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.
By: Asfia Yasir in Toronto, ON
IMMIGRATION is reshaping Ontario's classrooms, changing the demographics of both students and teachers. The latest statistics indicate that one in 10 new teachers hired in Ontario is internationally-trained (about 1,000 of 11,000 new teachers in 2016). The transition is never easy for these newcomer teachers as they get used to cultural norms very different from their home nations and learn to deal with a room full of students who may not always look up to the person standing in front of the classroom.
Hycinth Gomez, an Indian immigrant working at a private Montessori school, can attest to some of these “unique circumstances”. Starting out as a volunteer before moving her way up to her current teaching role, she still found herself faced with difficulties that others did not face – at least not to the same extent.
“I started as a supply teacher in an elementary school and sometimes I had to bear more than the class teacher. I used to get badgered so much because children knew I was not there permanently,” says Hycinth Gomez. Having taught in Ontario for almost eight years now, she has had the opportunity to work with a number of age groups through additional UCMAS (Universal Concepts of Mental Arithmetic Systems) courses she also helps administer.
Immigrants coming from developing countries may also bring their own set of values and norms, serving perhaps as important role models for students who may not always see visible minorities in positions of authority and instruction. The student-teacher dynamic is one that new instructors navigate delicately as they get used to Canadian mores.
“When I was growing up, my teacher was like an empowering tower on me and I was always shushed whenever I asked more than one question. Whereas in Canada, asking questions and handling them positively is the norm,” Gomez points out.
This dynamic is not unique to elementary or high school classrooms. A female immigrant scientist* who teaches at the University of Toronto, vents her own frustration. “Students find my accent funny. They come to me for help all the time, during and after the class. But my accent gives me a hard time.” She is convinced that part of the problem is her gender, pointing out that no male faculty member seems to face the same hardship.
Female teachers can be perceived as exercising less authority in a classroom and there is some evidence to suggest this is a hard-wired bias. Recent studies based on student evaluations reveal that male teachers receive higher scores in a number of areas, including aspects that were readily comparable. For example, when reviewing categories such as “promptness” – which refers to how quickly an assignment was returned – male instructors scored 16 per cent higher than their female peers.
Dr. John Shields, a professor in the department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and an authority on the subject of immigrant settlement and integration, also attributes this to a hard-wired bias. “Immigrant teachers lack the relevant experience. Specifically, female immigrant teachers have difficulty in commanding authority in a classroom due to gender bias. As a result, students put extra demands, for example [demanding] retests, more time, even if the deadline is met, which burdens their work.”
Shields further highlights the societal pressures that extends to women students at the university level, saying, “Although the number of female students is a lot more than male students, it is still quite demanding for them considering the fact that the responsibility of childcare or an elderly family member is more upon women than men.”
Mehreen Faisal, who recently graduated from Ryerson University with distinction, couldn't agree more. She states, “As a mother I have more responsibility of the house and kids and studying with that status gives me extra pressure to cope up with my family life and studies at the same time." A Vanier Institute of the Family info-graphic titled "Women, Caregiving and Work in Canada", confirms that Faisal is not alone. Women are more likely than men to report having spent 20 hours or more per week providing care, separate from what they are employed to do.
A third issue for newcomer high school teachers like Linda Mourot, who started teaching later in life, is the perception that she is perhaps taking a job away from a younger person. “People think that if I am going to college at the age of 50, its very shameful as there are so many young people out there looking for jobs and here I am at this age who is going to take a job needed by young people.”
However, in Mourot's case, her experience has only made her more bold and confident. As a teacher of French in an officially bilingual nation, she is amazed that some students seem averse to learning a new language. Many parents do not realize the importance of learning French. “They have never travelled outside of Canada, never even to French-speaking Canada, so they see no use of French. You never know young people today may find a French speaking girlfriend tomorrow, but they find it funny.”
With their wider spectrum of experiences, immigrant teachers offer a variety of new perspectives that can make all the difference in helping to widen a child's horizons. However, these teachers face real challenges. After all, it is surely not an accident that a settlement organization like Skills for Changes in Toronto owes it origins in 1982 to "five English as a Second Language teachers [who] identified a need and shared a vision for integrated skills and language training."
*identity has been kept confidential to protect individual
By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
One woman is murdered in Canada every six days, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. This statistic belies what's been happening in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since the beginning of 2018: there has been a dramatic increase in female homicides, with five women killed in a span of six days.
Three were from the Peel Region, one from Halton and another from the Hamilton Region; all at the hands of their male partners.
Sharon Floyd, Executive Director of Interim Place in Mississauga, calls it “horrific” and says that there is “no specific cookie cutter that can tell what abuse looks like.”
“Women are murdered because they are women, they are not valued in their families and their voices are not heard,” she added.
In the midst of volatile situations, many women often turn to the shelter system which provides a safe haven for thousands annually. And although it may seem like a viable option for many, a lack of resources can force many shelters to turn away prospective residents in need.
The thought can be alarming, considering that in Ontario, 65 per cent of female shelter residents were fleeing emotional abuse and 46 per cent were escaping physical abuse.
Immigrant women more vulnerable
For women who have immigrated from countries that do not share the same gender-neutral values, abuse can manifest itself at even more alarming rates. Studies show that "immigrant women may be more vulnerable to domestic violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about community resources."
Canada is fraught with examples of this exact scenario and Samira Farah (name changed to protect victim's identity), a Bengali immigrant, endured many forms of abuse before finally finding access to the resources needed to remove herself from a potentially dangerous situation. Following an arranged marriage in Bangladesh, Farah immediately migrated to the U. S. before settling in Canada with her husband. Throughout their 10-year marriage, she was bombarded with emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.
Her husband asked Farah to obtain money ($50,000) from her father to pay-off his own debt, but she refused. Instead, she resorted to jobs as a salon worker in a failed attempt to raise money.
Even through emotional abuse and intimidation by her in-laws, Farah gave birth to a baby boy in 2003. Despite the trauma she had experienced, which included multiple miscarriages, positive thinking allowed her to find solace in her newborn.
However, her husband did not share her joy. With an eye on Farah's inheritance, he tortured her with threats of murder in isolated barren areas. Going as far as physical abuse with a knife in the presence of their then three-year-old son, she knew she had to make a change.
Farah struggled in silence to improve her marriage by opting for marriage counselling. Her counsellor suggested she call the police and later referred her to a shelter home.
“I didn’t want my son to grow in this violent environment, I want to teach him respect for women and that’s when I decided for divorce,” Farah says bravely.
Every victim is different, however, their aspirations are revived when “they hear that they are not alone”, explains Floyd, who runs a crisis centre for women. “With some initial counselling they learn that it’s not their fault and women are not to blame; this is more of a societal issue.”
Farah initially started her mobile beauty spa to make ends meet. But in the process, she has met women from diverse cultures who have been through varied kinds of trauma inflicted by their intimate partners.
She believes that sharing stories with others has helped many alleviate the trauma they have endured.
“I am not the only person who has gone through this, [there are] worse stories out there, but that little bit [of] light of hope can change a lot of things,” Farah says.
Working in different sales and marketing departments, she has now been able to gradually regain her self-esteem. With the support of her co-workers, instructors and mentors she has even followed through on previous plans to further her studies by enrolling in a College program.
“Besides taking action on divorce and get[ting] out of that relationship, I am capable of doing anything that is possible in life,” she says with new confidence.
A woman's self-worth
Generally, it takes a woman 6-7 attempts before she actually pulls away from a relationship because they are not sure of the abuse.Especially when the perpetrator is controlling, it’s important to note that a woman’s security risk doubles when she decides to leave.
Nancy Gibbs, a professor of Community Social Work at triOS College, suggests that education, information and a safety plan must be readily available. Working with victims for over 25 years, she maintains that only through greater public awareness will there be more consistency on what actually constitutes abuse.
“Advertising, blasting social media with what is available to women and what abuse looks like,” she explains, are great ways to spread the word. “It’s important to educate [a] woman [on] her own personal value.”
What one person would call abuse, another may refer to as just normal behaviour. Gibbs concludes that creating consistency in what is considered acceptable behaviour, stands as one of the first steps to eliminating abuse and ensuring a safer Canada for all.
By: Summer Fanous in Toronto, ON
Prabhjeet Kaur was among the first victims of the rise in minimum wages in Ontario at the beginning of the year. She lost her restaurant job while the rest of the province idly debated the pros and cons of higher starting wages.
Immigrating to Canada with her family to pursue her education goals, Kaur admits she is somewhat shielded from real world expenses. She explains, “students don’t know what’s going on [at] a high level. They are giving and taking in the same way.”
