The team behind Ethnic Aisle
Photograph by Canice Leung
STEPPING INSIDE A GOLDEN GROCERIES IN BRAMPTON, ONTARIO, on a Thursday evening in October, visitors are greeted with the scent of Indian spices and a song from a famous Hindi movie soundtrack playing over the PA. Shoppers at the Indian chain select their Haldiram snacks and Parle-G biscuits along with their tomatoes and soda. Many of the patrons here also come to pick up their news. With a population of just over 500,000, Brampton has a large immigrant community, and South Asians represent more than half of all visible minorities in the city, according to a 2006 census.
Next to the security detectors at the entrance, towering stacks of newspapers crowd a battered white shelf. An older man in a black turban and dark brown trousers surveys titles that include Canadian Pakistani Times, StarBuzz, Ajit Weekly and Punjabi Star. He settles on a copy of the Punjabi-language Hamdard Weekly.
There are close to two dozen small newspapers geared to Canadians of South Asian descent published in Toronto alone. Canada’s multiculturalism has allowed the ethnic press to evolve and play a significant part in their respective communities, and the South Asian one is sizable, with close to 700,000 Greater Toronto Area residents hailing from the region—which includes India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as Bangladesh, Nepal and Guyana.
These supermarket freebies are community papers—volunteer appreciation nights, Indian curry recipes and award recipients share space with news of social and political issues happening back home.
The periodicals are more similar than they are different: conservative in approach, and generally serving an older audience. What you won’t find in them are stories that tackle the more complicated and taboo subjects associated with life in the West—such as homosexuality, mental illness or the intergenerational conflicts that can arise between parents and children due to clashes in cultural values.
For the younger generation, looking at that rack in the grocery store can make the options seem dispiritingly limited, but in recent years new programs and outlets have started pushing the boundaries, moving beyond the news reports from home to ask challenging questions about what it means to live day-to-day in Canada as a South Asian immigrant.
Parvasi is a leading newspaper in the Punjabi-Canadian community in Canada. Its editor-in-chief and CEO is Rajinder Saini. Trained as an engineer, Saini, who always had a passion for journalism, founded the newspaper in 2002 after settling in the GTA in order to serve the Punjabi community. The target demographic is a narrow one: recent immigrants from the Punjab region in India.
A recent issue shows articles that range from soft (a piece recognizing what would have been the 105th birthday of celebrated Indian Independence revolutionary Bhagat Singh) to newsy (a report of travellers from Punjab being caught with drugs as they entered Canada). Also in the mix is gossip from home, such as speculation about an alleged love affair between Pakistan’s foreign minister and Bilawal Bhutto, son of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Like most editors, Saini assigns stories with the reader’s interest in mind. He also hosts a one-hour news radio show on CJMR1320 five days a week.
The ethnic press is sometimes criticized for the quality of its journalism, but Saini, whose goals are lofty, admits that limited resources make it difficult for original news and in-depth reporting. “I need so many reporters who should go and interview, and then file a story. But who will pay them? “ says Saini. “It’s a free paper.”
Saini knows who his audience is and says he has no intention of attempting to win over younger readers. “We have a limited kind of readership, we know what they want,” he says. “All the [South Asian-focused] English newspapers, 70 to 80 percent of the news that they’re publishing is from back home. That news doesn’t attract the younger generation.”
Of course, no single publication or genre of publication can be all things to all people. Kavita Bapat, a staff member with the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, also observes that different audiences have different expectations. “I think it’s a fine balance because the generation who grew up here...would want to hear about how [an] issue affects home or us, but then I feel like people who are of an older generation might still only want to know about back home, and still want that tie.”
Fortunately, while supermarket newspapers are abundant, they are not the only source of news and commentary for South Asian Canadians.
Arshdeep Chawla is the host-producer and on-camera reporter for Asian Vision TV, a television show that airs across Ontario every Saturday on CTV 2. The program covers everything from entertainment events to serious community issues.
The 20-year-old Ryerson student was inspired to get into media by his father, Dilbag Chawla, who hosts a radio show RanglaPunjab, which runs six days a week on CJMR1320.
The elder Chawla’s show reaches 250,000 listeners, and Arshdeep wanted to emulate his father’s success while targeting a younger market. Encouraged by his father, he was successful in landing his own show, and today father and son collaborate by discussing their respective programs, and help each other understand the generational issues from the other side.
Fittingly, the focus of Asian Vision TV is relationships between South Asian children and their parents—Arshdeep’s wish is to foster better family ties, though parents and children do not appear on the show for cultural reasons, concerned that doing so would mar their image and reputation within their community.
Nonetheless, Arshdeep views his role as one of mediator: he will raise a problematic issue and highlight both the parents’ and children’s views, and the show is not afraid to challenge conventional ways of thinking.
For instance, South Asian parents generally expect their children to study hard in order to go to university—and university is often the only acceptable form of post-secondary education. Arshdeep brought this up on his show, inviting a high school teacher and a guidance counsellor to speak about the issue, in an attempt to open parents’ minds to alternative options.
While you might expect a 20-year-old to side with his peers, the younger Chawla believes the blame for family conflict lies with the kids a lot of the time. “One of the main things is respect,” he says. “Our kids are forgetting about respecting their parents and their elders.”
Arshdeep once had a counsellor come on the show to talk about the practice of kids using their lunch money to buy drugs and alcohol; students listening actually feared they would get caught. Chawla says this got him a lot of attention, as kids were asking him not to expose them. But Chawla has no regrets. “I’m going to do what’s best for the community.” His emphasis is less on ties to the old country, and more about navigating life in Canada.
Where Arshdeep focuses on dynamics between parents and children, Yudhvir Jaswal, group editor and CEO of MidWeek newspaper, is more concerned with the political life of South Asian communities, focusing on Canadian events within a South Asian context.
A mechanical engineer in Punjab, Jaswal came to Canada in 2001. He was always an avid newspaper reader and very socially and politically aware: “When I started reading our own South Asian English papers, I thought, there is definitely a space I can capture.
“One thing I realized was there was a lot of coverage regarding India, but very little coverage related to Canada and the community,” Jaswal says of the South Asian media. He takes pride in the fact that his media group caters to all of South Asia instead of focusing on just one country. “When you are only discussing small areas—Pakistan, Punjab or Gujurat—your program is Gujarati or Punjabi; then what happens is you tend to lose a lot of audience.”
MidWeek’s stories start with the mainstream headlines. “Everyone wants to know whether Justin Trudeau coming back...will affect the Liberals’ fortune in the upcoming election,” he says. “Everyone wants to know what will happen with the India-Pakistan [relationship].”
Jaswal, who also runs the news website South Asian Daily, hosts a segment on Rogers Television called South Asian Live, and co-hosts another Rogers Television show called South Asian 360 Degrees, recognizes that as an ethnic media outlet he still needs to cater to the people who want to read about news back home, as it is a huge part of their lives. But he also believes it is more important to prioritize your news.
“Our first priority issue should always be related to community here. Second priority is Canada—we have to discuss what is happening in Canada, at the federal level and at the provincial level. Third is international level because we have to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Then India is at fourth position—certainly, we should know what is happening in India. And then fifth, yes we need to know what’s happening in Punjab as well. Then we have sports and business, and then Bollywood.”
When it comes to covering what Jaswal and his MidWeek team feel is important, versus safer topics of discussion to avoid backlash, Jaswal says: “We are walking that tightrope on a daily basis, because I don’t want to write things or say things to please the community.”
For example, homosexuality can be controversial in the South Asian community, but Jaswal is not about to shy away from covering events such as Toronto’s Pride Parade. “We’ve made it very clear—it is a community event and we will certainly cover that. I will not at all hesitate, I will certainly cover it. I will take these issues head on.”
Homosexuality is a good example of an issue that may be easier for the younger generation to accept. “Being gay or homosexual was illegal in India, and it was only legalized three or four years ago—it was very recent,” Bapat points out.
“So I definitely think it has to do with community values.” If certain subjects are uncomfortable to talk about based on standard South Asian values (which teach us not to speak too passionately about heated or controversial issues), then editors might be less likely to talk about it in their publications. This is where the blogosphere comes in.
At the back of a dimly lit Toronto bar, a birthday is being celebrated. Outside No One Writes to the Colonel on trendy College Street, a chalkboard sign promises five-dollar cocktails. Inside, the front of the long room has a typical bar vibe, with people drinking beer and couples flirting. Head towards the back, though, and a couple dozen people huddle around a pink and white frosted cake with the words “The Ethnic Aisle” inscribed on top, encircled by purple candles.
The occasion is the first anniversary of Ethnic Aisle, a buzzy Toronto blog that provides a unique voice with commentary written by immigrants and children of immigrants living in the GTA. The atmosphere is happy and lively despite the relatively small crowd, though it quiets down when three presenters—co-founder Denise Balkissoon, contributor Renée Sylvestre-Williams and editor Chantal Braganza—take the stage.
A trivia question is announced to the audience: What year is Toronto projected to be majority non-white? Someone yells out the correct answer—2031—and rushes up to collect his prize, a bowl of Kimchi Noodles.
Balkissoon is passionate about the cheekily named Ethnic Aisle—a reference to that part of a Western grocery store that houses everything from Thai curries to Mexican salsas. “The point of Ethnic Aisle is that we are from here not somewhere else,” says Balkissoon, who aims to create a better reflection of Toronto’s cultural diversity than what currently exists within most media.
“In every single publication—I am not singling one out at all—there’s this idea that Toronto is very multicultural and diverse, and as media that should be represented more authentically and regularly, but that never happens,” she says. “There are very few journalists from all these different, diverse cultures that we’re so proud to have here, and I think there are a lot of different reasons for that.”
