex News Agency, a Mexican newspaper. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Commentary by: Jennilee Austria in Toronto, ON
Back when I was a settlement worker, many of my newcomer clients would enter the job market in positions of non-skilled labour. Ranging from forklift operators to construction workers to food service workers many of them felt that they would have to start with survival jobs before moving on to a role that fit their credentials. The initial joy that accompanied their first tastes of Canadian employment would pass soon after a couple of months, where they would then meet with me to ask if coming to Canada was the right choice.
Upon arrival, their main barriers revolved around a lack of financial flexibility and professional networks, however after working survival jobs for a time, many would lose confidence. Coming from backgrounds in accounting, engineering, law, IT and other multi-faceted sectors; their old professions would seem so far gone that they would begin to doubt that they could return to them.
While precarious work will define the Canadian job market of the future, the majority of immigrants are usually unaware of the available programs that will lead them to more secure positions. As the federal government continues to ramp up efforts to bring in more skilled workers, more support systems have been put in place so that these individuals are able to overcome many of the toughest issues plaguing immigrants in the past.
If some of the newcomers I had worked with had known about opportunities for training or mentorship, I know that they could have been able to start their Canadian careers sooner.
One of the biggest issues newcomers often face has been a lack of ‘Canadian experience’. Although the Ontario Human Rights Commission has made concerted efforts to discourage employers from discriminating on this basis, many immigrants can attest to the continued existence of this phenomenon. While it can be difficult to regulate employers’ selection basis for a number of reasons, programs that offer both training and employment experience.
NPower Canada, an organization which advocates for diversity in the workplace, provides cost-free employment training programs for youth aged 18-29. Since its 2014 launch in Canada, the charity has been able to train and support over 500 youth.
The need for such a program has become increasingly apparent in recent years. A 2011 study revealed that 43% of immigrant women between 24-35 with university degrees obtained outside of Canada or the US, were working in positions that required a high school education or less.
But the statistics are truly brought into perspective with first-hand accounts like 27-year-old Nigerian newcomer Adebola Arogundade’s. She arrived in Canada with a B.Sc in Marketing as well as experience abroad in marketing strategies, point-of-sale systems, and customer service; however, she was unable to find work within her field of work.
At a crossroads she decided to enroll in a program with NPower Canada. The 10-week program allows participants to work towards various certifications while simultaneously introducing them to employers such as Rogers, TD Canada Trust and Alterna Savings.
The direct impact the program will have on Arogundade’s job search is yet to be seen, but nonetheless she is content with the training and the Canadian experience she will receive.
For other newcomers, survival jobs become a primary option because of friends and family members they may have, which have already gone down those paths. In an attempt to break this cycle, (The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council) implemented a program that connects individuals with volunteer mentors in a range of careers.
“Immigrants often think that when they come, they have to get a survival job, like drive a taxi,” explains Daniel Kim of TRIEC. “But our whole organization’s mandate is to help those immigrants who come with skills and expertise, and to connect them to businesses who want that talent.”
Kim who is a Communications and Media Relations specialist with TRIEC, states that over 75% of the individuals enrolled in TRIEC Mentoring Partnership are able to find work within their field.
An astounding success rate that seemingly speaks to many of the studies that assert the benefits of mentor-mentee programs. While these relationships allow proteges to further develop their subject knowledge, it also helps facilitate more extensive professional networks. In addition, immigrants are able to practice soft skills which could benefit them immensely once they are within the workforce. The issue of ‘Canadian experience’ extends past the necessary technical skills for many employers. A lot of whom, worry about the soft skills newcomers may have, such as conflict resolution, workplace communication and fitting in with the team.
Professional Immigrant Networks
The TRIEC also provides an opportunity for immigrants to join networks specific to their profession and ethnicity.
PINs (Professional Immigrant Networks) are comprised of a range of occupations and ethnic backgrounds, from the Philippine Teachers Association Canada to the Association des femmes maroco-canadiennes (Association of Female Moroccan-Canadians).
Many of these networks were actually started by immigrants themselves.
Upon emigrating from the United Kingdom, Jenny Okonkwo felt isolated without a group that she could relate to. “Basically, what happened was that I didn’t know any Black female accountants,” she says. “If you don’t immediately have that small circle to call on, that just shows how big the gap is.”
In 2016, Okonkwo started BFAN (the Black Female Accountants Network), and soon after, her network joined PINs.
Today, BFAN has grown to 600 members nationwide and works in partnership with CPA Ontario (Chartered Professional Accountants). Their mandate is to encourage female accountants of African descent to network, share knowledge, and advance themselves in accounting.
“BFAN provides résumé reviews, career advice, development of soft skills, networking opportunities, and more— and all for free to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Canada,” said Okonkwo. While they don’t provide job matches, their members, ranging from executives to university students, are dedicated to helping others develop professional skills.
Their members have already published articles, presented on public stages, and created study groups to help one another pass their CPA exams.
“The value comes from saying to a newcomer, ‘I’ve already walked this path. I’ve walked it two, five, fifteen years ago, and here’s how I did it,’” said Okonkwo. “And they come out feeling like they’ve made the right decision about the progression of their career in Canada.”
TRIEC’s PINs and Mentoring Partnership program as well as NPower Canada’s employment training programs are only a few of the unique opportunities available to newcomers. While these free initiatives can help many immigrants overcome the innumerable barriers they will be faced with, they will only be effective if these skilled individuals are aware of what is available to them. Only time will tell how Ontario will ensure these resources are being utilized.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Women’s voices and their participation in every aspect of society are more vital than ever. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, is a female-only group formed in the US in 2010. The Toronto group formed after Trump’s inauguration of November 8, 2016 to address the expected threat to religious minorities in Canada.
Led by Cynthia Levine-Rasky, a sociology professor at Queen’s University, and Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a doctoral student, the mission of SOSS is to build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish Canadian women.
The Toronto group received an overwhelming response and in less than a year, it grew to around 100 active members from both faiths. They are from all walks of life, diverse in age, religious identity and practice, as well as political outlook. The group’s members commit to working together to limit acts of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. They stand up to hate against one another and engage in social action work to benefit their communities.
Group Gatherings and Activities
In monthly gatherings held in members’ homes, these women talk about issues of shared concern: experiences, challenges, and recent events. They also plan activities of mutual interest.
Tamara Rebick, who with Tazeen Alam co-leads the North York circle, shared her experience. For Rebick, SOSS is a place where passionate and exceptional women sit together and “have authentic, meaningful and complex conversations for the purposes of learning and fostering respect, understanding and friendship.”
The women do not share the same degree of religious knowledge. In fact, many describe themselves as secular and as not particularly knowledgeable. As a result, there are opportunities for sisters of both faiths to teach one another about each religion's teachings, customs, culture and traditions.
In their sessions, the host sisters create an opportunity for all sisters, Jewish and Muslim alike, to learn about important customs within their faiths. Last year, Jewish sisters hosted a Women's Seder during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The Muslim sisters hosted an Eid Brunch featuring regional culinary foods, and one of the sister's sons built a model version of Al-Masjid al-Haram while Muslim sisters taught the group about the customs and background of Hajj.
This year, the group will be celebrating the Moroccan Jewish custom of Mimouna. (A Moroccan Jewish custom, Mimouna demonstrates the close relationship that existed between Jews and Muslims in the region early in the 20th century).
Since most Jewish sisters currently involved in the Toronto area are from Ashkenazic (Eastern and Central European) descent, they have never celebrated Mimouna.
As a result, this year's event is being hosted by a team of Jewish and Muslim sisters who are learning about the custom together and preparing an experience where everyone will commemorate this beautiful celebration of neighbourliness.
Connection with Intentionality is Natural
Talking about the historical antagonism between Muslim and Jewish people and the idea that they may be “natural enemies,” the group leaders disagreed. “This is nothing but a spurious assumption…there is nothing natural about hatred towards someone you do not know,” says Ghaffar-Siddiqui.
“What is more natural is how quickly people will find things in common and become friends, despite religious or cultural differences, if put in the same room together,” she adds.
“Connection and camaraderie are more natural than antagonism, and simply require intentionality and opportunity to flourish,” says Levine-Rasky.
