Friday, 26 January 2018

Jamaican-Canadian Actor is Fulfilling His Dream on the Screen

By Neil Armstrong

Damian Garth Brown      Photo contributed

A Jamaican-Canadian actor is among the cast of the recently released $68 million USD film, “Downsizing,” directed by Oscar-winning Alexander Payne which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2017 and opened in theatres in December.
Damiãn Garth Brown plays a Leisureland Orderly in the satirical science fiction about scientists discovering how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation.
“Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in order to get small and move to a new downsized community — a choice that triggers life-changing adventures,” notes the promo.
Brown says Payne and his casting director were looking for actors who had a grasp of the Jamaican dialect. 
He said in their search they came across Marcia Brown and were told that she is the premier director/producer of Jamaican Canadian productions and so they contacted her and she recommended his name for an audition.
The local actor was excited when he heard a message on his phone from Payne telling him that his audition was fantastic and welcoming him onboard. 
“The rest is history. I got there. I saw Mat Damon on set, he was pretty nice,” says Brown, noting that the scenes were filmed in Toronto.
Payne encouraged Brown to: “Keep doing what you’re doing. You have a presence and I saw that in your audition tape. Regardless of what happens in this movie you have to keep doing it.”
Brown describes it as “amazing” and “overwhelming” to be cast in a multi-million dollar movie and to be working amongst professional filmmakers.
“Even though the editing room wasn’t kind to me in this film it was good to see myself on the screen and to see my name in the credits. It was really an amazing experience. I hope it gets better from here,” says Brown.
It was only two years ago that he chose acting in films as a full-time pursuit at the prompting of a friend who knew his acting history and that he would do well. 
She introduced him to Dean Osmon, an agent in Vancouver, and since then he has appeared in “Doggy Daycare: The Movie” (2015) and “Kim's Convenience” (2016).
“Initially he said there’s something about you. I’ve never signed anyone I’ve never met but there’s something about you,” said Brown about Osmon who was willing to take a chance on him.
Within three months he was a full union member and his first role was in the series, “Heroes Reborn.”
Filled with excitement that he was in the episode, Brown told his friends to watch and was “devastated” when he watched and saw that the scene with him had been cut in the final edit.
His agent told him that this happens to major actors and that there were other things he should take into consideration.
Before his entrée into the world of films, Brown, who is also passionate about theatre, performed in several highly acclaimed productions in Toronto, Canada.
He began in theatre in a popular program at Children First in Spanish Town, St. Catherine and when he immigrated to Canada in 2005 he continued on stage in some productions of playwrights Devon Haughton and Marcia Brown while an undergraduate student.
Brown is a proud graduate of York University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science/Theatre Arts (‘09). He has also received a Certificate in The Principles and Practice of Social Work from the University of the West Indies.

Damian Garth Brown out to see the film, "Downsizing," in Toronto.  Photo contributed

While pursuing acting in Toronto he was also very active as a Restorative Justice practitioner at a Youth Court and was even accepted to the University of Exeter Law School -- one of the Top 10 law schools in England.
Currently, he is living in and working on projects in Toronto and Vancouver – both cities known colloquially as ‘Hollywood North’ for their booming film industry. 
While in Vancouver, Brown recently had the opportunity to stand-in and photo double for Idris Elba in his latest movie “The Mountain between Us” also starring Kate Winslet.
He said Elba was so humble, down-to-earth, and encouraging that one would never think this was “a world class internationally recognized actor.”
Elba advised him to keep his focus whatever he does and to get people around him that support what he is doing. 
Brown said he told Jamaican actor, Paul Campbell, that he got a small part in “Downsizing” and Campbell responded: “Never let me hear you say that again, there is no small part.”
Along with a writing partner, Brown just finished a pilot script for a television series and there could be a project with Campbell in the future. 
[This story has been published in the NA Weekly Gleaner, Jan. 25-31, 2018.]

Organization Serving Immigrants Urges Canada to Act Swiftly on Slavery in Libya

By Neil Armstrong
Debbie Douglas, Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). Photo contributed
The Board of Directors of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) is calling on Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to develop a robust and comprehensive Canadian response to the enslavement and trafficking of African women, men and children in Libya.
It also wants the government to act quickly to end the enslavement of African migrants and ensure their future protection.
OCASI has urged Freeland to communicate this response plan to Canadians, especially African-Canadians.
In a letter dated December 11, 2017 penned to the minister and signed by Debbie Douglas, executive director of OCASI, the board expressed its concern regarding the inhumane treatment.
“The horrific and heartbreaking CNN reports and images of violence and sale of human beings are a call for urgent action by Canada. What African migrants are enduring in Libya is a violation of human decency and many international human rights conventions. It is particularly abhorrent here in North America, including Canada, which is home to many Africans and communities of African descent, and is a region that is still grappling with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade including its legacy of structural anti-Black racism.”
The organization says many families from around the world that have sought safe haven in Canada are reminded of their own painful experience of migration, while for others the CNN images evoke the reminders of what their fore-parents and ancestors endured during slavery in Canada and the Americas in general.
OCASI says it appreciates the statement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on November 26 denouncing the migrant slave trade in Libya and calling on the international community to eradicate human trafficking.
“Nevertheless to be indignant about it is not enough. In this present urgent moment, what does Canada plan to do concretely to lead the international community in countering this horrific injustice and protect the human rights and dignity of these vulnerable migrants and refugees?”

OCASI says while the vast majority of African migration occurs within and among African countries (upwards of 80%), the current Libyan situation is a clear indication of African migrants growing desperation, ready to risk their lives for a better future and Canada can’t stay silent.
“We appreciate that the continent is one of the federal government’s priority regions for resettlement in 2018-2020 (up to 10,000) but reality shows us that Canada should expand these numbers.”
OCASI, which acts as a collective voice for immigrant-serving agencies and to coordinate response to shared needs and concerns, wants the Canadian government to work with state allies to address the root causes of migration in the countries of origin and countries of transit.
This includes not only the monitoring of the practices of Canadian companies operating in those countries but also the support of transit centers for vulnerable refugees and migrants before they are resettled or repatriated.
“We call on the Canadian government to increase the number of visa posts in Africa and to build the capacity of the existing ones to ensure faster processing of African files for asylum and family sponsorship.”
The board says it believes that the answer to irregular migration is the creation of more pathways for regular migration.
“We urge the Canadian government to review its selection policies and to create pathways for permanent residency to temporary migrant workers. We also call on the government to establish regularization programs that are accessible and ongoing.”
The organization is calling on the government to assure Canadians that “the global compacts on migration and refugees will not lead to further closure of borders in the geopolitical north, exacerbating the horrific experiences of refugees and vulnerable migrants as we’re witnessing in Libya.”
On December 3, members of various global civil society organizations gathered in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as part of the United Nations Preparatory meeting on the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration issued a statement on the matter.
“We call on swift and measured actions to end this, but also strongly condemn proposed use of “concrete military and policing actions” to “rescue the migrants” as suggested by the leaders of France, Chad and Libya at the AU-EU Summit in Cote d’Ivoire from two days ago. Military actions are not the appropriate solution to humanitarian crisis. They do not address the real cause, and can in fact further exasperate an already highly militarized situation.”
The statement was initiated by the Pan African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights (PANiDMR) and endorsed by the organizations.
[This story has been published in the NA Weekly Gleaner, Jan. 25-31, 2018.]

Friday, 19 January 2018

Exhibition Features the Works of Nine African Canadian Artists

By Neil Armstrong

Sylvia D. Hamilton in front her installation, Naming Names, a 12-foot suspended fabric containing more than 3,000 names. Photo contributed

An exhibition exploring the Black Canadian presence and history in this country and issues of belonging opens at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) later this month.

Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art” features the contemporary works of nine African Canadian artists from January 27 to April 22.

“Challenge yourself to think differently about the deep-rooted histories and enduring presence of Black Canadians, gain a new and multifaceted understanding of Canada, through these unique and visually compelling installations,” says the ROM.

The artists are: Sandra Brewster, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Chantal Gibson, Sylvia D. Hamilton, Bushra Junaid, Charmaine Lurch, Esmaa Mohamoud, Dawit L. Petros and Gordon Shadrach.

Hamilton, a Nova Scotian filmmaker and writer who is known for her award-winning documentary films, says what is significant about the exhibition is the acknowledgement of the Black presence in Canada for many generations.

The exhibition gets its name from the title of her own work, “Here We Are Here,” which the ROM curators liked so much that they asked her permission to use it to encapsulate all of the work that is being shown.

“The work that I’ve been doing around history, around memory, around the Black presence in this country is very important. It’s always been important, but I think right now, right at this moment there’s a sharpness to that importance to have the work that I’m doing now brought in with the work of other contemporary artists. It’s quite an honour and I’m really pleased to have my work in conversation with the work of other contemporary artists.”

Hamilton says this installation that she has been working on for a few years changes depending on the site that it’s in.

Initially, the idea of the project was to excavate memory and history and she has presented different iterations at shows at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia and the Thames Art Gallery in Chatham, Ontario.

Hamilton says she is inspired by the people who came before her as someone who grew up in a small rural black community in Nova Scotia where she was surrounded by elders and by people who were trying to do the best for their families and their children who worked to create community.

Hamilton said she saw women in the community who were multi-taskers in the church before that term came into contemporary usage. 

She said when she was in school and at university none of those women were present in any of the things that she studied or saw.

“I felt it important that their work and then the work of so many others who appeared in the films – their stories had to be told,” she said, noting that she felt that she was in a position to do that and it was a way of honouring and recognizing that ancestry and what it has meant to her.

Hamilton’s ancestors are the black refugees from the War of 1812 and she notes that they had a lot of imagination because they had to imagine a life beyond chattel slavery.

She hopes that visitors to the exhibition will be challenged by what they see and might come away with different perspectives and ideas about who people of African descent are in Canada.

One of the pieces of her work that is on display is called “Naming Names,” a 12-foot suspended fabric that flows down the wall containing more of 3,000 names.

“That particular piece, I think, for me is significant because it renders visible the people by allowing their names to be listed but also read into the record because there is an audio soundscape in that particular piece of work.”

There is also a short video projection called “The Passage” which deals with the Middle Passage.

Sign, an image from Dawit L. Petros' installation, Transliteration. Photo contributed

Petros is a visual artist who investigates boundaries in artistic, geographical and cultural contexts.

Working with installations, photography, research and extensive travels, his practice centers around a critical rereading of the relationship between African histories and European modernism.

Almost 16 years ago, Petros created “Transliteration,” a play on translation.

“The project was really interested in questions of representation and thinking about the language through which and the signs through which images and subjectivity coalesce around black subjects in Canada.”

He said all of his work at this stage was interested in complicating the expansive communities that he is a part of – he’s an Eritrean Canadian, black, and he was in Quebec as an Anglophone.

“This project really was a way for me to think about how the signs with which individual subject communities are translated or legible through image.”

One of the images in his exhibition was made when he was an undergraduate student at university in Quebec.

When he was in Quebec questions regarding his transnational subjectivity were still in play and so “Sign” or “Transliteration” – the larger body that this image comes from -- was part and parcel of other bodies of work.

For example, there’s another project called “Some Families” that was being done simultaneously to this. They all looked at the various communities that he was a part of.

“’Sign’ are mostly Haitian Francophone African Canadians in Quebec that are in that work. ‘Some Families’ was a lot of Eritreans. I’m simply trying to say that part of where this body of work fit in then with an analysis of these different transnational communities that I was a part of. Blackness is a part of it but that’s not the totality of what I was interested in then or what I’ve ever been interested in.”

Petros said he has always been interested in problematizing what we mean by black, “even when I was making this work I always understood black not just as a racial cipher or racial signifier but I also understood blackness as a political position.”

“One did not have to have dark skin in order to have a black politics. My understanding of blackness doesn’t really draw from American and Canadian understanding but more from the British. My thinking of race and representation is informed by my work and speaking to people like Stuart Hall and the cultural studies group of thinkers in England.

He says it’s an expanded sense of blackness and the political possibility that he was interested in then and now.

“The thing that happens within the context of American or Canadian American examinations of blackness is that these sorts of nuisances get lost.”

Petros said it is important for him that when the ideas that are in the works are discussed the conversation does not begin “at a certain concept of race and end at a certain concept of race.”

He says his inclusion in this exhibition means that the work continues to have ongoing relevance through the mandate of institutions to the cultural mandate of Canada.

An image of Simone from Michele Pearson Clarke's installation Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome). Photo contributed

Pearson Clarke’s “Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome)” is a three-channel video and sound installation that presents a choral symphony structured around the everyday Caribbean oral gesture of sucking teeth.
Each channel consists of shots of Black Canadian participants looking directly into the camera and sucking their teeth, while making any other accompanying nonverbal gestures that feel natural to them (for example, rolling their eyes or pouting their lips, etc.).

Referred to variously as kiss teeth, steups, chups, and stchoops, to suck teeth is to produce a sound by sucking in air through the teeth, while pressing the tongue against the upper or lower teeth, with the lips pursed or slightly flattened. 

West African in origin, this verbal gesture is used to signify a wide range of feelings, including irritation, disapproval, disgust, disrespect, anger and frustration. 

“Given that representations of African-American Blackness dominate and define Canadian mainstream understandings of the Black experience, my aim here is to use this gesture to examine the tensions experienced by many Black people here, due to this erasure and the national invisibility of our complex and nuanced experiences of Blackness,” says Pearson Clarke.

As a Black Trinidadian living in Canada, the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought our national invisibility into sharp relief. While many Canadians know the names and stories of African-Americans Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, very few would recognize the names Jermaine Carby, Andrew Loku, Abdirahman Abdi, or Pierre Coriolan, all Black men who were killed by Canadian police forces in the last few years, notes the artist. 

“Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome)” builds on Pearson Clarke’s ongoing examination of the personal and political possibilities afforded by sharing Black/queer experiences of negative emotions such as disappointment, loneliness and grief. 

The video installation is in conversation with a work by Rashaad Newsome, an African American artist. 

He is well known for “Shade Compositions (2005-2012),” a series of live performances and videos that explores issues of Black authorship, appropriation, identity and belonging by conducting choirs of women (and sometimes, gay men) of colour who snap their fingers, smack their lips, roll their eyes, and cock their heads, creating expressive linguistic symphonies out of the nonverbal gestures and vocalizations of African-American women.

Pearson Clarke had seen that work many years ago and it left a deep impression causing her to reflect on the ways that African American blackness dominates global understanding of what it is to be black.

“As somebody who grew up in Trinidad the first twenty years of my life I had one relationship with blackness formed by a Caribbean upbringing, a Caribbean history. I didn’t think of myself as black in the North American conception of blackness. And then I moved to Canada and had to develop a new relationship with blackness based on the dynamics of Canadian society and that took a really long time to understand, both with white people and with black people – people’s ideas and expectations of who I was, what I would like, what I would not like based on that.”

This installaion was really a way of expressing both to a Canadian audience but also to an African American audience the frustrations that come along with being black but not being African American. 

“And I think, particularly, for blackness in Canada, for better or for worse, African Americans I think have a shared psychological relationship to their blackness they have a shared history. Obviously, there’re differences and there’re huge regional differences but in Canada we come from all over the place. Many of us have been here for a very long time, many of us just came, all types of blacknesses have ended up here to form this new thing that we call blackness in Canada.”

Pearson Clarke thinks that even within black communities we often don’t see each other or understand each other because of those differences. 

The other thing that she is interested in with this work is “most of our energy and effort is spent, for good reason, in dialogue and in conversation and pushing back against whiteness, and the impact of whiteness on our lives.”

“But I’m also interested in what it means to turn to each other and have a within blackness conversation because I think we have our own histories and our own tensions and our own issues within blackness that we often do not stop to take the time to understand each other so.”

The artist also thinks that it is very risky and tense for black people to express the frustration and anger most have experienced. 

“We get punished when we speak up against racism, when we speak up against discrimination. When we even tell people microaggressions exist there’s always a pushback and so most of us learn to police our emotions and avoid making white people uncomfortable. Because we know if we make white people uncomfortable they don’t pay the price, we pay the price.”

The other thing with this piece is to make an intervention to allow black bodies to express anger, to express frustration, to express irritation in a public forum. 

“It’s art; it’s in a public forum. These are real people, these are not hired actors; these are not performers. These are all Black Canadians living in Toronto who I had this conversation with and decided is this your experience, is this your emotion, do you feel these things and they said yes. So they are expressing their own emotions. This is not me just asking them to suck their teeth for the camera as an act. This is them expressing their own frustration and irritation around the microaggression, the discrimination, the racism, the invisibility of what it means to be black in Canada.”

Pearson Clarke says it is extremely meaningful to be participating in the exhibition.

“It doesn’t happen very often in Canada that you have an exhibition that features all Black Canadian artists. When we do have a lot of black artists featured in Canada it’s very common again to have African American artists exhibit in Canada. Which is great, we want to see that work as well, but it’s rare to have an exhibition of this many artists that are all Canadian so it does feel like a real privilege to be included in that group.”

She says the ROM has such a different audience compared to art galleries and so people will come into the museum to see everything and hopefully they will stop in and see the exhibition as well. 

Pearson Clarke said there is the movement around black joy and black girl magic and there is a way of trying to reclaim other emotional experiences. 

“In the end we’re trying to claim our humanity to say we’re fully human and we experience joy, we experience pleasure, we experience these things that we don’t often see ourselves being represented as experiencing.”

In her work she is also interested in what it means to be denied representation of other negative emotions like anger or frustration or loneliness. 

“Our emotional experience is a part of how we understand each other in the world.

“With this piece I’m really interested in opening up an opportunity to look at what does it mean for Black Canadian frustration and Black Canadian anger or Black Canadian irritation to be seen as something that exists and to be understood as something that’s part of what it means to live in a country where we deal with daily racism.”

The curators of “Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art” are Dr. Silvia Forni, ROM curator of African Arts and Culture; Dr. Julie Crooks, assistant curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO); and independent curator, Dominique Fontaine.

[A shorter version of this story was published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Jan. 11-17, 2018 issue.]

Friday, 12 January 2018

Former City Councillor and a Filmmaker Appointed to the Order of Canada

By Neil Armstrong

Bev Salmon with her son, Warren, and grandson, Shakarri at a New Year's Day event organized by former Member of Parliament, Jean Augustine, on Jan. 1, 2018.

Two well-known Black Canadians have been appointed to the Order of Canada.

Former Toronto city councillor, Beverley “Bev” Salmon, and executive television producer and Olympian, Sylvia Sweeney, are among the 125 new appointments to the Order of Canada announced by Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, on December 29.

The new member list includes 4 Companions (C.C.), 35 Officers (O.C.) and 86 Members (C.M.). Recipients will be invited to accept their insignia at a ceremony to be held at a later date.

The citation notes that Beverley Noel Salmon, C.M., O.Ont. Toronto, Ontario has been appointed “for her exemplary service to the City of Toronto, notably as an advocate for the educational and social well-being of Black communities.”

Sylvia Sweeney, C.M. Toronto, Ontario was appointed “for her long-standing commitment to and creative leadership at the nexus of art and sport through her documentaries and world-stage productions.”

Salmon served for twelve years as an elected politician in Toronto, first for North York Centre South, and then as a metro councillor. She was known for her hard work, fearless advocacy and high principles.
Salmon was Toronto’s first black female councillor and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s first black female commissioner.

“It’s really such a big honour and it’s like an accumulation of the things I’ve done over the decades. I guess people in my local community thought that was a big piece of why I got it. It wasn’t really much emphasis on that,” says Salmon about her appointment to the Order of Canada.

She says her passion, whether while in politics or outside of it, was to improve the education system to make sure there was more inclusivity in all aspects of the curriculum.

Salmon’s says there is still a need for the contributions of Black Canadians to be an integral part of Canada’s history, not set aside to a month of recognition.

Born Beverley Bell, the daughter of a Jamaican father, Herbert McLean Bell, who had come to Canada to join up for the First World War, she trained at Wellesley Hospital and the University of Toronto’s Nursing School where she graduated with the award for the “most outstanding nurse.” Her mother was a fifth generation Canadian of Scottish/Irish descent.

Beverley later married Dr. John Douglas Salmon, Toronto-born of Jamaican parents, who became the first black surgeon in Canada.

“I want to see things improve for the next generation and it’s a sadness when I go to meetings with the young people and they’re saying some of the same issues that we’ve been concerned about since the 60s and the 70s – the way the police treat black people, it’s the unfairness,” she said about what inspires her advocacy.

Having lived in Detroit around 1960, she said it was a big eye-opener as she got to hear the civil rights leaders and saw what was happening in the community with policing and the education system.

It was through raising her own children that she realized that things needed to be improved.

She was a founding member of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and a member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

She also served as a member of the Metro Toronto Region Conservation Authority, president of the Glenorchy Residents Association, a founder of the Black Heritage Program, a fundraiser for the North York Symphony Orchestra, and an organizer and chair of Canada’s first conference on the triple jeopardy faced by women of colour.

Salmon was also the chair of the Metro Anti-Racism, Access and Equity Committee and co-chair of the Black Educators Group.

Her colleagues describe her as someone who has a genuine concern for the most vulnerable and is committed to the disadvantaged.

Salmon was invested into the Order of Ontario on June 28, 2017 for her work as an anti-racism and community activist.

She has received several awards including an honorary doctorate from Ryerson University, Harry Jerome Award, African-Canadian Achievement Award, Bicentennial Award from the province of Ontario, and outstanding achievement from the Association of Black Women.

Salmon says she sees really wonderful leadership emerging in the young people who are much more savvy than she would have been at their young ages.

“There’s really good leadership coming up. I feel good about that,” she says noting that if her being the recipient of the Order of Ontario and Order of Canada is an inspiration to them then she feels that’s the best benefit of getting such an honour.

Four years ago, Salmon and her siblings visited their father’s birthplace, Highgate in St. Mary, Jamaica and planted a tree.

Prior to that they would each visit on their own but this was their first visit together and since then Salmon has lost two of her brothers.

Her father was attending school in Boston and came on his own to join the Canadian army in 1918 and he never returned to live in Jamaica.

Sweeney is the daughter of music teacher, Daisy Sweeney, and railway cook, James Sweeney, and the niece of jazz musician, Oscar Peterson.

She was a key member of the Canadian women’s basketball team at the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Summer Games, and went on to have a successful career as a television journalist and documentary producer.

She produced and directed In the Key of Oscar (1992), a Gemini Award-winning National Film Board documentary about her famous uncle, and has been inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.

“It is truly an honour to be recognized in this way. With the passing of my mother recently so much of what she did lives on through what we do. As she would say this honour is not so much a sign of what I've done but a reminder of what I have left to do,” says Sweeney about the appointment.
Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. 

Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada.

[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Jan. 11-17, 2018 issue.]