How young people in Toronto are celebrating immigrant stories through series of block parties

Over the past few months, Sampreeth Rao has sat down with immigrants in Scarborough’s Agincourt community, spending hours listening to their stories.

Many tales focused on resilience, Rao told CBC Toronto, something he’s experienced himself as an immigrant from India.

But others, the researcher and curator with the Toronto Ward Museum said, show how much the community values its diversity.

“Going to school in Scarborough … is the most important learning experience because at the lunchroom you pull out your dumplings, the other person pulls out their roti, the other person pulls out their pasta,” Rao said, summarizing one participant’s thoughts.

“Everyone’s in no way a minority, and so very interestingly, the minority becomes the majority.”

Stories like this will soon be front and centre in four new exhibits put on by the Toronto Ward Museum, a charity focused on preserving the city’s diverse history, as part of their ongoing “Block by Block” community-based programs.

For these exhibits, the museum — in partnership with nine other agencies — tasked young leaders from four communities with gathering diverse stories from immigrants and Indigenous peoples through audio recordings, photos and archival materials.

The leaders are transforming the stories into multimedia exhibits and showcasing them at community block parties.

The events will take place in Agincourt, Parkdale, Regent Park and Victoria Park — historically immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods.

According to the program director of Block by Block, Maggie Hutcheson, the goal of the events is to foster conversations, celebrate immigrant contributions and highlight stories of migration, settlement and civic life in each area.

“These are under-represented stories, and you know, we are in a moment where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise,” she said.

“We need to go deep into these stories and really understand the barriers that different Canadians face, as well as their contributions.”

Transforming neighbourhoods

Although the block parties will run over the next two weekends — the first in Agincourt Friday night — the work in each community will continue until 2021.

“These are all neighbourhoods that are experiencing significant redevelopment,” Hutcheson said, so they’re hoping to also capture what those changes mean to each area.

For example, a former staple for Chinese immigrants in the Agincourt community, the Dragon Centre mall, will soon close. Other smaller strip malls that served as community hubs to newcomers, Hutcheson said, are also being torn down.

“We’re hoping that the story sharing also contributes to dialogue about the future of these neighbourhoods,” she said.

During his work in Agincourt, Rao said he’s also heard about how the neighbourhood is changing demographically.

“A lot of people have said that in Agincourt there’s been more South Asians moving in as opposed to historically, over the past couple of decades, people from various places in China,” he said.

“But that being said, there’s a lot of nuances to that conversation … The fact of the matter is there’s been almost eight different waves of Chinese immigration all coming from very different backgrounds, from very different geographic locations in that country.”

‘A sense of pride’

Rao said most people he spoke to in Agincourt still feel a sense of pride in the area’s continued inclusiveness.

For him, it’s incredibly important for the stories of his community to be documented for others to see.

“If you have these groups of people who have had no way of preserving their history … it’s hard to build the generations of the future,” he said.

“If we can in some small way listen to these stories and archive them and preserve them for other people to hear … we can really move forward with a sense of pride in a time when maybe we’re being told, you know, ‘We want you out.'”

All of the stories collected will eventually be presented in a citywide exhibit.

This month’s events are free to attend and open to the public.

Agincourt Block Party
Date / Time: Friday, October 18, 2019, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Location: Agincourt Community Services Association Dorset Park Hub, 1911 Kennedy Rd. #105, Scarborough ON, M1P 2L9

Parkdale Block Party
Date / Time: Saturday, October 19, 2019, 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Location: Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, 1499 Queen St. West, Toronto, ON, M6R 1A3

Regent Park Block Party
Date / Time: Saturday, October 26, 2019, 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Location: Ada Slaight Theatre, Daniels Spectrum Building, 585 Dundas St. East, M5A 2B7

Victoria Park Block Party
Date / Time: Sunday, October 27, 2019, 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Location: Victoria Park Hub, 1527 Victoria Park Avenue, Scarborough, ON, M1L 2T3

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