Rebick believes that fear and ignorance feed much of the silos that exist in our communities. “There is more we don't know about one another than what we do know, and that leads to dangerous assumptions and unfounded and erroneous conclusions,” she explains.
Tying back to exactly why she wanted to be a part of this group and has become so committed to it. “I love learning about what I don't know, from someone who might be considered as, ‘the other,’ ” Rebick states.
According to both leaders, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom represents the power in building strong bonds between Jewish and Muslim Canadian women. Simply standing together makes a powerful political statement for change, they say.
“When the opportunity arises, we stand together to fight anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hatred in public spaces, in our public institutions, and wherever the need arises” says Levine-Rasky.
Modelling for Future Generations
The emphasis is on allyship and learning what actions and qualities create meaningful, effective and lasting allies — in the good times and bad. Rebick is encouraging her daughters to become familiar with the group. She wants them each to glean important values and lessons from a group like this one — about growing up as strong and accomplished women in their community, how to identify, manage and address adversity and ignorance, about the need for community and friendship, and about living beyond one’s comfortable and familiar bubble.
Levine-Rasky confirms that there has been a long-standing interest to create a SOSS circle for members’ teenage daughters. They are currently seeking qualified co-leaders for this initiative.
“The potential impact is extraordinarily positive since youthful relationships may continue well into adulthood, shaping decisions and values that are established at this critical age,” she added.
Ghaffar-Siddiqui believes, “The youth circle will be essential to ensuring this interfaith movement continues to grow and have a positive present and future impact on society.”
As Ghaffar-Siddiqui explained, “In whichever role a woman operates — mother, entrepreneur, teacher, community worker, etc.— she has a unique ability to spread light and awareness to whomever she interacts with, whether children, co-workers, employees, or community members. This is why the Sisterhood is so important. Each sister brings a unique and important perspective to gatherings and conversations. What is even more important, however, is how far and wide our message of love and humanity travels, as each sister spreads it in her own unique way”.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Joyeeta Dutta Ray in Toronto, ON
As Toronto evolves into the world’s most multicultural city, so does its colourful communities, rising as a collective force to overcome challenges. This time, it’s the women who are initiating change. Meet a few dynamic South Asian immigrants who have stepped forward to pull up others in the community in various ways.
If Women Move Forward, the Whole Community Moves Forward
Shiuli Akhtar* (*name changed) stands as a symbol of pride for Sultana Jahangir, Executive Director at South Asian Women’s Rights Org. (SAWRO). She defines what Toronto’s grassroots member-led non-profit organization stands for: helping South Asian women, Bangladeshis in her case, come into their own in Canada.
Shiuli migrated to Toronto from Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2013, two small kids in tow. She had a degree in Chemistry but no work experience to talk of and little English skills. When she approached SAWRO for help, she was first enrolled in an English learning class, followed by a computer course. When her skills grew, so did her confidence. She got a break in a cosmetics firm in December 2014, only to be laid off 8 months later.
Not one to leave anyone stranded in the middle of the road, SAWRO pulled her into COSTI to switch lanes as a medical lab technician. Shiuli rose to the challenge, volunteered in a clinic for 3 months before she was absorbed into a full-time role. 4 years later, she lives her dreams in the same clinic with pride.
Sultana Jahangir, originally from Bangladesh, moved to Toronto from the USA in 2005, where she lived for about 7 years. Having faced injustices as a new immigrant under the Bush Administration, she understood the plight of her people in Canada.
“(Low-Income) women in the Bangladeshi community are very isolated. They are not familiar with writing resumes or Ontario’s employment process. It is hard for them to sustain precarious jobs as they are not protected by working rights. We have policies from the 1930s which do not apply in today’s environment.”
The work environment in Canada is going through drastic change. Full-time employment supported by good wages is giving way to temporary contracts that pay pittance. Women at the lower end of the job spectrum are hit hardest with little benefits and lesser job security. SAWRO helps them by working with labour rights and employment organizations for “systematic change”. Once these women sustain themselves, there is a profound difference. “They first get their voice and recognition in their own families,” says Sultana.