Since then she has been able to find work with Walmart as a picker/driver for a little over minimum wage, but is firm in her belief that any benefits are overshadowed by increases in other expenses.
The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017 legislation has increased the minimum wage in Ontario from $11.60 per hour to $14 per hour, effective January 1, 2018 and will be bumped up to $15 per hour at the same time next year. According to Bill 148, “It will be mandatory for employers to pay: casual, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees, who are doing substantially the same work as full-time/permanent employees, the same rate of pay as full-time/permanent employees."
The wage increase is especially important for single income earners and women with families to provide for. Based on a timeline produced by the Vanier Institute of the Family, two-thirds (66%) of part-time workers are women, a proportion that has not changed significantly over the past three decades. While the raise seems to offer an answer to many of the questions surrounding the Ontario workforce, the solution may not be as simple as it sounds.
Shaemin Ukani came to Canada from London in 1974, today she is the Director of Operations at Arrow Professionals, a company she co-founded over 10 years ago. As an employer, she realizes that the wage increase means the biggest expense on her books becomes staff salaries. She believes business owners will have a harder time balancing their budgets, and in turn, will hire fewer people or take on more work themselves.
Similarly, new graduates or less experienced workers may be shafted since more experienced workers who are on the hunt for a job could be hired to make the same, higher minimum wage. Other disadvantages to employers of the minimum wage increase include “staff reduction, overtime reduction, job elimination, automation, and benefit cuts,” according to Ukani. The cost of living will also rise to accommodate the wage increase, so gas, household items and groceries will go proportionately to make up the difference.
As employers take steps to protect their own profit margins, many minimum wage employees are seeing cuts in hours as well as available positions.
Equal work, equal pay
However not everyone shares negative views about the policy change. Ronia Bellotti immigrated to Canada from Jerusalem in 1986 for a “better life.” Beginning minimum wage jobs as early as the age of 13, she has climbed the ranks to her current position as Superior Court Registrar for the Ministry of the Attorney General. While she worries about how small business owners would cope with having to pay employees more, Bellotti believes the wage increase, especially for immigrant women, is a “positive step forward.”
“Immigrants, single moms or minorities would highly benefit from a wage increase in their everyday life. This may be especially beneficial to working families, as then both mothers and fathers would see a pay raise benefiting the family unit. I do think women make up a large portion of the minimum wage sector, while historically, men have received higher incomes for the same job women do,” Bellotti feels.
Data from 2005 seems to confirm this. Immigrant women of all ages were more likely to be living in a low-income situation than Canadian-born women. Among the immigrant girls and women in an economic family, 20 per cent lived under Statistics Canada's low income cut-off before tax, compared with 10 per cent of the Canadian-born girls and women. The incidence of low income among immigrant girls and women was also somewhat higher than among their male peers (19 per cent).
Fleeing an unsafe town in Pakistan, Huda Alvi and her family immigrated to Canada in the hopes of finding better career opportunities. Her career has evolved from starting her own recruitment company at age 25 to founding Workshops by Huda, an offline space that aims to empower, educate and inspire learning in a whole new way. Alvi notes people with “low skill levels generally have a hard time finding work. If the minimum wage rises, this will also cause companies to think twice about their hiring needs, which will impact jobs that women currently hold.”
Prior to getting used to the customs and workforce in Canada, many immigrant women seek to pick up job skills. On average, immigrants have lower employment rates and incomes than non-immigrants. Even as wages are increased, many ethnic women will still be forced to take on precarious work to make ends meet. Those looking to better their current situations may have to look elsewhere in the form of enhanced personal or professional skills.
However, as employers prepare for the second salary bump upcoming in 2019, only time will tell how Ontario adjusts.
By: Aparna Sanyal in Montreal, QC
We have yet to understand the impact of covert racism and misogyny on the mental health of Canadian citizens, particularly “ethnic” women. However eager they are to contribute to society, however skilled they may be, they face a unique combination of social isolation and career limitations that can trigger illness.
My personal story perhaps speaks to many women from ethnic backgrounds in Ontario and all over Canada. After all, mental illness accounts for about 10 per cent of the burden of disease in Ontario, yet receives just seven per cent of healthcare dollars. Relative to this burden, estimates show that it is underfunded by about $1.5 billion.
