By: Manaal Farooqi in Toronto, ON
One in every five Canadian women is born outside of the country. However, despite diverse ethnic backgrounds, many communities face discriminatory hurdles others may never witness in their lifetimes. This notion is only amplified in the case of Muslim immigrant women, who can experience challenges springing from multiple biases.
"Gendered Islamophobia" affects them in ways that are often left out of the wider conversation about the immigrant experience.
Whereas Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam, gendered Islamophobia dissects the issue a step further by diving into more pointed signs of inequity. Muslim women may be victims of both sexism and Islamophobia, disadvantaging them as they navigate through schooling, employment and other public spaces.
But, ultimately, it could play a huge role in their overall sense of safety.
Muslim women, specifically those identifiable through religious headgear or prayer routines practiced in public, can be more prone to being victims due to their "visible" status. This has led to cases of assault as well as blatant displays of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Aima, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim woman who dons the niqab, has dealt with discrimination in both public spaces and at university as well. She would find herself consistently ignored in classrooms when she attempted to answer or ask a question during lectures; and when she was able to speak in class she found her answers were met with greater scrutiny, even when they were correct.
Other comments directed towards her included unwelcome discussions on forced marriage along with the fact that she’s been repeatedly told that she “[enjoys] so much freedom” for someone wearing a niqab. She adds that “my body will be policed and my choices scrutinized” for the expression of her faith and identity within today’s socio-political climate.
And she’s not alone, Shazlin, a Malaysian immigrant who once wore religious headgear, states she has had similar experiences, in addition to street harassment.
“Even talking about it now, it makes me angry that I was vulnerable and that I was made a victim in that moment when I know I have a lot more agency,” she says. She recalls one particular incident when on a walk with other visibly Muslim women in Toronto, a man verbally assaulted them and attempted to flick cigarette butts at them.
Regardless of what Islamophobes think, the comments and questions Muslim women face on an everyday basis eventually begin to take their toll. T.G*, who is an Ethiopian Muslim immigrant, has found that people often assume she lacks intellect, agency and knowledge of pop culture because of her hijab.
“I’m a walking encyclopedia on all the ethnicities, cultural expressions, and nuanced faith practices of the Muslim world,” T.G adds sarcastically. “We are expected to be the compassionate caretaker, teacher, and empathetic listener to all manners of ignorance about our faith. The brunt of the burden of flag-bearing for Islam falls on us – especially hijab-wearing Muslim women.”
Seeking a lower profile
But Muslim women who are more visibly ambiguous are not immune to similar experiences. As in the case of Safia*, an Arab-Canadian Muslim who does not wear any religious headgear such as the niqab or hijab. Yet, she constantly faces questions related to terrorist groups such as ISIS at her workplace.
One of her former coworkers even emailed her after the Orlando shooting with footage he had found of an Imam who seemed to have made homophobic comments. He wrote to her demanding, “We want answers. What is your community doing about this?"
No action was taken and the comments continued, despite the fact that Safia had made complaints to her immediate supervisor multiple times. In the absence of authoritative intervention, she weathers the harassment through therapy.
Sara*, a young professional of North African descent who doesn’t wear a hijab, has attempted to keep her religious affiliation from co-workers, out of fear that repercussions could affect future opportunities and her overall comfort at work.
Sara explains that her former employer would bring her news articles about honour killings in an attempt to make a correlation with her faith that would justify its relevance. The controversial articles forced her into a defensive position on a complex subject that she did not even agree with. Now she avoids questions about religion or her ethnicity to discourage unwelcome conversations.
These experiences only begin to highlight some of the situations Muslim women are faced with on a daily basis. The full impact it may have on their everyday interactions, ability to navigate public spaces or even in their careers remains immeasurable.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of these women
Manaal Farooqi is a writer and community organizer working on issues of violence against women and race. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
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: 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: Nanyi Albuero in Toronto, ON
The rhythmic sound of embroidering machines surround Mariam Said Mobinullah as she expertly navigates her way around a sea of powerful equipment. She reaches for the box of buttons, clasps and hooks; attaching them to various garments in one fell swoop. With movements that have become all but muscle memory, she wastes no time stitching initials onto the assortment of robe bags. There are targets to be met.
However, in the midst of another eight-hour shift which pays minimum wage with no benefits, Mariam reflects on her disappointment. She admits this was not how she envisioned life in her adopted country. As a hand sewer in a tailoring factory in Toronto, her days now involve working with varieties of gowns, coats, shirts, pants and scarves. A far cry from her days as a teacher back in Kabul.
Looking to escape war-torn Afghanistan, Mobinullah moved to Canada with her family over five years ago. Her hope lies “in the good dreams I have for my children’s future” as the silver lining to her struggles.
She is not alone in finding difficulty as a new Canadian. The road to an immigrant realizing the “Canadian Dream” is fraught with roadblocks about one’s qualifications and whether employers will recognize them. Highly skilled professionals with university degrees in their native countries are often relegated to survival jobs and paid a minimum wage with no job stability in sight. Hence the stories about doctors driving cabs or engineers as security guards or delivering pizzas. And with that low income demographic comes the term “working poor”.
Deena Ladd, Coordinator at the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, reflects on this conundrum: “It’s no surprise. So many people’s qualifications are not accepted coming into this country. Research studies have shown that getting these qualifications recognised and getting the equivalency of these qualifications is just insurmountable for so many people."
Ladd further observed that it can even be tough for newcomers who choose to go back to school because “how do you go back to school if you have to pay your bills?”
No Canadian Experience
This was the dilemma Mayurika Trivedi found herself in when she arrived in Canada from India in 1997. She proudly says “I’m not a newcomer. I came to Canada with my two sons.” However, her accounting and business administration degree did not land her a professional job but instead she started as a machine operator in a factory.
She was also subjected to that dreaded mantra: No Canadian experience. Frustrated by the lack of information for new arrivals and not enough training resources, she had no choice but to work the night shift in an automotive factory. Later on she was transferred to the day shift.
Mayurika was forced to leave her job in 2010 when her husband fell ill. In spite of the hardships she is not giving up and plans on going back to school “to upgrade my education and help me in my career”. She hopes to one day be financially independent so she is able to fulfill her dreams.
Heartbreaking, as is the plight of 1.5 million women in Canada living on a low income. This is a fact of life which Mariam Said Mobinullah and Mayurika Trevidi face in a G7 nation.
While some immigrants have given up on the “Canadian Dream” and returned to their home countries, that option simply does not exist for many. Moving away from places that do not offer the same liberties or securities, a trip back could prove costly in the long run.
It can still be an uphill climb for many professional women who arrive in Canada fleeing war or persecution. There can be subtle yet systemic racism based on the colour of one’s skin, a foreign-sounding name or accent.
It is distressing that 28 per cent of visible minority women live in poverty; almost 70 per cent of part-time workers are women and 60 per cent of minimum-wage earners are female, according to the Canadian Women's Foundation.
Dr. Izumi Sakamoto, of the University of Toronto, points to employers who knowingly or unknowingly are discriminating against immigrants by prioritizing "Canadian experience" over credentials that may have been obtained abroad. "When they show up to job interviews, they're told they don't have Canadian experience and can't be hired. Somehow your experience is inferior to that of a Canadian," she explained during an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
In 2013, the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled the question of "Canadian experience", a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. However, as new Canadians continue to face this obstacle, it's clear that a more practical solution must be implemented. Sakamoto calls for more awareness as Canada looks to open its doors to more skilled immigrants. That it has become a code violation is good news, but remains small comfort for the thousands in Ontario mired in survival and precarious jobs.
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.
By: Susan Korah in Ottawa
Three labour experts have highlighted the critical need for radical changes in government policies and programs that are out of step with the current realities of most Canadians’ work lives.
They were speaking at a panel discussion on “In Search of the Next Gig: A Snapshot of Precarious Work in Canada Today” in Ottawa on January 25, hosted by Policy Options Magazine, a digital publication of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP). Moderating the panel was Jennifer Ditchburn, editor of Policy Options, and former journalist with the Canadian Press (CP).
“If we are to walk the walk that matches our talk about how inclusive we are in Canada, those who create our labour policies and programs should take a close look at the precarious work situation that most Canadians are caught in, and design their policies accordingly,” commented Sunil Johal, one of the three panelists. Johal is policy director at the Mowat Centre, an independent public policy think-tank, associated with the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.
The other two panelists were Francis Fong, Chief Economist with the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPAC) and Wendy Vuyk, regional coordinator of the Eastern Ontario Region at the Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation.
“Most policies and programs intended to support Canadian job seekers are tied to conventional ideas of employment and were designed for the 1950s when there was a 9 to 5, lifelong job for the wage earner in a typical family,” he said.
Fong, Johal and Vuyk analyzed the changes that have sent the labour market into a tailspin, leaving employees with few options other than what all three, as well as Ditchburn termed “precarious work,” – short term jobs with no stability, few or no benefits, and no prospects of leading to a lifelong career path.
A major cause of the erosion of stable jobs and the growth of precarious employment was the decline of the manufacturing sector in the 1990s and early 2000s and the growth of the high-tech sector, the panelists explained.
Fong pointed out that even research on this topic is lagging behind the times. He emphasised that in order to capture the nuances of this new workforce reality, researchers need a clear definition of the term “non-standard work”, an umbrella term for all kinds of precarious work.
He said that the lack of consensus on a definition of precarious work poses a serious challenge for researchers, whose work underpins policy decisions.
“We need a formal definition of precarious work because precarious work will define our future,” he said.
He added that no single government agency is collecting all the relevant data, although Statistics Canada has been tracking it since the 1990s, a period which saw the rapid rise of this phenomenon.
The problem is further complicated, he said, by the need for the involvement of so many sectors --labour, immigration, the provincial and federal governments, as well as the private sector.
Stagnant wages, declining unionization
Highlighting another major problem, Johal discussed the disconnect between Canada’s overall economic growth and workers’ wages.
“While the economy continues to grow, wages have become stagnant,” he said, adding the costs of food, housing, childcare and other necessities have also gone up.
Johal also referred to the decline of unionization, which added to worker’s problems.
“Workers have nobody to represent them and speak about their issues,” he said.
He said the most vulnerable were the 30 percent of workers who were in precarious jobs because they had no other option, as opposed to the 70 per cent who did this type of work by choice.
“We need to focus on that 30 percent and to refresh our social policies and programs to address their needs,” he said.
Preparing for the future world of work: An optimistic outlook
Vuyk’s presentation focused on preparing for the future, given the changing economic landscape which she termed the “fourth industrial revolution.”
“Sixty-five percent of today’s elementary school children will work in jobs that don’t exist today,” she predicted.
Nevertheless, she presented an optimistic outlook, saying that although jobs will be lost, others will be created by new inventions.
She emphasized the need to train young people to become entrepreneurs and to think about their careers as a business.
She called on educators to emphasize soft skills such as communication, financial literacy, cross-cultural sensitivity, flexibility and adaptability.
She said it was important for also parents and guidance counsellors to understand that university is not the only key to gainful employment.
She advised parents to give their children as many life-broadening experiences as possible, including travel.
“We have to create a culture of lifelong learning,” she concluded.
Susan Korah is an editor and freelance writer who has worked with a number of publications while continuing to manage her personal travel blog. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
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: Shan Qiao in Toronto, ON
At the age of 60, quitting a well-paying job to refinance her townhouse and start an entrepreneurial venture was the last thing Helen Poon’s friends thought she would do. But Helen did just that, setting out to build a healthy eating and living co-op so she could hire people who would be compensated by becoming healthy.
According to a 2017 study, over three quarters of Canadians aren't meeting the recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide for fruit and vegetable consumption, this results in an estimated economic burden to society of $4.39 billion annually. While dietary recommendations are made annually by the Canadian government, Poon recognized that a more hands-on approach would be necessary in order to affect more immediate change. The result, the Sprouts Co-Op in Toronto which focuses on specific neighborhoods across the GTA.
The thought of building a community-based healthy food and living co-op had been brewing in her mind for a couple of years, well before Poon decided to quit her job. “You are what you eat,” she continues. Hence the 2017 co-op which is steered by Poon but also receives support from a handful of people that have drawn influence from her.
Poon has never been one to shy from a challenge, so when she learned of the difference sugar alternatives like honey could make, she immersed herself in the subject. Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of it every day, which amounts to 21% of their total daily caloric intake, playing a huge role in many diseases and conditions that have become more prevalent in recent years. Despite her lack of experience in the subject, she has been able to incorporate the ingredient in several recipes without sacrificing taste in any way.
“Helen was my supervisor at our previous organization we both worked for. At the end of last year, she told me she wanted to start a food and health co-op and hire people with disabilities,” says Daphne Au-Young who holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and joined Sprouts as a board member.
“I thought it’s a great initiative to provide affordable healthy food for the community and meaningful employment for individuals with disabilities. I admire Helen’s determination to start an organization at the age of 60. It shows that one is never too old to turn a dream into a reality,” Au-Young explains.
As an immigrant woman who came to this country after China’s 1989 political turmoil, Au-Young said her parents sacrificed their high paying jobs in Hong Kong for stability and freedom in Canada. The version of Sprouts’ “meaningful employment” makes her very happy to see clients moving past their traumas and living a normal life again.
A major influence within the Asian community, Poon is also a mentor to young men like Dave Tran. A descendant of Vietnamese immigrants and high school English teacher, Tran is currently the Vice-Chair of Sprouts and considers Poon an inspiration.
“There have been several important people in my life recently, demonstrating amazing leadership over the years, helping to build a greater diverse community for all. Helen is one of those people. She is quite an inspirational person who is a work horse; she always gives her 100% into anything she does and it can become infectious—in the best way,“ he explains.
Rui Ping Chen came to Canada 10 years ago as a young girl who also met Helen in her previous job. After learning of Sprouts, she was intrigued. “What kind of dream was big enough for her to leave a management position? She talked to me about Sprouts with so much passion and wisdom that I immediately understood why she did what she did.”
“I believe in what Sprouts is trying to promote ‘we are what we eat’,” says Ping, behind a makeshift reception table that collects people’s membership fees and registration forms at Sprouts’ first product launch event in Markham last November. That night, Sprouts successfully attracted more than three dozen people to join as members, after a year-long endeavor by Helen and the people influenced by her.
As the Sprouts Co-op continues its steady growth, Poon hopes to extend her reach to an even more diverse range of members. And while the Co-op's Toronto base has limited its current operations to the GTA, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this ambitious startup.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit