The Office of the Chief Coroner plays a vital role in Ontario. By Brittany Ramgolam | Featured image via iStock On December 13, 2017, 25-year-old Ali Zaraeeneh entered an RBC in Vaughan, Ontario brandishing a… More
Speaking Their Language
A YORK UNIVERSITY STUDENT, ISOLATED IN KAZAKHSTAN DUE TO THE PANDEMIC, TAKES PART IN A UNIQUE PROGRAM TO TEACH ENGLISH TO THE CHILDREN OF FRONTLINE MEDICAL WORKERS.
By Ademi Yestayeva | Featured image via Unsplash
On July 9, 2020, Janna Aitakhmet and I appeared on each other’s screens: two girls from Kazakhstan with bangs and glasses, smiling and waving like a slightly aged reflection in the mirror. Janna, 15, booked a lesson with me on a new e-learning platform “Teaching for Heroes.”
I am a 21-year-old 4th-year student in York University’s Professional Writing program; it was my first time tutoring someone outside of my family and I was anxious. Soon after, however, the awkwardness was gone. We sang along to Winter Bear by V of BTS — a famous K-pop group we both love — to practice the English pronunciation. We also discovered that we share a favourite Studio Ghibli movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. The fantasy film became a recurring theme in our lessons for the next two months.
Janna was my first student when the social initiative “Teaching for Heroes” (TFH) emerged in Kazakhstan at the beginning of July, as the country was entering a second COVID-19 lockdown. At its core, it was a grand “thank you.” Hundreds of high school and college students volunteered to tutor the children of frontline medical workers online, while their parents were fighting COVID — like heroes.
The charity project, started by a few teenagers from Almaty, Kazakhstan, soon went international. Perhaps because it wasn’t like learning at school; students picked teachers based on their interests and availability. The premise was to teach English to students aged 8 to 16, but many were also interested in other subjects, like biology and chemistry, or preparing for college admissions. To their own surprise, some of the teachers found themselves sharing their adolescent experiences on top of explaining grammar rules.
The Republic of Kazakhstan might be known in the West to those into boxing (Triple G or Gennady Golovkin was the world’s best boxer in 2017), or to those who have seen the movie Borat. (By the way, the opening scenes were actually filmed in Romania.) It’s the world’s largest landlocked country and it generates 60% of Central Asia’s GDP through the oil and gas industry. The country is also home to more than 100 ethnic groups. Approximately 83% of the population speaks the state language, Kazakh. However, Russian is the language of international communication throughout the region.
A lot of Kazakhstanis speak more than one language. In 2007, the government adopted a cultural project “Trinity of Languages,” aimed at making the country trilingual by developing Kazakh and Russian across-the-board, and English as “the language of integration into the global economy.” Though English isn’t needed in day-to-day life in Kazakhstan, it’s a mandatory subject at most schools and a common aspiration for schoolchildren and adults, whether for business or travel, but particularly education.
TFH’s founder, Ilya Kan, 16, is the same age as the older students in the program. He got the idea for the project when he was returning home to Almaty from his boarding school at Milton Academy in Massachusetts last March. During his mandated 14-day quarantine at a hospital, he met and befriended a nurse named Akmaral.
She told him she wished her 12-year-old son could speak English like Kan and asked for tips on how the boy could learn the language. At some point, Kan started creating exercises for him and found himself enjoying the process. After being released from quarantine, he couldn’t reach out to Akmaral, but he wanted to express his appreciation for her hard work. “[The project] became a way to say thank you to the people who are risking their lives in the fight against COVID-19,” he says.
Kan contacted some acquaintances in Poland, who founded the e-platform Nativated for learning English in one-on-one sessions with students from two top UK universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Eventually, they agreed to make a website for TFH for free using the template they already had. Kan promised to use some of the funds donated to TFH to purchase lessons at Nativated as a gesture of thanks.
In preparation for the launch, Kan invited some old friends from school to join the management team, and they began recruiting volunteers via social media to register on the communication platform Slack. Within a month, the project’s workspace was boasting over 300 participants. The brand-new website was up and running on July 7, 2020. In the first three days, 650 students registered across Kazakhstan, 185 lessons took place and 210 more were already booked.
Janna was one of the first students enrolled in the program. The only daughter of a pediatrician, she was living in Pavlodar — a city of 331,000 in northeastern Kazakhstan. She had seen her mother only two times between March and July. Janna was isolating at home with her father and grandmother and finished grade 8 remotely at the end of May. The doctors at her mother’s hospital were contacted about the upcoming site for learning English for their children, and Janna’s mother, Dina Aitakhmet, encouraged her timid and soft-spoken daughter to sign up.
At first, Janna was afraid it would be like school, where you get scolded for grammar mistakes. She booked her first lesson after choosing me from the list of available teachers. Being stuck at home in lockdown, I had a lot of free time, and I joined the project in hopes that my skills could be helpful to others — I’ve been fluent in English since I was a high schooler in Almaty five years ago. Janna initially liked my interest in K-pop; later, we had many educational conversations about culture, travel, and foreign languages — all, of course, in English.
According to Kan, the project is about “learning, sharing experiences, and at the same time, making friends and meeting new people, learning about new experiences.” The volunteers are encouraged to share fun facts on their profiles upon registration, so students can get a sense of their personality before booking a lesson. The objective is to create a stress-free and informal environment that encourages learning in a fun and interactive way, as opposed to the traditional classroom setting.
The main criteria for becoming a teacher were straightforward: knowing English at least at the Upper Intermediate (B2) level and having a couple of hours of free time weekly. The first batch of volunteers were students from all over Kazakhstan, as well as those studying and living abroad — from the U.S. all the way to New Zealand.
But despite the background similarities, everyone’s living situation was different. Anel Abiken, 22, had just completed her BA in Biochemistry at the University of Exeter in the UK. She was self-isolating in the quiet city of Exeter, populated mainly with students and seniors. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve done an internship at a local lab and then gone home to Almaty for a break, but she decided not to risk her family’s and her own health.
Teaching wasn’t something Abiken would have imagined herself doing. But during the two months she participated in the program, she taught two to four lessons weekly to three students. It was practical for her, in a way: due to the five-hour time difference, she had to teach in the mornings, and that helped her maintain a routine similar to the one she had before lockdown. She was relieved, though, when her students asked to learn more about her field of study, rather than English grammar — that seemed easier for someone about to pursue her M.Sc. in Material Engineering.
But even in the middle of breaking down the theory of evolution, as one had asked her to do, she found herself connecting more personally with one of her students, 15-year-old Aisiya, who wants to study medicine and biology. The teenager was angry the boys at her school kept telling her that women shouldn’t be in science. Abiken discussed the matter with her, which led to a conversation on the role of women in STEM. For homework, she sent her student introductory articles to read up on feminism in English.
This was the moment that, much to her surprise, Abiken realized she was a lot more engaged in the teaching process than she thought she would be. She also started teaching her students how to write personal statements for their college applications and shared her experience transitioning from high school to university in a foreign country on her own — the things she had to learn through trial and error. She became the mentor she wished she had when she was younger: “It was nice that I could be the one to support them through this.”
Though the project was initially aimed at the children of medical workers, it was so successful that by the end of the first month, the management team expanded the program to include the children of police officers, large families and low-income families, all aged 8 to 16. Around the same time, the program also became available to children from neighbouring Russia.
A few more weeks down the road, the program truly became international: volunteers and students started joining from eight more countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The number of teachers registered reached about a thousand, and the number of students enrolled exceeded two thousand.
Through all this, the project remained charitable and functioned on private donations — most of which came from exposure in the media. Forbes Kazakhstan even profiled Kan on the magazine’s website on August 7, where he talked about what makes the tutoring program special. “Our goal isn’t [for the student] to become fluent as fast as possible,” he said, “but rather to motivate them to keep learning the language in the future.”
Offering mentorship to the younger generation turned out to be challenging, even if it was about helping them prepare for exams that the teachers had already taken. Bayan Tulbassova, 21, recalls receiving many questions from 16-year-olds about college admissions and having to do extensive research to respond to them all. But still, she was so committed that she conducted her first lesson despite having a mild case of COVID-19. She and her first student Amina, 19, had had to reschedule a few times, and Tulbassova was determined to be there.
However, she admits she felt slightly incompetent and almost succumbed to impostor syndrome at first — the psychological phenomenon of a person doubting their skills or accomplishments. As a senior Industrial Engineering student at the University of Hong Kong, she kept asking herself, “Who am I to teach this kid? Am I even good at English?” After every class, she felt relief that it went well. And though it may sound selfish, she especially enjoyed getting feedback from her students. She needed the reassurance that the lesson was actually useful.
She wasn’t alone in feeling nervous about the project. Janna recalls her anxiety before the first lesson — she is more used to dealing with teachers her parents’ age than someone so close to hers. But if you asked her which she prefers more, she would pick the program and its practice of conversational speech over the school curriculum and its many standardized tests.
The study materials also make a difference. Instead of the few topics about nature, traditions and family that get recycled from year to year in most English textbooks, students have the chance to explore literature and cinematography about different cultures and experiences relevant to their age. Janna and I have read When Marnie Was There, a novel about a young girl, by the British author Joan G. Robinson, and Janna later watched the animated adaptation of the book by Studio Ghibli. I also introduced her to Anne with an E, a recent show based on the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. She binge-watched it in a few days and we set up a video call outside of class to watch the series finale together.
In August, Janna was accompanying her dad on a work visit to a different city, but she still attended the lessons because “they were so interesting, [she] didn’t want to miss them.” She says that now she can actually respond when someone asks her questions in English, though she still worries about making mistakes a little — out of habit.
Tulbassova’s most memorable moment also involved TV-related nostalgia. In attempts to entertain Angelina, 9, from Moscow, they watched the 2005 American cartoon Ben 10 that was popular in her childhood. Angelina turned out to be a fan, too. This little activity made her feel connected to Angelina, despite the physical distance of thousands of kilometres, the generational gap, and the cultural differences between the two ex-Soviet states. “I was surprised that people still know Ben 10, though,” she laughs.
Around the same time, Alika Ustabekova, 18, who lives in Almaty like Tulbassova, was tutoring another girl living in Moscow, 11-year-old Arina. They turned out to have a lot in common, too: Arina likes to draw and write poems; Ustabekova got her love and appreciation for art from her father, who is a poet and collects paintings. And they both have four siblings, with Arina being around the same age as one of Ustabekova’s younger brothers. Her student reminded her of herself when she was younger, similarly to how I felt about Janna.
There was no talk of college or exams for these two, though. Ustabekova focused on helping Arina improve her English at the level appropriate for her age, the way she helps her younger brothers with their homework, which she enjoys. And since she had some time before starting at KIMEP University in Almaty, she taught almost every evening throughout August. “I liked that I could do something beneficial that brought me joy at the same time,” she says.
Although the program was designed for times of self-isolation, it brought people together more than anything. Thousands of teenagers and other young people experienced a unique opportunity to learn and communicate by turning the current limitations into new possibilities.
The project currently remains as is, with volunteers joining and teaching when they can. But Kan says there is now a focus on teaching orphans — potentially offline, as it becomes safe to do so. He’s been in contact with heads of orphanages in the Almaty region, and hopes to bring in volunteers in the near future. The project does take a lot of maintenance work, but its unprecedented success shows that a small sentiment of gratitude can grow into something incredible that positively impacts lives.
Ademi Yestayeva, email@example.com, is a freelance writer.
Degrees of Coping
Female university students learn how to manage increased anxiety due to COVID-19.
By Julia Vaiano | Featured image via Unsplash
Andrea Silva enters her quaint kitchen, settles into a chair and places her small Tim Hortons Iced Capp on the table. It’s 8 a.m. on Monday, November 9, 2020, which marks the start of a new school week, and Silva can’t help but already feel anxious. Her dark brown hair with blonde tips is pulled back into a messy bun, and her chocolate-brown eyes look notably fatigued.
The 20-year-old student spots her floral-patterned day planner sprawled before her. She sees a long list of assignments scribbled on the page. Silva shuts the planner, feeling her stomach churning from her increasing anxiety. Her mind begins to race as she worries about falling behind in her studies because of how demanding online school is.
Her heart palpitates in her chest and her breathing becomes unsteady. Silva panics and begins to feel dizzy as she struggles to breathe. She closes her eyes and does a breathing technique where she takes 10 breaths, inhaling each time for four seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds. After slowly exhaling for the last time, Silva feels the tension lessen; her breathing returns to a steady pace.
Silva is a third-year concurrent education and English major at York University. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is completing all her courses online from home. She feels like she is on “an emotional rollercoaster” because online schooling has heightened her anxiety. She is struggling with online school because of how “time-consuming it is.”
Silva is not the only student struggling with mental health issues because of the pandemic. Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID. Some of them, however, have discovered effective coping strategies to calm and centre themselves during these challenging and uncertain times, such as breathing techniques and practicing yoga.
An article published on November 24, 2020, by The Conversation, a Canadian independent source of news for the academic community, states that in comparison to males, “more female students indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely disruptive to their stress and mental health, and that it has significantly disrupted their academic studies.”
Silva worries about excelling academically. Every night, she sits in front of her computer, trying to stay awake. Since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Silva’s sleep schedule has not been consistent because she has difficulty limiting how much time she devotes to her academic studies.
“I often overthink, creating maybes and what-if scenarios in my head of falling behind and getting bad grades,” she says. “I start to believe these scenarios at one point, and I start to get panicky.”
Rachel Browne, 21, a physical education major at Brock University, is also having difficulty focusing at home because she’s not in a classroom environment.
The most challenging part for Browne is adhering to a consistent study schedule. “It’s really testing my time management skills and ability to get stuff done and not procrastinate because everything is asynchronous,” she says.
Both Browne and Silva are the type of students who would often speak with their professors after class to receive clarification and answers to their questions. Now, they have to rely on email or Zoom meetings to communicate with their professors and tutorial leaders. Being unable to receive immediate assistance or answers to their questions exacerbates their anxiety.
“Even in between class breaks, I would always walk over to see my professor and ask a question if I needed to,” she says. “Now, with every single course, I have to send emails or schedule a Zoom meeting in advance. Either way, it takes longer to receive a response.”
Browne longs for the socializing that occurred on campus. “I miss being able to see my friends and have study groups with them,” she says.
Silva is not only anxious about online learning but about how the pandemic has affected her finances. In March 2020, Silva was laid off from her job at a gym and now receives the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as compensation. She has no choice but to be extremely conscientious about how much money she is spending per month because she now receives less money, and she is still expected to contribute to some of the household expenses at home.
Her concern regarding her finances has caused her anxiety to increase. “If my anxiety were a scale, I would have broken it already,” she says.
Grace (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), 18, an early childhood studies major at the University of Guelph-Humber, is also concerned about her finances because she could not find employment over the summer. “It’s frustrating because I wanted to work a lot so I could put away money before starting university,” she says. Grace received the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) over the summer months, which provides financial support to recent high school graduates and postsecondary students who could not find work because of COVID-19.
Although the government support was helpful, many students continued to feel stressed about their finances. Statistics Canada released a report, “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on postsecondary students,” on May 12, 2020. It found that, “Prior to the announcement of the CESB, 73% of participants indicated that they were very or extremely concerned about using up their savings. This declined [but to only] 61% following the announcement.”
Both Grace and Silva say they would have more than likely made more money if they’d worked during the summer months.
“I’m more stressed now because I think so much more before making any purchases to ensure they are necessary, and I’m buying products I need instead of want,” Silva says. When she feels overwhelmed from financial and other anxieties, she relies on breathing techniques to calm her anxiety.
Breathing techniques have been proven to be effective when it comes to alleviating anxiety. According to Medical News Today, “Experts often recommend breathing exercises as a way to cope with anxiety. Such exercises help people slow their heart rate and feel calm.”
Breathing techniques are Silva’s best coping strategies for anxiety, but for Jessica D’Rozario, 21, yoga has proven to be an effective coping strategy.
D’Rozario lives in St. Catharines with three roommates and studies psychology at Brock University. Due to the social restrictions imposed by COVID-19, her social circle has become limited.
D’Rozario is a lively and energetic woman who has long, blonde, pin-straight hair and friendly hazel eyes. She has a genuine passion for the nightlife and never misses an opportunity, as she puts it, “to go on an adventure.”
Before the pandemic, D’Rozario looked forward to spending her weekends meeting up with her group of friends at local bars, restaurants, and clubs. Occupied by her full-time school schedule and her busy social life, D’Rozario seldom had a moment alone.
“When the lockdown first happened, I panicked because I relied on going out with my friends all the time to relieve my stress,” she says.
This bubbly, vivacious woman, who always had weekend plans, couldn’t cope with being housebound. She suddenly had all this extra free time and was left alone with her thoughts, which led her to dwell on her worries. Her anxiety spiralled out of control because she couldn’t accept losing her social life.
She began to panic over the uncertainty of how long she would have to remain isolated from her friends. A sense of hopelessness settled over her like a dark storm cloud that she couldn’t seem to shake.
“I suffered because I missed seeing my friends in person, and having a physical interaction with other people is significant because it’s a big factor in relieving my stress,” she says.
She realized she needed to find another coping strategy other than socializing with her friends. With her roommate, she decided to return to practicing yoga by watching videos on YouTube.
The practice of yoga is about stretching and concentrating on holding different poses while focusing on breathing. Focusing on maintaining a pose and controlling your breath can distract you from anxious thoughts and worries.
Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson, a Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article in Psychology Today in August 2020 where he discussed the benefits of yoga for generalized anxiety disorder. “Staying focused on your body and breath gives your brain a long-overdue break,” he said. “After just one session, it’s possible to come away with a quieter mind.”
Yoga has helped relieve D’Rozario’s anxiety. “Since I started practicing yoga again, I have to say I feel a lot calmer, and my mind feels so much clearer,” she says.
A recent study published in August 2020, also in Psychology Today discusses how yoga’s popular and inexpensive practice can help treat adults’ anxiety. Dr. Naomi Simon, a lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Health, said, “Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”
Practicing yoga has also proven to be an effective tool in relieving Grace’s anxious feelings. She was so looking forward to starting her first year at university, where she could meet new friends and join extracurricular clubs, but with COVID, she could not be as social as she intended to be.
Being stuck at home for such a long period was causing her to feel nervous and restless. She decided to practice yoga for the first time to relax and keep busy.
“I’ve always been an active person. I was used to playing rep soccer for the longest time, which I liked because it was so fast-paced. But I started reading things online about how yoga could be good for relaxation and reducing anxiety, so I decided to give it a try,” she says.
She decided to commit to practicing yoga three times a week by watching videos on YouTube. After starting this routine, she observed the positive effects yoga had on both her mind and body. Since practicing yoga, she feels more relaxed, less apprehensive, and no longer on-edge all the time.
Rachel Liebman, the assistant director for York University’s Psychology Clinic, advises that in addition to exercising, spending time outdoors can be an effective strategy in calming the mind and the body.
Liebman also recommends keeping a stable and consistent routine, which includes maintaining a good and healthy sleep schedule, taking time away from the computer screen, and making sure to contain your work hours.
“It’s also important to find opportunities to connect with people in the ways that are possible. Be flexible with what is available to you,” she says.
She acknowledges this is a challenging time for everybody but knows it’s an especially difficult time for young people, who are struggling because they, in particular, need social connections and are not receiving them because of the circumstances.
Liebman believes it’s important students recognize they are not alone. She says that relying on the smallest interventions can make the biggest difference in reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and panic. “Don’t underestimate the value of small interventions. You know, like the five-minute text or walk outside.”
Silva agrees with Liebman. During the pandemic, she has relied on technology to stay in communication with her friends by exchanging text messages and talking on the phone.
When asked about how often she speaks to her close friends, Silva’s face lights up and she smiles. “I talk to my friends every day,” she says, “and they always manage to make me laugh, and sometimes, there are moments when I’m laughing so hard I temporarily forget about the COVID-19 pandemic and all my worries, and I’m just happy.”
Julia Vaiano, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance writer.
Mind Over Matters
Mindful meditation is helping some Torontonians deal with their mental health during the pandemic.
By Marlo Fieldstone | Featured image via Unsplash
During the early days of the first COVID-19 lockdown, Derrick Moore, 64, a retired Scarborough high school science and physical education teacher, spent most of his time in his newly renovated basement. His two adult sons call it “the shrine.” The area displays a wall of family and hockey league team pictures and a prized football championship plaque that Moore and his team won in 1972 for Agincourt Collegiate in Toronto.
Wearing his signature hat — a grey newsboy cap — he anxiously searched his Android phone to get the latest virus updates. “COVID was creating a panic that was taking over my mind,” Moore says. “Every night, I was listening to five hours of terrible pandemic news.”
On March 11, he was alarmed to discover that the NBA was suspending all basketball games until further notice. “I was concerned, scared, and a little in denial [before that],” he says. “But when I heard that they shut down the NBA league and all the [other] sports, I knew things were terrible.”
Two weeks later, however, Moore received an unexpected email from Lou Carcasole, 69, his former mindfulness meditation teacher.
Moore had first heard about Carcasole’s classes in the spring of 2006 when he checked into Scarborough Centenary Hospital. “My heart was beating fast. My blood pressure was high. I thought I was near death.”
At the hospital’s outpatient clinic, a psychiatrist diagnosed Moore with an anxiety attack, whose symptoms can resemble a heart attack. The doctor also noted Moore’s Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is characterized by restlessness and an inability to focus. The physician gave Moore a prescription for sleeping pills and antidepressants. He also recommended Carcasole’s popular mindfulness meditation classes to reduce his anxiety.
Moore took his advice and found the classes beneficial. And then along came COVID.
Carcasole, who had taught mindful meditation to more than 4,000 students over 25 years, had to shut down his meditation groups at Centenary Hospital in Scarborough around the end of March 2020 due to COVID. But the effects of the government’s tight lockdown on people’s mental health alarmed him. “I had to restart meditation,” he decided. “We were all going crazy.”
His email to 1,400 of his former students said the guided meditations would begin, on Zoom, on March 30. “Regarding the COVID pandemic,” it read, “we know that the difference between experiencing mild or no symptoms and getting quite sick is the robustness of your immune system. Mindfulness is a stress reduction technology and has been shown to improve immune function. I can teach you to be on a path to reducing your stress levels.”
What is Mindful Meditation?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the generally assumed “father of mindfulness,” had influenced Carcasole’s mindfulness program. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn had helped shepherd the word “mindfulness” into the North American mainstream and made meditation a practice that scientists and doctors take seriously.
Buddhist meditation practice influenced Kabat-Zinn, but his approach was to remove much of the Buddhism. “I bent over backwards to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, new age, eastern mysticism or just plain flakey,” he says. He created a revolutionary system to tackle pain in chronically ill patients. He then developed mindfulness courses to undertake mental health problems. Over 2400 scientific studies support the efficacy of Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness program.
“Meditation for beginners can start with letting the body settle, letting go, and relax, into a chair, into the floor,” Carcasole says. “The basis of mindfulness is to focus repetitively on the breath, first inhaling the breath and then exhaling it. It sounds simple, but it’s hard. Positive results are usually not evident before four or five weeks, which is why almost all the scientific research on mindfulness had been based on an eight-week program.”
Research has shown that the consistent and continuous practice of meditation reduces stress and increases the emotional and physical well-being of meditators. Long-term meditators report being more mindful in daily life and score higher on several characteristics, reflection, self-compassion and well-being.
But mindfulness is not a panacea.
A 2019 University College London-led study found that more than a quarter of regular meditators have had “particularly unpleasant” psychological experiences related to the practice. The negative emotions included feelings of anxiety, panic, depersonalization (feeling detached from one’s mental processes or body), and thoughts of suicide.
However, the considerable success of mindfulness meditation practices in healthcare settings had sparked what is now called “the mindfulness movement,” which includes the widespread application of mindfulness practices in schools, police departments, professional sports, mass media, and even the British Parliament.
Carcasale’s decision to relaunch his classes immediately lowered Moore’s anxiety. “I was feeling hope and excitement when I got the email,” he says. He knew that consistent mindfulness practice could reduce his anxiety and diminish his severe osteoarthritis aches. He suffers from knee and hip joint pain due to over 20 years of daily running and playing hockey. The former avid hockey player requires hip and knee replacement operations. But COVID had put elective surgeries on hold.
Eva Ligeti, 70, a University of Toronto law professor and the first Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, also received Carcasole’s invitation and eagerly rejoined his class. “In February, I was in quarantine and isolation for 14 days since I came home from the U.S.,” she says. “There were chaotic conditions and constant news of deaths. My worry just increased.”
That was also the case for Margaret Singleton, 48, a former office worker who has been on long-term medical leave and was struggling with her deteriorating mental health. Six years ago, Singleton’s anxiety attacks and depressive state were so severe that her husband took her to Centenary Hospital’s emergency department in Scarborough. She received psychiatric treatment at the hospital’s outpatient clinic. Her psychiatrist also introduced her to Lou Carcasole’s weekly mindfulness meditation program, which helped her considerably.
After COVID struck and Carcasole’s classes were cancelled, she soon experienced severe depressive symptoms, including sleeping around the clock, not eating and secluding herself from family. “I was isolated, anxious about Blair, my husband, getting COVID since he was working at Loblaws as the seafood manager, and I was worrying — what if he lost his job since he is the breadwinner.”
When she had stopped communicating with friends and family and stayed in bed, her husband became her primary support system. “Blair forced me to get up, take a shower, and made me eat,” she says. “My family have gone through hell and back with me.”
She, too, happily received Carcasole’s email and knew she had to rejoin his classes.
Nine months later, and having meditated almost daily with Carcasole’s class, Singleton was relaxed. She wore her shiny dark hair long and had no makeup on. Her attire was a casual outfit ー navy blue sweatpants and a pink collarless cotton shirt. In her basement apartment’s storage/workspace, she was surrounded by her “cluttered office stuff” — plastic bins in disarray, books lying willy-nilly on their sides, and her cherished woodwind recorder.
Singleton used to play her recorder during the late 90s at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Severe tendinitis in her right wrist and thumb sabotaged her playing the recorder and oboe. “Since October 2020, my wrist and hand are better,” she says. The amateur musician has picked up her woodwind instrument and performs Baroque and Medieval compositions with a group of musicians on Zoom.
“Meditation is a game changer,” she says. “[Without it] I couldn’t have dealt with COVID in the last year without going into a deep depression.”
It has also helped to improve her relationship with her family. “I spent the week after Thanksgiving with my parents under COVID-19 lockdown less afraid, more focused, and have more energy,” she says. Meditation practice has helped decrease her antidepressant medication and has lowered the dosage of her anti-anxiety drugs by 75 percent.
Ligeti has also benefitted. “Starting meditation in [late] March reduced my stress and brought me to a situation of equanimity,” she says.
Derrick Moore reports similar results: “Lou’s meditation did more for me than the medications. Meditation changed everything.”
He says that after nearly a year of mindfulness, “Meditation keeps me calm, and I can sleep. When I meditate, incredibly, 50 percent of my chronic pain goes away. The practice affects everything. The senses are more elevated. I notice everything on my walks, the leaves, the sky and the sounds.” Since rejoining Carcasole’s classes, Moore has had a better relationship with his wife and his 27-year-old son, who also suffers from ADHD anxiety.
On February 5, 2021, Moore had hip surgery at Stouffville hospital on the coldest day of the year. “It’s all OK. I had a ‘little’ hip replacement,” he says. “I was awake for most of the operation. I could hear the drill, but thankfully not the saw.”
Two weeks later, he had only used Tylenol for his pain, and with the support of two canes, he was taking daily one-kilometre walks.
In March, Moore received his first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine in his right arm.
“I did breath meditation before the vaccine shot to take the edge off,” he says. “The vaccine was a life-changing experience. It gives me a chance to get my life back. Meanwhile, the best thing I can do for myself is to continue meditating. I am more optimistic about today and the future. I feel gratitude because of mindfulness.”
Marlo Fieldstone, email@example.com, is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Marlo was one of 70 students who joined Carcasole’s first Zoom meditation classes. A year later, she is still meditating daily. Not all the meditators, however, had positive results. Some found sitting still for up to 40 minutes, focusing on the breath and the body, monotonous. More than half dropped out of the class.
Humanize the Hood
Lawrence Heights, a neighbourhood in northwest Toronto, can be a dangerous place to live. One young man hopes to change that.
By Ryan Fernando | Featured image courtesy of Serge van Neck via Unsplash
On August 24, 2010, Dejazmatch James and 10 friends shot hoops at a net owned by a neighbour in Lawrence Heights, an area in the northwest of Toronto, much to the chagrin of the elderly Asian man who lived next door.
‘‘Hey, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. You guys go inside!’’ the man said.
‘‘Shut up! We’re not going inside,’’ a few of James’ friends said as they played for at least another hour before heading home.
Later, the teenagers spent the balmy and sunny afternoon and early evening on one of the group’s front yards. Summer break was drawing to a close and James would soon return as a senior at Sir Sandford Fleming Academy, a public high school in Lawrence Heights.
As James and his comrades lolled about, a car skulked towards them. The teens immediately became alert. ‘‘Whenever we see a car drive, we literally stop whatever we’re doing and we just pay attention,’’ James says. ‘‘We start asking, ‘Who’s that? Why are they driving so slow? Has anyone seen that car before?’ All these paranoid questions. And sometimes, the reality is that the person driving the car is just a taxi driver or a lost Uber driver looking for a number. But sometimes it’s exactly what we’re anticipating.’’
When the car stopped, a man stepped out. At first, it seemed like he was heading straight towards the teens, but he veered to his right and started shooting his gun. Some of the teens ducked for cover, others retreated inside a friend’s house. But James and a Somali friend, Bashiir (a pseudonym), vaulted over a fence and ran as fast as they could away from the commotion. Running for their lives, their calves burning, James and Bashiir made a beeline for the latter’s house. Bashiir’s mother, having heard the shots, quickly ushered the boys inside.
‘‘Come! Run in here!’’
James hyperventilated from exhaustion and pulsating adrenaline as he continued to hear gunshots. As it was Ramadan and almost time to break fast, Bashiir’s mother offered James samosas to calm his nerves, and he graciously wolfed down the fried pastries. Ten minutes later, when the shots ceased, James and his friends, all unharmed, reconvened at their friend’s yard where they bantered about who ran the fastest. But then, one of them spotted a body on the ground a few yards away. They found a young black man whom they hadn’t noticed earlier. His head had been pierced by a bullet and he was bleeding profusely.
The young man, 24-year-old Randy Malcolm, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition but later died. A security camera near the shooting captured the suspect, a black man dressed in an oversized white T-shirt, running and getting into a Nissan Maxima. At home the following day, seeing the news of Malcolm’s death on TV, James’ dark brown eyes brimmed with tears and his usual ear-to-ear smile curled into a frown.
This turbulent episode from a decade ago is one of many instances on now 27-year-old James’ ever-growing list of experiences with gun violence in Lawrence Heights, a diverse neighbourhood in North York. This area is where James spent years meticulously planning at which hours he should go out and what routes to take, choosing his friends wisely, looking over his shoulder, flinching at loud noises or sudden movements and mourning deaths in his neighbourhood.
Despite being located near Toronto’s famously bustling Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Lawrence Heights is beset by poverty, drug trafficking and gun violence. In 2020, Toronto police reported 449 firearm shootings, resulting in 39 people dead and 174 injured.
Toronto police often attribute shootings to animosity between city gangs, who typically form as a response to socio-economic troubles. ‘‘It’s about the convergence of poverty, neighbourhood, education, socioeconomic disadvantage, life choices, options, mentorship and safety,” Carmela Murdocca, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology of York University, says. “These factors in our city lead people to being more susceptible to violence as they are more susceptible to social determinants of health.’’
Marcell Wilson understands how such complex factors contribute to gun violence. The tall and heavyset 42-year-old (195 cm, 99 kg) is the founder of the outreach organization, One By One, and the former leader of the Looney Toons gang, a Toronto offshoot of the Bloods gang. Of mixed race, Wilson grew up in the community housing complex of Swansea Mews in southwest Toronto near Parkdale.
Wilson first experienced gun violence at a young age. While he was play-wrestling with friends, a short Jamaican man in his early twenties, only a few centimetres taller than Wilson, challenged the nine-year-old to wrestle him. When Wilson grabbed the man by the waist, he felt something hard and metallic and stopped immediately. The man laughed, pulled out a handgun and shot several clapping rounds above the kids’ heads. Wilson didn’t play outside for a month.
Growing up in poverty and in a troubled single-parent household, Wilson ran away from home, became homeless at 13, found himself in parts of downtown where he met other lost, abandoned or abused kids. ‘‘There were a lot of Neo-Nazi skinhead groups in this era in the early nineties, like the Heritage Front, who’d walked in big groups of 50 in the city and beat up minorities,’’ Wilson says. ‘‘Us kids were terrified and made our own protection groups. And that’s how the ball started rolling.’’
As an activist with direct experience of violence, Wilson says that when addressing gun violence in marginalized neighbourhoods such as Lawrence Heights, it’s imperative to understand the unique circumstances of communities and their inhabitants. Wilson believes that too many programs are futile if they don’t meet the needs of communities and are operated by people with no personal experience with marginalization. ‘‘Contact is one of the hugest things,’’ he says. ‘‘The city pays all these people for community engagement, who make 90 grand a year with benefits, but have never talked to a community member their whole goddamn life. Even getting into a position where you can have a conversation is just half of the battle.’’
Jahtara Hutchinson-Bobb, a case worker at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, shares the same sentiment. ‘‘You can have a hundred programs, but if they’re not meeting the needs that people want, they’re useless,’’ she says. ‘‘It becomes tricky when you don’t represent the people you’re trying to offer service to because they’re less inclined to accept.’’
It’s no small wonder, therefore, that people wouldn’t be thrilled at Mayor John Tory’s proposed $6-million budget for anti-violence. In response to such initiatives that promise big bucks but little effectiveness, Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement says, ‘‘You can’t design programs by bureaucrats and politicians. The chance of success is like buying a lottery ticket. We don’t trust the academics or politicians to come up with the right answers if they do not engage the community. The first word in community safety is community, not police or politicians.’’ Dejazmatch James agrees.
James, a black male of Jamaican descent, has a lean, athletic frame and short, kinky hair. Articulate, outspoken and amiable, he wears his beaming white smile as if he never grew up in the rough Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. He understands the importance of good programs in marginalized communities because basketball, while he was growing up, helped him avoid the dangers of the streets. It opened the door to him attending George Brown College on a basketball scholarship, which further led James to Algoma University, where he graduated cum laude.
James says that basketball helped him develop skills in leadership and teamwork, taught him hard work and tempered his occasional unruly attitude. ‘Silvia Skoutarou, a case worker at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, concurs. “How many times have I heard people say, ‘Sports saved my life,’” she says. “These things build confidence. You see your skillset. You see yourself contributing to a community. You’re literally a part of a team.’’
James’ positive experiences with sports and post-secondary education, as well as having been exposed to gun violence, have helped him understand the inner workings and sentiments of his community. These factors have galvanized him into becoming an ambassador of change in Lawrence Heights, where the second youngest of working-class Jamaican-born parents has lived since his birth in 1993.
James’ father worked in a store that sold West Indian food products and he undertook intermittent factory jobs to make ends meet, while James’ mother remained home to take care of him and his six siblings. For the James family, it was either having a home of their own in a neighborhood fraught with danger or languishing on the streets. ‘‘It’s kind of like, pick your poison and this is the poison we pick, the slow dying poison,’’ says James.
On top of contending with financial struggles, several people in James’ community, including Malcolm and others James knew personally, have either been shot at, incapacitated or killed in shootings. James lost three close friends, 18-year-old Abdikarim Abdikarim in 2008—‘‘Name so nice, mama named him twice,’’ says James, 24-year-old Marvin Engelbrecht in 2012 and 22-year-old Said Ali in 2017.
James also recalls walking to his factory job in 2012 during his last year of high school and stopping to chat with a 38-year-old neighbour, Paul Fitzgerald Benn.
‘‘Where you headed?’’ asked Benn.
‘‘To work. I’m saving up for a basketball tour in Europe this summer,’’ James said.
‘‘Keep it up,’’ Benn said. ‘‘I’m happy to see that the path you’re on is different from the conventional Lawrence Heights life.’’ That was the last time James spoke to Benn. He was shot dead the following day.
Even when James was studying Community Economic and Social Development at Algoma University, in Sault Ste. Marie, the impact of gun violence remained with him. James’ instincts once kicked in when he was sitting on a bench in a courtyard with a white friend. Upon seeing a black kid running, James immediately shot upwards, fixing to run away. Then he realized, ‘‘Wait, I’m in Sault Ste. Marie.’’
‘‘What was that?’’ James’ white friend asked.
‘‘Honestly, if I was in Toronto, whoosh! I would’ve ran.’’
In 2020, his final year at Algoma University, James wrote as his thesis: The Qualitative Impacts of Gun Violence in Lawrence Heights. This capstone research paper focused on, and included, the testimonies of residents from Lawrence Heights and the effects of gun violence on their life. James would be up at 4 a.m. writing in the computer lab, rivulets of tears hitting the keyboard as he remembered those murdered in his neighbourhood.
‘‘People who’ve passed away before, their energy lives on with me forever,’’ he says. ‘‘Whenever I do certain things, I think of them. Even my thesis on the impacts of gun violence, I did it because of the life that I lived and the people I’ve come across and lost.’’
James’ paper, which received an A, showed him that he had been mum for too long. After graduating in 2020, James became a member of the Lawrence Heights Changemakers, a grassroots organization comprised of Lawrence Heights residents with diverse skillsets, and parents who had lost a child to gun violence.
On September 22, 2020, James coordinated a safety walk where he, Marcell Wilson, Louis March, Councillor Mike Colle and Lawrence Heights residents marched through Lawrence Heights to address gun violence, the lack of youth programming and the need for improved safety measures, like better speed bumps, lighting and cameras. Wearing a gray mask, James led the procession and chanted into a megaphone: ‘‘Humanize the hood.’’
Yusuf Ali, a high school friend of James, says, ‘‘There’s a stigma in our neighbourhood that we’ll only either be rappers, ballers or gangbangers, but Dejazmatch exceeded all of those stigmas. We needed someone that grew up in our community and understands our community to talk about our community.’’
Two weeks later, on October 8, 2020, at 7:30 a.m., James awoke to three missed calls from a coworker at a summer youth program called 37 Kids. Anxious, he texted her, ‘‘Hey, sorry I missed your call.’’ No sooner had the text been sent, the coworker called him.
‘‘They got Shane. They killed him,’’ she said.
‘‘You mean Shane right across the street from me?’’
‘‘Yes, they killed him last night.’’
Hours before, he had heard news of a shooting in Lawrence Heights, but he didn’t imagine the victim was 33-year-old Shane Stanford, a close friend and brotherly figure to James who worked as a personal trainer, camp counselor and aquatics specialist at a downtown YMCA.
After coming home from the YMCA, Stanford was shot dead on the night of October 7 in his Acura sedan. Despite the arrests of two suspects and a search for a third, the motive for Stanford’s murder remains unclear; police believe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
After weeks of mourning and talking to media outlets about Stanford, a fatigued James cancelled another safety walk that was to happen on November 6. After conferring with Councillor Colle about honouring Stanford, James created a petition on change.org to name a future park in Lawrence Heights after his friend. It garnered over 2,000 signatures.
‘‘We don’t know why these things senseless acts of violence [happen], but all I can say is that I’m taking the strength from [Shane’s passing] and I’m going use it to become the best person I can be,’’ says James. ‘‘We got to keep looking at the positivity and realize if we’re still here, we’re here for a reason, and that’s what keeps us going, what keeps us hopeful and resilient and praying that one day things will change around here.’’
Ryan Fernando, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Escape from Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini denied all human rights to a young woman and to her Baha’i community. She was threatened with imprisonment and execution. Today, she is an outspoken cheerleader for her adopted country.
By Marlo Fieldstone | Featured image courtesy of Kristen| Updated April 21, 2020
Fariba (all names changed to protect family members still in Iran) is a charming, elegant 58-year-old Iranian Baha’i woman with an inviting girlish giggle. She is confidently sitting in her spacious and opulent dining room in an exclusive Toronto neighbourhood. Her makeup and hair are subtly arranged, her jewelry understated. It’s her eyes that sparkle with delight and verve.
She is talking about her terrifying escape 36 years ago from persecution and possible death in Iran. Fariba and her Baha’i community were pariahs in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic and were threatened with unlawful imprisonment because of their Baha’i faith. That horrific period in her life was as far away from her peaceful and safe life in Toronto as the alien and ghostly mountains of the moon.
In April 1984, Fariba illegally fled without a passport from Iran to neighbouring Pakistan. Three outlawed smugglers, who towered above her tiny 5 ft. frame, helped her escape Iran for US$2,500.
She was a skinny, sheltered and frightened 21-year-old who left Tehran alone on a dangerous route at night in a speeding Toyota truck. Her younger brother had left Tehran earlier, and the rest of her family were smuggled out of Iran several months later. The beat-up vehicle sped through the vast empty Lut Desert in the southeastern part of Iran. The desert was one of the hottest and driest places on Earth with no water, no vegetation, and few living things.
On the second night, the smugglers and Fariba walked through the night with two other young Baha’i women refugees through the Makran Mountains, a landscape of treacherous mountain ridges, and a lethal pass to the Pakistani border. The pass was notorious for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and cross-border terrorism.
Why had she fled?
Soon after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Fariba’s father had lost his well-paying job at Iran’s National Radio and Television station. And, as a Baha’i, Fariba was forbidden to attend university or allowed to work. Nor could her family receive life-saving medical treatments.
Without her father’s job, her parents could not afford their grand spacious home. “We were forced to move to a bleak, distant suburb of Tehran,” she says. “Everything disappeared for us – poof.”
After the revolution, some members of Fariba’s Baha’i community “disappeared.” During the first decade of the revolution, more than 200 Baha’is were killed or executed, hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned, and tens of thousands lost jobs, access to education, and other rights – all solely because of their religious belief. An official letter ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, said: “Our agenda is to kill and eliminate all Baha’is.”
The terror of police arrests and killings of Baha’i people created a silent “underground” exodus, which included Fariba (and later the rest of her large family) to Pakistan.
A day after she crossed the perilous border path into Pakistan, Fariba arrived at the United Nations refugee offices in Quetta, a large city near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A Canadian immigration officer asked her in Farsi what she would do to be eligible to come to Canada.
“Anything,” she said.
“You are good,” the official said. “You can go to Canada.”
It took nine unsettling months for Fariba to finally receive a visa for Canada.
On February 25, 1985, she arrived in Toronto on British Airways as an asylum-seeking refugee sponsored by the Canadian government. She surprisingly found the drive from the airport to be “an empty land.” In Toronto, she says, “no people were walking on the streets, and the trees were bare.”
She had little education, few job skills, and did not speak English. She took ESL classes, and, later, an accounting course at Seneca College. Money was scarce. Fariba supplemented her meagre income by waitressing Saturdays and Sundays.
Three years later, Fariba got married to a fellow Iranian refugee and became a Canadian citizen. She and her husband built a successful luxury kitchen-cabinet business with nearly 100 employees. “Our company was like a family,” she says.
In 2008, however, she “thought the world was ending.”
Her doctors found a big lump on her right breast and told her it was cancer. “I got very sick,” she says. A few months later, her surgeon discovered malignant tumours in both her left and right breast. She has had a full mastectomy and seven surgeries in the past eleven years.
As she recalls those difficult times, Fariba stares at the gentle twilight coming through an imposing picture window in her home. “In Canada, I was able to get free medical care and operations that I couldn’t get back in Iran due to their huge costs,” she says. She feels that she was well looked after by all the doctors and hospital staff.
Enayat, a leading Iranian-Canadian in the Baha’i community, has been a friend of Fariba and her husband for over 15 years. “Fariba is an inspirational person,” he says. “She has had many challenges in her life, such as her illness; yet she shows strength, gratitude, and kindness to others rather than being miserable.”
Fariba is well now and is monitored annually with an MRI scan and a medical check-up. “Life could have been much worse,” she says. “I have (Baha’i) friends whose lives are in danger but can’t leave Iran.”
She has a radiant smile and speaks with the glee of a young schoolgirl: “It is the freedom in Toronto of being able to step out of my house, and not having to cover up my body, my hair, and not having to be fearful of who I meet.” She says that in Iran, “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard could stop me, question me, stick their nose in everybody’s business, and throw me in jail.”
The grim memory of the guards is quickly gone. She recalls that in the early 1990s, she was returning with her husband from her first vacation, a week in Mexico. She becomes joyfully animated when she says that “we were flying over Toronto, and I thought, this is home. I am so glad that I am finally home.”
Marlo Fieldstone, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com
A Hero Among Us
Retired psychotherapist Louisa Lai continues to help those in need.
By Julia Vaiano | Featured image courtesy of Orna Watchman via Pixabay | Updated April 21, 2020
Her buzzing iPhone stirs 68-year-old Louisa Lai, a retired Toronto psychotherapist, from her peaceful slumber. She rolls over and retrieves her burgundy-rimmed glasses. She puts them on and sees that it’s 11 p.m.
She’s greeted by a flood of incoming texts from a patient, Emma (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), saying she can’t sleep because of how anxious she feels. She asks if Lai would be willing to speak with her. Without hesitation, Lai answers Emma’s late-night call because her principle is that whenever someone approaches her for assistance, no matter what time, she will never refuse them.
Although no longer officially practicing at the time, Lai took Emma on as a patient in 2012 and has continued to support her ever since. Since then, Emma has maintained a close relationship with Lai and refers to her as being more than a counsellor but a true friend and “unconditional support.”
“Louisa is an angel sent from heaven,” says Emma, “and with her, I learned to see things from a psychological, spiritual and emotional point of view with great compassion, love, wisdom and professionalism.”
Lai is not only a guiding light in Emma’s life but in that of many others. Since her early retirement in 2009, she has decided to see patients, without charge, based on referrals from people in the Greater Toronto Area and direct referrals from Catholic priests. She provides free therapy to people of all ages who are dealing with mental illness and personal problems.
Lai’s decision to give free therapy is a remarkable act of kindness because not everyone across Canada, who is affected by mental illness can receive the help and proper treatment they require because of how expensive therapy sessions are. The average cost of a private therapy session in Canada ranges between $125 to $175.
According to a report published by Statistics Canada, “In 2018, roughly 5.3 million people in Canada mentioned they needed some help for their mental health.” However, 1.1. million people did not receive assistance. . One of the most reported reasons was the cost.
Lai recognizes such a dire need. This petite woman has pin-straight, raven-black hair that rests just below her jawline. She always wears a smile despite growing up in a household filled with great sadness. Unshakeable grief loomed over her family for years because of the double suicide of her grandparents that resulted from the severe persecution they faced from the communist Chinese government before she was born.
“Growing up with such a dark cloud hanging over my family made me perceptive to when other people around me were feeling upset or were grappling with something,” she says. “And because I was so observant, I felt like I developed a huge need to want to help people who were struggling.”
Even though Lai felt a natural calling to help people, in 1971, at age 18, she decided to enroll at the University of Kansas to major in biology. After experiencing a personal crisis, she says, “I realized at that moment in time that my true purpose in life was to help those around me.”
She switched to psychology in the spring of 1973. After she graduated, she studied clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario where she was one of seven students admitted into this highly competitive program. After graduating in 1977, she returned to her home in Hong Kong and found employment as a clinical psychologist at the Hong Kong Christian Service.
Lai always had a desire to better the community. That led her to start a pilot project called Infant Stimulation and Parent Effectiveness Training Program in Hong Kong, which she provides for free.
Lai spent three years overseeing the project, which identified developmental issues in children from ages zero to three. A mother and child, for example, would come in once a week, and a social worker and nurse would evaluate the child and decide if they were ready to move on to the next set of exercises that involved improving their gross motor, fine motor, language, cognition, and social skills.
The program celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018 and is now used all across Hong Kong. Yet the media coverage and massive success of the program is not what ultimately pleases Lai.
“I’m beyond proud of the program because of how many children’s lives it continues to change,” Lai says. Her warm, chocolate brown eyes shine with passion. “When I witnessed how much this program helped the children, it brought me the greatest joy because I helped make a positive and profound difference.”
In 1995, Lai started a private practice called Ivy Health Services in Scarborough. The practice was dedicated to helping patients with post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from serious car accidents. Many times, Lai would see patients beyond the allotted hour session, even up to two to three hours, yet only charged them for one.
“Seeing a patient for an hour wasn’t working because as soon as a patient and I were onto something, the hour would end. I could tell that it was incredibly frustrating for the patient, and I couldn’t turn someone away who needed my help,” she says.
The year 2020 marks the 11th year of Lai’s retirement, yet she continues to devote much of her time to helping people. She typically makes sure to check in in on all her patients by exchanging daily text messages, and that has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lai is still speaking to her patients and makes herself available for daily phone calls. “I’m happy to help and support all my patients, especially during these scary and uncertain times,” she says.
Real-life heroes don’t fly in the sky with a billowing red cape trailing behind them; instead, they can be seen sitting right in front of us. Emma couldn’t agree more when she says, “I consider Louisa to be a real-life hero, and I really can’t thank her enough.”
Julia Vaiano, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Under the Roof of Africa
How a Whitby woman is helping a community 12,000 km away.
By Charlotte MacDowell | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | Updated April 21, 2020
Louise Berube’s gentle nature is contrasted by her platinum blonde hair, tinted pink lips and eyes boxed by thick black glasses. She seems to always be smiling and have a black coffee in hand.
Berube grew up in 1960s Oshawa, a town driven by the working class and General Motors. Like many of her peers, her first job was delivering newspapers on her bike. Her main stop was the local retirement home, Hillside Manor, now called Hillside Estates. She always went the extra mile, often stopping to chat with the residents or keep them company while they ate their breakfast.
About 60 years old, she now lives in Whitby and drives her cream-coloured Mini Cooper five days a week to Toronto for work at Nabs charity. At Nabs they are dedicated to the well-being of those working in the marketing, media and communications industry in Canada, as many people in the communications field have a poor work-life balance and suffer from stress. Nabs offers them tools to cope with mental health issues as well as financial support, should anybody suffer trauma or injury.
Nabs is a completely self-funded charity, so it uses creative ways to raise money. In 2015 a team of 18, including Berube, traveled to Tanzania to fundraise for Nabs. Their goal was to climb the highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, often referred to as the Roof of Africa. All 18 employees summited. It was such a success that the following year Berube and a team of 10 ventured to Mount Kilimanjaro again with the same goal and, once again, they summited.
During the climbs, Berube got to know her guide, Elias. Elias was struggling to support his wife Costansia and their three children. With Berube’s help, Elias was able to become a farmer. She then realized that vanilla was going to be grown in the Kilimanjaro region for the first time. This was a major opportunity because vanilla is more valuable than gold as it is so hard to come by. Berube helped Elias make connections and now he is on track to be one of the top 10 vanilla farmers in the area. Elias has worked tirelessly, hand-building greenhouses and tending to his vanilla plants. In a few months, the first 100 plants will bloom and be ready to sell.
On a detour in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Berube met Jennifer, a young woman selling handmade jewellery, bags and shoes. After talking with Jenifer, she was motivated to help with her business. She took Jennifer’s business card and contacted her when she returned to Canada. Jennifer sent Berube crates filled with product. Impressed by the amount Jennifer had sent her, Berube looked through her contacts and began selling. She sold to friends, family and associates; eventually the stock was gone. Berube was able to send $30,000 back to Jennifer to buy land for a school for orphans.
Now, Berube is helping to refurbish Kyomu Primary School in the town of Moshi, in the region of Kilimanjaro. The school’s many needs are things Canadians take for granted. Desks are falling apart, and walls are barren and have chipped paint. The teaching supplies are limited to a beaten-up chalk board and not much is given to make learning a fun and interactive experience.
For lunch, students are served beans cooked in a large pot. There are not enough dishware for each child, so they share. This is a major aspect of the school Berube hopes to change. She wants to collect enough dishes for everyone and, at the same time, add more protein to the lunches. According to Berube, to feed a single student lunch for a month would cost $8.96 Canadian.
Loraine Brown, Berube’s friend of 10 years, has joined her on her journey as they both share a love of Africa and the people who live there. “Louise follows projects through.” Brown says, “Visitors come and see the dire straits they are in and say they will help. Then when they get back to their western culture lives, they forget. Louise commits to a project and sticks with it. She is totally committed to making a better world for this community and the children in Africa.”
Berube hopes to have the school completed in the next three years. Her next steps are reaching out to larger corporations who could help. She is offering to name each classroom after the companies who help with restoration. She has also received support from local dentists who have donated toothbrushes and toothpaste for students and teachers of the school.
Last September, Berube and Brown went to Moshi to visit the school, bringing gifts for the students. As they trekked the dirt path to the school Berube was determined to change, they were met by a solemn young boy. He was a student and escorted the two women the rest of the way to the run-down school. Upon their arrival, 300 children applauded them. Children sang them songs and each student proudly wore a Timmies jersey and waved a mini Canadian flag. The children played with the soccer and basketballs they had brought them. For these students, school is slowly but surely becoming a place of fun and enrichment.
Berube and Brown hope to return to Moshi in the fall with supplies to refurbish the school. Sadly, COVID-19 might delay their annual trip. Regardless of the obstacles that Berube faces, she is determined to enrich the lives of the students at Kyomu Primary School.
Charlotte MacDowell, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
Reading the Tarot
What was supposed to be a fun evening involving tarot cards surprisingly leads to some interesting insights.
By Shannon Attard | Featured image courtesy of Alina Vilchenko via Pexels | Updated April 20, 2020
Last March, 22-year-old Adynn Montgomery skips to the mahogany table with a bottle of Girls’ Night Out Strawberry Sangria in her right hand and a worn-down pack of tarot cards in her left. It’s the 22nd birthday of our best friend Marena Phillips and I’m staying for the weekend at the place she and Adynn share in Peterboroug. As we sit at a mahogany table, Adynn says: “You know what we should do? I should give you guys a tarot reading to hone my skills.” Marena and I roll our eyes and smirk to each other while Adynn pours the pink fizzy substance into three red Solo cups. Adynn has always been intrigued with tarot cards and has played around with many different divination practices. Little did I know, this tarot reading would change my perspective on how I view life.
Adynn removes the tarot cards from their paper casing. They are slightly larger than normal playing cards.
Adynn, who has done this many times before, introduces Marena and I to this divination tool to kill some time before we go out for a night of pointless intoxicated fun. Surprisingly, along the way I learn a few things about these tempting pieces of thick paper, despite my Catholic family’s opposition to tarot cards.
Sitting at the table in Peterborough, I experience both excitement and an eerie forbidden desire. I was raised in a Catholic household and went to church at least once a month until high school. My dad made his opposition to tarot cards clear after I had told him, one time, that Adynn dabbles with them.
“Tarot cards aren’t a game. It’s spirits that are telling you which cards to choose so you’re basically summoning spirits,” my dad said, “and you don’t know if those spirits you’re summoning are evil or not.” This made me want to receive a tarot card reading even more. We can call it a forbidden desire.
In Peterborough, I take a sip of my sangria and we all laugh as I tell them what my dad had said. Our boots huddle by the front door, soaked in spring’s mud and rain. Adynn shuffles the cards and spans them out in front of me like a tantalizing outstretched fan. “Pick three cards that you feel are calling to you,” she says. “The first one you pick will represent your past, the second is your present, and the third one will be for your future.” I run my fingers along the fanned-out cards and pull out three. Adynn pushes the rest of the cards away from us.
Marena giggles. “This should be funny Adynn, because you don’t know anything about Shannon’s past. This is like the ultimate test on your reading skills.”
Adynn flips over the card I picked for my past. It says “DEATH” across the bottom. A skeleton in silver armor sits on a white horse while a bony arm holds a black flag with a white flower splattered on its center. The Death card usually signifies new beginnings, not an actual death. This card focuses on the transformation a traumatic experience can bring.
“Not necessarily a death, but similar to a death,” Adynn assures us, after seeing our furrowed brows at the word DEATH. “You suffered a great loss during your childhood that affected you deeply and experiences from that have mended you into the person you are and will become.” I look down at the table as she says this. I thought of my broken family unit. My parents got divorced when I was 12. It changed how I view people and handle relationships.
“You had one special person in your life who was always constant and there for you,” Adynn says. My eyes dart towards Marena’s ocean blue eyes. She and I were inseparable since meeting in the first grade.
“Tarot cards aren’t a game. It’s spirits that are telling you which cards to choose so you’re basically summoning spirits.”
Flashback to elementary school where days were filled with officials in courtrooms and strangers trying to tell me to pour my feelings out to them, leaving me hollow and quietly holding everything in. I would always be dropped off by either my dad or my mom, depending on which weekend it was, at Marena’s comforting home where we would play flashlight tag in her yard at night with her younger sister Melanie. This helped whisk my family drama away in the wind behind me.
At the table, Marena nods her head. “Actually, that was pretty weird and accurate about your parent’s divorce,” she says.
“See I told you guys I’m psychic!” Adynn pouts her glossy lips making me and Marena tipsily throw our heads back as we laugh. We brush off her insight because Adynn is the type of friend who knows what is going on in your life without you having to tell her.
For example, in September 2018, Adynn and I were sitting on my mom’s burgundy couch catching up on each other’s lives as we had not seen each other for three months because of our busy schedules with school. Adynn fluffed her hands through her espresso-colored bangs and said, “What’s your mother’s real name?”
I laughed out loud. My mother had recently had to legally change her name on her identification cards because they had not matched. “That’s very weird,” I said. “It’s Sofia, but she just went to legally change it to Sophie.”
In Peterborough, Adynn smiles to herself before she takes a celebratory sip from her Solo cup. She used to tell me before: “One of the reasons I like giving tarot card readings is because I like seeing people’s reaction when I give them a reading. Whether it’s spot-on or completely off.”
Adynn’s mother and grandmother both went to psychics, and they performed tealeaf and palm readings during family gatherings. At one family dinner, her grandmother lifted Adynn’s teacup from the table when everybody finished eating. Gently twirling the ceramic mug, she squinted at the tealeaf remnants at the bottom. “A star is a sign of good luck,” she said.
Adynn smiles when she thinks back on this because she felt happy when her grandmother told her she would have good luck. Adynn started researching more about Wicca because of her family’s influence and stumbled upon the process called divination.
Divination is one of the primary practices used by shamans, seers, priests, sorcerers, wiccans, and witches. It refers to the practice of fortune telling or to gain insight into the unknown by supernatural forces.
Wicca is a modern pagan religion, developed in England during the first half of the 20th century. There are many different aspects to the religion’s core structure and it’s constantly evolving over time. It has a number of different lineages, known as traditions, each consisting of their own specific structure of religious beliefs, traditions, and practices. There are over 50 ways divination can be practiced, the earliest originating in the medieval period, including Norse runes, crystal balls, tealeaf readings, pendulums, numerology, and tarot cards.
Back in Peterborough, Adynn flips over the second card I picked. The words “THE FOOL” are written on the bottom, under a man whose head is tilted back to gaze at the sky. A white dog does the same to his right. This card explains new beginnings, being inexperienced, and gives hope for what is to come.
“You are living a sheltered kind of life right now, but it will get more exciting. It’s not time yet, but soon, when you start to open up and let people past the walls you build up around yourself life will change,” Adynn says.
“That is also very true,” says Marena. She’s usually a skeptic about these sorts of things. A chill runs down my spine at how weirdly accurate these observations are, and how closely connected they are to each other: both talking about new beginnings.
Sarah believes there are forces that can be derived from the universe and doing spells and divination processes are like manipulating these forces for selfish desires.
Adynn flips the third card: the future. It is the Seven of Wands, depicting a man awkwardly lifting one of the seven wooden sticks that surround him on the ground. This card symbolizes challenges, resistance, and obstacles up ahead, continuous fight, and never giving up.
“You may be thinking how your desired career is hard to reach, but through hard work and sacrifice you can achieve it. It won’t happen overnight. It will take some time,” Adynn says.
“Not your best,” Marena giggles. “That sounded very cookie-cutter. Everyone says that about the future.” Adynn rolls her eyes in response.
Marena combs her hands through her silky blonde hair. “Okay girls, let’s get the Smirnoff bottle,” she says. Adynn and I smile in agreeance. Adynn collects the cards while Marena and I saunter towards the fridge with our empty cups in hand.
Later that night, after having been on the town for a few hours, I sit in the car with Adynn and Marena on our way back to their place. Looking out as the trees blur pass the windshield, I realize how general Adynn’s statements were. Tired from the night’s events, I sleepily find myself reflecting on Adynn’s reading from earlier in the evening. The cards are supposed to read me, when in reality I ended up reading the tarot cards. I started thinking about how I would get chills when Adynn would say something that was accurate and spot on. After reflecting on the accurate statements and hearing them over and over in my head, I realized there is nothing creepy about it. In fact, Adynn’s words were simplistic in meaning but I inferred them to mean so much more.
Since I’ve gained more knowledge about divination tools, I see that people use variations of divination without even realizing it: flipping a coin to decide a course of action or having a lucky number, to name two.
The practice of divination, I’ve learned, has existed in every historical period. In Mesopotamian times, astrology – a divination practice – was one of the first sophisticated forms of divination. The Greeks had oracles who told the future. In 1000 BC the Chinese also had an oracle, “I CHING,” consisting of yarrow sticks.
An interesting aspect about tarot cards is they weren’t originally used as magical tools until the late 18th century. In northern Italy during the late 14th century, the cards were used in a game called tarocchi. A man named Antoine Court de Gebelin argued the symbols on the tarot cards contained the hidden wisdom of a god called Thoth. According to author-illustrator Robert Michael Place’s 2009 book, The Vampire Tarot, in 1785 Jean-Baptiste, a French occultist, was the first professional in history to be known to use tarot cards as divination tools.
Sarah (not her real name; she didn’t want to be identified), a 48-year-old licensed consulting hypnotist in Toronto, has explored many of the different Wicca practices. This includes many versions of tarot cards. She stopped practicing Wicca because she started feeling emotionally drained after conducting tarot card readings. “Whether you work with nature [or] Egyptian gods, there’s still magic and manipulating energy to get a result,” she says. Sarah believes there are forces that can be derived from the universe and doing spells and divination processes are like manipulating these forces for selfish desires.
Bruce Lipton, an American development biologist, was born in New York in 1944. Lipton is best known for supporting the theory that gene influence can be altered, via epigenetics, by environmental factors. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by the gene’s expression rather than a change in the genetic code. In his research, he explains how the mind is powerful and how belief is power. Lipton, a renowned cell biologist, in his book The Biology of Belief, published in 2005, discovers: “The biochemical effects of the brain’s functioning show that all the cells of your body are affected by your thoughts.”
The different divination tools, in actuality, are very arbitrary. For example, the reading part is the most important aspect in tarot cards. The person who is getting the tarot card reading will interpret the cards, without the help of spiritual guidance. The same card will have different meanings to each individual.
As I reflect back on the evening with the cards, I realize I disagree with Sarah and with my dad. I don’t think there were any spirits guiding my cards during Adynn’s reading. If anything, I was the one guiding my cards.
Who knew a girl’s night would turn into philosophical thoughts on life and religion that made me change my thoughts on the Catholic view that tarot cards are so evil and forbidden? I guess I read the cards correctly in one sense: new beginnings indeed.
Shannon Attard, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tough Love, Jamaican Style
Many Jamaican parents believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. Are they right?
By Bria Barrows | Featured image courtesy of David Peterson via Pixabay | Updated April 20, 2020
My dad, Charles Barrows, leans his back against the ledge of our kitchen sink in Toronto as he recalls growing up in Jamaica as a young boy. At age 56, he’s tall and sturdy and has a youthful grin. His thick, black hair is speckled with gray. The creases of his smile go upwards as he laughs and the sound of his voice echoes throughout the room. He’s been in Canada exactly 46 years, but his Jamaican patois accent is still thick as he speaks about his childhood in the lush Caribbean nation.
“I’m about six years old and I come home after walking about ten kilometers from Font Hill Primary School [in Saint Thomas Parish]. I’m panting and sweating. My heart beats fast from running. I haven’t even got into the house when my mom comes out and tells me to get firewood,” he says.
“I am hot and tired and I don’t want to get firewood after travelling all that way from school. So, I mumble something under my breath loud enough for my mom to hear. She realizes I’m backtalking her instead of doing as I’m told.
“My mom begins to chase me with a piece of stick to beat me. In Jamaica, you do as you’re told and backtalking my mother is not acceptable. I run away and I think I’ve gotten away until a young man who lives in the district sees that my mom is chasing me. He hops off his donkey and grabs me, [which allows] my mom to beat me repeatedly.”
I’m stunned that at only six years old my dad was asked to do things like get firewood and water.
“If your parents send you to get water five miles away, you have to get it,” he says. “Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black. If it isn’t done we get beaten.”
When it comes to discipline in Jamaica, corporal punishment has been practiced in households for a very long time. An article published in 2017 by the Western Mirror, a local Jamaican newspaper, noted that: “Corporal punishment, as practiced in Jamaica, has been with us from time immemorial. Older folks, in retrospect, still believe that the spankings they received back in the day have made them the law-abiding citizens that they are now.”
Many Jamaican children, whether they live on the island or in other countries such as Canada, experience physical punishment for misbehaviour. While some, who are now adults, believe this focus on discipline and structure is beneficial, others say there are negative consequences to being raised this way.
I ask my dad if he thinks that doing chores in the house and getting beatings at a young age old benefited him at all.
“It instills fear in you,” he says. “Nowadays, with kids, there’s no consequence for anything they do. The fear teaches kids not to do wrong and to be on the straight and narrow. It’s beneficial because it makes you respect your parents. If you don’t beat the kids they will run you out of your house. You need tough love because the world is not soft.
Looking back as an adult now, I’m who I am because of how I was raised. I wasn’t allowed to sleep in. My dad would come in the room to wake me and if I didn’t wake up I would get beaten. My upbringing gave me my work ethic.”
“Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black. If it isn’t done we get beaten.”
I next talk to Paula Taylor, a neighborhood friend, in early December 2019. She’s big in stature and her face is round. She wears a colourful hair wrap, the bright yellows and oranges a contrast to her plain, black winter jacket. For Taylor, 42, structure was a big part of her childhood.
“Coming from a Jamaican background, especially as a female, I was required to take care of the home. Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me,” she says.
Taylor agrees that having to do chores and being forced to attend church regularly are the types of responsibilities today’s young generation need.
“My upbringing taught me to be realistic and hold onto things that are valuable and eliminate the things that aren’t,” she says. “If we, as parents, don’t teach our children a certain foundation such as chores, we should not be surprised that as they get older, they may struggle to get certain things and retain information at work, etc.,” she says.
As I explore this topic, I speak with 29-year-old Crystal Hackett, who was born in Toronto and still lives there. She has a small frame, belied by her strong, assertive voice. Her skin is a dark, chocolate complexion and her long black hair drapes over her shoulders. Her warm smile brightens her face.
Crystal recalls her mom, Karen Hackett, telling her about being punished as a child in Jamaica.
“My mom would get beat in public,” Karen told her. One consequence, Crystal believes, is that when Karen became a parent, she was not as nurturing towards Crystal as Crystal would have liked. Although she used physical punishment on Crystal, she didn’t apply it in public. “I felt my parents were crazy for beating me in public,” Karen says today. “It’s negative because it’s something I’ll never forget. But that was the norm back then.”
Crystal doesn’t want to continue the cycle of punishments, and the possible alienation it could cause now that she’s a parent. “In raising my daughter, I want to up the communication,” she says. “I don’t want my daughter to feel like she can’t talk to me about certain things. In my childhood, the nurturing aspect was restrained.”
I also talk to Maxine (she didn’t want to give her real name), a physically strong 56-year-old despite having a small frame. Her brown skin glows and her high cheekbones stand out on her face. The curls from her black, twisted hair fall to her shoulders. Living in Saint Thomas, Jamaica, she’s witnessed children getting hit for even the littlest things.
“I saw people beat their kids with what we call the ‘coconut broom,’” she says. “They would take it off the tree and hit them until their skin had welts. I’ve seen kids publicly beaten and shamed. Kids would get cursed at and were beaten until their lips bust open.”
“Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me.”
She suggests that at the heart of the punishment issue is the belief, held by some adults, that children aren’t seen as people.
“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like,” she says. “I’ve heard parents say, ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out!’ The parents think that beating their kids will put them on the straight and narrow, but this isn’t necessarily true. The beatings for some kids have the opposite effect, which causes them to resent their parents for what they did. It is a form of trauma I believe.”
Maxine sees both good and bad resulting from her tough upbringing, noting that her mother provided for the house but did not express love or affection. “I’m not really sure my mom knew how to be affectionate, but I did feel like I was treated like an outsider. She spent most of her time with her church family as opposed to her blood family. There was no love, affection, bonding, I would have liked that. I always felt like my mom had a hands-off approach and kept me at arm’s length. She didn’t want me to get too close to her.”
When Maxine was still a youngster, her mother abandoned her, which caused her to withdraw from others. “When I was young, I had a hard time expressing my feelings to people,” she says. “I never asked people for favours because I thought I was capable of taking care of myself. However, my upbringing did give me structure, work ethics and discipline. It also kept me realistic and grounded.
The times might be changing in Jamaica, however. In 2018, Education, Youth and Information Minister, Senator Ruel Reid, called for it to be banned. “Corporal punishment is so entrenched in our culture and interwoven in our society that it has been accepted as a norm for many families and at a point in time in our schools. We have been able to repel that in large measure,” the Jamaica Information Service reported him saying. “Laws are being strengthened to protect children from corporal punishment and other acts of violence.”
“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like.”
Two years later, corporal punishment is no longer permitted in Jamaican schools. According to the Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment, “Corporal punishment is prohibited in early childhood institutions [daycares and daycares for older children]. This law also goes for public and private schools.”
After all these conversations, it seems to me that a strict upbringing can have benefits. As a millennial, I definitely think the rules and responsibilities and structure that some Jamaican parents instill in their children is needed. It allows kids to progress when they get older because they carry these values into their jobs. This type of focus is lacking for some kids and a certain level of structure is needed to be an active contributor to society. Some children also aren’t taught the importance of respect for their elders or the value of working hard.
In an age where it’s so easy to get distracted by technology and social media, knowing how to be focused on your goals and dreams and have a direction for your life is needed. I know I would have been so distracted growing up if my parents hadn’t taught me the importance of having an education. They raised me this way because in Jamaica they were taught discipline.
I also think being well-mannered, an attribute many Jamaican parents teach their kids, is noticed by people when they meet you for the first time; this, to me, is a positive.
On the other hand, beating a child until they have welts, with objects such as belts and tree sticks, can have a lasting psychological effect. I think some Jamaican parents today should understand that while beatings might have been viewed as helpful when they were young, talking to your kids and having open conversations are also effective, perhaps more so.
Although I can see the need to instill discipline, I have no intention of punishing my children, when I have them, in any harsh ways. To me, the negative effects far outweigh the benefits.
Bria Barrows, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com
Women Reinventing Ink
AN ALL-FEMALE TORONTO TATTOO SHOP IS HELPING TO COUNTERBALANCE AN INDUSTRY THAT HAS TRADITIONALLY BEEN MALE DOMINATED.
By Alexa Gregoris | Featured image courtesy of Adrian Boustead via Pexels | Updated April 20, 2020
Behind the Tinkerbell-green door of the HeartStrong tattoo shop, a small team of female artists are making a name for themselves in Toronto. The owner, Tiff Lee, created this safe space for her fellow artists and clients in the third-floor tattooing sanctuary located above the clamour of Bloor Street West.
White walls contrast the warmth of the greens and pinks of the tropical wallpaper that greet clients at the reception area. The cozy studio is embellished with a variety of art, unique to each artist’s tattooing style. One station exhibits everything pink, floral and bunny-related, framed in gold. Lee’s station is covered in skeleton portraits, a cross-stitched cartoon of death, and the art her wife does not want in their brightly decorated home. HeartStrong fuses diverse aesthetics and artists to create a collaboration of female-artistry in a seemingly unlikely profession.
HeartStrong challenges the expectations of what, to many, can be an intimidating environment, especially for women. I experienced this in early August 2017 when I walked into the Ink & Water Tattoo studio in Toronto’s west end. The modern shop was filled with bright lights that reflected off white walls, and there were plants scattered throughout room.
At first, I felt welcomed by the space; it helped to soothe my nerves, which had been building up at the anticipation of getting my first tattoo. The consultation I had with the co-owner, Michael Percherle, had gone quite well five months earlier. When I met him, he seemed kind and excited to create my tattoo. The day of my appointment, however, he was not so friendly; rather, I felt as if he saw the exercise as nothing more than a paycheque. He was rude, impatient, and patronizing about my pain.
The buzzing of the tattoo machine rang in my ears as he worked on my tattoo. I was getting an all-black pair of bloomed roses, with their stems intertwined. Although not in colour, it involved many fine details and covered the length of my rib cage on my right side.
I experienced a bit of pain, but I was more hurt by the fact that he was ruining this long-awaited experience. Years later, I am still wary of having another male artist tattoo me, in fear of facing another bully.
The tattoo industry is still male-dominated, due to studios continuing to operate under the traditional ideals and hyper-masculine stereotypes of tattoo artists. However, with the example set by female artists and shop owners like Lee, space is being created for women to enter into a profession that has traditionally excluded them.
“I can either get angry or laugh and move on and continue being glamourous.”
“I think I’ve always wanted to tattoo since I was very young,” says Lee, “I would [literally] draw on my peers as a child, so I think it was a pretty natural progression.” Lee initially started working towards a degree in advertising at Humber College, before she found her way back to the idea of tattooing professionally. She did quite well. “I figured out it was really corporate and somewhat soul sucking and figured I should try something that I actually really care about, rather than focusing on what my family and others would think.”
Lee has been tattooing for the last seven years, having started her career at age 21. She opened HeartStrong in October 2018, and in the short time since, Lee’s team has already found success. For example, HeartStrong won Toronto Star Readers’ Choice award for best tattoo studio in Toronto in early 2019.
Lee chose HeartStrong as her studio’s name because she hoped it reflected her values without being too over-the-top or aggressive. She didn’t set out to become an all-female and all-queer shop. “It just so happens that the people that I get along with really well, and [who] needed a job at the time and were invested in this project, happen to be women, happen to be queer,” she says.
Lee feels that being a queer and female tattoo artist has made her experience in the industry easier in some ways. In the early years, she was the only female artist working among only male co-workers. She found that as a queer woman the men were somewhat protective of her, due to the lack of any romantic potential. “A lot of the males that I’ve worked with were like, ‘You’re gay, you’re just one of the guys,’” she says, although she acknowledges this sense of ease is not true for all queer or all female artists in the industry.
For example, tattoo artist Lorena Lorenzo De Carvajal has been told to her face that women are ruining the industry. The 32-year-old, who was born in Cuba, is the president of Indigo Art Incorporated. She’s been working in Toronto for the last 12 years, creating pieces as colourful and bright as her own character. “Are you scared boo-boo?” she likes to say when confronted with misogyny. “I can either get angry or laugh and move on and continue being glamourous.” She presents herself as a confident woman. “A lot of the men can be feisty. If you’re a woman, you have to have a personality, be outgoing [and] strong, have a backbone, or you won’t survive. I kick ass!”
Despite the resistance from some male artist, females continue to change the way the tattoo industry operates and looks at women. However, the climb to the top can still be difficult and, sometimes, dangerous.
“I’m trying to say this in the most diplomatic way,” says Lee. “It wasn’t good, a lot of the experiences I had.” As a young woman who looked younger than her age, she often encountered a patronizing attitude. She recalls some male artists saying things such as: “‘Aw, look at you. You wanna be a tattoo artist honey?’”
It’s not only women who find themselves treated badly within the industry. Tattoo artist Adam Spivak, a close friend of Lee’s, shed light on his own experience in unprofessional shops during his apprenticeship. Spivak, 27, has been tattooing for three years and is currently working at Wolves Throne Tattoo in Etobicoke. Spivak has a background in fine art and traditional oil painting and earned a BA in graphic design and creative advertising from Humber College. He says his skill set and education were taken advantage of during his first apprenticeship at a small street shop in downtown Toronto. “After being hired I was quickly tasked with designing and drawing all of my mentor’s tattoos and meeting with all of his consultations, being led to believe this responsibility was a great achievement. My mentor was piling all of his work on me,” he says. “I was scared to leave, fearing that I wouldn’t be given a chance at any other shop because of the competition.”
Spivak was shocked by the lack of education his mentor provided to his many apprentices. “I felt unprepared to handle the tattoo equipment, especially when pressured to prematurely tattoo walk-in clients,” he says. At one point, Spivak’s own tattoo got infected, and rather than receiving advice from his mentor, he was pressured into ignoring it even after requesting to leave for the hospital. A doctor later confirmed that Spivak’s infection had elevated to a staph infection, and if he had stayed at work for a day longer he would have had blood poisoning.
“The final straw before parting ways with this shop came from witnessing my mentor’s judgments and racist comments being directed at clients,” says Spivak. “I realized I was the only one taking my apprenticeship seriously and was being held back in the toxic environment.”
He says he wouldn’t be a tattoo artist if “it wasn’t for the female artists around me. Female artists were the ones predominantly encouraging me to enter the industry and not feel discouraged for not fitting in with the traditional tattoo personas.”
Unsafe and unprofessional client experiences are evident in the industry, including verbal, physical and sexual misconduct. As a result, many female tattoo clients have a preference for female artists. Lorenzo De Carvajal says that many women have come to her for tattoos and a sense of comfort, due to poor past experiences with male tattoo artists. “[Women] have had to leave studios with a half-done piece. It’s not right!”
“The final straw before parting ways with this shop came from witnessing my mentor’s judgments and racist comments being directed at clients.”
Having undergone an unprofessional tattooing experience, I too intend to have any future tattoos done by a female artist, or a male artist, like Spivak, who works alongside women in a respectful environment. Percherle, who did my first and only tattoo left me with a reminder of my uncomfortable experience permanently on my skin. The two roses I got tattooed on my ribs as a symbol of my sister and myself are now something I try not to look at in the mirror as they remind me of how he treated me. His fellow male co-owner, Prairie Koo, truly solidified the shop’s lack of professionalism towards female clientele through his flirtatious advances over social media prior to my tattoo appointment. Due to their behaviour, I am looking into redoing and editing my tattoo at HeartStrong to reclaim the experience I had hoped for, in the absence of sexualizing or patronizing attitudes.
Interestingly, Taylor Schmid, a tattoo artist at Golden Iron Tattoo Studio in Toronto, says that most of her difficulties with sexism in the industry have come from her male clientele, not other artists. “Things like men who’ve sexualized my job or who walked in the shop and assumed I work the front desk,” Schmid says. “That shit pisses me off.”
Schmid has been tattooing for three years, having started her apprenticeship at age 22, and now specializes in black-ink florals. She is unsure if the tattoo industry is still male dominated. Schmid thinks the industry has made great strides in making safer spaces for vulnerable clientele. She says her love of tattooing stems in part from how safe she feels in a tattoo shop. Schmid gives thanks to her two male mentors in the industry, who have never showed her anything other than support. “They looked at me as an artist first and I’ve appreciated that.”
But Thomarya Fergus, also known as Tee Fergus, is certain the tattoo industry in Toronto is still male dominated although she thinks it’s becoming a bit more open thanks to the push for diverse representation. She feels that a greater range of diversity is being represented as a new generation of artists and clientele are taking over the industry. At age 33, Fergus is a tattoo artist in a private studio in Kensington Market. One of her favourite tattoos of her own has the words boy and girl crossed out, with the word experience above them both. She feels it defines her.
Fergus, who is black and queer, says, “At the time, there wasn’t someone that looked like me in that position and I thought it would be cool to be that figure.” Tattooing wasn’t a path that Fergus chose, but rather a plan she believes the universe had for her. Fergus knew of a small group of black men in the tattoo industry, but there seemed to be a lack of tattoo artists who were black, female and queer like her. Being one of very few, she had to work hard at the beginning to gain clients and the respect she deserved as an artist.
“I always felt that if you didn’t fit in anywhere else you could walk into a tattoo shop and no one there would judge you. It’s a beautiful thing,” Schmid says. “I just want that feeling to be protected. If you’re a judgemental asshole there is no place for you to do this work. I want everyone to feel happy and comfortable getting tattooed.”
“Things like men who’ve sexualized my job or who walked in the shop and assumed I work the front desk.”
Greater diverse representation is a major change Fergus thinks needs to be made in Toronto’s tattoo industry at large. With more representation, Fergus says, “more people will have access, people will hopefully want to learn, and those people who have always thought about it can see that they can do it and create those spaces.” However, Fergus says it is going to take time.
Lorenzo De Carvajal believes that the future of Toronto’s tattoo industry needs to be approached with “less ego, more work, more love for the artwork, and way less pride.” She thinks that, at times, especially during Toronto tattoo conventions, male artists can get very cocky. She plays the role of a “mama goose,” reminding others to be humble and collaborate, rather than try and live a rock-star lifestyle. Lorenzo De Carvajal is adamant that artists cannot be in the tattoo business for the money. She feels that tattoo artists need to have the passion and creativity to be the person who makes their clients’ dreams a reality.
Tiff Lee’s shop and career are dreams come true for her. She’s proud to have shaped her business in a style that treats customers the way she would want for herself. Women may still be a minority in the tattoo industry but HeartStrong is one large step towards changing that imbalance, one tattoo at a time.
Alexa Gregoris, a Toronto freelance writer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org