Today, after 5 years of service, SAWRO supports over 2000 Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afghani and Indian women. About 346 were assisted with jobs. Plans are on to reach other marginalized groups now. “Every ethnic group has their own characteristics,” Sultana says. There is no one solution for all.
Driving Change by Giving Back
When Harpreet Sodhi migrated to Canada from India in 2001 to seek better opportunities for her family, little did she know that she would end up offering greater opportunities to others in the process.
A computer teacher for seniors back in India, Harpreet was used to training the mentally and physically challenged. Since she was “lucky to be gainfully employed”, she set about helping others through “Women That Give” - a non-profit group founded in 2016 by Fawzia Khan jointly with like-minded South Asian volunteers. The mission was to offer weekly workshops to help financially distressed and mentally disturbed women stand on their feet.
One of their greatest victories was Carol Mckeon, a mentally disabled woman under their care, who rose to take part in the 2017 International Paralympics Softball team, held in Toronto.
“Social isolation is a big factor that leads the disabled, abandoned and physically abused to depression and financial distress”, says Fawzia. “WTG uplifts these women by building their capacity and helping with job placements.”
“This land gave us the opportunity to grow so it’s important for us to give back,” says Harpreet. “We wanted to combine efforts to make a stronger impact as a unified force”, adds Fawzia.
Helping Women Professionals Fly Higher
For Bhuvneet Thakur, life changed with WINGS (Women’s Initiatives to Nurture, Grow and Support), a Mississauga-based non-profit organization. A student who arrived in 2016 to study at Humber College for a Business Accounting Diploma, Bhuvneet faced a roadblock once she finished her term. It was hard to find entry level jobs in her specialization.
“I realized the importance of connecting with professionals and carrying credible references,” she says. But for newcomers like her, networking is a challenge. “It’s hard to know who to talk with and how to start.” That is where WINGS steps in.
Started by Sanjukta Das, a Humber College Business Placement Advisor and Social Activist, who came to Canada less than a decade back from India, WINGS took flight with an enterprising board of women directors in 2014, to provide networking opportunities to empower women.
Bhuvneet secured a co-op placement with WINGS, and connected with other professionals, “magnifying her self confidence.” Shortly after, she got the much-needed break at Humber College itself. “I will continue volunteering at WINGS to help others reach their goals,” she states.
WINGS now plans its first Trade Expo on March 18th, 2018 as a tribute to International Women’s Day. It aims to bring together the rising number of South Asian women entrepreneurs and professionals at the Grand Convention Centre in Brampton. Funds from the proceeds will go towards a homeless youth shelter.
“Volunteering gives the chance to not just change one’s own life but also someone else’s”, says Bhuvneet. Good to see the baton pass on to younger hands.
By: Shan Qiao in Toronto, ON
Cindy Leung drops off her husband, Chuck, to a day program at a Scarborough, Ontario long-term care facility. Waving to social worker, Benny Choi from her car she watches Chuck being pushed away in a wheelchair.
Going through this daily routine, she reflects on where it all started. Eight years ago, Chuck had a massive heart attack and fainted at home. Rushed to the hospital, he was resuscitated after his heart completely stopped beating for minutes that seemed to go well past 60-second intervals. Luckily, he was revived. But after suffering from severe brain damage, he was eventually transferred to a day program following intensive care. And through rehabilitation on weekdays, he has been able to slowly recover his ability to speak coherently.
“My husband was a chef working in [a] restaurant and I was the waitress. Life was quite satisfying until that day he had [a] heart attack. He was only 45 years old at that time,” Leung explains in a voice that exudes calm.
Although her workload at home has increased, financial constraints have kept her from seeking any additional time at work. Supporting the household as well as emerging medical expenses as the sole source of income, she points to the solace she finds in maintaining a routine.
“We do receive some medical benefit and social assistance, but I cannot stop working. We still have a child in college. Working is one way to support the family financially and another way to support myself psychologically,” she continues.
Social worker Choi knows what Leung is going through. “Many of our patients encounter stress and frustration when dealing with their inability to talk and walk. It often causes tension towards themselves and their family,” he explains. Most of the patients that come to the facility are males, most of whom receive care from their middle to old-age wives.
It’s a story that’s known all too well across the country, women who are forced to take on dual roles within the household and the professional workplace. An astonishing 72 per cent of women caregivers aged 45 to 65 in Canada are also in the labour force. Always thankful for the support systems provided, Leung praises a healthcare system that has afforded her options that nationals of other countries can only dream of.
“I drop him off to this day program from Monday to Friday when I have to work. During [the] weekend, our children can chip in and make it possible for me to take some extra shift[s]. I receive daily feedback [about] him mostly from social workers like Benny. Sometimes, they probably talk to him more than I do. I really appreciate it. [It is] the whole Canadian health care system that gives my husband a second chance.”
Looking back on life before the near-fatal incident, brings back memories of her husband as a genial and tall man, shouldering all the responsibilities that come with family life.
Leung, who works in a restaurant as a floor manager, oversees a venue with a 500-seat capacity. Never one to complain, she cherishes having the ability to work while caring for her husband.
On the other hand, Emily Liu discovered her true career passion as a breastfeeding activist and prospective doula (a person trained to provide advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a mother before, during, and just after childbirth) after becoming a mother and main caregiver to her two young kids.
“I was a chartered accountant, worked for one of the Big Fours. I made a lot and yet lost a lot in personal time. I can work up to 70 to 80 hours during busy tax seasons until, one day, I noticed a mental meltdown while I was pregnant with my first one. Then I know I have to take a pause,” Liu says.
Motivated by her own baby, Liu made a move to “downgrade” her work portfolio to a local small accounting firm in Mississauga. Taking on a partner role, she was able to make her work hours flexible so she could juggle work with the responsibilities of raising a child.
In the end, Liu terminated her partnership, opting for a career as a freelance accountant. That was until two years ago, when she completely withdrew from the accounting business.
“I slowly find out my keen interest in breastfeeding and promoting it, something I really enjoy doing while raising up my kids,” she stresses. Since then, Liu takes her kids to the La Leche League Canada’s breastfeeding leader training class.
“This is the solution in my case, working while babysitting and I love doing both,” she giggles. Liu quit one labour market to enter another, one that’s been more welcoming to mothers and caregivers.
Moving across continents
Caregivers can come from a variety of sources, but it is extremely common to see family members step in as figures of support, sometimes flying across continents. As in the case of 65 year old Elvira Vergara, when the call came from her late husband’s cousin, there was only one choice to make.
Single with a grown son, residing in Columbia, Vergara moved in. Now 80 years old and widowed, her patient suffered from high blood pressure as well as diabetes. Taking the position as a live-in caregiver, they’ve been cohabiting for eight months and both feel positive about one another’s roles.
When asked why she chose Vergara, the cousin shrugs her shoulders and beams, “I’ve seen her great attitude working as a house cleaner. My kids probably can’t do a better job than her. We know each other from the past. I trust her,” she nods.
“Gracias,” Vergara replies in Spanish.
Although Vergara was able to fill a fulltime position through caregiving, thousands of women are forced to manage dual roles as they maintain their professional positions. It is essential that the support systems built to help these individuals are not only readily available but that they also instill their trust. With nearly half of women caregivers declining available arrangements based on the potential impact on their careers; its clear that more awareness must be brought to the benefits. Only then can these services be deemed helpful and accessible to all Canadians.
By: Margaret P. Bonikowska in Toronto
Women from virtually every continent arrive in Canada every day, but few go on to set up their own businesses or other enterprises. As part of our ongoing Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario’s Immigration Story series, we profile the entrepreneurial journeys of three women from different continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. Sandra Awuku, Maggie Habieda and Shirley Wu share their stories and keys to success.
Shirley Wu is Chinese, of Hakka descent, and lived in Pakistan until the age of 24. She came to Canada in 1991 with extensive experience in the beauty industry. Multilingual (in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Chinese, and English) and familiar with the Indian and Pakistani communities, she became a sought-after makeup expert. Now her booming Beauty Concept Salon in Mississauga employs twelve, including several freelance makeup artists and hairstylists. They work on weddings, cultural events and film shoots. Shirley also collaborates with accomplished photographers and popular magazines. “There are some who schedule weddings based on my availability”, laughs Shirley. She also gives back to the community by organizing workshops for aspiring makeup artists, teaching beauty skills and how to start a successful business.
Shirley cannot overemphasize the importance of asking questions, talking to those who are experienced, being positive, and ensuring high quality of one’s work. “Be grateful, work from your heart, keep healthy to have the necessary energy, invest in yourself to give to others, and stay positive and happy.”
Immigrant women are more likely than their Canadian-born counterparts to have completed a college degree, though some must first overcome a language barrier and deal with re-certification regulations. Then they face a difficult choice: find a job or create one. Even though the vast majority (90 percent among those 15 and older) are wage earners, some choose the riskier but also potentially more rewarding path of self-employment. In fact, this option is becoming increasingly attractive to immigrant women.
You’re not alone- there is a wealth of resources available from government agencies, libraries, business organizations. Many associations, some aimed specifically at immigrant women, welcome new members, offer networking opportunities and resources. It is in our society’s interest for immigrants to be well integrated, successful, and professionally active. Canadians are open and ready to share their experience.
Building a Reputation
Sandra Awuku immigrated from Ghana at age 19, went back to high school, graduated from Queen’s University and entered the corporate world. She developed her business, management and leadership skills and was quickly promoted in her jobs. She took a risk and gave up her safe salary, wanting to make a difference in her community. Driven by a unique idea for her company, House of Teams. Aimed at promoting team-building, she designs customized events outside the work environment. House of Teams also supports those in need: on March 10th it is sponsoring the Artists Expression for Autism show in Collingwood.
For Sandra it is all about the impact you make on the community. “Know your market, keep working on your brand and your reputation, understand your goals and your clients”, she advises. Build a network and take advantage of all available sources of support. Having a mentor is invaluable. Be prepared for long hours, but when all goes well, one’s sense of satisfaction is enormous and well worth the effort.
Canada’s unique cultural mosaic comprises over 200 ethnic groups, with over one-fifth of Canadians born abroad. The immigrant share of the country’s labour force, currently at nearly one-quarter of the population—and one-half in Toronto—continues to grow.
None of these women reported any direct experiences with prejudice and discrimination. Being from elsewhere may indeed be an asset. Immigrant women bring ideas and experiences that may be less known here but are willingly embraced. And Canada offers opportunities unavailable “back home”.
Fulfilling a dream
Maggie Habieda immigrated from Poland when she was 16. She was accepted into an art high school, graduated with flying colours and pursued studies at Toronto’s prestigious OCAD University. In addition to illustration and design, she learned photography, which became her passion. She began photographing weddings, primarily for Indian customers and soon became a highly regarded photographer in that community. Four years later she opened a high-end studio “Fotografia Boutique” in Oakville. She now photographs celebrities and makes “timeless portraits” of individuals and families, creating exquisite albums. Her former college professor has become her studio manager, part of a large support team. Maggie’s work has earned numerous awards. She is also dedicated to community involvement by organizing seminars and multicultural concerts.
For Maggie, it was always about fulfilling her dream to be an artist and capture beauty. “Don’t believe when they say you won’t succeed. Persevere,” she advises. When one bank turned her down, she went elsewhere to get her business loan. “Then I hit the library,” devouring materials about business. And she asked questions to pick other people’s brains. Her way has always been to maintain a wide range of contacts – she attends events, meets people, forms friendships and partnerships. “I started from scratch. When you don’t have money, you need to be smart.” One way to find support is to join business groups, like the Oakville Chamber of Commerce.
Women’s labour force participation is also increasing, having risen from 41 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 2016. In Canada’s major urban centers, nearly 50 percent of the female population are immigrants. 57 percent of them are employed (77 percent among those between 25 and 54 years of age).
Of course, challenges persist. Canada still has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but the government is increasingly recognizing this problem and taking active steps to address it. Considering plans to significantly increase annual immigration levels, the number of immigrant women entering the workforce will continue to grow in the coming years. Many will continue to be at the vanguard of innovation and business development, leading the way for other entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. It is essential that our society continues to encourage their initiative and creativity.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit