White Maple Leaf

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes us Canadian. We set out on a journey to find what it means to belong in Canada.

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I Live Here:
4 People, 4 Stories, 1 Home
CANADA

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us command!

What makes us Canadian?
Is it maple syrup? A mutual adoration for beavers?
Is it the fast-paced, bustling life in Toronto, the most culturally diverse city in the world?
Or is Canadian identity more easily found in vibrant St. John’s, Newfoundland, the oldest city in North America?

With so much variety in culture and citizenry, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly makes us Canadian. In an effort to find out, our team of writers, designers and producers set out on a journey to find out what it means to belong.

In our research, we uncovered the stories of four very different people:

  • A disabled man who is set free through his dedication to art and beauty.
  • A refugee who left his former home to find a safe haven in Canada.
  • A modest fashion stylist beating all odds stacked against her.
  • An elderly woman finding a new purpose as a voice for her community.

Four completely different lives, paths and dreams with one thing in common – they are all Canadian.

A paper recreation of the Toronto skyline
A portrait of Steve Kean

Steve Kean

Steve Kean has a talent for capturing beautiful details of everyday items like food, landscapes and people. Full of visual poetry and perfect symmetry, his photographs have mesmerized patrons of the Toronto art scene for 25 years.

Kean is a pioneer in his field: he lives with spina bifida. His condition, however, does not stop him from doing the things he loves. “My disability is kind of secondary,” Kean says. “It is part of my life, but it is not my whole life.”

“My disability is kind of secondary, it is part of my life, but it is not my whole life.”

Spina bifida, caused by a neural tube birth defect, is a physical disability in which the spinal system does not fully develop. Those living with the disability lack strength in their leg muscles and are confined to a brace or a wheelchair. Yet this does not stop Kean; he is as fully capable of taking photos as any other photographer.  

Kean is one of the few Canadians who are born with the disability each year. According to CanChild, a research group organized by McMaster University, only around 120 children are born with the disability every year in this country. Advancements in science and medical research now mean that 90 per cent of children who have spina bifida become adults and learn to live with the disability.

Steve Kean in front of his desk

Kean’s photographic origins can be traced back to his high school art class where he was held back because he couldn’t draw. But one day he received a life-changing gift – a camera – and he blossomed as a photographer. “I had a need to create and show the beauty in the world,” Kean says. “I am hung up on the idea of beauty.”

"I had a need to create and show the beauty in the world and I am hung up on the idea of beauty,”

Kean has a firm stance on his place in society. “I am out there competing to be seen and say what I want to say,” he says. Belonging “is all about being a part of something that is outside of yourself.”

Belonging “is all about being a part of something that is outside of yourself”

Despite his own battles living with the condition, Kean has conquered the challenges that come with his diagnosis. After finishing an economics degree, Kean – who was born in Sudbury, Ont. – moved to Toronto, a city where he has lived for 25 years. After realizing that economics was not the profession for him, he developed a keen interest in photographing landscapes, fine art, food, and portraits of those living with spina bifida. He takes professional headshots for companies. 

“I am either a disabled artist or an artist with a disability. Those terms aren’t interchangeable there is quite a difference.”

Asked how his disability impacts his work, Kean is philosophical. He tells a story about covering an event at which he had a hard time taking photographs because everybody was taller than him. This made him feel like a disabled artist. But at a different event, organizers built a stand for him; because of this he felt like an artist with physical limitations. “I am either a disabled artist or an artist with a disability,” he says. “Those terms aren’t interchangeable. There is quite a difference.”

Pictures and knick-knacks on shelf. Click to see Steve Kean's Work
  • October 25, 2017 was the 6th World Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Day
  • On November 14, 2017 the first in-utero surgery in Canada for the treatment of Spina Bifida was a success.
  • Folic acid has proven to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida, by as much as 70 percent
  • Any woman who could become pregnant is at risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect.
  • There is no known way to prevent or cure hydrocephalus
  • 85 percent of individuals with spina bifida also have hydrocephalus.

Kean is a local photographer who has lived in Canada all his life, but Alglid comes with a different perspective — and has just left his lifelong home, Libya.

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Paper clouds
Portrait of Abdulmajid Alglid

Abdulmajid Alglid

The average wait time to claim refugee status in Canada is 20 months.

With the continuous threats to their lives, some asylum-seekers may even end up waiting a whole lifetime. In fact, an insightful 2017 report by the Manitoba Legal Aid predicts that, unless there is an increase in federal funding by 2021, refugee claimants can expect to wait more than a decade for their cases to be heard.