So Balkissoon and co-founder, freelancer and grad student Nav Alang, decided to launch a blog to represent the experience of being non-white and living in Toronto. Ethnic Aisle gives readers a refreshing outlook on topics of race, culture and society. This is not a South Asian publication specifically, but one that caters to all readers with nonwhite immigrant backgrounds in Toronto. Its diversity and candour make it more relevant to a younger generation.
Most of the blog’s posts are organized into thematic issues; past examples include “The White Issue,” “The Religion Issue” and “The Hair Issue”—a seemingly simple topic with complex implications for those who possess distinct ethnic traits that contrast with the culture reflected back at them in Canada. In one post, a Sikh woman, Navi Lamba, writes about being a teenager and begging her parents to allow her to get bangs like Mandy Moore, despite the Sikh religion’s prohibition on hair cutting. Each blog post has a quirky and engaging title, such as “White Women and Everything You Dream Of ” or “Canada’s Racist Money.”
This past October, the blog’s theme explored discrimination in the GTA, with “The Past, Present, and Future of Racism in Toronto.” Alang’s “Racism, Present: Toronto’s White Lie,” is a piece that you’d be unlikely to find in more traditional ethnic media outlets. He challenges the idea of Toronto as a multicultural city, pointing to the Danzig street shootings in Scarborough this past July. He observes that the ethnically diverse outlying regions of the GTA are often automatically associated with violence and crime, which creates a distinct divide between Toronto’s downtown core and the outskirts.
South Asian freelancer and Ethnic Aisle contributor Anupa Mistry grew up in Brampton and now resides in Toronto. The 27-year-old has been involved with Ethnic Aisle since the beginning. “We had the same perspective on diversity in the media in that we understand how things operate,” she says of her blog-founding friends. “We don’t want to be preachy but we do want to offer an alternative.”
Mistry says Ethnic Aisle can provide opportunity and understanding for South Asian immigrants and children of immigrants. “I think it can be a little bit daunting for some people when they encounter the mainstream media culture in Toronto if it’s not something they’ve been exposed to.” She is a Gujarati Indian, and her parents immigrated to England from East Africa, and later moved to Canada. “I’m pretty much a Brampton girl,” she says.
Last June, Ethnic Aisle published Mistry’s interview with New York-based South Asian jazz musician Vijay Iyer. Mistry was happy to be able to have a “candid and insightful” conversation with the musician. “Just talking to someone about what it’s like to be a brown person working in a field or living in a part of the world where there aren’t a lot of brown people and a lot of ethnic representation—sometimes it’s just good to ask what you want to ask and hear what you want to hear, to know that you’re not alone.”
Torontonian Makeda Marc-Ali, too, finds Ethnic Aisle’s honesty to be a welcome change. “It’s refreshing to read about the real-life experiences of those from other cultures and ethnicities and sexualities in Toronto, in a way that is non-condescending and non-‘othering,’” she says.
Marc-Ali also admires the fact that the contributors of Ethnic Aisle don’t strive for simple answers and tidy narratives the way other publications so often do. “I like that it doesn’t purport to offer all the answers, either—sometimes it just acknowledges that things are complex, which is also important to hear.”
Ethnic Aisle is volunteer-based, with “mouthy bloggers, journalists and everyday peeps,” so the website says, writing from a place of passion rather than financial interest. But Balkissoon hopes to one day be able to pay writers, as well as to add more news content to the commentary. “Ideally, we’d have a little bit of funding through sponsorships or grants or something. I don’t want to make a profit out of it, but I don’t like asking people for [unpaid] work.”
Renée Sylvestre-Williams, an avid contributor to Ethnic Aisle, doesn’t mind donating her time to the project. Now 38, Sylvestre-Williams moved to Canada from Trinidad when she was 19 and feels more connected to where she is now than where she came from. “My mentality is, I’ll always be Trinidadian, I enjoy being Trinidadian, I think it’s a great culture, but I took out my citizenship, I’m Canadian,” she says. “Indo-Caribbean and Caribbean Camera hasn’t been relevant to me for a very, very long time.”
She is excited by the alternative provided by Ethnic Aisle and the community interest the site has generated. Balkissoon, too, is naturally pleased with her blog’s reception. “There has definitely been an appetite. There have been a lot of people that have commented or sent us e-mails, or Twitter messages just saying that this is great.”
Ethnic Aisle is a long way from the beat-up newspaper shelf of Golden Groceries, but thankfully there is room for both—and everything in between—in the South Asian media landscape, which is evolving to meet the changing needs of growing numbers of all immigrant cultures. “We want to offer an alternative in an accessible way—not appealing to only brown people, only black people, or Chinese people or East Asian people. There is that commonality of people from immigrant backgrounds living in the GTA,” says Mistry. “Ethnic Aisle exists because it allows for young brown kids to see that there is a space for them, and there is a perspective like theirs out there.”