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Why I Left Toronto

The city boasts inclusivity and opportunity, but that’s not what I experienced By Samyuktha Punthambekar
  • Punthambekar / Photo courtesy of Punthambekar

I arrived in Canada on Jan. 21, 2011, with big dreams and aspirations, like any other newcomer Person of Colour. After working for a reputable Indian dance company in Mississauga, I decided to move to Toronto with my husband. In our conversations with others, we came to believe it would be more diverse and that we would find increased work opportunities. Before the move, I tried to spend as much time there as possible. I commuted hours every day to volunteer with dozens of arts organizations, attend arts events and conferences and build relationships, all with the hope of getting a foot in the door.

I now have an email folder comprising more than 400 job rejections. A vast majority of those rejections are from Euro-descendant led organizations. I remember clearly when I applied for a job at a prominent theatre company. Literally hours after my second interview, I received a rejection email. The person who was hired was a Euro-Canadian female millennial, who met the “optics” of the institution. On another occasion, a Eurodescendant leader of an arts festival told me when I was talking to them about systemic racism in Toronto that the way I was speaking was unattractive and that now was “not the time to mentor and train POC arts workers.”

In the summer of 2019, we moved to Ottawa, derived from the Algonquin word adawe, in the National Capital Region. What took me three years to find in Toronto took less than six months in Ottawa. It is crucial to understand that the stakes are far higher for POC newcomers without family support and a safety net.

The City of Toronto’s website’s “Moving to Toronto” section indicates, “Toronto is one of the most multicultural urban areas in the world. Each year tens of thousands of newcomers from around the globe choose our city as their new home. Their diverse cultures and communities have helped create Toronto’s identity as a vibrant global city.” As many countries do, Canada also markets its most populous and popular cities the most. Toronto, of course, leads the pack. POC newcomers, such as myself, come to the city with our own set of hopes. 

Toronto skyline / Photo courtesy of Unsplash

 

Now, after my two years of living in Toronto and the several times I endured systemic racism, I can safely say that the city’s arts community has a long way to go in accepting a newcomer POC workforce. Established arts organizations in Toronto continue to be governed by Euro-descendant leaders and board members. This is especially true as the key decisions, specifically those in the equity and inclusion spaces, are made by these very same leaders. This is the reason why prominent arts and culture organizations in the city are continuing to move at a snail’s pace in this area.

Noting the current socio-political climate that is centred around systemic racism, many arts and culture organizations in Toronto are taking necessary steps to address these very issues. While this journey is long-drawnout and complex, it’s imperative for Eurodescendant- led organizations to begin by, first, accepting that systemic racism exists and, second, acknowledging that key words such as multicultural, diverse, best, experienced, international, etc., are centred around whiteism. I state these terms because they tend to act as barriers for newcomer POCs, as our goals are also to work for arts and culture organizations that have carved a niche in creating path-breaking art. We also want to be part of their stories, history and legacy.

In a nutshell, age-old systems and practices need to change. Newcomer POCs would greatly benefit from a structured onboarding process, where we are not only allowed to make mistakes but also learn from those mistakes. We no doubt share common spaces with an equitable staff; however, we must also be given a clear sense of progression to spaces of power. These spaces are often tents that we are not allowed to enter.

Imagine a vibrant arts community where a newcomer Person of Colour is mentored, trained and guided by an established Eurodescendant leader, all of this done with a defined, structured path to success that is identical for all, no matter who you are or what your cultural background is. Isn’t that a possibility worth working for? 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue.

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