Finding home elsewhere: Toronto’s emerging Asian communities

Behind every delicately detailed piece in the Blueprint for a Collective Home exhibit was an Asian artist’s story of finding their place in Canada. 

But it is not only the individual artists that made the exhibit feel like a home away from home. Beside every piece was another art installation that spoke the same language. They connected with the next like an extended hand. Together, the artworks united into a web of dialogue that explores the Asian diaspora in Canada. 

Emerald Repard-Denniston is one of the co-founders of Shoes Off Collective (SOC), the organization behind the exhibit. For the artist, her story looked like video documentation of her and her friend learning Mandarin together. That was an opportunity that was lost to them in childhood from difficulties assimilating in Canada. 

By connecting through reclamation of culture and sharing this friendship with her audience, she received a wave of support. Her installation resonated with many Asian-Canadians who struggle to reclaim their languages and culture.

“The feedback was overwhelming,” said Repard-Denniston. “Overall, I didn’t expect the exhibit to touch so many people and blow up the way it did.”

Similarly, sculpture and installation student and SOC co-leader Jason Mendiola expressed how proud he was of everyone who participated. He said the most beautiful part of the exhibit was watching the dynamic of different people within the same room existing relative to one another.

“The person placed beside your exhibit is sharing the same history. You come to understand that our issues are not unique to us,” said Mendiola. “We all come to learn what we need and how we can satisfy those needs by respecting one another’s work.”

Mendiola reflected on this unity in his installation centred on the concept of the crab mentality popularised in Filipino culture. This mentality is described as one person ‘stepping’ on the other, claiming success for themself. His exhibit features crabs taking up space. They wander curiously as they navigate identity on their own, but continue to influence those around them.

SOC stays true to its name. Prevalent in East-Asian cultures is the age-old custom of removing your shoes before entering someone’s home. It’s a practice of respect and hygiene. The metaphor of respecting space is what SOC organizers Repard-Denniston and Mendiola hope to achieve. Specifically, when navigating vulnerable conversations among Asian OCAD students and the local Asian community.

“When building a community, it’s important to remember how we all come from different places to share a cherished space where everyone brings in their own lived experiences,” Mendiola said.

For decades, Asian-centred organizations in Toronto celebrated and supported generations of Asian youth and families to build brighter futures. But in the past two years, Toronto saw an exponential increase in racist hate crimes targeting Asian communities. The violence ranged from vandalism, physical assault and hateful speech.

In 2020, 220 hate-related assaults targeting racialized populations were reported to the police. The number of these assaults jumped by 22 per cent in 2021, with many more assumed to be unreported. 

Besides daily injustices and a pandemic scare endangering small businesses, there were limitations to in-person resources and community gatherings. 

“There was a big lack of Asian community here at OCAD during the online format and even before the pandemic. On top of isolation, the injustices against Asians in Toronto ignited something in me,” Repard-Denniston said. “I wanted to help make a safe place specifically catered for Asians to express and celebrate themselves either through art or a place to hang out.”

Unfortunately, such events are not new either. The 2003 SARS outbreak similarly placed Asians and Asian-Canadians in precarious situations vulnerable to hate crimes. Despite the historic and ongoing occurrences of racial trauma in these communities, there remains the resilience to come back stronger.

Emerging is the Asian Resilience Canadian Collective (ARCC), co-run by South-East Asian graduate students Christina Andaya and Christine Le. It aims to find solutions specific to struggling Asian-Canadians through round table discussions, one-on-one mentorship and networking. To combat Anti-Asian racism, a conversation the collective continues to have is advocacy for policies that ensure the safety of Toronto’s Asian businesses and communities. 

“It’s a form of terrorism that shouldn’t be happening at all. We need harsher sentencing, but most importantly, we need to bridge communities outside our local area to have these educational discussions,” said Andaya.

Christina Andaya, ARCC

For Le, this platform for youth to discuss politics is the mobilization Asian communities need to bring forward policy changes. “We can’t have anyone else speak for us but ourselves,” she said. “We need representations of these discussions to make community-led changes.”

Christine Le, ARCC

The ARCC team continues their project focusing on a video series conversing with Asian-Canadian representatives from different fields. Topics range from issues concerning Asian well-being to inspiring stories of personal growth. From city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to Olympic athlete Kayla Sanchez, they bring in representation to show that each person can contribute as a resource to the community at large. That’s not even the best part—every video features a warm bowl of local traditional Asian food to celebrate cultural heritage.

“Seeing really is believing,” said Andaya. “Knowing that we have possibilities means a lot, and we want to share that with the next generation.”

About the author

Reporter at Youth Mind

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

Rebecca Benitez-Berona

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

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