During that time, many things can happen to further delay the refugee status approval process. In 2016, for instance, a record-breaking influx of applications meant big trouble for victims of war waiting for asylum. Hundreds of people saw their wait times double as the over-burdened refugee tribunal struggled to keep up with the number of applicants.

For Abdulmajid Alglid, waiting that long was not an option. The streets of his hometown, Tripoli, were ricocheting with violence and it was only a matter of time before he got seriously hurt. In an effort to quicken the process, Alglid applied as an immigrant instead of a refugee.

"My idea of coming to Canada was after our country entered war and it was no longer comfortable to live in."

He waited two nerve-wracking years for his immigration forms to be processed as the city he once knew so well crumbled around him. Then, close to his 45th birthday, he was finally approved to be a permanent
resident in Canada.

In Libya, Alglid was a photojournalist by trade. He worked 20 years for the Associated Press, a big U.S.- based news agency, documenting Libyan life and politics. Alglid says he lived a comfortable life full of opportunities; he was a heavily sought-after photographer, known for his exceptional technical skill.

That life disappeared with the Libyan revolution. “I had some difficulties when Libya entered changes and war,” Algid says. “We used to enter the areas of death and there was a lot of danger on our lives. I had some photojournalist friends who died right in front of me, right next to me. They would do anything to get the news in the moment, I’m not sure why,”.

Alglid immigrated to Toronto in October 2013 in search of safety, hoping to get a job as a photojournalist. However, settling in has been difficult and he hasn’t been able to find paid work yet. But he says he has found a community of photographers, models and designers online that have welcomed him with open arms. On Facebook, he is able to connect with models looking to collaborate on a ‘trade for print’ basis. Trade for print, or TFP, is an arrangement between a model and photographer to exchange services with no money exchanging hands. In this way, Alglid manages to indulge in his love for photography while still being mindful of his humble income and resources in Toronto.

Alglid exiting a plane with his camera in his hand

"In art, words do not speak, what speaks is the picture itself... emotions speak through art, not words. So [that's why I began to] take many beautiful photos, and I fell in love with photography."

A map of Libya

When asked if communities like that are helping Toronto feel more like home, he pauses, looking a bit taken aback. Then, sighing deeply, Alglid says “it’s very complicated,” and his eyes become a little distant, a bit lost in thought.

Alglid and I are sitting in his quaint little studio apartment. He had requested to do this interview in Arabic so he could express himself more comfortably. This is fine with me because I understand enough of the language to keep up with him. But despite that, it is clear that Alglid isn’t sure how to answer that question; is Toronto home? He is intently looking at the potted orchids behind me, but his gaze has turned inward.

I began to wonder: is he thinking about his upcoming court date with the Canadian Immigration and Citizenship department? I could see that for Alglid, speaking in English isn’t easy, which can make official visits like that one even more difficult. Or perhaps he is thinking of his old home, the one with an abundance of farmland, handfuls of fresh olives and an acre of glossy-leaved fig trees.

After a long moment of silence, Alglid sighs, finally ready to speak. He asks, “can I say in English?”

Sure, I whisper.

"Before I came to Canada, I did a lot of research about life here, laws here etc. everything felt like a dream. I had a lot of dreams. But when I came here, unfortunately the dreams I had.. didn't happen."

“I had a lot of dreams,” Alglid says, his brow wrinkling. “But when I came here, unfortunately the dreams I had…” he says, struggling to find the right words in English “…didn’t happen.”

Like Alglid, stylist Aimon Syeda has found a new home in Canada through her own art.

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A paper map of Canada
Portrait of Aimon Syeda posing at Toronto Fashion Week

Aimon Syeda

That’s the description that pops up when you search up Aimon Syeda’s name on Instagram. There are pictures of her, pictures of models, magazine spreads – even a cute green tea latte with a cat made with milk frosting.

Surprisingly, the cat wasn’t first thing that caught my attention. There’s a model on Syeda’s feed that looked familiar. When I clicked the photo, the hashtags “#exo #monster #exoinspired” were written, along with Korean and English hastags too.

EXO is a popular Korean pop group that I listen to myself. The way the model was styled resembled the members’ costumes in their music video Monster. I was curious to know why she chose to do this and why she chose to use Korean fashion as her inspiration.

Syeda is a Pakistani-Muslim woman who moved to Canada when she was three years old. Now 24, she artistically directs and styles models for Toronto Men’s Fashion, Startup Fashion Week, and Toronto’s International Modest Fashion and Design Festival in photo shoots and the runway. Syeda is also an Instagram Influencer who posts her outfits as a proud hijabi in the fashion industry: this is where she belongs.

“When people first see me they ask, ‘oh you’re in the fashion industry? How do you work in the fashion industry? You wear a hijab.’ And I ask, ‘why should that matter?’”

Hijab

In Islam, Hijab has a broader meaning than just the head covering Muslim women wear. Contrary to popular belief, nowadays Hijab is for both men and women. It is the principle of modest and includes behaviour as well as dress for both males and females living a modest way of life.

Abaya

A full-length gown, dress or a robe-like garment with long sleeves. Abayas have a flow and are not fitted. They can come in different designs and colours.

A paper recreation of an iPhone

It was mid-February when we first met. I picked up Syeda for a video interview. She was elegantly dressed in a black hijab with a beige cardigan long-sleeve. Her make up was done so well and the highlighter she used made her glow. I wasn’t sure whether to play k-pop (knowing that she listened) or just opt for the radio.

“So, what do you want to listen to?” I nervously asked.

“I’m good with anything! K-pop is fine,” she laughed.

As she said that, I realized I was already playing “All I Wanna Do,” by Korean Rapper, Jay Park.

Syeda told me that her interest in Korean Culture started in her last two years of high school. She was helping her friend from Korea with English and in return she taught her the Korean alphabet. From there, she started to learn by herself by watching variety shows. She says it was difficult to find shows with subtitles because it was before the “Hallyu wave” (South Korea’s cultural global popularity) hit Canada. Syeda had learned most the language before she realized her school offered it as a course. She wanted to get out of biology so she took the class and passed with a 99%.

“They remember me because I wear a hijab.”

At York University, she took Korean as a general course and then joined Hallyu Dongari (the Korean culture club), as well as the Fashion association. She joined both clubs as an executive member and eventually became the president of both clubs in the same year. She also started running a Korean language exchange downtown with St. George International College for new Korean students and English speakers from York University.

There was a sense of pride in her tone as Syeda was telling me about her accomplishments. Not the arrogant or boastful, rather, a pride one would have for their culture. To some people this might seem a little strange: two girls from completely different cultures and religions geeking out about a culture that belongs to neither of them. This, I remember thinking, is Canada.

Syeda uses both her interests (fashion and Korean culture) and mixed it together with her own religion.

“Korean fashion incorporates a lot of loose styles just like modest fashion.”

Aimon Syeda examining wardrobe options

What is modest fashion?
Modest fashion is everywhere there is not one specific definition that defines the term. However, it does have an essential awareness regarding the idea of covering up parts of the body. It is often paired with women who wear the hijab but in reality anyone can dress modestly. It is any type of clothing that is not form fitting and does not show off the skin.

“As much as we like to say racism isn’t a thing, it’s still there”

You guys are forced to wear hijabs!
Don't you guys just wear all black with one material and one layer?
Nope! It's a choice. You don't have to wear a hijab. It's between you and God. Women typically start wearing it around the age of 13 but you can do it whenever you're ready to commit to take the next step in the Muslim faith.
We can wear it with multiple layers, colours and accessories while keeping it "modest" by covering up and not showing skin.

It’s because of these misunderstandings that people are prejudice towards women who wear a hijab.

Syeda was extremely excited for the opportunity to land an interview with a fashion company she wanted to work with. There were two partners in the company. The female counterpart knew Syeda and interviewed her. The male counterpart had never met or seen her before. “Sometimes it’s not explicit. But you get this vibe and when I met him, you could automatically tell; it was not me, but just the concept of who I was,” says Syeda.

Luckily, she got the job. However, the next day they found a reason to fire her. There was no email, phone call or anything to indicate any sort of direction after the interview when she got her job, which led to her abrupt termination. “It was very random. But you could clearly tell which partner made more of the decision. It was kind of disheartening from me, but I’ve grown used to it.”

"As cheesy as it sounds, I can actually be whoever I want (in Canada)."

Despite the adversity she faced with some people in the industry, Syeda is happy to be in Canada. She says that in other countries, like her own, everyone generally has the same beliefs and practices. In Canada there are so many different cultures and religions to you can choose from. Syeda is the perfect example of the diversity within Canada. She works in the fashion industry as a stylist and wears a hijab. She’s fluent in Korean and can share her interests with a wide variety of different people who don’t necessarily have the same culture as her.

Whether it’s online or in the flesh, Syeda and Audrey Collins are both strong women who bring value to their communities.

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An array of paper people
Audrey reading a magazine

Audrey Collins

The Canadian elderly population has faced trying times in the past decade. Neglect, abuse and other examples of improper care have run rampant among elderly homes. In fact, 2013 saw at least 1,500 cases of elderly abuse coming from facility staff members  across Canada, according to an independent study by CTV.

The struggles that this population face aren’t just physical. Many people in this community live with mental health issues. The Canadian Health Institute found in 2010 that 44 per cent of occupants in residential care homes have either symptoms or a complete diagnosis of clinical depression.

44 per cent of occupants in residential care homes have either symptoms or a complete diagnosis of clinical depression.

But despite these realities, some seniors in Canadian institutions have taken much of their wellbeing into their own hands, regardless of the conditions around them.

One of those people is Audrey Collins, 86, of Oakville, Ont.  “No matter what it is, whatever you put in it, you’ll get out [of it],” Collins says. “And if you don’t try and do things or make yourself a part of the atmosphere here, then you’re not gonna like it.”

"If you don't try and do things or make yourself a part of the atmosphere here, then you're not gonna like it."

One of those people is Audrey Collins, 86, of Oakville, Ont.  “No matter what it is, whatever you put in it, you’ll get out [of it],” Collins says. “And if you don’t try and do things or make yourself a part of the atmosphere here, then you’re not gonna like it.”

Collins originally entered a retirement home because of her husband’s health issues, and, as someone who didn’t need the services herself, had concerns about fitting in. This made searching for particular homes quite daunting at times. “I know there are homes and places you’d look at that I wouldn’t go [to],” Collins says.

Her worries were not unique. Satisfaction in senior care has been a large issue. In 2017, over 30 per cent of Canadian elders were dissatisfied with the care they received, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

In 2017, over 30 per cent of Canadian elders were dissatisfied with the care they received.

But shortly after they found a place to address her husband’s needs, Collins’ life changed once again. “He passed away in May, so we weren’t here very long,” Collins says. “He didn’t get to enjoy all the things that are here.”

However, Collins recalled something that kept them happy and involved in their new home before he passed.  “We brought our piano with us, so music was a big part of it,” Collins says. “He was able to play the piano and stuff here. That was nice.”

Two paintings hanging on the wall. One depicts a barn landscape during the winter, and the other is a loon in a lake with colourful trees in the background.
Audrey's upright piano covered in pictures, trinkets and memories.

After she began living alone, Collins had to find new ways to stay involved and active as she adjusted to life without her husband. She praises those who looked after her at the facility. “Here, they have a good program with not only physical exercise, but mentally, too. The staff are very good that way [in that they] try and think of good projects or whatever to keep us busy, keep us out of trouble,” she says with a cheeky grin.

Collins also took it upon herself to become an organizer of sorts, someone who remains a community leader in the retirement home. “I’d say I’m more on the [side of] leadership, because we have fun trying to organize things, you know, saying ‘oh well why don’t we do this or that.’” Some particular activities she organized stuck with her.  “[My friend] Muriel helped me. We put on a skit and a play,” she says.

These occasions have kept Collins feeling secure, as she now considers herself a close part of her new-found home. Her idea of belonging, however, always meant something else to her, as one thing remains abundantly clear: “You can meet other people and really get to like them and have good rapport with them, says Collins. “[But] family will always be most important.”

“You can meet other people and really get to like them and have good rapport with them, but family will always be most important.”

View from balcony with trees and river in wintertime
The paper background falls into pieces

In 2013, a StatCan survey on social identity asked Canadians aged 15 and older to describe their sense of belonging to Canada, their province of residence and their local community. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Almost two out of three people (63 per cent) told researchers that they feel a very strong sense of belonging to Canada.

Our team of writers, designers and producers were inspired by this concept. We set out to find four very different people with different stories, lives, dreams – only to find that they are similar in so many ways.

“Canada is home to people of many different backgrounds and experiences who all have one thing in common – a sense of belonging.”

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Credits

Visuals and Web Design:
Bradley Malecki
Nicole Wells
Andrew Greer

Writers and Researchers:
Nathan Shubert
Aastha Shetty
Chantelle Ouano
John Pattee

360 Video:
Bradley Malecki

Steve Kean Videos:
Bradley Malecki
Andrew Greer
Evan Rowell

Aimon Syeda Video:
Bradley Malecki
Andrew Greer
Emerge Video Team

Alglid Audio Story:
Aastha Shetty

Audrey Collins Audio Interview:
John Pattee

Copy Editors:
John Pattee
Aastha Shetty

Outside Contributors:
Julianna Lupis
Haafizah Khaderoo
Ayah Z. Bendago
Emerge Video Team