Commentary by: Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton, ON
It's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Quebec's National Assembly passed a bill that will require civil servants and members of the public seeking government services to have their faces uncovered. Known as Bill 62, this legislation will affect Muslim women who wear religious face coverings such as a Niqab or Burqa.
To be sure, this issue of Muslim women covering their faces is one that elicits very strong reactions, both from a rights and freedoms perspective as well as from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practice with great suspicion and mistrust.
The reality in Canada today is if a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of Quebec's lawmakers.
I was talking with an older, Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this very topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practice has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the odd older woman wearing one to mas, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practice that has faded from popular use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.
I also have strong feelings about this issue that come from my own personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to "strong reactions" from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger. I well remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their Kirpan in schools, places of employment and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.
Bill 62, which the Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée describes as a first in North America, is the culmination of a long conflict in Quebec around the province's religious minorities that I personally view as an extension of the province's vigorous protection of its French language and culture that makes them suspicious of those whose behavior or beliefs they perceive as a threat to their "Frenchness."
Meanwhile, those who are critical of Bill 62 are left with few details of how the law would be applied in a variety of circumstances, as the regulations have yet to be written, and municipalities such as Montreal that are blatantly opposed to this bill are demanding to be exempted from it. The law poses serious challenges, such as potentially pitting nurses and doctors — and their professional standards of practice that require they provide medical service to all patients who present themselves for care — against the law, which essentially forbids them to provide that care to a woman whose face is covered.
To many people who view these "foreign customs" through the lens of Western sensibilities, women choosing to cover their face or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practice of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their opinion that it is.
Mandatory, not mandatory — to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice. This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of Canada.
Brampton-based Surjit Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer who has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, Toronto Sun and other publications. He is a member of the New Canadian Media Collective.
Commentary by: Fred Maroun in Ottawa
Quebec recently passed a law banning face coverings for people delivering or receiving public services, which has re-ignited the debate across Canada on banning the burqa and niqab.
Some people, such as Idil Issa, have accused Quebec’s politicians of going after Muslims because they are a minority and an easy target. Knowledge of Quebec history and culture, however, contradicts that accusation.
Quebec’s strong liberal values
Quebec is by far the most progressive province in Canada. Its two main parties are centrist (the Liberal Party of Quebec) and centre left (the Bloc Quebecois) whereas all other provinces have strong conservative parties. Quebec’s support for same-sex marriage is at 78%, possibly a world record. Quebec is a striving multicultural and diverse society.
Quebec was the only Canadian province to undergo a revolution (albeit a non-violent one, aptly named the Quiet Revolution) against religious and political conservatism.
There is a problem when women live in a society as liberal as Quebec and yet feel the need to comply with some of the most conservative and patriarchal religious rules ever invented. The fact that many Quebecers recognize this as a problem is not a symptom of intolerance.
When Quebec’s new law is discussed, the discussion invariably drifts towards the face covering of some Muslim women due to a version of Islam that is highly sexist and regressive, commonly referred to as Islamism. The concern of citizens is clearly not face coverings in the abstract but the religious radicalism that it implies.
I grew up in Lebanon at a time when Muslims were already the majority, and yet I never saw a woman with her face covered in public, even in Muslim neighborhoods. Several members of my family grew up in Egypt and make the same observation. With the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the niqab and the burqa are now often seen in the streets of Cairo.
Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, wrote, “[I] never saw a niqab when I was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. […] But in the 25 years I have called Canada home, I have seen a steady rise of Muslim women being strangled in the pernicious black tent that is passed off to naïve and guilt-ridden white, mainstream Canadians as an essential Islamic practice”.
Islamism is the opposite of social liberalism. Whereas liberalism aims to achieve for women equal rights and opportunities, Islamism considers women inferior and expects them to be subservient. The infiltration of Islamist values into Canadian society can only send chills into the backs of liberals.
A political hot potato
There are however no easy answers to fighting Islamism in Canada since we also value freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and personal choice. A ban on face coverings can be seen as a patriarchal imposition on women who may in theory choose to cover their faces. And if a husband prevents his wife from leaving the house with her face uncovered, a ban may transform her house into a jail.
Politicians try to avoid complex issues, and the growth of Islamism in liberal societies is undoubtedly a complex issue. Quebec politicians deserve credit for at least trying. Federal politicians refuse to even talk about it.
During the Conservative leadership campaign, Kellie Leitch attempted to bring forward a proposal to defend Canadian values by asking some tough questions of potential immigrants, but she faced strong opposition even within her party. After Andrew Scheer won the leadership, he left Leitch out of his shadow cabinet and gave another former candidate, Lisa Raitt, the position of deputy leader even though Leitch received almost twice as many votes as Raitt on the first ballot.
The federal Liberal Party and the NDP stay even farther away than their conservative counterparts from fighting Islamism. Almost all Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs), all NDP MPs, and a small number of Conservative MPs passed a vague motion condemning “Islamophobia” without defining its meaning, which could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle legitimate criticism of Islamism.
Demagogues could fill the void
While I never saw burqas and niqabs in Lebanon, I see them now in Ottawa, far too often. Such occurrences are frequent reminders to Canadians that the issue of Islamism is not a faraway problem but a local one.
Canada has no leading politician resembling Donald Trump at the moment, but neither did the U.S. until two years ago. Then Trump barged into the political scene and raised issues that Americans were concerned about, such as Islamic terrorism, issues that other politicians were afraid to discuss.
There are likely more significant reasons why Trump was elected, but his willingness to be politically incorrect was undoubtedly one of the attributes that attracted voters to him. We see such a phenomenon occurring in parts of Europe as well, such as Germany where the extreme right has significantly weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominance.
Politicians must find the courage to ask the politically incorrect questions, even when they do not have all the answers, so that intelligent solutions can emerge. If competent politicians ignore the challenge, demagogues may take advantage of the vacuum and propose ill-conceived populist ideas, which is the last thing we need.
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin. He lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He regularly blogs for The Times of Israel.
I come not to bury André Drouin’s legacy, but rather to praise him. In his way, he made a singular contribution to the debate about immigration in Canada.
Drouin, a former city councillor in the Quebec town of Hérouxville, passed away at age 70 earlier this month. He was famous, after a fashion, for having been the co-author in 2007 of a peculiar (and highly controversial) ‘code of conduct’ for new immigrants that made his community a lightning rod in the debate over immigration and the so-called “reasonable accomodation” of minority cultures.
You remember this one. Hérouxville is a little town with a population that is predominantly white, francophone and Catholic. Still, for reasons of its own, it adopted a code of conduct for new immigrants reminding them that women in the community must be allowed to show their faces, drive cars and write cheques — and that they’re not to be killed in public beatings, or burned alive.
The reaction of the wider world ranged from mockery to outrage — and Hérouxville quickly became a symbol for everything wrong with the Canadian conversation on immigration. Drouin did not coin the phrase “reasonable accommodation”, but he gave it its political currency in Quebec.
As an immigrant who had been in Canada barely five years when the Hérouxville controversy first surfaced, I felt profoundly offended. Where did this guy — who’d probably never met an immigrant or a person of colour — get the right to “prescribe” the outer limits of a society’s welcome? It built up my notion of Quebec as the least friendly of provinces for newcomers.
Today, I think of Drouin differently. In fact, it was the non sequitur of Hérouxville’s immigration stance that inspired me to launch New Canadian Media.
I now believe Drouin did us a favour by articulating a sentiment that rarely gets aired in mainstream media: the notion that immigrants have obligations, too. Assimilation, integration or tolerance — whatever semantic approach you take to the process by which a nation accepts and weaves together newcomers, it is indeed a two-way street.
If the world today recognizes “Canadian exceptionalism” in the area of immigrant integration and citizenship, it’s partly because ordinary folks like Drouin — who had only a small-town bully pulpit — articulated in a democratic fashion fears that a lot of Canadians share, but are loath to voice for fear of ostracism.
I’d prefer Drouin any day to a lurking xenophobe who doesn’t quite know why he “fears the Other” – only that he does. He had the decency to speak his fears aloud, giving his society a chance to confront them.
In fact, I think it’s because of public officials and civic leaders like Drouin that Canada has not produced a Marine Le Pen, a Geert Wilders, a Heinz-Christian Strache or even a Viktor Orban. We largely have a mature discourse on the defining issue of our era — an issue that has proved to be extremely divisive and explosive in every other nation that has confronted it.
This was no accident. Every country that has a high immigrant population needs public forums and institutions where opponents of laissez-faire immigration can have their say, within democratic norms. Coun. Drouin used one of those forums to the hilt.
He wasn’t whistling in the wind, either. Like it or not, Quebec is Canada’s crucible on immigration policy. Recent controversies around finding a burial ground for Muslims, the carnage at the mosque in Quebec City and the earlier firestorm over one builder’s bid to have a condo complex just for people of a particular faith show that Quebec represents the bleeding edge of the immigration debate.
One doesn’t have to drive too far south from the town of Hérouxville to witness first-hand what an alternative to a reasoned, national discourse looks like. There’s a daily drumbeat of executive orders from the Trump White House, but the most dramatic ones — the ones that get reported and dissected endlessly — have had to do with immigration and visas. Why?
I believe it’s because Americans have been uncomfortable with their immigration policy for a long, long time, but have found few in Washington or elsewhere who would voice their fears. This has led to an untenable situation where you have as many as 12 million “illegals” in the country. Clearly, this is a policy that went off the rails decades ago.
Civic leaders like Drouin act as a ‘pressure valve’, staving off an immigrant-baiting political groundswell like the one we’re seeing in the U.S. We’d be far worse off without them.
George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media. Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca
Commentary by Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton
For many Sikhs in Canada today, the Komagata Maru incident still looms large in our consciousness.
For anyone not familiar with this event in our nation’s history, in May 1914 the Komagata Maru sailed from Hong Kong bound for Vancouver, carrying 376 passengers. Most of the passengers were from the Punjab, India. All were British subjects.
At that time, Canada had a regulation referred to as “continuous passage” which stated that immigrants must "come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship."
The regulation had been brought into force in 1908 to curb Indian immigration to Canada. The passengers on the ship intended to challenge this regulation. On their arrival, the ship was denied docking privileges, and eventually the ship was escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian military in July 1914 and forced to sail back to India, where 19 of the passengers were killed by gunfire upon disembarking and many others imprisoned.
The Komagata Maru story is an example of what was then the ultimate expression of colonial bigotry, exposing Canada’s deliberate process in controlling immigration by excluding those people the government of the day deemed unfit to enter. These justifications were couched in racist and ethnocentric views of "progress", "civilization", and "suitability" which all were used to support the view that Canada should remain a "White Man's Country".
In terms of immigration policy, the Canada of today is the complete opposite of still colonial pre-World War I Canada.
Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that our borders are open to anyone. But this “openness” is now being tested. Refugee claimants reacting to U.S. President Donald Trump’s tougher stand on immigration have begun to head north to what they may see as greener, more accepting pastures. They are now daily crossings at the border, flouting the Canada – U.S. “Safe Third Country Agreement”, under which refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first "safe" country they arrive in.
In landing in the U.S., but crossing our border as refugees, they are in fact breaking the law and this has become a difficult situation for Prime Minister Trudeau, while simultaneously making many Canadians very uneasy.
Many of us applauded our new government’s efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. I believe a big part of the general acceptance of this policy was rooted in public perception that the process was well organized, refugee claimants were thoroughly screened and upon arrival the housing, schooling and other necessary supports were well in place. The latest development is the opposite of organized, with claimants crossing Canada’s porous and largely uncontrolled border with no pre-screening and no homes and sponsors waiting to receive them.
Canadians are now watching to see how our government will react to this new refugee situation. If Canada does not exert its sovereignty, honour the Safe Third Country Agreement, and deter these opportunistic attempts at what can only be seen as “shopping for a yes” by claimants, this trickle will become a wave.
Canada is ill prepared for uncontrolled refugee claimants streaming into this country, and I believe the majority of Canadians expect our government to act in Canada’s best interest. This means not merely reacting to claimants crossing our borders, but to act by deterring it. We are a country that values fair process and the rule of law.
Today, Canada has a compassionate, principled approach to both immigration and refugees. Our government’s inability to control this developing situation may ultimately do harm to our current refugee system, ultimately causing Canadians to have a lack of faith in the system, and ultimately in the government that is charged with managing it.
Prime Minister Trudeau will need to step outside of his comfort zone and put in place firm measures to respond to this looming crisis. At times like these, his usual “sunny ways” approach will have to give way to more firm leadership.
The Prime Minister is being tested here, and his next move may finally provide Canadians with a true indication of just how fit to lead Justin Trudeau really is.
Brampton-based Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer.
By Jeremy J. Nuttall for TheTyee.ca
Residents of a small town in southern Quebec gathered Sunday to try and make sense of their hot spot status in Donald Trump’s new world order.
Hemmingford, Quebec is one of the few places in Canada on the front lines of an influx of refugees coming from the United States.
Representatives for police, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a group that helps refugees in nearby Montreal sat in front of a packed rec centre gym at an event organized by a local United church.
The town is near an increasingly popular place for refugee-status seekers to enter Canada without using a designated crossing. Doing so is illegal under the Customs Act. But if they were to cross into Canada at a legal crossing, they would be sent back under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires refugees to seek status in their first safe country of entry.
Some who arrive at Hemmingford are reported to have wanted to live in the U.S. but were denied status there. Others intended to end up in Canada, but entered the U.S. first because there they could obtain a visa more easily.
In Hemmingford last month, a photo was taken of a Mountie smiling as he held up a young child making her way into Canada with her family. Around the same time, other photos showed handcuffed refugees detained by Canadian police. Some are calling Hemmingford, population 808, a terminus in a new underground railroad.
As their home becomes known as a back door into Canada, Hemmingford residents Sunday displayed a relaxed attitude toward the situation, and many were at the meeting hoping to find out how they can help.
Happy to have them
Hélène Gravel lives at the end of one of the first driveways refugees pass after they cross the rusty gate and ditch near a white marker signifying the international boundary between Canada and the U.S.
The crossing sits at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, about 10 kilometres from Hemmingford, where Roxham Road crosses into the U.S. near Champlain, N.Y.
There’s no Statue of Liberty here, not even a plaque, just trees and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police sitting in their vehicles waiting to arrest those crossing for breaching the Customs Act.
Gravel said it’s nothing new to see people crossing — she’s watched it happen for 20 years — but never like this.
“There were only a few people every year, but now it’s a lot every day,” she said.
Recently the Canadian government told journalists about 2,500 people crossed into Canada via Quebec, Manitoba and B.C. illegally in 2016, and since the beginning of this year alone there have been about 430 in those regions combined.
Almost 300 of those were in Quebec. Quebec borders have seen a 230 per cent increase in “irregular” border crossings over last January.
It used to be mostly young, single men who would cross, Gravel said. If they happened to see her they would ask if they had arrived in Canada. Now, she said, it’s families she sees being picked up by police and driven past her property.
She reckons many of them are leaving the United States fearing the Donald Trump administration as the president targets immigrants and refugees as a place to lay the blame for the nation’s woes.
Last Tuesday, during a speech to congress, Trump invited relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants as guests of the address and launched a website listing “victims of immigrant crime,” despite research showing immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens.
On Monday, Trump announced tweaks to his travel ban after it was rejected by a judge last month.
But despite such moves by Trump and his loyalists, Gravel isn’t afraid of living metres from where these refugees come into the country. She’s actually tired of journalists knocking on her door asking her if she’s scared of them.
It is a bit too busy now though, Gravel said, stressing she’s happy to have the refugees come to Canada. She’s already lost one neighbour who no longer comes to his vacation property because the idling police vehicles and crossing refugees have become too much of an intrusion.
“It’s just a quiet place, we are not used to so many people,” she said, explaining she hopes Canada doesn’t establish any permanent processing centre at the crossing. “I live there because it’s quiet.”
Outpost for world’s troubles
It is indeed quiet.
Driving into Hemmingford is like entering a village arranged by a devoted collector of Lilliput Lane housing figurines.
Tall — but not too tall — hardwood trees hug the gutters of the road, giving way to gently sloped grass fields and carefully manicured properties.
A public outdoor skating rink slowly succumbs to the unseasonably warm March temperatures on the cusp of town. Residents stop reluctantly at the town’s lone blinking stoplight at its busiest intersection.
This is rural Quebec; a place for cows, apple cider and comfortable fall fashions. It’s not supposed to be a place where frightened refugees trudge their children across snow in biting cold fleeing a country threatening to send them back to places filled with violence and poverty.
Now Hemmingford has become connected to the world’s troubles as millions of people from places like Somalia and Syria roam outside their countries looking for help.
At Sunday’s rec centre meeting, experts explained why people are coming to Canada, more specifically, why they are coming to this tiny nook of the world.
It’s a matter of geography, RCMP Const. Marcel Pelletier told the crowd at the Hemmingford rec centre. Pelletier said it’s an easy place to cross, but most people using it are bound for places like Toronto, which is obstructed by the Great Lakes.
So, refugees make their way to Roxham Road instead, he said.
There is concern more people could make the trip as the weather warms and how Canada would handle a major influx, and what it would do with the people arrested after crossing.
Canada does hold some refugees, even refugee children, in detention centres, a practice Amnesty International has asked Ottawa to end.
Back at the rec centre, about 150 people who live along the road and in the area were more concerned about helping the refugees than keeping them out of the country or locking them up.
One asks Pelletier if it’s legal for her to feed or shelter people who have crossed illegally. He replies that he’d rather she call the police first.
Others are there to help in a joint letter writing exercise to Canada’s Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, asking him to rescind the U.S.’s designation as a safe third country.
That would mean refugees wouldn’t have to cross a ditch and rusty gate to enter Canada. They could ask for protection at a legal border crossing and not risk braving the elements to cross in places like Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.
Among the audience on Sunday, knitting a scarf in the third row as she listens, is Jeanine Floyd, who immigrated to Canada herself from the United Kingdom years ago.
She remembers when crossing into the U.S. at the end of Roxham was child’s play for local kids.
“They would go down to the end of the road on their bicycles and they would dare each other to cross,” Floyd said. “This was the most exciting thing that would happen on Roxham, actually crossing the border to America.”
Now the border marker represents something other than fun and games as residents in the area worry about the suffering of those making the journey to the Canadian border.
They want to offer more than meaningless gestures to these people, Floyd says, suggesting that’s why people came together in Hemmingford Sunday.
“I think it’s just that pressure of wanting to fix it,” she says. Her tone goes dour. “We can’t fix it.”
by Dr. Gina Valle in Toronto
Children of immigrants learn to live in two worlds. As a first-generation Canadian, I learned to maintain and modify my Italian culture in order to make it valid and workable in Canadian society. There is some consolation in knowing that many children of immigrants share this feeling and practice.
As a woman raised in an immigrant home, I travel daily between the rural, southern Italian culture I acquired inside my home and the urban, mainstream Canadian culture I live outside. Each day, I build bridges of understanding, as I create a new culture. This new culture straddles the ‘old’ world in which I was raised and the ‘new’ world of contemporary Canadian society. There is no doubt that the contrast between these diverse realities has allowed me to live a more full life.
My parents were post-war immigrants to Canada from Calabria. My father, Domenico Valle, arrived at Pier 21, in Halifax, in 1957. My mother, Giuseppa Ziccarelli, came in 1960. My parents had been neighbours in their hometown of Lago, Cosenza. My father was the eldest of his family, and shortly after his father died, he went to France, Germany and eventually Canada in search of steady work.
While in Toronto, my father held down three jobs and lived with his cousins, Luca and Sofia Perri, until he decided it was time to get married. He wrote his neighbour in Lago, Antonio Ziccarelli, and asked for his eldest daughter’s hand. A few months later, in the spring of 1960, my mother boarded a ship in Napoli, bound for Canada. (A wedding picture at left)
Two years after her arrival, I was born. Three years later, my brother Antonio Nicola was born. In the early years, my father made donuts, washed cars, and sold vacuum cleaners. My mother made clothes for dolls and took care of boarders, to help support her family. As my parents worked around the clock, my grandmother, Luigina Valle, cared for us in our home. Nonna had come to Canada, to live with her eldest son, shortly before my baptism.
Although my father’s love of building new homes was where his real interest lay, he went on to start a business as an insurance broker, with my uncle Domenico Groe. They worked hard at this business, until they finally retired and closed their doors in 2002.
Richness of two worlds
I attended public schools, and in keeping with my parents’ strong work ethic, I began working as an 11-year old by delivering newspapers, babysitting and stocking shelves at the local drugstore. From time to time, I would adopt a ‘Hollywood’ version of life, but otherwise, I instinctively knew that everything in life would require hard work.
Language and culture shape me as they weave their way through my life as a daughter, mother, wife, granddaughter, friend, and professional. Creating a new culture, one that straddles the old world that my parents understand, and the new world of contemporary society, has always been a very complex process for me. As a child of immigrants, I often tried to reconcile the irreconcilable — home and school — my private and public worlds. Many children of immigrants feel that they have to choose between family and school, and this inevitably became a choice between belonging to an ethnocultural community, or succeeding as an individual. This reality caused part of the alienation I have known as a first-generation Canadian. Having said that, however, it also has allowed me to experience the richness of living in two worlds.
Over time, as I learned to accommodate Canadian culture, I quietly abandoned my Italian culture. I believe that this is the reality of many first-generation Canadians, as we struggle to merge two cultures. Immigrants in a new homeland often know only one way of viewing the world. Children of immigrants always know two. Very subtle negotiations became part of my daily decision-making, as both cultures competed for my allegiance. As a teen, I told half-truths and half-lies to get by, like when I wanted to attend the school dance, go to a sleepover, date a boy, wear make-up or travel outside of Toronto. (Picture — family Christmas circa 1970)
The tensions between two cultural systems remain inside me to this day.
It is this conflict that fuelled my professional work, as I continue to search for ways in which bicultural, multilingual children in our classrooms can accept and wholeheartedly believe in their contribution to education and ultimately our society. Ever since I was a child, I made every attempt to be recognized as an impeccable member of Canadian society, which inevitably consisted of closing off my private life when I closed the door behind me and went to school. I became resourceful, as I adjusted my behaviour to respond to the expectations of Canadian culture.
I had to become creative to cope with realities like why there was no summer camp, but rather my holidays consisted of hanging out with Nonna on the front porch. When classmates departed for the cottage, my excursions were limited to the park down the street. I attended university in Toronto rather than moving out and living in residence. Often, I try to make sense of the choices my parents have made, and the lives they have led — dislocated from the old world, alienated in the new. In the end, however, living in two cultures has made me a more flexible, open-minded and resourceful person.
As a woman raised in a traditional culture, I was only expected to wed and embrace motherhood. The added accomplishment of higher education and a profession were niceties. I was often caught between my first culture’s expectations and my own needs and aspirations as a woman. I have had to work twice as hard as the men in my culture, only to receive half the recognition.
In the same year I was accepted to do my doctoral work, I also became a wife. Guess which garnered more celebration? As such, I have lived in a sea of crushing pressure to conform and limit my expectations to that of wife and mother. In other words, I was expected to accommodate marriage and motherhood. Although deeply connected to my culture in many ways, I quietly chose to rebel against the same culture that can devalue our contribution as women. I opted to walk away from the ‘script’ that others had written for me. It seemed, at times, that few of my accomplishments in life were worthy of discussion around the kitchen table.
According to my southern Italian culture, success as a ‘real’ woman is measured by how well I tend to the hearth, and not in academic terms. In the home, I clear away the table and make coffee for my uncles. Outside of the home, I challenge people’s biases and teach immigrant women about their rights. At times, the dissonance between the competing images of womanhood is difficult to shoulder. There is no doubt that many young girls from traditional cultures are attempting to resolve the same dilemma. They need to face their dragons one by one, and with time their courage will surface. Having grown up feeling that few choices were available to me, outside of a traditional female lifestyle, my hope in my professional work is to create a space for young women to consider they have more choices.
Persevering with French
In 1994, I married David Chemla (see picture below) and moved to Montreal where my husband articled and then worked as a lawyer at Stikeman Elliott. We lived there for several years. Prior to moving to Quebec, I had made few attempts to understand the complexities of that province. I quietly settled into my life in Montreal, and went about my business, naturally assuming that Montreal was like everywhere else in North America. I decided that my ‘practical’ commitment to the Canadian debate about Quebec would be to speak French as often as my energy and goodwill would permit. I persevered to gain proficiency in the French language. Over the years, my studies in France, work projects in Quebec, and French-speaking friends and family members all brought me closer to the language.
I arrived in Montreal shortly after the Meech Lake Accord and just before the 1995 Referendum. As a newcomer to the province, how could I possibly grasp the complexity of the cultural and linguistic debates simmering in the province? Gradually, my social identity began to shift. I was now categorized as an Allophone and not an Anglophone, even though I communicate most efficiently in English. For the first time ever, my native origin was questioned by strangers. “I hear a tinge of an accent,” they would say, trying to determine where I was from.
I worked, shopped, entertained, assessed arguments and sent e-mails in French and English. I read, socialized, attended meetings, negotiated car repairs, accessed services, took courses and returned phone messages in French and English. Everything about my life in Montreal was becoming increasingly bilingual. In essence, what is most unique about the city is its inherent bilingual nature.
Our first son, Gabriel was born on a blistery cold January day. It seemed that it would take forever before I would love being a mother. But as routine set in and our son smiled and made us laugh, I fell in love with him and with my new role. My husband David’s work commitments, as legal counsel for a multinational engineering firm, took him to far off places. This meant that I was often alone with a newborn. Loneliness set in and I longed for the days of family gatherings around the kitchen table.
I asked David if he could request a transfer to Toronto. He said he would make the request, but he was concerned that our children would not be raised in a French-speaking environment. As a Francophone Canadian, whose family was from France and Tunisia, this was very important. I gave him my word. If we moved to Ontario, I would speak to Gabriel, and then also Alexandre, only in French. I continue this to the present day. Add to that the fact that they attended French schools – their books, television and family chit-chat was in French – and somehow in a sea of English dominance, David and I were able to raise two bilingual Francophone children.
Voice for the community
At some point, their French surpassed mine and it was time to focus on Italian. Gabriel and Alexandre always spoke Italian with my parents. They also attended summer camps, sing-along classes, read comics and watched soccer games in Italian. They developed a strong sense of being Italian, which meant spending time with family, helping the grandparents in the garden or in the kitchen and connecting with their cousins in Italy.
After the defence of my doctoral thesis, which was at the same time that I was carrying our second child Alexandre, my precious Nonna fell ill and it was time to complete the circle of care that she had started when she arrived in time for my baptism in 1963. With two children in diapers, my Nonna bedridden due to a stroke, my husband travelling more than ever since his portfolio had expanded in Ontario, and looking for a decent home in an exaggerated market, my professional goals needed to be put on hold.
They were for a while, until we settled into a routine, in our own home. With the kids in school, given that my doctoral work had focused on Teacher Education and Multicultural Studies, I turned my efforts to working in the field of diversity. I launched Diversity Matters Inc. and went on to publish several books, curate a photo exhibit that has travelled to Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East, produce and direct a multi-faith documentary, develop curriculum resources and deliver workshops.
Life seemed manageable, and as decent as it should be, given the storyline we are fed in our noisy world, until the sudden illness of my father. At the age of 74, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Dad was the eldest in his family, the caregiver, nurturer, relentless worker who loved his home-made salami, trips to Florida, bocce games, lunch at the Mandarin, and above all else, his family. He died within a matter of weeks, and everything I knew to be true and real, shattered. I grieved longingly for the person who had been such an inspiration in my life, and an exceptional role model for my sons. He left us too soon. (See picture of Domenico and Giuseppa Valle with their grandchildren, in 2004.)
So, instead of having quiet dinners at home or buying a new rug that matches the living room furniture, I participate in a host of Italian Canadian initiatives, from documenting the stories of Italian immigrant women for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, to providing feedback on the Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens national project, or being a board member of AMICI Museum, the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, Italian Heritage Month and most recently Villa Charities. I am a voice for our community as OMNI Television restructures its programming for ethnocultural communities.
I help with homework, prepare dinner, carpool to soccer practice and go to a meeting in our Italian Canadian community (or to Lifeline Syria, Multifaith Toronto, or the Canadian Race Relations Foundation). I do this for my parents, and I do this for my children. I do this for Domenico and Giuseppa Valle, as it is my small way of honouring my parents’ love and commitment to us and to this country. And I do this for my sons Gabriel and Alexandre, as it is my way of teaching them about the past, and giving them a strong sense of belonging to a place we all call home.
Gina Valle, Ph.D., is a diversity trainer, speaker, author and the founder of Diversity Matters, where she challenges Canadians to think outside the black box when it comes to pluralism within our borders and beyond. This first-person account first appeared in Transformations Canada
by Vincent Simboli in Montreal
“The library is a mirror of the universe,” writes Argentinian-Canadian author Alberto Manguel in his 2006 book The Library at Night. As print loses traction in our increasingly digitized world, are we in jeopardy of losing access to these sacred mirrors?
The Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal challenges this notion by using cutting-edge virtual-reality technology to connect contemporary audiences with the magic of libraries across space and time.
The Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) opened its virtual reality exhibit The Library at Night (based on Manguel’s book of the same name) at the Grande Bibliothèque in October 2015. The exhibit explores 10 of the world’s “most fascinating libraries,” exposing their “philosophical, architectural and social foundations.”
Exploring an author’s library
Guests begin by entering a replica of Manguel’s personal library while they hear his voice explain the important role that books have had throughout his life. In the recorded introduction, he also muses about the importance of collecting knowledge and stories in a physical location, giving the poignant example of the clandestine library kept by children in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp.
After Manguel’s voice fades from the speakers, exhibition co-ordinator Alexis Benoit enters and tells guests to put on their Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. We walk past a revolving bookshelf and into an underground forest filled with books, desks and synthetic trees.
Manguel grew up in Tel-Aviv during his father’s tenure as the Argentinian ambassador to Israel. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1955, when he was seven.
In June 1968, when the Argentine military junta began its “Dirty War” on its own civilians and literati, Manguel took cues from Julio Cortázar and other Argentine intellectuals and left the country for Europe to live and write without fear of being oppressed by the paramilitary forces running the country.
By 1982, he had emigrated to Canada and settled there to raise his family, eventually obtaining citizenship in 2000. He identifies primarily as Canadian, although his transnational experiences have had major influences on his career as an essayist, anthologist and author.
Witnessing culture being destroyed
Though the exhibit uses impressive VR technology, such as footage of life-sized birds flying about the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, by far the most emotional moment of the exhibit for me was the subtle and brilliant use of music and sound effects in the segment about the Vijećnica library of Sarajevo.
Vijećnica was built as the library and city hall of Sarajevo, Bosnia, in the late 19th century, and served as an architectural reminder of the city’s multicultural heritage. The library was also a cross-cultural meeting place for the exchange of ideas among Sarajevo’s Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim populations.
The viewer is invited to look up at the ceiling while Manguel explains the significance of the architecture and the hundreds of thousands of priceless Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian manuscripts, marking Sarajevo as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”
Meanwhile, the distant sound of gunfire can be heard.
“During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, Vijećnica was targeted by the Republika Srpska army in an attempt of ‘historicide,’ the erasure of a people’s cultural patrimony and identity,” Manguel explains.
As the gunfire gets louder, a man in a tuxedo walks down the stairs of the virtual library. We are introduced to Vedran Smailović, a cellist in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra.
His cello begins to drown out the gunfire, and though flames consume the regal library and destroy most of its collection, Smailović doesn’t stop. The incredible true story of the cellist of Sarajevo, playing his mournful eulogy for the lost heritage of Bosnia, is an emotional one, but to experience it in virtual reality with enhanced sight and sound is indescribable.
As the cello music fades from the headphones and Smailović walks away, the viewer is left with the sound of gunfire and the quiet roar of flames, pondering what can and must be done in the face of historical and literary destruction.
Libraries as personal histories
Benoit says that one of the goals of the exhibition is to make clear the importance books have in a person’s life story.
“During his introduction, we learn about what Manguel explored, where he went, and what accompanied him throughout his life,” he says. “Those things were his books. They define what a personal library is – a library is the story of oneself. [Our exhibit] is about a transfer from a personal library to a public library, where the goal is to accumulate all the knowledge we all have."
Benoit says the isolation of the VR headsets allows guests to experience the exhibition free of self-consciousness inside a “bubble” that nobody can burst.
“You see books you had when you were a kid, books you have now, and they remind you of what happened in your past when you were reading them,” he says. “When you collect all these in the same space, you have this history about yourself.”
Vincent Simboli is an American journalist based in Montréal. He is a recent graduate of McGill University where he studied international development and Hispanic literature. Simboli primarily covers issues of human migration and immigration reform for the McGill Daily, Forget the Box, Graphite Publications, and New Canadian Media. His portfolio is available at https://www.clippings.me/vincentsimboli.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
Commentary by Don Curry in North Bay
Critics are looking at Quebec’s so-called “sweetheart deal” on immigrant investors the wrong way.
Instead of complaining about Quebec other provinces and territories should be demanding equality.
A June 23 article by Peter O’Neil in the Vancouver Sun noted Quebec struck its deal in 1991, when the sovereignty movement was strong.
Quebec had the bargaining chips, certainly, but what is stopping other regions of Canada that would benefit from an immigrant investor program -- Northern Ontario, the Maritimes and the territories come to mind -- from opening talks with the federal government?
The federal immigrant investor program had its critics, who called it a “cash for citizenship” scheme, and it was cancelled in 2014. There were also reports of fraud. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver didn’t need the program but it would be a huge economic and social impetus for the regions mentioned above, that are starving for increased immigration and economic investment.
Surely smart bureaucrats could modify the Quebec program so that it fits the needs of other regions of the country.
In Northern Ontario, the region of the country I’m most familiar with, a program that attracts foreign investors for an $800,000 financial commitment, with a $200,000 down payment, would go a long way toward municipal and regional infrastructure programs.
The Ring of Fire project, long dormant but with billions of dollars’ worth of metals sitting in the ground, would benefit significantly as a joint regional economic development project.
We are talking billions in investment through such a program. Two thousand immigrant investors for Northern Ontario at $800,000 each is an awful lot of money. Even if some left Northern Ontario to live elsewhere and forfeited their $200,000 deposit, it is still an awful of money.
Bureaucrats and politicians are saying they can’t force permanent residents to live in specific regions, because once they have that status they can live anywhere in Canada. But what is stopping them from creating incentives to live in designated areas?
That’s how the prairies were settled.
Insane housing prices in Vancouver are partially blamed on Chinese immigrant investors moving from Quebec.
More to the point, the blame can be laid at the feet of the Vancouver real estate industry and its unscrupulous practices, detailed in a Globe and Mail investigation.
Premier Christy Clark, fed up with 10 years of lack of self-regulation in the industry, has created a government oversight body.
Northern Ontario, to name one region, is being short-changed in the number of immigrants landing here and, as a result, the immigrant settlement funds allocated. While almost half of the immigrants to Canada land in Ontario, one-tenth of one per cent landed in Northern Ontario in 2011-12.
Northern Ontario has a higher population than New Brunswick. This statistic is from a 2015 study by Western University professor Dr. Michael Haan and Elena Prokopenko, completed for the Far Northeast Training Board, based in Hearst, Ontario.
While the Greater Toronto Area is bursting at the seams, the northern part of Ontario is experiencing population stagnation or decline. An immigrant investor program would provide a significant boost. Immigrants now in Northern Ontario are secondary migrants from the GTA, mainly, or other parts of Canada.
Immigrant investors would be inclined to stay in the north (North Bay and Sudbury are less than a four-hour drive to Toronto) where opportunities abound, there are good schools and no congestion. A recent phenomenon is immigrant entrepreneurs moving to Northern Ontario to purchase businesses. (I will soon be embarking on a research project to document the movement of immigrant entrepreneurs to nine Northeastern Ontario municipalities.)
There are more than 70 first generation immigrant-owned businesses in North Bay, most of them having moved from the GTA. Once they live here, they stay and raise families. A lasting legacy of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who is from North Bay, is a four-lane highway all the way to Toronto.
Call it social engineering if you like, but there has been very little done by the federal government and the provinces to entice immigrants to settle where they are needed. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa continue to dominate the immigration discussion. We are long overdue for change.
Background: Quebec Immigrant Investor Program
Don Curry is the president of Curry Consulting (www.curryconsulting.ca) He was the founding executive director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and Timmins & District Multicultural Centre and now serves as a board member.
by Winnie Hwo in Vancouver
The world is still catching up to Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
A year before being appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006, she presented a landmark legal petition to the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, linking the disastrous impact of climate change to human rights in the Arctic and urging the United States to set emissions limits and work with Inuit communities.
"Today, it's mainstream language – everybody talks about [climate change] as a human-rights issue," said Watt-Cloutier in 2010, when she was a teaching scholar at Bowdoin College's Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center. "I think we've been successful in changing the discourse on this issue to making that connection."
Her book The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet was released last March. Later in the year, a UN Report on the same subject was presented at the Paris Climate Summit, stating that climate change and human rights are intricately linked and that recognizing this connection will help protect the fundamental rights of communities and people across the planet.
The book was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing in 2015 and British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2016.
Watt-Cloutier’s story begins in the hunting and fishing village of Kuujjuaq, a coastal Inuit community in Northern Quebec's Nunavik region.
“During the short summer months, cloudberries, blueberries, arctic cranberries and black crowberries grow among the green leaves and tundra . . . In the winter, the landscape is transformed into a brilliant vista of ice and snow that stretches under the vast expanse of the blue Arctic sky.”
At the age of 10, Watt-Cloutier was sent south to be “educated.” She struggled with being away from her mother, grandmother, and the land that nurtured her, but later admitted that the experience of separation helped shape her role as an activist in defending and promoting the “northern” way of life.
Watt-Cloutier’s personal story and her message of our interconnectedness are powerful not because she went through a single life-changing event. Her story evolved with the discovery of her own strength and power through disappointments and losses.
Like many young people, she had high hopes for herself. She dreamt of being a doctor and worked hard to meet that goal, yet it remained elusive.
Watching home disappear
After returning home from Churchill, Manitoba, Watt-Cloutier worked as an interpreter, educator, and eventually a community advocate. Within her own generation, not only did she witness how environmental degradation and global warming took away her people’s identity as hunters and trekkers, but also how it stripped them of their dignity and physical health.
As an immigrant from a former British colony, I do not need my environmental hat to understand the frustration and helplessness Watt-Cloutier felt as a young girl, witnessing the rapid disappearance of her traditional way of life in Canada’s North.
For the Inuit people, everyday life is tightly knit with their natural environment – hunting, fishing, travelling by dogsled. When the eco-system in the Arctic erodes and gradually melts away, so too goes the Inuit people’s cultural identity.
With colonization, climate change, and toxic pollution, the cold and pristine northern country Watt-Cloutier knew so well was quickly disappearing along with the melting ice and snow.
Linking global communities
Watt-Cloutier’s big break as a national and international advocate for the Northern indigenous people came when she was elected to lead the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), representing Inuit people from Canada, Russia, Greenland and Alaska. Working closely with allies and NGOs, the ICC focused on negotiating a global treaty that would ban toxins known as POPs – persistent organic pollutants that travelled airborne from factory smokestacks in the south to the north.
Toxins leaving factories travelled fast in hot air. When they reached the cold North, they would freeze and stay there.
Northern wildlife tends to store more fat, and as it turns out, these toxic particles did well in fatty cells. They survived in the seals and whales that were eventually hunted and consumed by Northern indigenous people.
When an Inuit mother breastfed her babies, the toxins were passed on to her children, ultimately harming the health of the entire Northern population. Watt-Cloutier’s campaign ended with the signing of the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to eliminate or restrict the production and use of POPs.
Today, Watt-Cloutier continues to do what she does best – fighting for the rights of her people to live in a healthy environment. And she will fight the way she knows best – with strong words, clear ideas and succinct translation.
“What’s happening today in the Arctic is the future of the rest of the world. In one lifetime, we Inuit have seen our physical world transform, the very ground beneath our feet shifted dramatically . . . As we head into stormier seas, we must ask ourselves, 'If we cannot save our frozen Arctic, how can we hope to save the rest of the world?'”
Winnie Hwo joined David Suzuki Foundation’s Climate Change Team in 2010 after a long and stellar career in journalism. She is passionate about Canada’s multicultural policy and healthy environment.
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by Matt D’Amours in Montreal
Is there any topic touchier in Canada than Quebec’s identity politics?
It might be easier to answer this question from the outside looking in, but for us Québécois, conclusions are a bit harder to come by than they might be in what is (mostly) affectionately referred to as the “ROC,” or the “rest of Canada.”
Questions of identity become even harder to reconcile when, as in my case, a person is saddled with dual identities that appear to be at odds.
On one side, I am an “old-stock” Quebecer – a descendant of French settlers who were sent to establish fishing operations in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region hundreds of years ago. On the other side, I’m the grandchild of Italians who left behind farmland in Italy to immigrate to Canada in the mid-20th century — with only $5 in their pockets, as our collective mythology never fails to underline.
Then there is the ever-divisive issue of language. I grew up in a household where Dad spoke to me in French and Mom spoke to me in English. Having learned these languages at the same time, my speech is accent-free on both sides, leading Francophones and Anglophones to simultaneously conclude that I’m “one of them.”
Somehow, I’ve always maintained a delicate balance between these two backgrounds, and the question of identity has never preoccupied my life. However, I’m fascinated by the issue of Québécois identity, which is often presented to Canadians through the lens of inflammatory think pieces in Anglophone media.
I was delighted, then, to come across the thoughtful book by Akos Verboczy titled Rhapsodie Québécoise, in which the author explores the dimensions of identity — politics, heritage and language — from the perspective of a Hungarian immigrant who “became” Canadian.
Or, rather, became Québécois?
A Hungarian in Montreal
Verboczy’s account of moving from Hungary to Canada in the 1980s examines many issues that remain hot buttons. As a pre-teen, the young Hungarian arrived in Montreal when opposition was growing against Quebec’s controversial Bill 101, the infamous language law passed in 1977 that gave French precedence in the province. As a result of this law, immigrants are required to send their children to French schools in order to ease their integration into Quebec society.
Verboczy writes that immigrants were quickly informed by others in their new communities that Francophones were “principally welfare-receiving, uneducated racists” — a sign of resentment against Bill 101 and its purveyors.
But Verboczy ended up embracing the language which he was forced to learn, and spends many pages sympathizing with the concerns that led to the language law’s creation. He points to the monolithic influence of American products in Quebec and the resulting dominance of English-language culture.
“Bill 101 doesn’t protect the French language as much as it does those who speak it,” Verboczy writes, alluding to the anxieties that French was being phased-out of Quebec culture — anxieties that persist today.
Is Quebec really racist?
From my observations, the suggestion of overwhelming racism in Quebec seems to have been adopted as pure fact. I’m reminded of a recent column on Gawker, which offered Americans a guide to moving to Canada if Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. When Quebec is brought up, it’s framed as an unwelcoming society, and the article’s comments mirror this characterization.
The charge of ingrained racism seems to be echoed from within our culture as well. Verboczy decries a speech made by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois — the student spokesperson of the 2012 “Maple Spring” — in which he proclaimed that “if there is a Québécois tradition to conserve, it isn’t poutine or xenophobia.”
“Pardon? Xenophobia, a tradition?” Verboczy asks in response. “In my view, we’re actually thinking, disgusted, of that uncle at Christmas lunch who said that it’s unbelievable, this unreasonable business of Hassidic Blacks who impose themselves with their halal pork.”
He argues that caricatures of a rustic Quebec that is closed-off to foreigners have become accepted conventional wisdom over the years.
Where are we going?
Such is the title of Verboczy’s final chapter, in which the immigrant-turned-defender of the French language and Québécois culture reflects on modern questions of integration.
He points to the unique challenges posed by 21st century communication technologies, which allow newly arrived immigrants to remain in constant contact with their countries of origin. Verboczy says this can slow down the integration process for immigrants, as it can “give the illusion that they never left their countries.”
In response, the author places a greater onus on immigrants to adapt to their new surroundings, arguing “they must accept that their identity will change, and that it will have to superimpose itself on a backdrop that already has its colours and reliefs.”
Verboczy doesn’t shy away from tricky questions regarding the experience of Canadian immigrants, and not everyone will agree with his conclusions. However, Rhapsodie Québécoise explores these issues with boldness, nuance and humour that is, in my view, mostly absent in mainstream media analysis.
Verboczy confidently strikes back against charges of an intolerant Quebec, offering an important perspective that is often drowned out in polarized debates surrounding the province’s identity politics.
Matt D’Amours is a Montreal-based journalist who focuses on politics, social justice and Montreal’s protest movements. He was born and raised in Montreal’s multicultural borough of Ville Saint-Laurent, where cultural diversity is an everyday fact of life. Growing up speaking English and French simultaneously, D'Amours inhabits a space between Anglophone and Francophone – between Canadian and Québécois – which affords him a critical eye towards identity politics.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit