Breaking bread & movement building

“I want to help people who look like me, I always tell women, get involved in the labour movement. We’ll make space for you.” So says labour activist Gogi Bhandal who, on Sunday March 1, came together in sisterhood and solidarity with over 500 women in Brampton, Ontario’s Starlight Grand Convention Centre for an annual brunch celebrating International Women’s Day. Now in its eighth year, the brunch draws people from all over Peel region to honour the work of women, the advances they’ve made in the workplace and in society, and to discuss what still needs to be done.

“This event,” Bhandal explains, “is about building the women’s movement and building community, because women play a huge part in community building.”

Read the full story in Our Times Magazine.

‘Assam is boiling’

Human rights defenders struggling to support millions left in immigration limbo by India’s National Register of Citizens

Tanya Singh & Haseena Manek

It has been two months since India threw nearly four million people into a desperate scramble to prove their citizenship or risk deportation. The government published a draft of the National Register of Citizens in late July and the effects were immediate: millions excluded from the list were made to produce evidence of their legitimate claims, security forces were put on alert to quell potential violence in a region with a history of persecuting ethnic minorities, and at least one thousand people are still being held in criminal jails serving as immigration detention centres.

Read the full blog post on Front Line Defenders website.

Immigration Watch Canada at York University

September 1, 2014

Anti-immigration flyers went up on York University’s Keele campus, leading to the formation of Racism Watch York, a collective of racialized students seeking sanctions from the University Administration against the organization responsible for the flyers. Featuring Ommé-Salma Rehemtullah. Headline produced for the September 1st, 2014 edition of GroundWire, the NCRA’s national community radio new program.

Allowing Refugees, Migrants and Asylum Seekers to RISE

The treatment of Australia’s ‘Boat people’ is currently a hot topic in the national media. Should Australia be taking refugees? Can we handle more refugees? Will we be overrun by an ‘Asian invasion’? What do we do with people who arrive without visas? The solution to this trumped-up paranoia is detention.

About 50,000 people overstay their visas each year in Australia, compared to the approximately 2,000 arriving by boat and seeking asylum. On average, 95% of people seeking asylum arrive by plane. As of 2012, there are eight detention centres in Australia, not including the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre located on the eponymous, excised Australian territory. Those looking for protection in Australia are people fleeing war, violence and oppression in their home countries, who, when put into immigration detention, are incarcerated and in some cases, held indefinitely within the confines of the Australian immigration detention complex.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Ramesh Fernandez, founder of RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees. In 2009, Fernandez, along with some other youths at RMIT’s CBD campus, founded RISE at the campus’ Swanston Library. After three months they moved to their current CBD location in Ross House. RISE officially launched in 2010.

“The main reason we started RISE,” Fernandez says, “was to have a place for people in our community to be respected and have a safe environment where they can come and raise concerns about what they feel about certain things, including settlement or policy or their own personal issues. We don’t have luxury fund- ing, but we try as much as we can to assist people.”

RISE has taken a very firm position against mandatory immigration detention, and is vocal in its advocacy work on behalf of those in detention as well as those who have come out of the system but still suffer the effects of their time inside. “Many of our mem- bers fled war zones or other traumatic experiences, and were then exposed to trauma inside detention,” Fernandez says, “and some of the problems they are facing now in the community are a result of what they endured in detention. As an organisation that works with them and for their interests, we have to address those issues. It would be dishonest not to.”

Fernandez arrived in Australia from Sri Lanka in 2001, and was held in detention for three years. “I wanted to empower my own community,” he says, when asked why he wanted be a part of an organization like RISE, “and tell others: chill out, pipe down, we can look after ourselves. Organizations speaking on our behalf don’t have the first-hand knowledge, and RISE fills that gap. They’re out there doing ad hoc work which is not relevant to our lives, and it’s not relevant because they are not part of the community they claim to serve.”

RISE defines itself as a “not-for-profit incorporated association… the first refugee and asylum seeker aid and advocacy organization in Australia to be run largely by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees; as such, we view those who seek assistance from RISE as members and participants, not ’clients’.” Members can access all of the RISE services regardless of status and at no cost.

RISE also does an extensive amount of advocacy work through community education, research and publishing, positive media coverage as well as legal and governmental advocacy. In advocacy, and in their programs and services, RISE stays true to its core values. The RISE Charter reads: “…successful resettlement is best achieved by engaging refugee and asylum seeker communities.” Indeed, the ideas behind many of RISE’s annual projects actually come from members of the community themselves.

“I am not fond of any organization working for refugees unless refugees themselves are involved in decision-making or governance” says Fernandez. RISE’s governance system is structured so that all RISE board members must be active members of refugee, migrant and asylum-seeker communities. “We cut out the middle man,” explains Fernandez, “by working with our own communities.”

Organizations that provide services to refugee, migrant or asylum seeker communities have to ensure that they are providing a foundation that will give the people they are working with a sustainable future in Australia. That means engaging with people and em- powering communities that are being marginalized by current policy – in some cases it means stepping aside and letting those communities articulate their wants and needs themselves.

RISE, independent of the Australian Government, is able to work on a grassroots level to support, empower and engage with refugees, migrants, asylum- seekers and those in community detention. In only two years, RISE has an established drop-in centre with public computers, a resource library, an annual arts festival in Federation Square as well as over a dozen programs and workshops.

Find out more about RISE at: http://riserefugee.org/

as published in Lot’s Wife, 2012

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Top 8 Canadian immigrants of all time

April 2011

In honour of the Canadian Immigrant Magazine’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants Contest, we have compiled a list of the Canadian immigrants that have contributed the most throughout of all of Canada’s short but illustrious history.

8. Spanish Flu

The only non-human immigrant to ever be awarded this honour, the Spanish Influenza Virus earns an Honorable Mention in this competition. Along with many other Eurasian viruses and diseases, the Spanish flu crossed the Atlantic on ships with the rest of the European colonizers and settlers. And just like the European colonizers and settlers, it explored the land from coast to coast, decimating indigenous populations as it went.

7. Hans Bernhardt

In 1664 Bernhardt came to Canada, earning an honorary place in Canadian history as the first recorded German immigrant. We recognize Bernhardt here not just because he is a special first, but because he illustrates that even though Cartier founded the first French settlement in the Americas only a hundred years before, any person arriving to Canada that was not English or French (sometimes also Scottish and Irish) would be deemed an immigrant, while the English and French (and Scottish and Irish) were simply pioneers. This deeply Canadian practice of snubbing anyone else that attempts to build a life in Canada has been wholeheartedly carried on through Canadian policy, practice and government. One notable partisan is Mr. Jason Kenny, current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

6. Henry Hudson

The story of Henry Hudson, an English sea explorer, illustrates the excitement felt by Europeans discovering a new world and the glory in their ad- ventures. In the early seventeenth century, Hudson explored the East Coast of North America looking for passage to the East for the Dutch East India Company. The river he explored in that area was eventually named after him. In 1611, after spending the winter in James Bay, Hudson wanted to continue further West, but his crew, representing the only European explorers (other than the Vikings, see 2) to ever visit a foreign land and simply return, were apparently tired of the famous Canadian winter (I’m assuming they didn’t have toques or Sorels then), so they mutinied, and left Hudson, his young son and a few other crewmembers adrift in what was to become Hud- son’s Bay, and they were never seen again. Upon returning to Europe, the mutineers were not convicted and executed as most mutineers are, instead they were charged with murder and acquitted, being that they possessed information of the new world that was far more valuable to north American colonizers than was justice, another tradition that has wound its way into the Canadian judiciary and political systems and since remained.

5. Chinese-Canadian railway workers

We decided it would be pertinent to apply this honour to a group of people, and we would like to recognize the Chinese workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway for two reasons. The first being that they don’t appear to be formally recognized anywhere else. The second, that they are the first and only immigrant population to be actually requested by the Canadian government, who today prefers illegal and/ or temporary workers. BC politicians of the time pushed for an accommodating immigrant program for workers from the British Isles (an obvious preference) after being given a strict time limit to build the railway. But our then Prime Minister, much like our current Prime Minister, recognized the true value and opportunity in cheap foreign labour, and he (John A. Macdonald) can be quoted as saying, “It is sim- ply a question of alternatives: either you must have this labour or you can’t have the railway.” A true testament to early Canadian capitalism, Macdonald’s words illustrate the importance of making money over than domestic development needs.

4. Sir John A. Macdonald

Macdonald moved to Canada with his family at the tender age of five. Similar to many immigrant experiences in Canadian history, his family struggled to find financial footing in their new home, and young John was forced to leave school at 15, (he was unable to attend university), to help support his family. With no post secondary education, and no interest in learning a trade, the only option for the man who was to enter politics and eventually become the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada was, apparently, law. Along with being a solid number four on our list and the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald was also the first conservative Prime Minister in Canadian history. A tradition that is yet to expire, but we’ve all got our fingers crossed.

3. William Lyon Mackenzie

Mr. Mackenzie’s story is another classic tale of a struggling immigrant rising to make his own in a new and foreign land. Mackenzie left Europe at 25 be- cause he lacked stable employment. When he arrived here he worked on a canal in Lower Canada (present day eastern Quebec), and wrote for various local newspapers. He eventually established his own paper, the Colonial Advocate. His interest in local politics led to him running for office. This quintessential story of a newcomer in Canada peaked in 1834 when Mackenzie was appointed Mayor But Mackenzie only lasted until 1835 because he did not address the city’s debt or the need for public works another longstanding tradition.

2. Leif “the Lucky” Ericsson

Leif the Lucky was the first European to visit North America, likely responsible for establishing the L’ans aux Meadows settlement in present day Newfoundland. It is not a very well known fact that the first Europeans to visit North America were actually Vikings. This is probably because the Norse explorers did so hundreds of years before anyone else and did not steal, colonize and claim ownership of the land to the same extent of their later counterparts. Some have surmised that their apparent lack of ambition or interest in the land (occasionally mis- interpreted as an understanding that the land was previously inhabited and not theirs to take) was what kept them out of the history books. We recognize Ericsson here because after his genial first visit to North America, he came back (after having returned to Norway and converted to Christianity) this time with a priest, kicking off a long and far less friendly tradition of Euro- pean missionary work (also known as ‘forced conversion of the native heathens’ in some texts) in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific Colonies, to name a few.

1. Christopher Columbus

The Top Canadian Immigrant Award of all time goes Christopher Columbus, a fifteenth-century Italian sailor. Though Columbus never actually made it to Canada in his lifetime, his extraordinary underestimation of the circumference of our planet lead to one of the most profitable mistakes in history for European colonization of the ‘Americas’. His famous navigational gaffe, landing him in the Bahamas instead of India, was the first of four famous voyages he made across the Atlantic, opening the door to colonization of North and South America and the decimation of entire indigenous populations. His infamous inability to distinguish between the cultures of North American indigenous peoples and those of India lead to the development of the terms‘American Indians’, or ‘Native Indians’. His well-lauded racism, rapaciousness and the genocide and land-theft that were born of it are still celebrated in the United States today on Columbus Day, an official holiday.

published in the devrEyeopener, annual satirical component of the Ryerson Free Press under Zsa Zsa McWilliams, History Editor, April 2011

Deaths on Christmas Eve a status issue: Why five men fell almost 130 feet from a faulty construction platform

February 2010

This year, Christmas Eve passed in Toronto as it always does, snowless, but still cold, malls filled to the brim with frantic shoppers. But while most of us were trimming the tree, singing carols and watching Miracle on 34th Street, the families of five Rexdale construction workers were devastated with the news of a ‘workplace accident’ that would cost them almost everything.

The six men, ranging in age from 21 to 35 years old, were working on high-rise balconies from a swing stage that split completely in two. Unfortunately, these men were not in a union, and safety equipment was only provided for one, so five of the six fell thirteen stories to the concrete unprotected.

One of these men, 21-year-old Dilshod Mamurov, survived. He was saved only by the fact that he managed to hang on to one half of the scaffolding as it split. He swung down two stories before he fell and while that 20-foot difference saved his life, the other four men fell to their deaths.

Mamurov is currently in critical condition at a local Toronto hospital. Both his legs are broken and his spine shattered, and he will most likely need constant medical attention for the rest of his life. Mamurov’s family is reportedly in the process of trying to come to Canada, despite financial restrictions.

Farrah Miranda, from the Toronto chapter of No One Is Illegal, (a collaborative organization that fights for rights, dignity and protection of immigrants and refugees), said, “All of these men had precarious immigration statuses and reason they died, the reason they didn’t have access to the most basic safety precautions is because they didn’t have permanent status [in Canada].”

Both the Ministry of Labour and the Toronto Police are cur- rently investigating the scaffolding malfunction. Just over a week before the accident, alternate reports say, a month and a half long stop-work order relating to other swing stage concerns was lifted on the site. But are they investigating why only two safety lines (enough for one man) were provided for six?

“Employers always try to cut cost,” said Chris Ramsaroop, a legal aid from the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, “and they don’t produce and provide workplaces that are safe.” At the same time, “undocumented, foreign [and] recent workers are being exploited because [Canada doesn’t] have the necessary government framework to protect workers.” It is a fact that a migrant, foreign, or recently immigrated employee attempting to raise concerns about the workplace risks not only being fired, but also being deported, or “repatriated” as it is euphemistically referred to. “It’s the larger structure that needs to be held accountable.”

Miranda agrees. “The real problem here is there isn’t a full and inclusive program for workers to get status when they come to Canada,” she said, “that’s what we need for workers’ rights.” Right now there are 200,000 undocumented workers, working in the most dangerous workplace situations all over Canada.

The owners of 2757 Kipling Ave, identified as ‘2058876 On- tario Ltd. have refused to apologize or promise better workplace safety but have released the following statement: “We wish to express our condolences to the loved ones of those who died, and extend our hopes for a speedy recovery to the individual who was injured.”

A month later, spokesperson Danny Roth refused to answer any more questions, stating that they are “not having any further comment at this time,” and that the above statement (released on December 25), is still the “position for ownership.”

This story is not only illustrative of our country’s treatment of foreign workers, it is a human tragedy. What’s worse is that, as Ramsaroop said, it is “representative of tens of thousands of workers across this country.”

These five families, most with no family support in Canada, (or in Mamurov’s case, are not even in Canada), with temporary work visas or refugee claims in place, are living in uncertainty. They lost their foothold in the gruesome and humiliating battle for status in Canada, and worst of all, they lost a father, a hus- band, a brother or a son.

Undocumented workers are, says Miranda, “treated as commodities, used and abused and then disposed of when they’re no longer needed.” This dehumanization is not acceptable. “The company is to blame [and] the government is to blame,” she con- tinues. Those who are responsible for unnecessary death should be held accountable.

Visit http://toronto.nooneisillegal.org and http://www.workersactioncentre.org for more information.

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, February 2010

Centre helps immigrant workers overcome barriers

March 09, 2009

When many people think of worker exploitation, the first thing that comes to mind is a sweatshop in a foreign country, something far away and detached from most. But worker exploitation is not as foreign as some might think.

With Canada being seen as a welcoming and accepting nation for newcomers, it may be a surprise that many immigrants here are exploited.

Certain barriers including language, culture, and documentation put immigrants in a vulnerable position. Consequently, many newcomers are reduced to manual labour and will accept whatever work is available to them in order to provide for their families.

In the past five years, accusations have been made in the news about underpaid Chinese workers in the oil sands of Alberta, Mexican migrant farm workers in British Columbia and overqualified nurses from the Philippines.

Workers without sufficient language ability are easily taken advantage of, and completely undocumented workers are at the mercy of their employers.

In spite of the difficulties immigrant workers face, they do have a few options at the local level. The Workersʼ Action Centre (WAC) in Toronto is “a worker-based organization committed to improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage and unstable employment,” according to the organizationʼs website. The majority of these employees are recent immigrants.

Chris Ramsaroop is a legal aid worker who works with and advocates for WAC.
“Itʼs an extremely important organization in the city,” he says, “and a leading organization in fighting for workers’ rights in the province.”

There are two main aspects to his work with WAC. First, he educates newcomers about Canadian labour laws and their limitations, and second, he works towards changing these laws, so that they are more worker-friendly.

He recommends that any workers, especially immigrants, who feel mistreated or taken advantage of at work should make a visit to WAC and explore their personal and legal options.

“We individualize problems,” Ramsaroop says, “but itʼs not the worker’s fault when an employer is exploiting them. We need to come together to push for change.”

Organizations like the Workersʼ Action Centre show that in the end, it is not the idealized, internationalized Canadian community that recent immigrants will depend on, but their local community, full of people all facing the same issues and inequalities.

Originally published on thestar.com as part of the Global Voices program