My journey to the depths of despair began somewhere around 2014, when after several years of untreated, chronic depression, I developed psychosis. I remember it as the “terror.” I lived alone, had no family in Canada (although I was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec) and had a precarious job as a freelance writer-editor. Somewhere along the way, I thought moving to Toronto might help, but that turned out to be a disaster as well.
The terror began when my editor at a national publication was promoted, and I could no longer expect regular work. The $250 dollars I received from them every month was significant. I made $500-600 a month in total, if I was lucky; I had looked for over a year for more secure and lucrative employment, to no avail.
But the terror I felt was, I realize, largely social. I feared marginalization more than I feared hunger. My former editor had been an encouraging man, one who made me feel valued as a writer. When I no longer had that monthly job, it was as though my only railing on a cliff fell away. I had already questioned my worth to myself, and the answer was now confirmed by the outside world. What value was there to me now? It was as though I had seized to exist.
After this, the terror came upon me, sudden and all-encompassing. Public Health Ontario estimates the disease burden of mental health at 1.5 times greater than that of all cancers put together and I was feeling every bit.
Finding a safe place
I lived in a sort of dormitory house near the University of Toronto, on Madison, a Victorian “bay-and-gable” mansion that had been cut into rickety, rented rooms. We did not have a personal letter box. Our letters were placed on a table near the entrance. I noticed my bank had not sent me the last monthly statement. I became certain my next-door neighbour, a young red-headed man who seemed to be in his room all the time, had stolen it. My problems began to proliferate. I could not find a toenail-clipper, and this only confirmed my suspicions about my neighbour; then I discovered I could not find an old sweater and a journal, and became convinced he had taken these too.
Around that time, I began to smell a strange odour. I thought it might be a noxious drug seeping from his room, but I could not identify it. At night I huddled under my comforter, hoping to protect my lungs from the fumes. As I heard my neighbour moving about restlessly at night, I imagined he was only waiting to do me harm. I also began to think I was being followed, by my neighbours or perhaps by the then-conservative government, whom I thought might have started tracking my strong political beliefs. I began to fret about being anywhere alone, especially in my room. I walked around the city and spent as much time in cafés and parks, as the homeless do. I was unable to sleep at night.
One night, convinced I was under imminent threat — for my neighbour seemed to have banged against my door— I fled the house and called the police. Little need be said about the fiasco that followed, except that one short, tired, blond sergeant shouted at me, and suggested to her two constables, one of Asian origin and one South Asian, that I might be drunk. (I did not drink.)
They had come up to the room with me, and had tried to stir up my neighbour, but he did not answer. At first, they listened to my story. After I told them about the possibility of my neighbour having made a wax key to break into my room, they lost patience. The sergeant threatened to have me charged. I still remember that she kept telling her colleagues, “After all, it’s not as though she works in an office!” My desk, laptop, books, and papers, which were before her, had no significance. I was illegitimate in her eyes because I did not work in an “office.”
The next morning I promptly moved into the Holiday Inn nearby. I called several women’s shelters around town. The sympathetic co-ordinators pointed out that their beds were full. The only one available was too far away, in another borough.
There was no one in the country of my birth for me to turn to. I had, over the previous years, alienated many people from my life. I had lost faith in the Montreal arts community I had worked in for eight years. I had developed an aversion to what I saw as its insular, largely white milieu, and sensed it could only abuse me. This sense, extreme as it was, was rooted in reality.
Overworked and under-paid
My depression had started a couple of years back, after I had left a debilitating job as an Editor and Executive Director of a well-known Montreal publication. The job, I think in retrospect, had been one often taken by women and minorities. It had been given an inflated title, but left one overworked and under-paid. The board of the organization that ran it was composed of local publishers, mainly old, male and white, who had created it as a para-governmental agency. With federal and provincial grants, they had created jobs that the government deemed necessary but refused to do itself or pay for adequately. I had made $18 an hour, a third of what I had made when working for the government a few years before. I had been paid for 30 hours a week, but worked 60.
For almost two years I had worked around the clock. My health had rapidly deteriorated. My employers had been unhelpful and unfriendly. They had rarely responded to my emails when I required information or a signature, and I often had to travel the city to find them. In spite of my difficulties, I had increased the budget and improved the magazine of the organization. Yet I had been invariably criticized by the board. I had begun to cry every night, and occasionally dreamt of suicide. My social skills had become jagged, unreliable. I had snapped at colleagues and clients. I had met a therapist, a European woman, to whom I did not mention my thoughts of suicide. She had suggested I quit my job. I had eventually fought with my board and resigned in a fit of anger, without first securing another job.
After this, I felt hopeless. Each time my mind turned to the people who shared my environment, my heart grew heavy. I could not help brooding on the daily racial slights I endured within an overwhelmingly white community: one well known director, introduced to me, turned away without speaking to me and asked the person introducing me whether I was her “bookkeeper”; that person was someone with whom I shared a large space, and who suggested to me, since I disliked using the air-conditioner in the summer, that my ethnicity made it easier for me to bear the heat. These “micro-aggressions” were little in themselves, but together, happening regularly, as I grew more depressed, they further intensified my sense of alienation.
I had enough money to isolate myself and devote myself to my own reading and writing. When the money began to run out, I made the huge leap to Toronto, where I could start afresh. It was a disastrous decision.
After two days in the Holiday Inn near the Madison house, feeling unsafe, I relocated to an International hostel in Kensington. My terror was so great now that I prepared to fly to Kolkata, India, where I had inherited a house, and would be surrounded by people familiar to me, of my own origin. One day, I spotted a red-headed panhandler near the hostel who looked eerily like my former next-door neighbour; seeing him triggered both my sense of alienation and intense fear of poverty. Inevitably, I felt the need to leave the hostel.
Identifying the Problem
I stayed, during these three weeks of terror, in five hotels. They cost me roughly $10,000 and I received no security from them; each successive place of sanctuary turned into a house of horror. I must have contacted the police five times, expressing my fears. I tried to tell many people about the “drugs” I could smell in my rooms — from policemen to maids to night-managers. But they smelt nothing and were puzzled that I could not specify what I smelt. Only one person told me I should see a doctor. A young, Asian constable in a police station I had run to one night, he said, “All I’m saying is that you should see your family doctor. Because if you are mentally ill, you will be the last person to know.”
I went to a hospital eventually, because I was so anxious I felt I could hardly breathe. The nurse suspected my illness, and asked if I saw things that others didn't see; I said no, for I smelt things others didn’t smell. The medics performed a brain CT on me. It was normal, and I was sent back to my hotel.
I was bitter. I felt I was being forced to flee the country of my birth, and somewhere in my pent-up mind I thought this was because I was a social threat. This happened to be somewhat true, but not in the way my sickness told me it was. Simply put, as a brown, thinking, writing woman, I was negligible in the society I had been born in. Its various attacks on my mind, from micro-aggression to economic hardship to isolation, caused my mental illness and my ejection from that society.
(*For those living in Ontario, the Mental Health Helpline is a free, confidential live service that is available 24/7 to provide callers with information about mental health services in this Province.)
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and journalist who has worked with the Globe and Mail, the Gazette, the Montreal Review of Books, and Rover. She has been an advocate of mental health awareness and is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in English at McGill University. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Commentary by: Don Curry in North Bay, Ontario
Don’t buy Vic Fedeli a yellow tie. He has dozens of them.
That’s his signature trademark, but he is just as well known for his intellect, knack for getting things done, workaholic tendencies, a big smile and a handshake for everyone who crosses his path.
Now interim leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, the 61-year-old aims to be the permanent leader after a leadership convention that has to be held before the end of March to give the party time to campaign before the June provincial election. Underestimate his chances at your peril.
But what does the Nipissing MPP and former mayor of North Bay know about immigration? Quite a bit, actually.
Of Italian immigrant stock and a big supporter of the city’s Davedi Club, as mayor he saw immigration as a key to the future well-being of the city. Northern Ontario has faced youth out-migration, baby boomer retirements and a declining birth rate and does not have an immigration strategy.
Fedeli identified the local need as mayor in his first term starting in 2003 when he tasked the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development with getting the city involved in attracting and retaining immigrants. The North Bay Newcomer Network, a Local Immigration Partnership, was formed and it later led to the establishment of an immigrant support agency, the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre, in 2008.
Full disclosure, I have known him for almost 40 years. He formed Fedeli Advertising in 1978, the same year I moved to the city to teach journalism at Canadore College. I interviewed him in the early 1980s for a feature article for Northern Ontario Business magazine and our paths have crossed many times since. I would describe him as conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues.
I was part of a delegation from the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) that met with him in his Queen’s Park office to brief him on provincial immigration issues. My OCASI colleagues, perhaps anticipating some pushback from a Conservative, were impressed with his knowledge. I have met with him in his North Bay constituency office to discuss local and regional immigration issues and see that he always does his homework to prepare for the meeting.
I played golf with him at a fundraiser for the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre. I drove the cart and he worked his smart phone to stay in touch with provincial issues. Although we are members of the same golf club, he rarely plays, as his workaholic tendencies continue through the summer. We tried our hands at cricket together with the local cricket club. Club members stifled their laughter.
Fedeli ran for the party’s leadership in 2015 and bowed out of the race to support Christine Elliott. Since then he has been the party’s bulldog in the Legislature as finance critic, holding Premier Kathleen Wynne’s feet to the fire on numerous issues.
He has the unanimous support of the PC provincial caucus and Northern Ontario politicians of more than just Tory persuasions. The North Bay Nugget quoted Mayor Al McDonald, a former MPP himself, saying Mr. Fedeli would be a “great choice” for party leader. He pointed to the need for an immigration strategy for Northern Ontario that Fedeli could champion, plus a rollback of provincial policies that have impaired the potential for development in the north.
The article quoted other North Bay municipal politicians singing Fedeli’s praises. He has also generated excitement province-wide on social media.
He is a proven winner in North Bay. A two-term mayor, he won the 2003 campaign against three challengers, including a former deputy-mayor, earning 75 per cent of the total votes cast. In the 2006 campaign, opposed by a former mayor, he earned more than two-thirds of the votes. Each year he donated his approximately $50,000 salary to a different charity.
His business was a roaring success. It was listed as number 34 of the top 50 Canadian best places to work by Profit, a magazine for small business. He was recognized as one of Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs in an episode of Money Makers. He sold his business in 1992 for a large profit, and has been a leading philanthropist in the city ever since.
He donated $250,000 to Nipissing University, $100,000 to Canadore College, and then $100,000 more. He donated $250,000 for the Harris Learning Library at Nipissing University and $150,000 for the city’s new hospital.
Prior to taking over the finance critic role in 2013, he was the energy critic and critic of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. He was the main party investigator and agitator over gas plant scandals in Oakville and Mississauga. In 2013, he wrote to the Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner to ask for an investigation of the removal of emails in the Premier’s Office pertaining to the gas plant controversy. The then Premier's chief of staff was recently found guilty.
He also fought the Liberal government on the divestment of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, based in North Bay. His efforts were successful and the ONTC is now on sound financial footing.
North Bay is excited. We had a premier from here before – Mike Harris. Could Vic Fedeli be the second from this city of 50,000, just a few hours north of Toronto?
Don Curry is the president of Curry Consulting. He was the founding executive director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and the Timmins & District Multicultural Centre and is now chair of the board of directors.
By: Mohammed Hammoud in London, ON
On Saturday, January 20, millions took to the streets to protest unjust legislative policies against women in the U.S. and Canada. Originally organized as a rally against the Trump administration in 2017, in its second year, the Women’s March is quickly becoming a voice for human rights advocacy.
In Toronto, thousands of women and men alike joined forces in the march which took place at Nathan Phillips Square with “Defining our Future” as this year’s theme. Starting at noon, many speakers including former Ontario MPP Zanana Akande addressed the crowd to demonstrate support for one another.
Marginalized voices need to be heard, and what better time than now? The fact that 2018 is an election year in Ontario, the fight for gender equality and social change is at the forefront, especially with policy makers who want to keep their positions.
As a man of faith, I feel that it is important to support this movement, by speaking out and taking action. After all, remaining silent only condones the injustice.
This year, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements reinforced the momentum behind the Women’s March by exposing the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and workplace harassment. Numerous, almost daily revelations of sexual misconduct allegations have been brought into the public sphere, exposing abusive men in powerful positions. Yet, it seems as though the focus is on exposing individuals, rather than the system that enables them to abuse their power and get away with it.
Abusive systems led by tyrannical men is nothing new. History is mired with countless stories of human rights abuse and social injustice. At our home, we draw personal inspiration from strong women in history as examples. Asiya bint Muzahim, wife of the Pharaoh, denounced her husband in support of Moses. Mariam, mother of the Messiah, who, in spite of being falsely accused of adultery, remained firm in her resolve. Zainab bint Ali, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who confronted the tyrant of her time after he had commanded the murder and beheading of her brother, Hussein ibn Ali, and 72 of his companions.
After 1400, Zainab’s speech still resonates today as it calls out from Karbala, a small town in central Iraq, to over 23 million visitors who flock there for the largest human gathering, the “Fortieth”, to stand up against tyranny and abuse of power and call for social justice.
By highlighting these powerful women as role models, we are emboldened as sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, to ensure that we do not abuse our positions. Women’s voices are heard, and they play an active role in our homes, as well as our communities.
I personally draw inspiration to vocalize from the brave women of the #MeToo movement who spoke out and started the wave of allegations against abusive men of power. Their cause is a call to action for similar offenses and radicalization. Yet, while there have been hints of rampant sexual abuse in the movie industry for almost 30 years, the topic did not receive the needed attention since.
A 2016 TED Talk from Naomi McDougall Jones hinted at the exploitation by going straight to the heart of the issue and addressing the abusive and sexist nature of Hollywood. Jones explains how “95 percent of all the films you have ever seen were directed by men. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all of the leading characters that you have ever seen were men. And even if we just talk about the last five years, 55 percent of the time that you have seen a woman in a movie, she was naked or scantily clad. That affects you. That affects all of us.”
It is not just the movie industry, but an entire system that typecasts woman as a commodity, radicalizes groups and labels them as criminals, drunkards or terrorists based on the colour of their skin or religious beliefs. When this system intensifies its hold on our institutions, it is enabled to establish deep roots in our society and our legislative policies. This systemic racism is further legitimized when it silences the victim and empowers the aggressor. The result: a silent discrimination that ends up robbing us of our voice, our courage and our identity, leaving us to feel nothing but shame and guilt.
So, as we march united with these movements, we need to challenge our blind financial support of such industries. For them, #TimesUp. As Jones recommends, we need to fund alternative mechanisms that share our causes, where we are empowered and celebrated, rather than mocked and shamed to feel inferior. Only then, when we can find what makes us great again, can we define our identity and reclaim our what is rightfully ours.
Mohamed Hammoud has been involved in various public speaking engagements focusing on interfaith as well as training on leadership, diversity and inclusion. This piece is part of a series titled, "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario". Writers interested interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective.
By: Summer Fanous in Toronto
In 1916, women across the nation rejoiced as Manitoba became the first province to grant women the right to vote. Looking back, it's almost ludicrous to think that gender could determine one’s status within society. Fast forward 100 years, however, and women around the world are still at the forefront, advocating for much needed change. Silenced for far too long, women are passionately speaking out about inequalities and injustices everywhere they can, including in books. Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women's Resilience is creating awareness about sexual abuse among immigrant and refugee women. Women’s voices are to be heard, and they are demanding equal opportunity. And the world is listening. Even Saudi Arabia, which previously served as the only country that still barred women from driving, will make a change in a ruling set for 2018 implementation. Canada, on the other hand, is a country that affords equal rights to men and women.
7.5 million people immigrated to Canada in 2016. And while specific motives may differ, the country’s stance on equality and the subsequent avenues of opportunity are a big reason such a diverse range of people can call it ‘home’. Based on recent findings, the Ministry of the Status of Women reports that 55% of all Canadian doctors and dentists are females. An optimistic sign of the progress that has been accomplished thus far. However, equal rights don’t always mean equal pay. In Ontario, for example, the average woman earns $33,600 annually, while a man earns $49,000.
As if that’s not enough to bring spirits down, other hurdles still exist when it comes to leadership amongst women. The Canadian government, along with Skills for Change has been conducting periodic Gender Based Analysis’ since 1995 with the most recent one taking place in 2013. The findings identify the following 8 barriers: Language and Communication, Looking for Opportunity, Unemployment, Lack of Confidence, Cultural Differences, Working Survival Jobs, Finances and Refugee Status.
New Canadian Media (NCM), along with Skills for Change and the Vanier Institute for the Family are partnering up on an exciting project available to members of the NCM Collective. Together with the Ontario multiculturalism program, NCM has been commissioned to produce a series of 20 original pieces of journalism that speak to this theme: Women as full participants in Ontario’s immigration story.
Female members of the NCM Collective have the opportunity to showcase different perspectives on a range of topics. With a focus on Ontario’s rich multi-culture, these individual pieces will provide a better understanding of the talent that the mainstream so often ignores. Even in a country that emphasizes equality, women are not always provided the same opportunities to express themselves as their male counterparts.
Writers interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective for an opportunity. Additional details such as compensation and content guidelines will be communicated as pitches are received.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit