Category Archives: Fall 2016

Category for Magazine Fall 2016

Letters from us

I’ve finally given into calling Toronto ‘home,’ but it still unnerves me because I know it’s only for now. The other day, I realized that if I stay in my current student apartment until I graduate, my short time here will already be the second longest I have ever stayed in one house.

Initially, I wanted this magazine to be identity themed, but I ultimately decided home was the bigger idea; so much of our identities are shaped by what we call home. In this diasporic world where we’re all constantly moving, it is nearly impossible to tie home down to a building — so what is it? When I was a kid, that question kept me up at night as my family moved from apartment to townhouse and suburb to city.

In this issue, I looked for pieces that would cover as broad a scope as possible. Alex McKeen explores how we commodify our living spaces (page 8), Farwa Khtana looks into life for Syrian refugees as they settle into Canada (page 19), and Teodora Pasca tries to reconstruct memories of her birthplace (page 52).

I hope that this magazine gives you comfort in knowing that home doesn’t have to be any specific place — it doesn’t even have to be a place at all (page 2). Instead, I sincerely hope you find home in wherever and whatever you love and makes you feel loved. In short, the concept of home can change or vary, and like my apartment, sometimes it can be a complete mess — but that’s okay.

On that note, please enjoy. Hopefully this magazine finds a home on your coffee table or bookshelf, if only for a little while.

— Rachel Chen, Magazine Editor


I spent a lot of time this summer trying to figure out what my role at The Varsity actually means. With a masthead that changes every year, it’s hard to make your mark. It’s inevitable that my successors will tweak and adjust The Varsity’s style to make it align with their vision of the paper.

Therefore, how much control do I have over what The Varsity looks like and how long will it last? I felt like The Varsity Magazine was my chance to create a unique, timeless product that I could call my own.

The Home Issue has been a wonderful opportunity to explore the theme beyond a two-storey, triangular roof ‘house’ that is sometimes synonymous to the word. We tried to limit the use of the home motif as much as possible, paying attention to more symbolic representations of the home feeling.

Being part of the 1.5 generation (page 44), home is something that also transcends geographical borders for me. I am as at home in Toronto as I am in Karachi, Pakistan — but for entirely different reasons. Yet, there is familiarity in both cases and the design team aspired to carry that feeling throughout the visuals.

From the Tim Hortons coffee cups in “Does Canada matter?” (page 26) to Shringle’s adventures in IKEA (page 6), the visuals are all meant to invoke feelings of familiarity, of home. The unassuming design elements complement but don’t overpower the visuals.

With that in mind, I hope that The Home Issue resonates with you as much as it did with me. It was produced over five very long, burrito and coffee-fuelled days; we are immensely proud of the final product.

— Mubashir Baweja, Creative Director


“A child is a treasure”

My first memory: I am running through what I think is a restaurant, weaving through legs that I think belong to my godparents. I am probably two years old, clinging to a stuffed animal duck. As my family would tell me later, the duck, named Donaldel, was a gift from my cousin Monica at my christening and is therefore almost as old as I am now.

Aside from my restaurant escapade — which in hindsight could have been nothing more than a dream — I remember nothing before when I was five years old. My memory generally works like clockwork, easily matching complex patterns of colours and shapes on IQ tests, pulling up decade-old facts about people that they don’t even remember themselves.

Consequently, I find this lack of recollection infuriating for a number of reasons, the most important being that it’s as if my life began only when I stepped foot on Canadian soil.

I was born in 1996 in Constanța, Romania, a city on the shore of the Black Sea. Less than five years later, my parents packed up and moved to Toronto. Since then it’s been our home, yet those five years still itch at my conscience. Every time I return to Romania, everyone I speak with seems to have a larger knowledge of who I am and where I am from than I do.

Reflecting on that years later, not fully knowing felt like an ignorance I wanted to wash my hands of. Reaching out to family and unearthing photo albums I hadn’t touched for decades, I made it my mission to connect the dots.


An exhaustive summary of Romanian history is impossible to contain within the scope of this piece. What is relevant, in the simplest terms possible, is that the political and ideological forces that shook the rest of the world during the post-World War II period left no stone unturned in Eastern Europe.

Although Romania was never part of the USSR, for decades it was governed by a rigid and repressive communist regime. Persecution, rationing, eviction, and violence were only some of its consequences, and my family lived through them for generations.

I was born almost seven years after the revolution of December 1989, which violently dethroned General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu — former leader of the Communist Party — and set off a spark of revolution and reform that extended beyond Romania’s borders. For a long time, the country struggled to get its head above water again.

“Romania in the 2000s was turbulent, captured by a wild capitalism, without major opportunities for regular people — as in, those without political power or security,” my aunt Viorica tells me, reflecting on the time around when we left and the years afterwards. “It was difficult for all of us… It was a jungle that made us all sick.”

Problems with democratization and re-building the state are what drove many people away. “[We] considered at that time that we could not wait any longer,” my dad, Tudor, tells me. “Three generations in my family [were] sacrificed, killed, prosecuted, isolated. I did not want my children sacrificed through other social and political experiments.”

In 2001, my parents moved to Canada to escape political and economic instability and the corruption that had corroded social institutions like rot. At the same time, they were hopeful for the opportunities that Canada might bring. Understandably, the gravity of this choice made it a difficult one to stomach for many of our loved ones.

“It was a shock for all of us,” Monica says. “You caught us unprepared. For a long time we didn’t understand why, only your parents knew what drove you to leave.”

Much like the majority of my extended family, my parents had lived in Romania for their entire lives; they had spent decades becoming both established and successful. Compared to others, my parents stood pretty high on the social scale, both holding postsecondary degrees. My mom worked in psychiatry, my dad in engineering.

Abandoning that to move halfway around the world, to a country 40 times the size of what we knew at home, must have seemed rash in some sense.

“You leaving was extremely emotional for everyone,” my cousin Dana says. “Everyone felt like they lost something, something we couldn’t get back.”

“I recognize that at the time, I didn’t understand their decision very well,” she adds, having been near my current age when we left. “But now I’m a mother also, and I can understand it better.”

My parents told me that this was far from easy, and my family struggled both financially and socially to adjust to life in Toronto. Overwhelmingly, as is the case with many families who leave their homes behind for North America, my parents wanted a better life for me. Perhaps this is what made the sacrifice worth it.

“They tried to bring the American dream to life for you and your future children,” Viorica says. “Any parent would want for their children everything that can be the best and the most secure. In a family, a child is a treasure, the only one for which there can exist no price.”

When I ask my parents if they regret leaving, their answer is no.

“The only things I miss are home, family, friends, and the seashore,” my dad says. To me, that seems like a lot to leave behind.


The first time I returned to Romania, I travelled alone. At 10 years old, I was unable to fully comprehend where I was going or who I was going to see. My family is dispersed across different regions of the country, and in just a couple months, I visited many people, including Viorica and my uncle Ion in Bucharest; my uncle Ionut in Piatra Neamț; and Monica and Dana in Constanța. I took back with me my first real memory of the Black Sea.

I remember a phone call with my friend, shortly after I came home. After a couple months of speaking only Romanian, she almost didn’t recognize my voice with the slight accent.

This seems wholeheartedly bizarre to me now, because I have always been right at home in Toronto. Having completed all but one year of my schooling here, I speak perfect, unaccented English. I am white. I grew up in North York. I learned French, watched Degrassi, and listened to Drake. The fact that I was born elsewhere, can speak a different language, and could have had an entirely different life easily goes undetected.

“When you come back to Romania, it’s joyous for us to see one another,” Monica says. “I think you have changed a lot since you started living in Canada, but that’s the way it is.”

She expresses a sentiment echoed by everyone I spoke to: “All of us have changed.”

My parents and I have been back to Romania together on three occasions since we moved. Each time, we visit as many people as we can, all of whom warmly welcome us into their homes. With each trip, I began to put the pieces together, and only recently have I begun to conceptualize how much meaning these reconnections hold.

“There is a lot to say,” explains Ionut, recalling our visits. Even when my parents and I lived in Romania, distance was a factor; we lived near the sea, while Ionut and his family lived up north. He says, “Sometimes it can compare to those times when you were in Romania, but in a different city, in Constanța… It was the same in some sense.”

Over the years, I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, seen the mountains and the sea, and spent time with people whose faces had regrettably faded from my memory. All of them remembered me, and each time were shocked at how much I had grown. Time had created chasms between the pieces of my family here and there, and what little we had to spend together seemed perilously short.

“I feel that there’s never enough time to sit and talk,” Dana says. “The distance… It ruptures communication. I admit I know almost nothing about your life there, and in the few moments in which we can see each other, we don’t have enough time to say everything. The distance is great and it’s limiting.”

This idea of distance complements the ways in which we are all becoming more globally connected. Cultural exchange between Eastern Europe and other areas of the world is extremely prevalent, and North America is no exception.

Despite differences in language, religion, architecture, and traditions, unifying forces remain. In Bucharest, I can shop at American retailers and watch Hollywood movies with subtitles in theatres. In Toronto, I can attend Romanian churches and find my favourite Romanian desserts in European delis, though they don’t taste quite as good as what you might find in the ‘cofetarii’ shops in Romania.

“Today, Romania, the EU, Asia, Australia… are all one water and earth,” Viorica says. “That’s what globalization means, and I speak from my own experience. We have been to many places all around the world, we’ve been to every continent, we learned that we didn’t have anything or anyone to fear.”

Simultaneously, my relatives also identify with the importance of returning home. No matter how far you wander, something about where you came from pulls you back into its grasp. That kind of thing is hard to shake, and in spite of my predominantly Canadian memory, I continue to identify with that feeling whenever I go back.

“I don’t ever feel as good except when I’m at home,” Ionut says. “In the country I was born in.”


I often wonder what would have happened had I not grown up in Toronto. I keep in touch with the few relatives I know that are my age, and we seem similar in a number of ways. Ionut’s son, my cousin Octav, is in Bucharest studying to be a doctor. The last time I saw him, drinking espressos on a cobblestone street, we talked about school, his cat, and Starbucks coffee.

On my last visit, I walked up and down the halls of the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Law, where I could easily have ended up, had things gone differently. I also consider whether I would have eventually left the country on my own. This wouldn’t be an uncommon thing, for despite the headway Romania has made over the past 25 years — financially, politically, and socially — many Romanian youth are doing just that.

“Especially now in Romania there are opportunities for smart and hard-working youth,” my parents explain. “They can apply to study or work in Europe and North America, and have a bright future anywhere they want.”

Most of my relatives say that living in Toronto has probably changed me, and that I have grown up differently than I would have ‘back home.’ At the same time, they all attest to the unwavering nature of my character. According to them, personality traverses geographical context.

“I think that everyone has a fate, and yours is destined to be to grow up in a world that needs you,” Viorica says. “You have a good path ahead of you that you build by thinking in the present and dreaming of the future, without forgetting the past.”

Viorica concludes her writing to me with a stanza from a work by the popular Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. As translated by Corneliu M. Popescu, it reads:

Cu maine zilele-ti adaugi,

Cu ieri viata ta o scazi,

Si ai cu toate astea-n fata,

De-a pururi ziua cea de azi.

With life’s tomorrow time you grasp,

Its yesterdays you fling away

And still, in spite of all remains

Its long eternity, today.

I wanted to confront gaps in my memory, and the more common threads I pull together about my family, my heritage, and the way I live my life now, the clearer it starts to become. Forgetting is the last thing I’d want to do.

The 1.5 generation

Generation 1.5 is the student sitting in the hallway, laughing at a joke in their mother tongue and wishing  someone around them would understand it well enough to laugh along. Generation 1.5 is the kid explaining something to their parent, wishing they would understand but knowing that the language barrier makes things difficult. Generation 1.5 is the child looking in the mirror and seeing everything differently from the society they want to fit into. Generation 1.5 is the person learning a language and being made fun of because they are pronouncing a word wrong, yet they say it so confidently because they hear their parents say it that way so often.

People who fall under the ‘generation 1.5’ category are distinct from first and second generation immigrants. Generation 1 typically encompasses immigrants who predominantly identify with their country of origin. Children of these immigrants, who were born and raised in their parents’ new country, are usually considered to be a part of generation 2. Generation 1.5 is stuck somewhere in between.

Individuals belonging to generation 1.5 may have been born in one region of the world and raised in another. Their feelings of identity and belonging may be transitory depending on their stage of life, the people who surround them, and the cultures to which they are exposed. They are stuck between two identities, and there is a sense of longing and grief at never fully belonging in either category, while still identifying with both. Essentially, their identity is often in a state of flux.


Dissecting the question

The struggles of generation 1.5 individuals are profoundly different from the struggles of their parents and those of their second-generation siblings. They have two cultures competing for prominence in their day-to-day lives. This leads to simple questions becoming heartbreaking, like: where are you from?

This question is a complex one; origin can be a uniting or a dividing factor. It might be a question you ask someone you share the same physical traits with, thus creating a sense of belonging. Or, it might be a question you ask someone who doesn’t look quite the same, thus forging division and difference.

In university settings, where critical thinking is encouraged, further examining this question requires exposing certain implications and assumptions. When it comes to students who characteristically hold a ‘two-culture’ identity, the question ‘where are you from?’ should be considered alongside personal identity. For many, this is not a straightforward reckoning.

Kana Shishikura, a Japanese international student, says, “Where are you from is such a strange question — where are you from? What’s being generated from that question?”

The follow-up question — “Why is your English so good?” — is even more presumptuous, says Shishikura.

She continues, “Just because I am non-white doesn’t mean I can’t speak English [fluently], and you wouldn’t ask a white person, ‘Where are you from?’”

Third-year Architecture and Visual Studies student Yasmeen El Sanyoura, whose family moved to Canada from Lebanon when she was young, realizes that her physical traits cause people to make certain assumptions about her.

“I haven’t been treated differently in any particularly significant way, but I recognize that this is because many assume I am white [and] was born and raised in Canada,” she says. “Knowing that I wasn’t born here always comes with replies like, ‘But you have no accent!’, ‘You literally sound Canadian’, or ‘That’s so cool!’”

Cultural ties

Shishikura is an interesting example of why this question is so problematic. Born in Taiwan, yet a Japanese national, Shishikura feels a strong sense of connection to Taiwan. However, in spite of this feeling of connection, Shishikura believes that it would be presumptuous of her to claim Taiwan as ‘her own.’

Vinson Shih, a Taiwanese-Canadian student, provides a counter-example. As someone who was born in Canada but had Taiwanese cultural values instilled in him throughout his childhood, he identified more with his Taiwanese side, despite being born in Canada.

“My way of dealing with that was to feel kind of proud that I had something different, but at the same time there weren’t a lot of Taiwanese people in our community. It was a little bit [isolating],” he says.

Contrasted with Shishikura, Shih had created an imagined sense of ‘Taiwanese-ness’ through the influence of his parents. However, Shih felt a shift in his Taiwanese identity.

“As I grew older I felt, like, more Canadian, because I realized the fact that I’d been exhibiting a Taiwanese culture… was inherently Canadian,” Shih says. “The fact that I’m showing my culture [is me] enacting Canadian-ness.”

Shih’s conception of ‘Canadian-ness’ relies on the cognitive dissonance of having a dual identity. At times, there is a feeling of isolation for their differences, but at other times, there is a sense of pride from owning a part of themselves that is different from others.

“It feels weird and maybe problematic, but there is a pleasure that comes from seeing the surprise that usually dominates the reactions of people once they find out that I’m not from Canada,” El Sanyoura says. “There is also a strange comfort that comes with having shared childhood memories with people who have lived here their entire lives.”

“But then again, I had a very Eurocentric upbringing and spent my childhood watching Disney, so that explains that,” she continues. “There will also always be a sense of conflicting duality because my being ‘not from here’ puts me in a strange limbo in terms of where I belong; I am either ‘not here’ or ‘not from here.’ My ‘here’ is in flux and no longer belongs to me, and that’s always disorienting.”

Although born in the Philippines, Ben Tiangco, a third-year Life Sciences student, immigrated to Canada when he was three and felt pressure to be more Canadian.

“A part of me [stays] scared and anxious for the fact that I am different from those born here but is also insightful and optimistic on being a part of two distinct cultures, my Filipino and Canadian lifestyles,” Tiangco says.

Dual identities

Though he has not faced assimilation in Canada, Tiangco also notes a lack of fulsome acceptance by other Filipinos in Canada.

“I moved here at a time when I started learning how to even speak,” Tiangco says. “I am not fluent in Tagalog so I struggle to even relate to other Filipinos in Canada. I only know how to understand a few words, and I lack that accent that resembles those who can speak the language. It was really apparent in cultural difference when my cousins from the Philippines came over. Daily routines were different and it made me not really feel like a Filipino.”

However, certain ‘universal’ interests helped Tiangco relate to others.

“To make friends with others of a different culture, I just had to be me,” he says. “I found people with common interests, such as music. Music is universal, and regardless of a culture, people can find each other through it. I listen to a lot of Korean pop music, and so [do] a bunch of my friends, regardless of where they come from. The beat is amazing, even if I don’t understand what is being said 90 per cent of the time.”

For Atif Khan, coming to Canada as a political refugee from Pakistan resulted in grief due to a separation from his country of birth and, at the same time, the lack of belonging in a country that sees him as a “second-class citizen.”

Regarding his identity, Khan says, “I would say more Pakistani, but I wouldn’t identify as either, because to an extent, I never belonged to Pakistan, I was born there, but we weren’t accepted by law, and then we came to Canada, and we were Muslim… and we were second class citizens now. So we were never really accepted anywhere.”

Khan criticizes the absolutism that comes with discussions on how origin correlates with identity. “I know where I’m from, but that’s not exactly my identity, it’s liberating to have an identity that’s not fixed,” he says.

El Sanyoura, whose family immigrated due to the political instability of Lebanon, shares similar viewpoints.

“Right now I recognize that my identity is dual. I identify as Lebanese yet I do not want to go back and live there,” El Sanyoura says, “I do not identify as Canadian but I can see my life here in a way that I cannot in my home country.”

“However, I am struggling to balance the two and keep the Lebanese part alive, which is hard because Lebanon is ridden with so much corruption that I often wonder if I am projecting an idealized version of my home country to love simply because it is my home country,” she says.

Khan calls having a non-fixed identity “liberating.” He continues, “Our lives are so based on being a diaspora. It’s constantly a web of movement, it allows you to be multiple different people at multiple different times.”

Connections and disconnections

At the same time, Khan regards Pakistanis with more familiarity because of a shared “imagined sense of identity.” For Khan, if the person asking the question ‘where are you from?’ is South Asian like he is, then they will elicit a different response than a white person asking him the same question would.

Comparatively, Shishikura notes that she would say she’s Japanese, while Khan might say that he’s from Pakistan, illustrating the nuances between identity and origin.

Both Khan and El Sanyoura note the importance of mobility and how mobility contributes to their identity. They also note the importance of surrounding themselves with the narratives of those with shared affinities.

“I am constantly scared of losing my culture and my language, which is strange because in Lebanon, it was always about unconsciously yet actively trying to be Western,” El Sanyoura says. “Here, there is a disconnect and it really makes me regret all the times I hated the hours of Arabic class or considered it inferior to English. I think surrounding myself with other Arabs and engaging with the Arab community help a lot, both language-wise and culture-wise.  Also listening to classic Arabic music!”

Khan, on the other hand, talks about how if he ever went back to Pakistan, it would have to be planned and strategic due to the country’s political instability. As a result, it makes his ‘imagined’ sense of identity so much stronger because he needs to rely on other people’s narratives, and if he ever did return, he would have to hide his ‘true’ identity due to his status as a political refugee.

Those who have actually returned to their countries of birth or origin have also felt a sense of displacement. Shih says that, in spite of taking pride in his “Taiwanese-ness,” he felt it had become more ‘imagined’ than ‘real’ when he went back to Taiwan. The subtle differences became magnified in the everyday nuances of life.

Vinson recalls an incident in Taiwan where he was waiting in line and attempted to make small talk with a cashier, only to receive a negative response. It was in light of this subtle difference in attitudes that further amplified Vinson’s ‘imagined’ sense of Taiwanese-ness and made him recognize that he would never be truly Taiwanese.

“At that point, I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not that Taiwanese,’ because I was never really living in that culture,” Shih says. “All of what I got was from my parents and entertainment, right? And from that perspective [it made] me realize that maybe I’m Canadian.”

For Angela Hou, who moved to Canada permanently when she was in grade nine and identifies as Chinese, the feeling of displacement applies to her early struggles to integrate and understand Canadian culture. At the same time, she takes pride in the fact that she can play a role in shifting people’s perceptions of China and breaking down common stereotypes.

She also recalls incidents where she felt isolated from international Chinese students similar to herself — notably when they judged her choices in non-Chinese friends.

Tiangco faced the same kind of isolation but from other Canadians. “On multiple accounts, I have been treated differently,” Tiangco says. “Most people often call me out on it and it often makes me feel excluded from groups. I don’t speak the language [well, and] I wasn’t born here, so I feel like I’m on my own. It doesn’t stop me from talking to people, though, [and] I find it easy to talk about myself and find… commonalities with others.”

The family factor

It is important to note the significance of family and how the influences of parents can sway the formation of identity.

El Sanyoura says, “My family is currently incomplete because my father still lives in Lebanon. He comes and visits for 10 days every month and a half or so, so living with just my mother has definitely changed the family dynamics. Much more responsibility has been placed on each of us as well, to take care of each other and to keep our values in a world that doesn’t hold the same ones.”

Tiangco also notes the sacrifices that his father has made and how his understanding of family has contributed to his own personal identity.

“[My father] would tell me stories of how much hours he would have to endure at work in order to make ends meet and how the only time he would be at ‘home’ was to shower, rest, and eat dinner,” Tiangco says. “Even my actions lately haven’t been so loving, I truly thank him for the opportunities he has given me through his sacrifices.”

Hou notes the pressures placed on her by her parents and considers Canadian culture more lenient in comparison to her Chinese culture, which demands that she is educated in a field that will give her access to a stable job.

The question ‘where are you from?’ is a problematic one that raises questions of identity, alongside a consideration of the multiple factors that constitute identity. The question carries grief, joy, loss, and gain. ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that dips into the basic human need of wanting to belong and wanting to connect.

Maintaining connections to both the cultures we were born into and the cultures we adopt allow us to find a meaningful balance.

Part 1:

you loved the sort of girl who made you feel like

a politically correct prince charming

the kind who would let you open doors

as an act of chivalry

but wouldn’t make a fuss when she offered to

split the bill.


you loved the sort of girl who made you feel like

you were back at home

the ones that reminded you of childhood

and foreign countries

languages that taste like noodles


and everything nice.


you loved the sort of girl who made you feel

a little more, a little better

when you stare into her eyes you exhale

and think about how

beautiful she is

when you breathe her in

she smells like a cinematic ending.

Part 2:

I am dragon

there is an overwhelming expanse of space between

what is

and what could be

and it makes me cry some days — —

it makes me write letters on others.


I am two countries

I was born in a place across the world

but I grew up in a place I now call home

my mannerisms are a little quirky

because I think I know more about immigrant


than the average immigrant child

but I think I know less about North American


than the average North American adult.


I am clumsy

I trip on flat ground

and spend entire days watching bullshit tv shows.

I don’t know how to romanticize a flower if

I see it

and I sure as hell won’t tell you your eyes

match your shirt.

Part 3:

I know how to be happy

like no one else can and

maybe I end up bruised in places

no one ever sees


I’ve realized it’s worth so much more to

give than to receive

and maybe that creates crevices

within my body

but I have entire universes

filling in the gaps.


I used to pray to God to make me white

I wanted to be pretty like the girls

I read about in novels beneath my bed covers

at night

but lately I’m not feeling

the purple blue veins

pulsating beneath


translucent skin

lately I’m feeling

that I’m made of snake skin

and it makes me tougher than

all of them combined.


real life is rarely so neat

you see

my candid moments would never

make it on reality TV

so yes

I stumble my way through a life

that doesn’t always feel like mine

but that doesn’t make me

unworthy for the screen

that makes me


— Wen Ning Yeh

Girl From China

They stare

Because they don’t know what it’s like

To be foreign

They talk behind their hands

As if I cannot see their words on their faces

They laugh with mouths open wide

Glancing at me to see if I see.

So what if I don’t speak your language

So what if I don’t know the rules

So what if I don’t wear your clothes

So what.

I know I don’t wear a bra

And maybe my mother

Doesn’t take me shopping

Like yours does.

— Wen Ning Yeh

Goodnight, Oshawa

Toronto is no stranger to the myriad developing suburbs around it. The city is ever-expanding and amalgamating surrounding municipalities into its seemingly gargantuan borders. However, lower housing prices, the high cost of raising children, and more available living space drive some people to live outside the urban metropolis.

Having lived in suburbs all my life, I can attest to the many stereotypes used to describe neighbourhoods like mine. Descriptors ranging from ‘boring and bleak’ to ‘friendly and tranquil’ can apply to suburbia’s rows of structured houses and minivans.

No doubt, it isn’t the kind of place where most young adults want to spend their time.

This collection of photos illustrates a different perspective of life in the suburbs. While the suburban days are filled with pleasant activities, usual moods, and general monotony, the nights are quite different. Gone is the dull bustle of the day, replaced with the lonesome lights of storefronts and single windows. There’s an eeriness that accompanies the quiet of the day’s end. It is only when night falls that you see the other side of the suburbs.


















































Suburban angst, city dreams

For the past 20 years, home for me has been the suburb of Oakville, Ontario. Nestled between Burlington and Mississauga, it is where I made many of my first friends and had many of my first experiences, yet I always had a desire to go to Toronto: the city.

As a kid, driving into Toronto from the west on the Queen Elizabeth Way felt like entering the Emerald City. It was as if the CN Tower was the light guiding me to the place where I could be who I wanted to be.

Growing up, I heard kids from other areas surrounding Toronto — Whitby, Ajax, Brampton, Mississauga, and beyond — claim that they were from Toronto. At first, it seemed ridiculous. To Toronto natives, people who claim they are from Toronto and are not may seem like posers. Nevertheless, as I began to think about it, I realized that this declaration was more layered than it seemed.

As human beings, we always yearn for something that we don’t have. If we’re walking, we’d rather be riding a bike. If we’re riding our bike, we’d rather be in a car. If we’re in our car, we wish we could teleport. A similar state of mind is at work when suburban youth want to cut themselves off from where they are from in order to achieve something more. Seeking this self-improvement, they often look to places where they believe they can better find or shape their identities.

These places contain a combination of people and things that are new and innovative. They are exotic — they are where anyone who is anybody resides, where anything worth mentioning takes place. It does not matter if this is reality or not; what really matters is that there is a place to feel free from familial obligations and suburban angsts. In books and films, ‘the big city’ is a common trope. It acts as a cornucopia of promise and freedom. For young people living in the Greater Toronto Area, Toronto is that city.

Toronto is a symbol for people who do not feel part of traditional suburban culture. While the suburbs are built on uniformity, Toronto is built on individuality. If you are a kid who feels like you do not fit into the mould of suburbia, tired suburban scenes can feel like a prison keeping you from where you want to go.

If you relate to this, you probably feel that your identity is vastly different from your family’s reality. To them, a house in the suburbs is the pinnacle of familial success. It’s in a friendly neighborhood and has good schools, numerous public programs, and lots of open space. It’s the best place for them to raise children. But you are no longer a child, and leaving the suburbs to go to the city gives you space to find and reach your own pinnacle of success.

In the suburbs, there is often a disconnect between the people who surround you and the lifestyle you desire to have. There is never an interesting place or activity in your town — it’s all in the city.

For suburban kids, claiming Toronto as their own helps to divorce them from the connotations of their hometowns. In many cases, it is not that these people don’t love where they’re from, but instead, they do not want to be associated with the stereotypes attached to their towns, even though these are usually only exaggerations that fail to reflect the complexities of the places they label.

Having grown up in Oakville, I noticed that people outside my town would make comments about it, saying that everyone there was snobby and stuck-up. I was taken aback. I wasn’t like that, but I lived there. I grew to see that the stereotype wasn’t without merit, but it wasn’t how I wanted to be represented either.

These connotations can also enforce the idea that the suburbs are ‘less ethnic.’ As a person of colour, this idea adds another layer to the suburban stereotype. Saying you are from Oakville, London, or other certain towns may cause people to see you as ‘white-washed.’ Although the place where you grew up is a part of you, your desire to seem more a part of your ethnic culture is often stronger.

This desire spurs people to remove themselves from their hometowns and claim Toronto, a well-known cultural hotspot, as their own. It is problematic that society sees suburbia as synonymous with a lack of culture, but suburban kids can’t be blamed for not worrying about that. When they say, ‘I am from Toronto,’ it is because they have a strong desire to belong.

At the end of the day, there are many reasons why people claim they are from Toronto when they are not. These reasons may stem from a lack of personal and cultural representation in suburban communities. Perhaps hockey isn’t their sport, they have never played YMCA soccer, or they prefer artisan coffee shops to Starbucks. Regardless of the reason, Toronto becomes the place where a fragmented sense of belonging becomes whole.

Does Canada matter?

“Oh Canada, our home and native land,” I whisper to myself, as I pick up an everything bagel from Tim Hortons at the crack of dawn. For residents of a free and diverse nation like Canada, expressing patriotism is hardly an unusual occurrence. Even in the midst of international chaos and stereotypical ridicule, Canadians often remain proud.

It seems like no one really cares about Canada though. Perhaps Canada is simply too boring for the world to pay attention to — or maybe our collective demeanour has everybody fooled. Perception and reality differ greatly in Canada, and stereotype often shields us from the criticism that perhaps we deserve.

Additionally, our limited participation in world conflicts enables us to maintain a socially progressive image in the eyes of the global community. This is in spite of, or perhaps owing to, our unimposing national manner.

When examining Canada, we must holistically look at our country for the broader picture. This way, we can compare our conceptions of it to the realities and decide whether Canada truly is the country it is perceived to be.




In pop culture

Canadian stars always manage to bring us some attention; such personalities include Justin Bieber, Drake, Ryan Gosling, and many more.

Currently, Drake’s name echoes throughout Canada as his fame continues to proliferate worldwide. The Toronto-raised rapper coined the term ‘The 6ix’ as an unofficial name for Toronto; snapchat is one of the platforms that has since adopted it, creating geofilters for the term.

In May 2016, Drake explained to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show that ‘The 6ix’ was derived from the 416 Toronto area code and the fact that “at one point, Toronto was broken up into six areas — Old Toronto, Scarborough, East York, North York, Etobicoke and York.”

Drake has helped to put Toronto on the map, but according to Canadian BuzzFeed writer Kat Angus, some Canadians “just don’t see what the big deal is” with Drake.

Canadians certainly feel the same way about the vast array of national stereotypes. An article from the Huffington Post outlines the “9 Stereotypes About Canadians We’re Tired of Hearing.” For example, it challenges the common misconception that Canadians “live in perpetual winter.”

In short, at least on the outside, Canada’s place in pop culture is more lighthearted than that of its more politically prominent peers.

Canadian privilege

Regardless of such surface perceptions, Canadians do reside in a nation privileged with resources and opportunities. According to data from The World Bank, Canada’s gross domestic product per capita is around $43,000 USD, while the global rate is around $10,000. Employment in Canada is also relatively steady, with the national unemployment rate under seven per cent ­—  even though it is considerably higher for young Canadians at around 13 per cent.

Canada’s opportunities are not limited to economic prosperity and jobs but can also be seen through the nation’s education options.

Monique Copti argues in the Montreal-based TIMC Blog that Canada’s education system holds advantages over systems in other developed nations. “Canadian schools are generally more focused on holistic education rather than grades only,” she writes.

“Grades are emphasized in the UK education system, almost to the detriment of a more holistic education,” Copti continues. “The bureaucracy in the system is among the highest in the world, and children who do not achieve high marks early on may be pushed back for the rest of their educational career, locked out of opportunities even if they show promise later on down the road.”

Hannah Hui, a first-year UTSG student, applied for the Architecture program at U of T last year after completing one year of studies at the University of Westminster in London, England in the same subject. She was born in Toronto, lived in Hong Kong for 15 years, and then moved to London to complete four years of high school and one year of university.

Hui echoes Copti’s sentiments about the advantages of Canadian education. She appreciates that at U of T, she can choose what she wants to take and the declaration of a major does not have to be immediate.

“In England, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to do architecture, but when I moved to Canada I was given a broader spectrum of [choices] and… I know I don’t want to do architecture anymore, that’s a good thing now,” she explains.

Succintly, Canadian universities draw students from across the world. Roughly 18 per cent of U of T’s student body is comprised of international students from 165 countries and regions.

Secondary education is also a strength in Canada; notably, the high school graduation rate in Ontario was reported to be at an all-time high in 2015.

Discrimination and acceptance

Despite its strengths, UTSC Public Law Professor Dr. Alison Braley-Rattai points out that there are some areas where the country attracts censure. “[Canada] has gotten the attention of the UN and its various agencies on several occasions for its treatment of indigenous people and for violations of international labour laws,” she explains.

A video published by AJ+, a media outlet popular on Facebook, details the First Nations water crisis in Grassy Narrows, Ontario. The video claims, “Canada is one of the most water-rich countries in the world, yet many First Nations communities can’t access clean water.”

Residents are advised to either boil the water or not drink it at all. This warning is given to 93 First Nations communities across Canada, excluding British Columbia.

In the video, Patricia Neyland, a pregnant mother of three, gestures towards a bathtub full of brown, contaminated water. She says, “This is what me and my children bathe in.”

Linda Redsky is the caregiver of her 14-year-old foster son. In the video, she explains having to constantly take her foster son to the doctor’s office; the doctor has repeatedly told her that the boy’s frequent infections could be explained by the contaminated water.

In one of the most water-rich countries in the world, it is inexcusable that Indigenous communities are not able to access clean water. A Human Rights Watch report called this crisis discriminatory.

However, Canada’s reputation for acceptance is not completely unwarranted — it does seem to treat its LGBTQ+ community better than some other countries.

Kasra Jamaat is a second-year LGBTQ+ identifying Sociology student at McGill University. He recalls one positive experience he had in Canada: “I remember holding hands with the guy I was seeing once, and someone came up to us and told us we look cute together.”

Dan K* is a third-year Equity Studies student at UTSG who moved to Canada from Washington, D.C. They are non-binary, genderfluid, demisexual, bisexual, and they identify with the LGBTQ+ community.

K feels that their identity was easier to reveal and is more accepted in Canada. They spent their nineteenth birthday alone back in the US, while their mother was working.

K changed their last name, which had been given by their father, who was abusive and distant. They explain, “On that day, I decided to come out to pretty much everyone in my life and be openly queer in Canada.”

They continue, “In Canada, I’ve found this much easier, but perhaps that’s just because of the people I’ve surrounded myself with. In DC, it’s something that I often hide until I know I can trust the person.”

Even so, some places within Canada are more diverse and accepting than others. Being a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, K’s disparate experiences of acceptance resonate with me; I personally noticed a difference in the demographic makeup of London and Toronto, two cities that are only a 3.5 hour drive away from each other.

I made great friends during my first year at Western University; they accepted me and loved me for who I am. They were Colombian, Egyptian, Mauritian, Indian, Canadian-born like myself, or of another nationality, which really speaks to Canada’s cultural mosaic.

Yet, I still experienced a tiny ‘culture-shock’ when I started to feel like a minority in London. I realized throughout the year that the amount of hijab-wearing women in London is lower than it is in Toronto. It was a huge change for me — as someone who grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, I was accustomed to seeing hijab-wearing women all around me.




Hidden imperfections

“Canada likes to hide behind America, claiming that it isn’t as bad,” says K. “While that may be true, it doesn’t excuse what problems Canada has. So sure, Canada’s peaceful — but only on the surface.”

Canada’s advantages, like its prosperity and reputation for acceptance, should not exempt the nation from international scrutiny. Perhaps the opportunities we exhibit to the world exist only on the surface. Once we shine a light on Canada from all angles, we quickly realize that ‘quiet’ and ‘peaceful’ are subjective terms that may only apply to Canada when it is compared to more boisterous nations like the US.

Take ‘multiculturalism’ — a quintessential Canadian idea — as an example. Canada adopted multiculturalism as a national policy in 1971, as an attempt to celebrate its diversity and create a national ethos that allowed a plethora of cultural paradigms to exist alongside one another.

However, residents of Canada don’t always view multiculturalism this way. Hui, for instance, views London, England, as a more diverse city than Toronto.

Similarly, K explains, “Racism is still huge here. I encounter sexism every day. I am barely accommodated for sometimes. I have to look out for my Muslim friends because there is so much Islamophobia here.”

In terms of gender equality, it is evident that Canada still has many improvements to make. An article in The Globe and Mail outlines what Canadian women have to say about sexism and their struggle for gender parity.

In the article, Adrienne Clarkson, the twenty-sixth Governor General of Canada, says, “Women believe that, because they have more than half of the places in medical schools and half the places in law schools, they somehow have levers of power. Until women become deans of medical faculties and law schools, heads of departments, and senior partners in law firms, they do not hold the levers of power.”

Catalyst Canada is a company that works on improving work opportunities and conditions in Canada. They report that in Canada, women earn $0.82 to every $1 earned by men. In fact, tapering of the wage gap has been minimal since 1977; over the last 39 years, women’s wages have risen from 77.2 per cent to only 82.4 per cent of men’s wages for full-time workers.

While the issue of gender inequality is certainly not unique to Canada, the remaining prominence of the issue may be surprising to Canadians who take pride in their country’s reputation for inclusion.

There are other issues that may fall under the radar in Canada for this reason, one of which is homelessness.

W Rizvi*, a social worker from Toronto, says, “There are approximately 235,000 people who are homeless in Canada every year,” due to a variety of contributing factors such as mental health or addiction issues. “You see this in a variety of people such as women, youth, children, and many groups,” Rizvi says.

In Rizvi’s opinion, Canada needs to do more to provide mental health and addictions services, as well as ensure that all citizens have access to life’s necessities to combat this issue.

Time to rethink our innocuous reputation

A National Post headline reads, “Dear Canada, get over yourself. No one actually cares about you.”

The writer, Tristin Hopper, is an award-winning reporter working for the national desk of the newspaper. Hopper is originally from Victoria, British Columbia and is now based in Edmonton, Alberta. As a Canadian resident, he strongly feels that Canada prides itself on a reputation that does not even exist.

When asked if they believe the world cares about Canada, K responds, “I think the world cares about Canada, but not enough. Canada needs to make the news as more than just a hockey-loving country. It needs to be called out on the injustices and problems that it promotes more often.”

K continues, “Both Canadians and Americans alike love claiming that Canada is peaceful. I had a few Americans post ‘meanwhile in Canada’ posts pertaining to BLM, yet many don’t realize that police brutality is a serious problem here, too. I think it’s generalized ignorance that comes, in a sense, from national pride.”

‘Meanwhile in Canada’ posts are memes that compare the status quo of America to Canada, in an attempt to show the ‘light and kind’ nature of Canadians, with a special emphasis on existing stereotypes.

Perhaps the notion that no one cares about Canada holds some truth to it, but that is not entirely due to our supposed benign reputation. It may have more to do with the fact that our problems are quite hidden, and we always seem to dodge flashy headlines and international scrutiny. Injustices exist in Canada — they are just not as visible as they should be.

It is time to reveal what Canada has swept under the rug. Some jurisdictions in Canada are taking steps to do so — a Toronto Star article written by Dirk Meissner outlines that schools in British Columbia will add course material on Aboriginal experience, history, and residential schools from kindergarten to grade 12 classes, when the new education curriculum is implemented.

Meissner writes, “B.C.’s Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad says in a statement that students will study topics such as discrimination, inequality, oppression and the impacts of colonialism.”

This is one small step in the right direction, but it will require further attention and effort to improve education nationally. Educating children from a young age may aid in slowly chipping away the ignorance that enables the continuation of some injustices in Canada.

Home to U of T students 

U of T’s mission reads, “The University of Toronto is dedicated to fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.”

It encompasses the theoretical positive qualities of Canada, such as diversity, equity, and general social and cultural acceptance.

As K says, “Toronto is ‘home’ now because this is where most of my friends (and my current partner) are. I feel loved and accepted here, and people are much more accommodating.”

It may seem easier to never question your surroundings, especially in an environment we consider home. But often, there are ethical dilemmas that occur over time that we easily choose to not concern ourselves with.

It may be that the issue is irrelevant to us, so we choose to ignore or forget about it. Or, it might simply be due to us remaining unaware and neutral to marginalized persons, aboriginal history, sexual injustices, and so on. How can we grow if we don’t question and challenge the status quo?

Canada, like any other nation, is not perfect. While we do maintain, for the most part, a decent world reputation, it doesn’t mean that our nation is problem-free. The sooner we push the curtain open, the faster we can refine the nation we call ‘home.’

‘All my relations’

“We wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.”

From the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s Annual General Meeting to special guest speaker events, the Statement of Acknowledgement of Traditional Land has become crystallized into words that are frequently used to open functions on campus. Perhaps, it was last year’s release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report that sparked a marked rise in our acknowledgment of how the places we call home are the original homes of Indigenous peoples: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Inuit. After over a 100 years of residential schools and the intergenerational degradation of the Indigenous sense of home, it is timely that we — the settler Canadian majority — make a change to our cultural ethos; that we enable ‘re-Indegenization’; and that we assess what home must mean to those who were here long before us.

To understand the Indigenous sense of home, we must first conceptualize its negation: homelessness. However, the popular understanding of homelessness as the absence of physical shelter is Western-centric and limited in the Indigenous context. Indeed, a more intersectional and nuanced definition is needed.

Jesse Thistle, a Trudeau Scholar of Métis-Cree identity who was formerly homeless and addicted to drugs, leads the development of a definition of Indigenous homelessness that is set to be finalized by 2017 on behalf of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Rather than homelessness in terms of physicality, property, or possessions, which aligns with the government’s definition, this new definition consults Indigenous worldviews and methodology by centring on ‘all my relations.’

Indigenous homelessness is “fully described and understood through Indigenous worldviews as individuals, families, and communities isolated from their relationship to land, family, kin, each other, place, cultures, languages, and identities, and who do not possess or have the ability to culturally, spiritually, emotionally, and/or physically reconnect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships.” The work further identified 10 typologies that describe the nuanced experiences of Indigenous peoples and the loss of their relationships.

This revolutionary conception of homelessness based on Indigeneity can help contextualize the history of colonization and its impacts on Indigenous peoples and their sense of home. This work is useful for settler Canadians seeking to address their own complicity in the disturbance of that home.

Home is complex, layered, and multidimensional in the Indigenous experience. Consider the individual story of Darlene Necan: after three years of using donated materials, Necan finally completed the building of her home this year in the unorganized township of Savant Lake in Northern Ontario on grounds which were significant to her childhood. However, this individual story of accomplishment includes incredible struggle that speaks to the broader issue of Indigenous homelessness.

Twenty kilometers south of Savant Lake is Necan’s reserve, belonging to the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen. Due to a shortage in housing, she was unable to find adequate shelter on-reserve. Furthermore, Necan claims that her own Indigenous government and Chief lacks the willingness and accountability to help off-reserve members like her. Comparatively, off-reserve housing is not much better. In the nearest city of Thunder Bay, she complains of high rents and a “vicious cycle of welfare” that renders impoverished Indigenous peoples “paralyzed in the Ontarian provincial system.”


With hostility from both the reserve government and the provincial government, she opts for her own housing at a place known to her past: Savant Lake. Even on Savant Lake, however, she met legal challenges from the government, which claimed that the Public Lands Act forbade her from building a home there. Eventually, this threat was dropped. Thus, in 2016, she was able to complete and move into her home and reconnect with her Anishinaabe, familial roots.

Both urban living and reserve living highlight the intersections of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism that uniquely hurt and displace Indigenous women. Necan considers urban living to be a source of “desperation.” She has considered selling drugs to make enough money in order to survive. On-reserve, she and other women have been attempting to reclaim ownership of the land. In both urban and on-reserve cases, Indigenous women fight the hardest for homes in societies that actively marginalize them.

In a historical context, the primary example of disenfranchisement and Indigenous homelessness is residential schools. This colonial assault not only physically separated children from their communities into abusive conditions but also enacted cultural genocide. Those who survived and returned to their communities were given housing, but nonetheless remained ‘homeless’ in their inability to practice their culture, speak their language, enact traditional economic methods, or connect with their families. Likewise, the is ‘Sixties Scoop’ re-enacted the displacement of Indigenous children into the child welfare system, and further degraded any sense of stable, traditional, Indigenous home.

The colonial targeting of Indigenous children has left a profound impact in terms of intergenerational trauma, such as family violence and drug addiction; it has exacerbated systemic gaps in terms of employment, education, and health that undermine Indigenous communities and homes.

The alarming rate at which Indigenous women experience violence — especially given the high numbers of missing and murdered women today — has devastated Indigenous communities, given the centrality of mothers and girls in such societies. This historical culmination of separation, isolation, and trauma have often manifested in extreme forms of hopelessness, such as the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat earlier this year. Clearly, the deprivation of relationships and culture continue to contribute to Indigenous homelessness.

The damage to Indigenous homes does not stem merely from historical forms of trauma but also from direct aggression upon homes that are sanctioned by government and industry. For hundreds of years, ‘nation-building’ and ‘economic development’ have rationalized colonization and unwarranted encroachment on Indigenous land. This continues today. For example, the proposed chromite mining in Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire risks water poisoning and disables Indigenous peoples from exercising their right to fish on their traditional lands.

Necan’s cousin, Neecha, urges that future Indigenous generations should still have access to their land and inhabit it in their traditional ways; she also criticizes chief leaderships that permit corporate extractions of the land in the name of development.

Perhaps the most urgent threat to Indigenous homes is the continued pursuit of pipelines to transport oil and natural gas. The inherent risk of ruptured pipelines disproportionately concerns Indigenous communities and their attachment to local ecosystems and the environment. Furthermore, a continued reliance on a fossil fuel economy contributes to severe climate change, which deeper undermines the Indigenous connection to environment and, at its worst, causes natural disasters that create ‘emergency crisis homelessness.’

Indigenous struggles for home concerns the city life too. With up to 37,000 Indigenous Torontonians, who are eight times more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to endure physical homelessness, the latter have a responsibility to bridge the gap between their isolated urban consciousness and urban Indigenous issues.

To this end, the Indigenize or Die workshop series informs the City of Toronto’s Park and Public Realm Plan — a plan that intends to enrich public spaces. The inclusion of an Indigenous lens aims to recreate urban space in such a way that respects traditional usage of the land — for ceremonies and gatherings around fires, as an example — and include Indigenous voices in urban planning.

With regard to such momentum for urban re-Indigenization, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett acknowledges the invisibility of Indigenous Torontonians. She concedes that there must be more ‘on-the-land’ space for further exposure. For example, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and the First Nations House at the University of Toronto serve as prime educational hubs for settler Canadians. Street signs near campus are also examples of reclaimed Indigeneity: for example, the Anishnaabe name ‘Isphadinaa’ for ‘Spadina.’ It is crucial that we cede the urban space, in which public consciousness is most impressionable, to Indigenous heritages and the knowledge that we are settlers on their home lands.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission demands that Canadians address the dark history of residential schools and the impact of intergenerational trauma on Indigenous homes. Of course, our apologies are insufficient; there must be action. The systemic gaps in education, employment, and health are stark; they illustrate the greater problem of Indigenous homelessness by which Indigenous peoples are deprived not only of physical shelter but also of their connection to land, culture, and spirituality.

Bennett also affirms that beyond just economic resources as the basis for successful Indigenous self-determination, there must be “secure, personal cultural identity.” In other words, only a reconnection to language and culture can empower an Indigenous sense of confidence and home.

However, cultural vibrancy cannot exist when we Canadians continue to commit aggression, settlement, and displacement without the consent of Indigenous peoples. As we extract resources, pursue economic development, and contribute to climate change, we continue colonization and sanction Indigenous homelessness.

It is our responsibility, then, to act upon the knowledge that we are fundamentally settlers on lands that do not belong to us. The struggles, leaderships, and triumphs of Thistle and Necan accentuate the issue of Indigenous homelessness and our complicity in its continued existence today.

Ultimately, home is more than just housing: it is about preserving our core selves and relationships. If we are to reconcile our relationship with Indigenous peoples, we must enable the self-determination of their most valued relationships — with communities, cultures, spirit, and land.

“We have to help newcomers”

It was 2011, and images of protests and demonstrations in Syria were beginning to appear across social media platforms.

At the time, people were unsure how to react. Some figured the protests would diminish as suddenly as they rose, and things would more or less go back to normal, the way they did in Saudi Arabia that same year.

Others expressed concern by posting YouTube videos showing the atrocities that were gradually engulfing the country. As time passed, these images started to become more graphic, depicting sieges, tanks, and blood-stained civilians running for their lives.

Syria plunged into civil war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with the death toll is still rising.

The conflict in Syria is a geopolitically intense issue involving Russia, the US, and the Gulf States. The conflict is also the most disastrous humanitarian crisis since World War II; individuals and families have been uprooted by the ubiquitous violence, and refugee numbers have reached record highs. Aleppo, the former commercial centre of Syria, is war-torn, and many families have fled their homes in search of safety.

Among the affected families is that of Nazar Poladian, an Armenian Syrian who began attending the UTM in September 2016. His family fled from Aleppo in 2012, while he was in his third year of a marketing program at the University of Kalamoon. After spending three years in Lebanon, his family arrived in Canada and settled in Scarborough.

Poladian is currently studying Digital Enterprise Management while working full-time to support his family. He has been actively promoting awareness of the Syrian crisis, having delivered a TEDx Talk earlier this year. He has also created his own YouTube channel where he posts videos related to Syria and shares his personal journey.

In his words, “Being a refugee means losing your home; being a refugee means leaving your friends, your family, your university, your education, and most importantly, your sense of belonging.”

Poladian talked about some of the struggles facing the Syrian refugee community, as well as what his goals were in Canada.

“I miss everything about my city Aleppo,” he began, when asked about his home in Syria. “Its songs, its food, its culture. It is in our heart, our mind, and our soul. However, I am loyal to the local community and working on adapting. It is easier for the younger generation, such as myself, because we are more flexible.”

Poladian explained that his father, on the other hand, has found it more difficult to adjust. His mother is currently working on continuing her education, and the community has been supportive.

Despite the support, there have been challenges for the family.

Communication, in particular, is one of the primary challenges for new refugees arriving in Canada, as many of them have little to no time to learn the language prior to their arrival. To address this problem, a program in Quebec is granting money to students who dedicate time to learn English.

However, as Poladian stated, it is still difficult for refugees to work and learn a new language at the same time. He said, “Language is perhaps one of the most important assets needed in a country as diverse as Canada, and without it, one cannot fully enjoy the Canadian experience. Language assists with the professional life, the social life, and so on.”

Another challenge for new arrivals is the employment barrier. Finding a job in Canada is difficult for newcomers because labour is highly specialized, while in Syria, it was more general and simplified. Nevertheless, many programs exist to help Syrians learn the skills necessary to thrive.

The Canadian government has welcomed refugees to Canada, and the University of Toronto has done a lot to help them integrate into the community, including helping students like Poladian continue their education and receive financial aid.

However, some abhor this welcoming strategy.

Donald Trump, for example, repeatedly stated during his presidential campaign that he would not allow Syrian refugees, or even Muslims in general, to enter America. He states in his book How to Make America Great Again that “allowing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees will certainly bring a lot of problems.”

On other occasions, Trump has stated that letting in refugees is akin to “letting in ISIS,” a statement to which Poladian replied, “His statement is stupid and also quite illogical. It is erroneous to equate terrorism to refugees or even to Muslims in general.” He pointed out that most of the terrorist attacks that occur, such as the Boston bombings or the Paris attacks, are not in fact carried out by refugees. Also, the screening process, which in Nazar’s family’s case took nine months, is effective in deterring migrants who may pose potential threats; the background checks are extensive.

When asked about how nations should respond to the refugee crisis of Syrians, Poladian said that nations with the capacity and resources to help new immigrants integrate into their society should prioritize helping them enter the country. He explained that a problem occurs when new refugees arrive and have difficulty adjusting, which is why the country receiving the refugees has a responsibility to help new arrivals adapt. He thinks that countries like the US, which have admitted a limited number of refugees, should increase their numbers.

“Allowing refugees to enter is not a choice, but rather, a matter of doing the right thing,” Poladian said. “We have to help newcomers, and we cannot underestimate this problem.”

Poladian’s goal is to be a productive citizen in Canada and to give back to society.

“Even when I was in Lebanon, I felt this responsibility,” he said. “Our message should be that be that we are not here merely to survive but rather to be collaborate, compete, and create. We have a fruitful culture and history and need to be part of the producing team.”

He hopes to give back to society through his work in digital marketing, entrepreneurial projects, and any other way possible.

Local members of the U of T community shared why they thought reporting on Syria was still important.

Among them, Zahra Shaikh, a Computer Science student in her fourth year, said, “A lot of the times, people think that [Syrians] are arriving and that’s it, they’re just settled. But it’s actually much more than that. You need to help them emotionally and psychologically.”

Shaikh has personally spoken to affected members: “the biggest issue for them is that they are depressed because of the change in culture, environment, etc… and a lot of people feel isolated from the Muslim community or from any other community, just because of language barriers. The main thing we can do is help them connect with people who can speak Arabic and for us to be a part of their transition.”

Mary Abdul-Karim, a first-year student in medical sciences, recounted how last summer, her local mosque connected with Syrian families and donated what they could.

“We gave them gifts and had a chance to talk to them,” she said. “They felt like everyone was kind, but they missed their families a lot. Some of them had to leave behind their families and felt depressed and sad for the loss.”

In the second presidential debate for the current US election, a woman from Pennsylvania named Diane asked what the future president would do about the situation in Syria.

“Isn’t it a lot like the Holocaust,” read her question, “where the US waited too long before taking action?” Syrians, and all refugees, need help now.

The issue is, and will continue to be, relevant as long as the conflict continues. The University of Toronto has a unique role in addressing the situation by helping Syrians integrate into its academic community. Educating the public will be an important tool for rebuilding a future Syria.

To each their own

Does Toronto have a common cultural identity? That could be argued, but as a large metropolitan area with so much vibrancy and diversity, it doesn’t really matter. After all, Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods.

‘City of neighbourhoods’ is a phrase that Toronto’s tourism industry loves to throw around, and for good reason. The phrase implies that Toronto offers something for everyone, all accessible by foot or transit.

When I started at U of T two years ago, as an out-of-province student, I was amazed that you could walk 10 minutes southwest of the campus’ sleek, historic buildings to reach Kensington Market, a centre of organic cafes, marijuana dispensaries, and eclectic street performers. A short walk led me to what seemed like a completely different world.

However, Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods are changing rapidly — gentrification and skyrocketing prices are making it increasingly difficult for young working professionals and families to rent or even buy houses; in effect, it’s becoming one of the most unaffordable cities for millennials in the country.

Now that I’ve been living off campus for the past year, I  sometimes look around my new neighbourhood and wonder, as a student renting a room in an older residential area undergoing gentrification, if I will ever be fully welcome here. When we have such limited options, how can students integrate into the neighbourhoods we’re moving into — as some people may say, taking over — without coming across as overbearing or disruptive?

According to U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships (CCP), there is a proper way to do this. During the first weekend of October, a small group of students and I met for an intensive training session, as Project Leaders for this year’s Alternative Reading Week (ARW). The ARW is a three-day volunteer excursion led by the CCP, during which groups of students work with communities and groups throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to strengthen community bonds and self-awareness.

As expected with such a short project, we could not get too deeply involved with the community we were assigned. As such, our training emphasized listening to and working closely with the members of these groups or communities, without being dismissive, overbearing, or condescending, in order to make the most of the brief time we were with them.

One training exercise that stuck with me in particular was one that was related to Toronto’s many neighbourhoods and how quickly we, as outsiders, may pass judgment on how safe or unsafe they appear to be. We were shown photos of two areas: one was a thriving neighbourhood in Toronto’s West End, all bay-and-gable houses and vibrant storefronts; the other, a series of identical apartment blocks, plain and in need of repair.

The former neighbourhood was described as popular for young people, with a great selection of restaurants and nightlife, and, generally, a safe community vibe. The latter was described as being a housing complex where many of its residents were below the poverty line, and many more struggled with drug or mental health issues.

The twist was that both of these areas existed within the same neighbourhood — Parkdale. It was a sobering exercise for many of us, especially after we were asked to honestly choose which neighbourhood we’d rather live in. To a university student looking for a safe, fun neighbourhood to live, the first choice seemed ideal. But it’s all too easy to judge a neighbourhood based on what we find appealing or what we want from it; the reality is that all individuals have different perspectives on life and will prioritize different things.

As such, it’s important to consider that every neighbourhood’s advantages and struggles will be perceived differently by various members of the community. While considering where to live, there will be people who struggle to pay their rent, or people who want an area in close proximity to elementary schools for their children. There will also be those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, who prioritize housing services that offer employment resources and counselling. The diversity of interests that exist within a city like Toronto helps to explain its eclectic nature.

U of T also attracts a large number of students who come from outside the city, the province, or even the country. From my perspective, moving from my small, quiet Vancouver suburb to downtown Toronto was something of a sea-change, but at the same time, university is the ideal stage in life to be introduced to new perspectives, opinions, and lifestyles.

The native Torontonians that I met during my first year were always quick to remind me which neighbourhoods were no-go zones — Chinatown late at night, Jane and Finch — and I took their word for it. It took a few more months of exploring the city to realize that it’s far too easy to lump neighbourhoods in categories of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe,’ and that this language in itself has its issues.

Despite negative stereotypes that exist about Scarborough or the East End, serious offences, such as sexual assault, robbery, and theft over $5,000, occur far more often in the U of T neighbourhood and the Bay Street Corridor than they do in East York.

But even without the benefit of these statistics, should we really be so quick to judge? Returning to the previous discussion about the ARW training session, biases are all too easy to collect and all too easy to pass on, but it is possible to move beyond them and accept that you may be wrong about some parts of the city. The least we can do is support each other and let our neighbours live their own lives. We are all part of one city.

Home is where the HÅRTE is

If anybody ever asked me what my ideal date would be, after contemplating whether or not to answer ‘April 25’ à la Miss Congeniality, I would have to say IKEA. It wouldn’t matter if they meant a romantic date, a platonic date, or a family date; my answer would remain the same.

IKEA, for the unfamiliar, is one of the world’s largest furniture retailers that sells home accessories and ready-to-assemble furniture. It is also, as Ryan Reynolds so eloquently put it, Swedish for ‘fuck you’ because their instruction manuals contain no words and the furniture isn’t quite as easy to assemble as you might think. The resulting frustration can start family fights and end relationships.

Despite the impending clashes that a visit to IKEA may bring, it is still one of my favourite places because it provides everything a broke student like me needs: free Wi-Fi, cheap and unhealthy food, and most importantly, the illusion of getting my life together.


I make a mental note of the section I’m in as I park my car in IKEA’s underground lot and step through the automatic sliding doors onto an ascending elevator. I get off at the showroom floor, let out a deep breath, and take it all in: the smell of Swedish meatballs, the sound of children shriek-laughing, and the punctuating, flight attendant-like announcements over the PA about IKEA’s current deals. I belong here.

I start my journey in the Living Room section, sitting on this couch and that one, running my fingers over the smooth wood of the MALMSTA coffee table — all of the items come with their own Swedish names. I move on to Living Room Storage to meet the BILLY bookcases. Though I have one of them at home, I still feel like I LACK something. I breeze through the Kitchen section — the only part of the kitchen that matters to me is the fridge — and continue to the Bedroom section.


Beds of all shapes and sizes issue a silent invitation to lie down, and I wish I don’t have to decline them. With a heavy heart, I walk past the beds and into the Wardrobes and Storage section. There, I look at the beautiful, organized, expensive wardrobe systems and vow to one day amass clothes worthy of them, so that I can fill them to the BREIM.

True temptation doesn’t hit me, however, until I step into the Work section. Desks, chairs, LED lamps, filing cabinets, cable organizers, cork boards — I feel a sudden urge to completely redo my study space until I glance at the price tag of an office chair. I back away in horror and head into the Children’s section. There, I crawl into a tiny tent and placate my furniture-hungry heart by promising to buy myself a swirl frozen yogurt.


Appeased, I emerge from the tent and make my way out of the showcase area, through the marketplace, and into the self-serve furniture area to get to the Bistro. I realize that the self-serve aisles are nearly empty and so is an abandoned trolley.

Several trolley rides and one crash later, I make my way out of IKEA with a swirl cone in my hand and dreams of a future IKEA-filled home in my heart. Despite one hand being empty and the other sticky from the rapidly melting cone, I know I’ll be back. After all, home is where the HÅRTE is.